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Catfishermen finally getting some respect
High-payout tournaments and equipment produced specifically for catfish have elevated the status of the whiskered bottom feeder. By Steve Brigman FOR THE NEWS-LEADER


It was like a scene scripted for the big screen, but instead of a surly sea captain munching crackers as a giant reel clicked an ominous warning, Missouri angler Jeff Williams sat forward in his chair poised like a bird dog on point. A slight bouncing of the tip of one of the rods told him that a strike was forthcoming.

With startling power, the rod suddenly bent deep toward the surface. William sprang to his feet and lifted the pole over his head. Thirty yards off the back of the boat the surface broke in a wide swell. The line singing from the reel against the drag confirmed that he had hooked a large catfish.

But as suddenly as it had begun, the rod sprung limp and the disappointment washed visibly over his body.

"Wow, that was a big fish," Williams lamented.

CATFISHING'S NEW FACE

For many, the idea of catfishing evokes an image of guys sitting patiently, their lines stretched out into the water from rods secured in the rocks, or drifting in a pontoon, poles over the side bouncing dough bait along the bottom - an effort more about battered fillets sizzling in oil than landing a trophy fish.

Williams is one of a new generation of catfishermen who sees the sport in a much different light and has been a part of a revolution in the sport.

"Things are changing tremendously," the Warsaw resident said. "In the last five years, catfishing hasn't done a complete 180 yet, but we're at about 130."

Those changes have come in the form of high-payout catfish tournaments, equipment produced specifically for catfish and a catch-and-release mentality.

"I absolutely will not kill a big fish," Williams said. "Blue cats are very slow growing fish. A 50-, 60- or 70-pound catfish is an extremely old fish. There is no need, when I can eat 4- to 6-pound fish, to kill a big fish. They are so valuable."

It is the huge size of the largest catfish that seems to be driving the trophy-fishing mind-set.

"From a tournament standpoint, there is nothing in the world that gets people more excited at a weigh-in than a big fish."

Williams just finished competing in a Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest tournament on the Mississippi River out of Alton, Ill., where he took second place with a five-fish total weight of 189 pounds. The catch included a 50- and a 54-pound blue catfish. The winning total was 194 pounds.

"When you have the general public looking at the catfish as a sportfish, your boat companies, tackle manufacturers, rod and reel manufacturers ... everybody has to address catfishing as a legitimate source of new income. With that comes more marketing, tournaments and state agencies looking at protecting catfish as a resource to catch and release instead of catch and kill."

Williams fishes with tackle designed especially for catfish and a boat to handle any conditions he might encounter.

"I use a bay-type boat," he said. "It is a big center-console fiberglass boat, 24-foot made by Kenner Boats. It is a fabulous rough water boat but it has a hydraulic jack plate and a tunnel hull for shallow water performance also. It's the best of both worlds."

Williams will compete in 10 to 12 tournaments this year and has already qualified for season finale Classics on three different tours. Though he is one of a new breed of catfisherman, it wasn't always that way.

BORN TO CATFISH

"I was a catfisherman when catfishing wasn't cool," Williams quipped. "I was very fortunate as a youngster. My mom and dad and my grandpa and grandma had two cabins on Grand Lake. They didn't have a boat. All I had was a paddleboat. I learned how to catch shad and to catch catfish in our cove from that paddleboat when I was just a little fellow."

When finally old enough to purchase a boat, Williams began guiding for crappie, white bass and striped bass, but catching big catfish continued to be his favorite pastime.

"When blue cats were introduced into Grand Lake in the early '80s, that's all it took. By the time I learned how to catch them; they were already getting up into the 20- and 30-pound range. I've just been involved with blue cats ever since."

Though not averse to catching a big flathead or channel cat, Williams targets blue catfish because of their abundance and size.

"They are the top of the food chain; the largest predator," Williams said. "They are the biggest fish in the water other than the paddlefish. The size of them, the number of them and the ability to catch them year around are the three major things that draw me to them.

"It's nice to go out and target blue cats where you have a lot of smaller fish you can catch with the opportunity of catching a giant fish."

Williams has been guiding catfish trips since 1998 mostly on Lake of the Ozarks. He plans to move with his wife and two young sons back to Grand Lake, where he cultivated his craft, in the summer.

CATCHING CATS

Last week, Williams was on Lake of the Ozarks to try to catch a big blue cat or two. His day at the office starts with catching bait. An 8-foot cast net is used once schools of gizzard shad are located on the depth finder.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," he said as he steered and stared at the screen. When he saw what he was after, he jammed the throttle into neutral and bolted to the bow platform where he quickly threw his net. Ten or 12 shad came up in the net and the process continued.

"You don't want to run out of bait," Williams said as he continued the hunt.

Finally he hit the mother lode and the net came up full of silver quivering shad. It was off to the fishing grounds. Williams would be looking for catfish feeding on shallow mud flats near deeper water.

"In the springtime, your active fish will move shallow, typically from 3 to 8 feet to feed. We anchor and surround the boat by casting rods all around the boat."

A 4- or 5-inch shad was cut into four pieces, all of which were placed on a 7/0 circle hook attached to a 30-pound-test monofilament leader.

"A good rule of thumb is that if the water is 60 degrees or cooler, you don't need live bait."

The rig was tied to a swivel attached to 65-pound braided line with a 3-ounce sliding egg weight. The boat was anchored and six rods were cast in a fanned-out pattern from the bow of the boat. With the rods in their holders, it allowed time to talk about catching catfish throughout the year.

"The blue cats spawn in June, and I don't fish for them then," Williams said. "They get tight-lipped. They just don't do very good in June. But as soon as they are finished spawning, around the Fourth of July, the feed is back on. The fish are very active and spread out all over the lake. I like to drift fish main lake flats from 15- to 30-feet of water."

With the warmer water, live bait becomes a good option, he says.

"In fall, I continue to drift fish until the water dips below 50 degrees. When you get below 50, the shad begin to bunch up in big schools. They will go out and suspend over the river channels. I anchor in the edge of the channel and fish the shad schools. When you have giant shad schools like the ones we fish in the fall and the winter, these fish are actually picking dead shad off the bottom that other fish have killed. They are looking for dead bait."

Though Williams specializes in blue cats, he has caught his share of flatheads and channel catfish.

"Flatheads are a whole different creature. First, there are not near as many flatheads as there are blues. The flathead is a solitude fish built to be an ambush predator. He lays and waits to attack most of the time. They don't move much except in spring, when they are a little more vulnerable."

Fishing live shad while anchored in heavy cover is the best way to catch flatheads, according to Williams.

Channel cats are the easiest of the whiskered clan to catch, and often become a nuisance when targeting blues.

"There are more channels than blues and flatheads put together. You can catch them on just about anything ... cut shad, dip baits or hot dogs. Channel cats are very opportunistic feeders."

The day's catch included a number of smaller blues and channel cats, and larger blues of 18.5, 15.5 and 8.5 pounds.

But like so many fishing stories go, the truly big one got away. Williams was still contemplating that fish in the truck on the way back to his house, repeating what he had said in the boat.

"That was a big fish."

About the Captain Jeff:

Jeff Williams hails as a catfish guide from Grand Lake, Oklahoma. He has also guided successfully on Lake of the Ozarks, MO, Truman Lake, MO and the Missouri River. Jeff is a seasoned tournament pro that also speaks at many seminars annually, plus is continually in the media spotlight via TV, mainstream magazines and newspapers. He represents many national sponsors that are proud to be involved in the world of catfishing. Check out his full line of professional catfish tackle and gear at Team Catfish.

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