Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Big river whiskers: Summer catfishing on the Mighty Mississippi

Two members of The Fat Cat Club out of La Crosse, Wis., Jamie Richardson (l) and Matt Heeter, spend much of their recreational hours catching and releasing big flathead catfish at night on the Mississippi River. They call their affliction OCD – “obsessive catfish disorder.” (Photo courtesy of Matt Heeter)

By Tori J. McCormick
Contributing Writer

When Matt Heeter tangles with a flathead catfish on his home waters of the Mississippi River near La Crosse, he taps into something inside himself that only the truly obsessed can understand, let alone appreciate. 

“It’s just this … exhilaration,” says Heeter, by way of explanation. 

Understanding the atmospherics of the piscatorial struggle is instructive: Heeter, after all, often finds himself in a nighttime dual with the cold-blooded apex predator, on North America’s second-largest river made famous by its resident literary laureate, Mark Twain, while admittedly suffering from OCD – obsessive catfish disorder – an affliction, Heeter says half-seriously, without a known remedy. 

“Flatheads have very specific habits to ambush and take down big prey,” Heeter said. “They have huge mouths designed to do so … and it’s thrilling to feel the immense power these fish have. It’s a serious adrenaline rush when they smash your bait and start ripping line off your spool.” 

Few people are more enthusiastic and knowledgeable ambassadors for chasing summer catfish on the Upper Mississippi River than Heeter, who, along with his friend, Jamie Richardson, founded The Fat Cat Club in 2009. It’s a group devoted to flathead enthusiasts.

The group, which promotes “catch, photograph and release,” has a robust social-media presence, especially on Facebook, and Heeter regularly posts fishing videos on YouTube. Many show Heeter and others over the years catching monster flatheads, most in Pool 8, with the lights of La Crosse shining bright in the distance. The group also has a vast archive of flathead data collected on various fishing outings, including group tournaments. Heeter, a self-proclaimed science nerd and naturalist, wants group members and others to learn as much about the species as possible. 

“The more you know, the better angler you can be,” Heeter said of fishing for flatheads. “The single best thing you can do as a flathead fisherman is put a ton of time on the water, read the river, and make adjustments to strategy and presentation to achieve continued success.” 

The Upper Mississippi River isn’t just home to flathead catfish, however. It’s home to the smaller catfish, as well. Taken together, the Upper Mississippi River is a top-drawer cat fishery, biologists, guides, and local catfish anglers say.

“It’s a phenomenal, healthy fishery for channels and flatheads – and it’s overlooked, too,” said Dan Dieterman, of Lake City. “You really don’t see too many people from around here doing it on a regular basis. My experience is that most anglers catch catfish incidentally.” 

Dieterman worked 38 years for the Minnesota DNR, many as the Mississippi River fisheries biologist in the Lake City office. He grew up hunting and exploring the river as a small boy and is a river rat through and through. In retirement, nothing has changed, though, he said, he does fish more – including for catfish. 

“Ten to 15 times a year,” he said. “And I love it.” 

Dieterman said the two catfish have differences beyond how large they grow. He said cats are largely bottom-feeding scavengers, and will eat any number of prepared baits. Adult flatheads, meanwhile, are mostly nocturnal predators. At night they abandon their daytime resting holes and look to ambush various fish species, including other catfish, if the opportunity arises. 

“Some of the bigger flatheads will take down a 4- or 5-pound walleye, no problem – they’re fish-eating machines,” said Dieterman, adding that they’ll readily eat gizzard shad, bluegills, and other fish. “They’re just a fun fish to chase. They fight well, and while most anglers fish for them at night because they’re nocturnal fish, you can catch them during the day, too. That’s when I do most of my fishing.”

In general, anglers plying the waters of the Upper Mississippi River aren’t inclined to chase catfish, Dieterman said. It’s likely an uber-small contingent of anglers who do. 

“The farther you go down the Mississippi, the more south you go, the more popular catfish and catfish fishing are,” said Dieterman, adding eating catfish (commercially raised or wild) is big the farther south you go, too. “It’s a cultural thing, I think. Up here we’re just more inclined to want to fish for walleyes and bass because that’s what we’ve always done. Minnesota is a walleye state, after all.” 

Darren Troseth is catfish and sturgeon guide from Jordan, Mn. He regularly fishes the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities metro area during the summer, for both channels and flatheads. 

“It’s actually underrated and undervalued,” Troseth said of the Mississippi River cats lurking in the metro area. “As far as density of catfish, it’s really good.”

The Upper Mississippi in and around the Twin Cities also affords anglers numerous shore-fishing opportunities, especially near parks and at public accesses. 

“Lots and lots of opportunity – you don’t need a boat to fish that stretch of the river for cats,” Troseth said. “When you’re fishing from shore, the biggest thing to remember is keep your bait on the bottom and use a heavy enough sinker to keep it there. When you have high water, you can literally just drop straight down from shore and catch fish.” 

Fishing summer flatheads

According to Heeter, early summer flatheads feed heavily prior to entering their spawning season (from mid-June through July) when water temperatures reach 70 degrees. 

“Flatheads are cavity nesters and males remain the nest for around 14 days to fan and guard the eggs and fry,” he said, adding that after the spawn, flatheads begin moving into their summer range. 

“During this period, flathead catfish begin feeding aggressively to recuperate energy and nutrient loss from the spawning process…”

In late August and early September, Heeter said, “Feeding aggression and nightly movement begin to increase,” and flatheads will feed on a smorgasbord of fish species (bluegills, perch, crappies, bass, bullheads, freshwater drum, cats, and others).  

Heeter and his friends can be found regularly fishing for flatheads during the summer months, often out of Heeter’s pontoon, which is rigged for fishing catfish. Some will fish from islands, too. It can be a festive atmosphere. Prep work begins as early as 4 p.m., and Heeter and company often fish as many as five spots on any given trip until 3 a.m., give or take. “It almost feels like a job sometimes – lol,” Heeter wrote in an email. 

Tasty fish 

Of all freshwater fish species, catfish aren’t what you’d call handsome creatures. But for many, they are ugly delicious. Anglers from the American South, for example, have been eating catfish dusted in cornmeal and fried to a golden brown from the Mississippi River since time immemorial. 

“I think they’re delicious and totally underrated,” said Dieterman, adding that anglers of the Mississippi River who generally eat only walleyes and panfish are missing out. 

Do you remember the blackened fish craze of the 1980s? That’s when the late chef Don Prudhomme of New Orleans – a city on the Mississippi River, no less – is said to have invented the technique, which he used first, almost to the detriment of the species, on redfish, but eventually on catfish. Get a cast iron pan screaming hot, coat the fillet in butter and then Cajun seasoning, and fry. 

The heat, butter, and species combine to create a blackened exterior on the fish. It’s ridiculously good, especially with the mild, slightly sweat flavor of catfish, which, when cooked properly, is dense and moist. 

“My advice would be this: Give them a try, what do you have to lose?” Dieterman said of fishing for and eating summer cats. “Catfish on the Mississippi are plentiful, put up a great fight, and taste great. What’s not to like?”

Mississippi River catfish at a glance

• Channel catfish and flatheads look similar, but there are differences. Look at the lower jaw and the tail. The flathead has a slightly protruding lower jaw, like an under-bite. And its tail is square, where the channel’s is forked. 

• All catfish have a sharp spine at the leading edges of the dorsal (top) fin and two pectoral (side) fins. These spines, not the fish’s whiskers (called barbels), are what “sting” careless anglers. And the sting can leave a mark. 

• Getting started. Your best bet is to find a mentor or hire a guide. That will reduce your learning curve and help you decide if you want to invest in often catfish-specific gear.

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