Catfish — when, where and how to catch them

A Missouri Department of Conservation biologist checks out a blue catfish caught during an MDC survey of the blue cat population on the Truman Reservoir and Lake of the Ozarks.

A Missouri Department of Conservation biologist checks out a blue catfish caught during an MDC survey of the blue cat population on the Truman Reservoir and Lake of the Ozarks.

All you need to know to be a successful catfish angler

Missouri anglers love their catfish, and it’s easy to understand why. A big catfish is a strong fighter, and fried catfish is hard to beat at the supper table.

Because they are so easy to catch, catfish are many Missourians’ first fish — an event no angler forgets.

If you’re new to catfishing, use these pages to stay up-todate with regulations, learn to identify Missouri’s catfish and find good catfish waters.

How they got their name

Catfish are probably named for the four pairs of long, slender, flexible barbels that look like cat whiskers near their mouths. The barbels are loaded with taste buds. Catfish have very poor eyesight and rely on taste, touch and smell to locate food.

A word of caution

Contrary to any fish tales you might have heard, the whiskers of catfish are harmless to touch. However, catfish can inflict painful wounds with their sharply pointed pectoral or dorsal spines.


It isn’t hard to imagine pre-settlement Native Americans gathering to see huge catfish caught from Missouri’s rivers. When the settlers arrived, they commonly pulled catfish weighing more than 100 pounds from Missouri’s rivers and streams. Missouri’s nineteenth-century history is full of such accounts.

In the years since these accounts, unrestricted harvest and habitat alterations such as channelization kept catfish from reaching their full growth potential. Recent management efforts have made large catfish more common. Our hope is that, one day, 100-pound catfish may be fairly common again.

Diversity and distribution

Missouri is home to 15 native species of catfish, including channel catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish and three species of bullheads. Black and yellow bullheads are common across the state. Though overlooked by many anglers, bullheads are eager biters and taste great.

The remaining native species are collectively referred to as “madtoms.” These small, secretive catfish live primarily in our small streams, and they rarely exceed 6 inches in length. You won’t see them unless you make a special effort to catch them. Read more about madtoms here.

Changes for Lake of the Ozarks

Proposed protective regulations for blue catfish on Truman Reservoir and its tributaries would help reverse the trend of declining intermediate- and large-size blue catfish numbers in those waters. For Lake of the Ozarks, proposed regulation changes would be preemptive to help protect existing blue catfish numbers and prevent a similar decline of intermediate- and large-size blue catfish.

The growing problem

For a number of years, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) staff has been concerned about potential overharvest of catfish in Truman Reservoir, especially blue catfish. Anglers have also expressed concern about the decline of this blue catfish population. Recently, we have seen the same trend starting on Lake of the Ozarks.

In MDC’s 2002 Statewide Catfish Angler Survey, nearly 50 percent of respondents who expressed an opinion indicated the quality of catfishing at Truman Reservoir had declined over the last 10 years. MDC staff also documented high harvest and slow growth of blue catfish. Research showed a blue catfish harvest rate 2-to-3 times higher than reported in similar studies nationwide.

Why it’s a problem

In comparison to most other game fish species, catfish (especially blue and flathead) are extremely long-lived and slow growing. Blues and flatheads can easily live to 25 or 30 years with weights approaching or even exceeding 100 pounds.

Due to high fishing pressure and angler harvest, the numbers of quality-sized blue catfish in Truman have steadily declined since the mid 1990s. These conditions are preventing blue catfish from reaching their full potential.

It takes a blue catfish in Truman and Lake Ozark about 15 years to reach 31 inches in length and a weight of about 12 pounds.

A 15-year old blue catfish that is 31 inches today can easily live another 10 to 15 years and reach 60 or 80 pounds. For that to happen, however, we have to make sure that anglers don’t harvest them all. Our data indicates that anglers are harvesting too many blue catfish before they reach their growth potential.

For slow-growing fish such as blue catfish, once a decline occurs, it takes a significant amount of time (6-7 years) to start reversing the trend and rebuilding the population.

How to catch catfish You can use a variety of methods to catch catfish in Missouri lakes, rivers, and streams. These include rod and reel, bank lines (single line and hook attached to a pole or overhanging limb), trotlines and jug lines. Each of these methods works for channel, blue and flathead catfish. The method you use will depend on what species you’re after, where you’re fishing and what time of day or season.


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