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Whopper Catfish Lurk in the Missouri River Downtown Urban Anglers Share Fish Stories

Angler John Jamison holds a 68-pound fish he caught in the Kansas River near downtown. There are some huge catfish living not far from downtown Kansas City. John Jamison caught this 68-pound blue cat in the Kaw River, not far from where it flows into the Missouri in the urban area. (Courtesy | John Jamison)
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4 minute read

Maybe it’s true when people say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

To many passersby, the stretch of the Missouri River flowing through downtown Kansas City may seem like little more than an eyesore. 

Muddy, seemingly polluted, water. Old buildings nearby. Graffiti on the bridges. It’s far from what you might expect from an idyllic world-class fishery. 

But anglers such as John Jamison see beauty in that urban setting. Beneath that muddy, swirling surface, giant catfish lurk. 

Fishing within sight of the downtown skyline, Jamison has caught monstrous blue catfish. He has the photos to prove it. 

A fluke? Hardly. 

The Muddy Mo is far healthier than it might appear. Fisheries biologists with the Missouri Department of Conservation confirm that the stretch of river flowing through the city is alive and well. 

It might not have the numbers of catfish that some places do, but it definitely has some giants. 

“When I talk to people walking along the bank, they’re amazed at what we catch,” said Jamison, a professional tournament angle who has fished the river for years. 

“Some of them are just amazed that the Missouri has many fish in it at all. They’re even more amazed that it has catfish the size we catch.” 

To illustrate a point, Jamison relates a story about a fishing trip several years ago — one of those we’re-going-to-need-a-bigger-boat moments. 

Fishing alone, he anchored his boat off a trail dike and tossed out lines baited with fresh shad.  

When one of the rods resting in a holder plunged, Jamison knew he had something big. The fish didn’t stop, burning out drag on Jamison’s reel. 

The angler broke the anchor free, and the chase was on. 

Moments later, he had a 92-pound blue catfish in the net. 

Jamison weighed the fish and eased it back into the water with all the huge catfish he catches. 

He fishes for the thrill of the fight, not something to put on the dinner table. 

“There isn’t a tremendous population of catfish in this stretch of river,” said Jamison, who lives in Spring Hill, Kansas. “But there are some huge blue cats, and that’s what we’re after. 

“You might have to put in some time to catch them, but they’re out there.” 

Kayaker Graham Jordison headed east on the Missouri River toward St. Louis.
Kayaker Graham Jordison heads east on the Missouri River toward St. Louis. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

Record-setting Potential 

Jamison isn’t the only angler who looks at the urban stretch of the Missouri River as big-cat country. 

Rob Stanley caught a Kansas state blue cat in 2012 near a heavily used bridge in the metro area. Fishing from a boat with friend Brad Kilpatrick at night, Stanley had dozed off. 

The clicker on his reel served as his alarm clock. The big fish hit and began peeling off the fishing line. 

“That fish took off 100 yards of line before it even slowed down,” Stanley recalled. “Brad pulled the anchor, and we followed that fish. 

“It took me 45 minutes to get it in.” 

The fish weighed 102.8 pounds, a Kansas state record because it was caught on the Kansas side of the river. 

But that’s not the only state-record catfish the metro part of the Missouri River has produced. 

Mathew McConkey of Kansas City set the Missouri “alternative methods” (other than rod and reel) standard in 2015 when he pulled in a 100-pound flathead on a trotline baited with goldfish. 

“Once I grabbed the line, I knew right away that I had a big one,” McConkey told the Missouri Department of Conservation. “The giant moved my 17-foot Lowe boat around like it was nothing.” 

Trotlines are a popular way to catch big catfish. They consist of a heavy main line with baited drop lines arranged at intervals. The main line is then tied to objects on both ends and anglers check the lines periodically to see if they have customers. 

In this case, a giant catfish paid a visit. 

McConkey was fishing with friends at the time. He was awarded the record because his name was attached to the trotline, as required by Department of Conservation regulations. 

Other trophy catfish, far more anonymous, are caught in the Missouri River and its tributaries in the Kansas City area each year. 

“That big bend in the river right in the Kansas City area near Kaw Point holds a lot of big fish,” Jamison said. “There are a lot of 30- to 60-pound fish caught there.” 

Why so Special? 

So, what makes the Muddy Mo such a beautiful spot to catch trophy blue and flathead catfish? 

The revitalization started in the early 1990s when commercial fishing for catfish was banned on the river. 

Then In 1993, major flooding caused the Missouri River to spill out of its banks, providing the fish with new food, spawning cover and improved habitat. 

Suddenly, the fish had plenty of low-flow areas out of the current to spawn. New sandbars appeared and the course of the channel changed. 

Subsequent high-water years have only helped. 

“We’ve had three flooding events in the past 15 years,” said Cade Lyon, a fisheries biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “When that happens there’s a lot of new cover … and we see a boom in fish populations.” 

Other factors play a part. The spot where the slower-moving Kansas River flows into the Missouri near downtown Kansas City is a huge benefit. 

The catfish move up the Kaw to spawn each year, then hang out in the area once they move back into the swifter Missouri River, anglers believe. 

Down by the River

Anglers in the metro area have several options to launch their boats, according to the Department of Conservation.

  • The old Riverfront Park just upstream of the Chouteau Bridge offers ready access to downtown fishing.
  • Kaw Point in the Fairfax District of Kansas City, Kansas, is located at the confluence of the Kansas River.
  •  Below Kansas City, Sugar Creek maintains a boat ramp in LaBenite Park.
  • Above downtown, Parkville has a boat ramp in Platte Landing Park.

Another factor is the Missouri River’s abundant food source for catfish. 

The river has always had good shad populations. But in recent years, booming numbers of Asian carp, an invasive species, have supplied a big boost. 

There’s little doubt that the blue catfish gorge on the Asian carp, though not to the point where they can control the prolific invasive fish. But that does add another food source for the catfish, once missing. 

Finally, fishing pressure, or shall we say lack of fishing pressure, plays a part. 

Many anglers still fear the dangers the river can present, such as the wing dikes and floating debris. But anglers point out that the river isn’t as dangerous as it might seem.  

“You just have to be aware,” Jamison said. “If you’re out there when the river is normal pool and you’re careful, it’s fine.” 

Concerns about water pollution also keep some anglers away, officials believe. Located in a major metro area, there will always be pollution. But officials and anglers agree that the water is far less polluted than it was years ago. 

Fish consumption advisories by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services recommend eating only one blue or flathead catfish greater than 17 inches per week. 

But, in general, the river is far healthier than it was years ago. And the catfish serve as proof. 

    Brent Frazee is an award-winning writer and photographer who served as the outdoors editor of The Kansas City Star for 36 years before retiring in 2016. He lives in Parkville with his wife Jana and his two Labrador retrievers, Millie and Maggie. 

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