Zinging the blues in the Bluegrass State

The Ohio River stretches 981 miles from its origins in Southwestern Pennsylvania to its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi, and each one is full of fish.

While the construction of numerous dams and environmental changes have modified the Ohio River a great deal since Thomas Jefferson described it as a “the most beautiful river on earth,” defined by “current gentle” and “waters clear,” it continues to serve as a lifeline of industry and a great fishery.

The latter is what interested my father and I as we set out toward Kentucky in search of fish.

On the recommendation of In-Fisherman’s annual Catfish magazine, we arranged to fish two days with Captain Paul Willet of Camo Fish Guide Service in Henderson.  Paul, the only licensed guide that operates on his stretch of the river, has been fishing the Ohio his entire life, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him.  His expertise and in-depth knowledge of the river would prove to be vital in the tough conditions we would come to face.

The Ohio runs almost the full length of Kentucky’s northern border. It’s populated by a large number and variety of fish, from paddlefish to smallmouth bass. It’s also home to the notorious blue catfish, our quarry on this particular trip.

Blues of eating size are beyond plentiful in this part of the river. Fish in the twenty pound range are common. It takes a fish of thirty pounds or more to even a raise an eyebrow among local fisherman and nothing short of a one-hundred-and-five-pounder will beat the current state record (which also happens to be the world record in the 50 pound line-class).

When we arrived in Kentucky we had our work cut out for us. Days of constant rain, both in the Henderson area and miles upstream, has rendered the river nearly unfishable. Though nowhere near its historic highs, the Ohio River was up several feet from its normal level and carried even more mud and assorted debris than usual.

Captain Paul and I saw it as a challenge.  Even in prime conditions there was no guarantee of hooking into a giant blue. Many anglers spend a lifetime seeking out the kind of monster fish we were looking for.  We had two days.

Captain Paul assured me that, in spite of everything, we still had a good chance of finding a large cat. But he was just as clear in stating that we also had a good a chance of ending our fishing trip with nothing more than two days of enjoyment in the boat.

We met up the following day at sunrise. After a brief drive we launched the boat, netted some fresh bait in a backwater, and proceeded to race from one spot to another in search of fish. We tried several different types of structure: drops offs near steep banks, choppy water below dams, backwaters. Large blips on the Lowrance were as close as we came to any blue cats.

Eventually we moved to a large undercut mud bank where another river, which shall remain nameless, flowed into the Ohio. The river brought with it a supply of fresh, green water that pushed through a flat and over a rocky drop off before colliding with the mud-laden main river channel in deep water. It was the perfect location.

We set anchor, baited up with an assortment of parts from gizzard shad, mooneye and skipjack and fanned out our offerings behind the boat.  Then we waited. And waited. We passed the time by catching channel catfish from slack water pockets against the bank with shad guts. Midday soon approached.

The sun rode high in the sky. The temperature reached a blistering 90 degrees, which felt no cooler despite Captain Paul’s assurances that it was “below normal” for the area during that time of the year.

Just as I began to ponder the possibilities of catching even a decent sized fish in conditions which could only be described as the opposite of ideal, one of the rods jumped as the tip darted toward the murky waters below. “Get him,” yelled Paul, as I leapt towards the rod. The pull of the fish on the other end of the line was so forceful that simply removing the rod from its holder proved to be a difficult task.  As the rod butt sunk into my stomach and line continued to scream off the reel, I knew I had a good fish.

The current was much stronger than it had initially appeared. By playing it patiently, I was eventually able to bring the big fish closer to the boat, but it became clear that it would be next to impossible to lift it high enough into the water column to get a net under it. Something had to give. I was hoping it wouldn’t be the line.

Captain Paul asked my father to pull the anchor. As my dad rapidly retrieved foot after foot of anchor rope, Paul started the motor and sent us downstream.  Soon after, we caught up with the fish. I was able to bring it to the surface while Paul slipped a net under it and hoisted it out of the water. It was a team effort.

Once in the boat, the fish’s massive size was revealed for all. Because of their keen sensory ability, catfish are sometimes described as “swimming tongues.” This fish was more like a swimming bicep. It was forty inches of solid muscle mass — far from the largest blue cat ever caught, but certainly nothing to flinch at. After the mandatory photo session, we released the fish to grow, and fight, another day.

The catch brought a renewed excitement to the boat. We spent our remaining hours on the water in search of another, bigger fish.  By day’s end we hadn’t had any success to speak of, but dreams of the monsters my earlier catch alluded to continued to swim in our heads.

Day two was spent pursuing the same big blues as the first, but the fishing proved to be even more difficult.  After a quick but heavy downpour the previous night, the river had risen again, becoming even swifter and more debris-ridden than before.

Again we embraced the challenge, rods, reels and bait in tow. We covered a lot of water that day, out of necessity as much as in the quest for big fish. Many of Paul’s best spots were completely unfishable due to the incredibly strong current.

We were able to anchor in a few eddies and wet our lines, but it was to no avail. We rigged up in the same way we had on the day before, pieces of various local fish were impaled by 8/0 circle hooks affixed to stiff monofilament leaders on slip rigs. We needed eight ounce bank sinkers just to keep our bait down where we wanted it. We didn’t get into any blues of size, but we did manage to boat a number of good-sized channel cats. A few freshwater drum and a longnose gar served as welcomed bonus catches.

As the day drew to a close, we shook hands with Captain Paul and parted ways. We left satisfied and took with us memories that will last a life time.

When all was said and done, the trip was successful. The fishing was difficult, but we got what we came for: a trophy-sized blue catfish.

While our bait and rigging was no doubt important, the key to our success, as limited as it may have been, was our willingness to adapt to the conditions we faced and continually search out new and more productive waters.  This is a vital lesson my father and I, as well as Captain Paul, have learned over years of fishing, and it remains just as applicable no matter when or where you wet a line.

Captain Paul can be reached at http://www.camofishguideservice.com


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