Treasure lies in the dark river, clothed in iridescent greens and yellows, slipping smoothly down the main channel, bumping up into the flooded bottomlands, gliding, prowling, lurking.
In a crazy commotion of slapping water, it comes squirming and flopping into the bottom of Jim Dockery’s aluminum jon boat.
“That’s a big boy!” Dockery yells, his glee shining through his bushy gray beard.
Behold Ictalurus punctatus, the common channel catfish. By the time this three-hour Wednesday morning outing is over, Dockery and his future son-in-law, Anthony Redd, will have hauled about three dozen channel cats into their G.I.-green boat. He figures the fish will dress out into 80 pounds of prime fillets worth about $250.
The fishing trip is a welcome respite for Dockery, 61, a 35-year resident of the Clarksville area who has spent much of the last week helping friends and neighbors trying to fend off the rising waters of the Mississippi River.
High water a boon for catfish
Bad for people, the flooding is excellent for the omnivorous catfish, giving them newly inundated areas in the willows and cottonwoods to prowl for minnows, crawdads, crickets and even — for the bigger ones — snakes, turtles and muskrats.
If you have traveled anywhere along the Mississippi River and not eaten catfish, well, sorry, but you have not really been here. Deep-fried, pan-fried, baked, steamed, poached and grilled, its firm, white flesh is one of the main food groups in these parts. It’s on most every menu, in po’boys, served as breaded fish fingers or whole — a golden brown meal that sticks off both ends of the plate.
“Lots of people here eat a lot of catfish,” Dockery says.
He says the river cats he catches are better quality than the farm-raised varieties locals can buy in the market. At $3 a pound, his price is better, too. Some of his customers “have limited budgets, and this is a good source of protein for them,” he says.
With orders to fill from retail customers of his small commercial fishing enterprise, including one for 35 pounds from a nearby church, Dockery, helped by Redd, set out seven trotlines — strong lines floated horizontally on the water’s surface and dangling baited hooks — late Tuesday afternoon. Now, about 12 hours later, they are back to pull them out.
Dockery uses a flooded section of Highway 79 north of Clarksville as his launching ramp. The boat easily slips over the railroad tracks, two feet below the surface now, past a row of nearly submerged mailboxes that mock the letter carrier’s neither-nor motto and out into the main river.
Five minutes of open-throttle running takes him past a raft of 16 giant barges tied to the shore and ordered not to move by the Coast Guard until the flooding recedes, a stark reminder of the drama that is playing out upriver and down.
‘Catfish ... by the tons’
The buzz of Dockery’s two-stroke Evinrude flushes a bird-watcher’s delight of cormorants, swans and blue heron from a flooded vale where the lines are set. Bobbing green floats telegraph the coming bounty. “There’s catfish in here literally by the tons,” Dockery says.
For $25 a year, his commercial Missouri fishing license allows him to purchase an unlimited number of $5 tags, one for each 150-foot trotline on which he could tie as many as 50 stainless steel, single-barb straight hooks. Dockery prefers about 35 hooks, baited with night crawlers or tiny crawdads and placed on 10-inch woven nylon leaders about four feet apart along the parachute-cord trotlines. He uses recycled plastic bottles for floats, old sash-window irons for weights and antifreeze containers as marker buoys.
Dockery pulls the first line in hand over hand as Redd, 24, stands ready with the net. Overnight, the channel cats’ whiskers, which are called barbels and are much more akin to a highly sensitive tongue than a mustache, have helped them find their way through the murk to the baited hooks.
Ten feet down the line, the first cat is kicking up a fuss, but Dockery expertly slips it from the hook and holds it high. “This is just the size fish you want to catch right here,” he says of the 2-foot fish. “That fish will fillet out at two pounds. That’s a six dollar fish.” A half-dozen of the fish’s comrades in fins soon join it in Dockery’s boat: “Not the best, but not bad,” he says of the haul. The pungent, fresh-earth aroma of fish fills the boat and he is off to the next line.
Every trip is an adventure, he says, even after decades of fishing. Some of the lines hold much larger fish; one has just a few small ones. He keeps a couple of carp for one customer, measures to make sure a smaller catfish is over the 13-inch minimum limit.
The finer points of catfishing
As he works beneath the fiery June sun, Dockery, a retired high school math teacher, offers a running lesson in the fine art of catfish angling:
- A good fisherman checks, or “runs,” his lines early: “The later you wait in the day to run lines, the more likely you are to lose fish.”
- Some fishermen will keep bullheads, an especially spiny catfish species, but they are not worth the trouble to Dockery: “They will stick you and they will stick you good.”
- “See how that catfish is scraped up there?” Dockery asks, holding up a three-pounder with what looks like almost a rash along its scale-less body. “A big catfish has been eating on him.”
Dockery cleans and fillets his catch at the gorgeous 40-acre knoll top ranch north of town where he lives with his wife, Mary, black labs Max and Sadie, and Charlie, a beagle puppy. Their grown son and two daughters are currently scattered by careers and college from nearby Louisiana, Mo., to Mexico and Arizona.
It will take him about two hours to get his catch cleaned, wrapped and into the refrigerator.
The river has been good to Dockery today. It usually is. He can’t imagine ever living anywhere else.
“That’s the No. 1 reason I live in Clarksville, Mo. — the Mississippi River,” he says. But while it is giving so generously to him, it is taking plenty from others.
Cleaning his fish on the tailgate of his pickup truck, he quickens his pace so he can finish up quickly. “I want to get downtown and see if they need me to man a pump,” he says.