MILFORD RESERVOIR — A few years ago Derrick Crozier loved fishing the crappie spawn. Merlyn Johnson though fishing got not better than channel cat at Marion Reservoir. Now neither spends any time at their past passions.
“I’ve been addicted to this blue catfishing for about three years. I’ve missed six weekends in the past three years and that was because of ice,” Johnson said as he motored his boat unto Milford Reservoir last weekend. “I had two over 80 (pounds) last year, and I don’t know how many 40- to 60-pounders. I really think there are 100-pounders in here … 100 pound fish in Kansas. Most people don’t even know.”
Crozier, of Olathe, and Johnson, of Walton, know the state has both quality and quantity when it comes to blue cats. Last spring their two boats caught and released 38 blue catfish of more than 50 pounds, in two weeks of fishing. Three weekends ago at Melvern Reservoir they caught about 60 blue catfish, of which about 55 (which were all released) weighed more than 15 pounds.
The fishing has been so good that their guiding company, Blue Catters, doesn’t charge if customers catch less than 100 pounds of fish. “We’ve only had to do that once,” said Johnson, who added he’s encouraged clients to reschedule if conditions appear poor.
Conditions have probably never been better for big blue catfish in Kansas, even historically.
Doug Nygren, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries chief, said blue catfish were native to the Kansas and Neosho River systems. Some historical accounts and photos show big blues of more than 100 pounds from places like Lawrence and Junction City. By the early 1900s, unregulated commercial harvest, and maybe pollution, had about wiped out the fish from their native range.
In about 1990 fisheries biologist began stocking blues in Milford. Eight years later the fish were reproducing enough to suspend stocking. Nygren said the blue catfish are so successfully produced at state hatcheries that the fish are now in most major reservoirs.
Fish in Melvern are now commonly caught at around 30 pounds, and 45 pounds at Coffey County Lake. Fish longer than 35 inches are being caught at El Dorado Reservoir.
Feeding up on the large shad and other rough fish most species can’t eat, Kansas blues grow rapidly once they reach about 10 pounds.
Milford is still the king of Kansas blues, and is credited with making some major changes in Kansas fishing scene.
Twenty-two boats bobbed on a few hundred acres where Johnson and Crozier anchored last weekend. Most used the kinds of rods and reels normally associated with saltwater fishing. Crozier’s are baited with 80-pound test line. He used palm-sized chunks of cut shad, and rigs tied to keep hooks from a few inches to a few feet off the bottom.
“You catch a lot more if you’re up off the bottom at least a few inches. The second bait is mainly to get more scent in the water, I think,” Crozier said as he arched a long cast. “Blue cats don’t feed on the actual bottom as much as channel cats.”
The differences between channel and blue catfish are many. The state record channel cat is 36.5 pounds. The official Milford record blue of 82.05 pounds was caught last spring, though some feel bigger blues have been caught and released to protect the fish. Crozier and Johnson think it’s only a matter of time before the state record, 102.8 pounds from the Missouri River in 2012, is topped.
To help develop a trophy fishery, most avid blue cat junkies voluntarily release all fish more than 10 pounds and use circle hooks which prevent fish from swallowing hooks and eventually dying from the wounds. The state’s daily limit was reduced from 10 to five recently, to allow fish to grow.
Their feeding habits are different, too. Blue cats, which Johnson refers to as “freshwater sharks,” usually hammer baits rather than nibble and peck.
Rather than guiding, Crozier and Johnson were on Milford last week pre-fishing for a tournament this weekend. The late spring had the fish in transition from deep to water as shallow as two feet.
The bite was slower than expected, and would have been a “refund” day of about 85 total pounds had it been a guide trip. Ten blues were brought to the boat, but the best was about 37 pounds.
Others fishing deeper water did better. A boat of Crozier’s friends had dozens of fish caught, and five that averaged better than 40 pounds.
Sunday, Crozier and Johnson again fished the shallows and caught 46 blues to 30 pounds in four hours. On his own, Crozier caught five in two hours on Monday, though the biggest was 63 pounds according to digital scales on the boat.
Even on the slowest days since they’re fishing for blue catfish, both anglers know they could only be seconds away from something really special.
“Right now, within sight of where we’re at, I guarantee you there are 80-pound fish under the water,” Crozier said as he stared across a wide flat. “They’re here, and they’re big. I really just like knowing that.”