Catfishing Along the Missouri River

The Missouri has always been a catfishing river, but it was especially so in the nineteenth century, before the Army Corps of Engineers channelized and dammed it.

Ample habitat and a super abundance of food explain not only why there were so many catfish in the river, but also why some reached such impressive sizes.

Three types of catfish inhabited the Missouri.

Flathead catfish lived mostly in the Missouri below the mouth of the Platte, where the river’s deeper channel, yawning holes, and clay bed provided the sun-shy, bottom-dwelling fish with excellent feeding and nesting sites.

Blue catfish thrived in the river from its mouth upstream to the James and Missouri confluence. A prime stretch of blue catfish habitat existed along the Missouri in what is today western Iowa and southeast South Dakota. This reach possessed a highly unstable channel that constantly ate away at its banks, toppled trees into its waters, and excavated side channels and oxbow lakes. Blue catfish found this erratic river reach, and its diverse habitat, ideal. On the night of August 24-25, 1804, several members of the Lewis and Clark expedition went fishing somewhere along this river reach upstream from the mouth of the Vermillion River. During the course of the night, according to expedition member Joseph Whitehouse, the men “caught Nine Cat fish. 5 of them very large, weighing on an average each 100 lbs.” The five “very large” fish were likely blue catfish.[1]

Channel catfish were ubiquitous to the Missouri. This fish inhabited the river from its mouth to the Milk and Missouri confluence. Although channel catfish swam in the river south of the Platte, they were most prevalent north of the Platte. The Upper Missouri’s silt-laden waters, sandy bed, snags, drop-offs, holes, cutbanks, underwater debris piles, and combination of fast and slow water, made excellent habitat for channel catfish. Edward Harris, who in 1843 visited Fort Union near the mouth of the Yellowstone, noted the prevalence of channel catfish in the Missouri near the fort. He wrote, “Catfish are the only fish taken here, they are small compared to the catfish taken in the lower part of the river and in the Mississippi to its mouth….”[2]

Harris wasn’t the only person who noticed the large number of channel catfish in the upper river. John Luttig, who worked at an American trading post near the Arikara villages in modern-day South Dakota, wrote on September 1, 1812, “…made a fish trap of willars, and caught 31 Cat fish….”[3] Luttig learned how to catch channel catfish in a willow trap from the Arikara, who had long experience fishing with the contraption.[3]

Some fish are finicky feeders, eating only a specific insect, at a specific time of the day, in a specific location. Catfish are not those fish. They don’t have a sophisticated palette. Rather, catfish are the riverine equivalent of a hog. They’ll eat nearly anything that crosses their path.

In the nineteenth century, the Missouri River carried a tremendous amount of food. The river and its tributaries resembled a great system of conveyor belts, moving edibles off the land, into the water, and into the mouths of fish. All sorts of critters got carried downstream by the river’s currents, including crickets, mayflies, grasshoppers, frogs, crawfish, minnows, small ducks, baby geese, worms, drowned bison, and dead deer. Catfish fed on all of those creatures, and more.

In the spring of 1832, Prince Maximilian of Wied traveled up the Missouri on board the steamboat Yellow Stone. He penned the following account while the Yellow Stone briefly stopped somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Nebraska City, Nebraska. After the steamer had been moored to the riverbank, a few crewmen on board the steamer and an accompanying yawl decided to try their luck fishing. Maximilian’s journal entry is instructive because it reveals the undiscerning eating habits of the river’s blue catfish, the size of some of the fish, and the ease with which catfish could be taken. He wrote, “About noon a white [blue] catfish was caught by one of the lines which we had thrown out. A second broke the strong line as we were drawing it up. The first we had caught weighed sixty pounds, and we soon took another weighing sixty-five pounds, and a third weighing 100 lbs., in the jaws of which was the hook of the line that had been broken. In the stomach of this and the other catfish were found large pieces of pork, the bones of fowls, and c., feet of geese, all refuse from the vessels; and likewise the entire gills of another large fish.”[4]

Catfish in many of the Missouri’s tributaries were as abundant and as easy to catch as in the Missouri itself. In the summer of 1843, John James Audubon, like Edward Harris, visited Fort Union. On July 19, he wrote that one of the men from the fort went a short distance up the nearby Yellowstone River. That individual caught sixteen channel catfish in half an hour.[5]

In the summer of 1844, U.S. Army Captain James Allen led an expedition westward from the headwaters of the Des Moines River to the Big Sioux. On September 17, Allen commented on the great number of catfish found along the latter river in today’s Plymouth County, Iowa, “The river here seems to abound in catfish; the men caught 20 or 30 large ones in a few hours with fish hooks.”[6]

Along the Missouri River in the nineteenth century, Euro-Americans did not fish for sport or just for fun. And the idea of catch and release would have been ridiculous to them. Instead, they fished exclusively for food, and if they had fun doing it, all the better. Of all the different fish species in the Missouri system, the one fish they sought more than any other was the channel catfish; and the reason for that was because it tasted so good.

Joseph Whitehouse, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, noted that channel catfish made excellent table fare. On August 29, 1804, while the explorers camped near today’s Gavin’s Point Dam, he observed, “The men [today] were employed making a Tow Line out of Elk skins, and catching fish. They catch’d a great quantity of Cat fish in the River Mesouri, which afforded us an excellent dinner.”[7]

Edward Harris agreed with Whitehouse’s assessment. He remarked that the channel catfish , “…of this portion of the river [in the vicinity of Fort Union] and of the Yellow Stone are really delicious.”[8]

Audubon also thought highly of the lowly channel catfish. “This evening we went a-fishing across the river [from Fort Union], and caught ten good catfish of the Upper Missouri species, the sweetest and best fish of the sort that I have eaten in any part of the country.”[8]

For a long time, animals like bison, beaver, and wolves have garnered the attention of historians and the public at-large. And rightly so, bison and beaver played important roles in the Upper Missouri fur trade; and wolves are a keystone species – vital to the functioning of some North American ecosystems. But Missouri River catfish deserve recognition too. The tough, adaptable catfish fed Indians and European-Americans alike; and in doing so it contributed to the health and quality of life of those who visited the Missouri Valley, and those who made the place their home.


[1] Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 11, The Journals of Joseph Whitehouse, May 14, 1804 – April 2, 1806, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 61.

[2] Edward Harris, Up the Missouri with Audubon: The Journal of Edward Harris, ed., John Francis McDermott, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 106.

[3] John C. Luttig, Journal of a Fur-Trading Expedition on the Upper Missouri, 1812-1813, ed., Stella M. Drumm, (New York: Argosy-Antiquarian LTD., 1964), 75.

[4] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, vols. 22-24, Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834, (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 22: 263-264.

[5] Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and His Journals, Vol. II, ed., Elliot Coues, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), 101.

[6] State Department of History, South Dakota Historical Collections, Volume IX, (Pierre: Hipple Printing Company, 1918), 366.

[7] Moulton, ed., Volume 11, The Journals of Joseph Whitehouse, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 64-65.

[8] Harris, Up the Missouri with Audubon, 106.

[9] Audubon, Audubon and His Journals, Vol. II, 139.

Above photograph courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, ND.

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