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Wiltz: An ugly bruiser of a fish

I recently dropped in at the Burke Coffee Haus, and joined a few friends where the topic of conversation was catfish. Though they enjoyed catching and eating walleyes, I just couldn't fathom why anyone would prefer walleyes to catfish. Their enthusiasm made me want to go home and pull the boat down to the river.

I sometimes find myself thinking about a day when I will no longer be able to hitch up the boat and spend a day on the river. That clock is running, and when I waste one of those precious days, I feel terrible about it at day's end. I recently squandered such a day and other than knocking out a column, I accomplished nothing. What made it worse was the fact that there was something I wanted to do, but my willpower was clouded by apprehension and a lack of confidence.

While much of today's story takes place on the Wisconsin River, I will draw parallels between the Wisconsin and our James or the Missouri from Pickstown to Running Water. I think our South Dakota fishing is better.

We were at our Wisconsin home. I wanted to put the boat in the Wisconsin River over by Lodi (which is about 30 minutes north of Madison) and head up north up the river toward the Dells. I had been up there before with Tom, my son-in-law, and I had even marked spots on my hand-held GPS for future reference. What I hadn't done was to pay attention to landmarks and numerous sandbars, as Tom piloted the boat while I sat back and absorbed the scenery. This was one of those days where I overcame my apprehension and didn't let it go to waste.

As remarkable as our Missouri reservoirs are, a river within its original banks is very special. The Wisconsin with its sandbars and sand beaches, deep woods, clean water, and long stretches of mini fjord-like stonewall banks is truly remarkable. Put a boat in our "Jim" River for a day of exploring, and you'll know exactly what I mean: you won't regret it. Milltown has a launch area, or better yet, put in at Pickstown and head down to Running Water. You'll find those same walls and ledges I spoke of. You might consider canoes but whatever your craft, don't underestimate how long it will take to reach Greenwood or Running Water.

Like the Wisconsin, our Missouri has great fishing for smallies and largemouths in the Running Water area. Running Water also has a boat launch and the Avon, Springfield and Tyndall folks have a treasure in their midst.

And so by mid-afternoon, I put in at Whalen's Grade, which sits in the back of a large bay. A half-hour later, just above the I-90 Bridge, I dropped anchor along a stretch of gravel bottom. The depthfinder read 11 feet. My two rods were equipped with 3/4-ounce slip sinkers above snap swivels and snelled circle hooks. I baited the hooks with half of a nightcrawler each and casted them down river, leaning each rod in opposite corners against the transom. In the past, we caught walleye, sauger, smallmouth bass, drum and suckers using this method of operation.

Perhaps 45 minutes of inactivity had passed when I began to contemplate quitting. By the time I worked the boat back to Whalen's Grade, loaded the boat by myself, and found my way home, it would be 7 p.m. or later. And then something slammed the lighter right-side rod — the medium-action rod with the 8-pound test line.

I've caught big pike, big muskies, big bass and big walleyes, but I was unfamiliar with this fish's tactics. He pounded his head back and forth. He didn't run like a pike, but he wouldn't allow me to gain an inch. I began thinking big drum. A 10-pound drum in the fast water beneath the Fort Randall Dam had once bucked his head with abandon.

A seeming eon had passed before I began to gain line. When I finally worked him alongside me, he refused to come to the surface. I coached myself: "Don't panic. Steady pressure."

My first glimpse was only of the fish's powerful tail. Minutes later, the head materialized. It was a flathead catfish, a far bigger flathead than any I had ever caught. I wondered if my landing net would handle him and it did ... barely.

He was no monster. He didn't go a yard, and I don't believe he weighed more than 10-12 pounds. With the possible exception of king salmon, smallmouth bass and an Amazon catfish, he outfought anything I've caught before, and I'm not just talking pound for pound.

Those guys talking catfish at the beginning of the column? They knew what they were talking about.

See you next week.