Tagging Cats

Magness and Crosby are catching monsters in this name of conservation

The full moon still hung in the sky on a crisp fall morning as I set off on the Mississippi River with two legendary fishermen. We were in search of the new state record blue catfish and the day was filled with laughter, lessons, and lunkers.

David Magness and Bob Crosby have been fishing their entire lives. Both men have stories of sitting on the bank at 5 years old and reeling in river monsters. According to them, they were pulling in 100 pounders, quite a feat since they barely weighed 50 pounds themselves at that age. After spending a day on the water with them, I almost believed their fish tales . . . well, almost.

Magness, who hails from Hernando, runs a charter service that guides fishermen to monster catfish in the Mississippi River’s Tunica region. Crosby, who grew up near Jackson, also runs a charter service near Vicksburg. Both men regularly compete in big catfish tournaments and win. They have a similar story of how they came to be the anglers they are today. They honed their skills growing up along the river’s edge, fishing night and day, running trotlines, and jugging for catfish.

When they were young, they did not have the technology they use today to catch the big ones. As they have grown, so has their arsenal of gadgets. They use similar style boats that are custom-made for catfishing. Crosby has two separate GPS/sonar units, a remote-operated trolling motor, and a motorized anchor. Both men said if they still had to pull the anchor up by hand, they would have retired years ago. Today’s technology has allowed them to grow their businesses and keep their patrons on the fish.

On this day we were in Crosby’s stretch of water. As we cruised upriver, flocks of white pelicans laded on sandbars. The air had a slight chill, buy the day was calm and clear, which are perfect conditions for catfishing. Crosby brought us to a ledge along a sandbar where the bottom dropped from 30 feet to 120 feet. This is where I learned how to “backbounce“ for catfish.

Backbouncing is a fishing technique that uses weights, the boat, and the current to fish along the bottom of a river. The leader and weight are attached to a swivel on the mainline. The boat moves with the current but at a slightly slower pace. For example, if the current is moving at 3 knots, then you set the trolling motor around 2 knots upstream. This will keep the boat moving downstream but lend more control over the movement of the weight. The fisherman’s job is to keep the weight bouncing. The art comes in how you control that bounce. You do not want it to be too fast or too vast. Magness counselled that the tip of the rod should only move 6-8 inches in the conditions we were in. In most situations, if the weight stops bouncing it will become lodged in rocks or structures. This presentation creates a natural movement of the bait along the riverbed and, according to Magness, has an excellent catch rate when anchoring is not an option. We had a few bites but did not land any fish with the technique.

Because the bite was slow, we decided to move upstream to one of Crosby’s top-secret fishing holes. I have been sworn to secrecy as to its location; I can only tell you that it was on the Mississippi River. Here we anchored up and suspended six lines near a deep structure. Before long we had our first bite. I reeled in a 12-pound flathead with ease and we all rejoiced; we were officially not skunked. As Magness said, “We got the stink off the boat.” It was not long after that we had our next bite. As Magness set the hook and handed me the rod, he had that look in his eye. This was a big fish. Now I know how to reel in a big fish, but this one nearly pulled me overboard. I had that fish on the line for less that a minute and it managed to pull straight to the bottom, then it was gone. There is no more heartbreaking sight for a fisherman than the rod jumping back with the loss of tension. Upon inspecting the rig, it appeared that the monster fish pulled the line through the rocks on the riverbed and sheared the leader. Here grew another fish tale; I am just glad it was not a story of my swim in the Mighty Mississippi.

One thing the pair taught me was the phenomenon known as the barge bite. Large tugboats operate all day along the river, moving cargo from New Orleans to Minnesota on barges.  These boats look small but have extremely powerful motors with massive propellers to push the heavy cargo. There is no proven explanation of the barge bite, but they believe that the powerful propellers churn up bait and can also push the fish toward the edge. Whatever the reason, they are ready when a barge approaches. If memory serves me correctly, one of the large blue catfish was caught moments after a barge passed by. We caught four catfish in all before we motored back to shore in the late afternoon. We had two blues and two flatheads with a total weight of more than 50 pounds.

Magness and Crosby proved themselves as expert guides, but that is not why I accompanied them on this day. In addition to being excellent fishermen, they are also avid conservationists. In March 2020, they partnered with Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) to learn about the growth and movement of big catfish on the Mississippi River. They utilize their guide service to capture and tag catfish weighing at least 20 pounds. They tag the fish with Floy tags and collect data on weight, length and GPS location before returning them to the river.

“We hope to get an idea of the population of large catfish in the Mississippi River, the blues and the flatheads. We also hope to see if they move, if they are migratory,” said MDWFP Fisheries Coordinator Tom Holman about the tagging. “We are really happy to do this study with Bob Crosby and David Magness. They’re helping us out a lot. They’re catching the fish, tagging the fish, releasing the fish, and gathering the data.”

To date, they have tagged more that 100 large catfish. If you happen to catch a catfish with an odd yellow tag sticking out of its back, please call the phone number and report your catch and whatever date you can from it.

Crosby and Magness play a vital role in the fishing industry. They understand and teach the balance between harvest and release. Harvest is crucial to maintaining a healthy fishery, but overharvest of large fish can be catastrophic. The data that these men are assisting to collect with help MDWFP monitor the health of our catfish fishery on the Mississippi River. With their help, we can sustain the fishery for generations to come. One day their grandchildren might catch a new state record blue cat, and that fish just might have one of their Floy tags in its back.

Samantha Bergeron is a Fisheries Biologist for MDWFP