WARSAW, Mo. -- Chris Jones has an Angel in his boat every time he goes fishing for trophy blue catfish.
Angel, his fishing dog, that is.
Jones has been taking his 12-year-old huskie-beagle mix fishing ever since she was 5 weeks old and just a ball of fur. Today, she is a veteran at this game -- and part of one of the best dog-and-cat stories you will ever hear.
"Angel definitely gets excited when I have a big blue cat on," said Jones, who runs the Catfish Pursuit Guide Service. "I remember the time I had a huge fish up to the boat and she was leaning over the side looking at it.
"I got that fish in the net and she jumped right on top of it. For a second I had this huge catfish and my dog in the net at the same time.
"I grabbed her by the collar and got her into the boat, then worked on flopping that fish over the side."
Turns out, that blue cat weighed 84 pounds, Jones' career best. He posed for a few pictures, then released his catch, much to Angel's disgust.
"I think she wanted to keep it," Jones said with a laugh.
Angel's discerning nature was very much on display last week when she accompanied her master and me on a trip to the upper end of Lake of the Ozarks.
When a small or even medium-sized blue cat was brought into the boat, she would cast an indifferent look as if to say, "Ho-hum."
But when a 17-pound fish hit and put a bend in one of the rods, she paced and then hung her head over the side, straining to see what was on the end of the line. When the fish was netted and then brought into the boat, she immediately began licking it as Jones laughed.
"See what I mean," he said. "She loves it when we bring in these bigger blue cats."
Angel picked a good fisherman to partner with for that. Jones, 39, has been fishing for catfish most of his life He remembers the days when he and his friends would camp on the upper end of Lake of the Ozarks and use Jones' 12-foot fiberglass boat to fish for cats.
"We really didn't know what we were doing," he said. "We'd use blood bait or stinkbait and catch some small channel catfish, but we never really caught anything big."
But that has changed over the years. Big time.
Today, Jones tangles with big blue catfish practically year-round. And that includes the dead of winter.
Consider that he guided one fisherman, Duane Marsh, to a 63-pound catch at Lake of the Ozarks in February and had another day in which he guided a friend to five blue cats weighing more than 25 pounds, including one that weighed 35 pounds. All were released to fight another day.
"People who think you can't catch fish in the winter are missing out," said Jones, who is a member of the pro staff for the Independence (Mo.) Bass Pro Shop. "Winter is one of the best times of the year to catch big blue cats.
"They're still active and they'll school together. If you can find them, you can catch more than one big fish at the same spot."
In cold water, Jones generally starts his search along ledges close to deep water. He uses his sonar units to explore the area. If he sees big arches on his fish finder, he knows the big cats are there.
"I like to see those arches suspended just above the bottom," he said. "That tells me they're feeding and they can be caught."
There are other keys. It is mandatory to have fresh cut shad, Jones said. And the equipment is important, too. He uses heavy-duty rods with big baitcasting reels spooled with 40-pound test line and a 50-pound leader. He relies on big circle hooks because the fish will hook themselves when they hit, he said. He also uses 2-ounce sinkers, lighter than some fishermen do, because they allow the fish to feel less resistance when they pick up a bait
Jones anchors above the spot he wants to fish, then casts out the lines and puts the rods in holders. If he's in the right place, it often doesn't take long for him to get hits.
"A lot of times in the winter, they won't just pull the rod down," Jones said. "They'll just peck at it and you'll think it's a small fish. They're cold and they're not real aggressive.
"But you have to set the hook on some of those fish that are just pecking. They turn out to be some of our biggest fish."
That's how it was this day. Fishing several miles below Truman Dam, Jones and I caught and released 30 blue cats in a variety of sizes. Our biggest weighed 17 and 141/2 pounds, but we had many more in the 4- to 6-pound class.
We caught blue cats from 4 feet deep on flats to 50 feet deep along bluffs. In fact, only one spot didn't yield at least one blue cat.
"This upper end of Lake of the Ozarks has always had a lot of blue cats," Jones said. "And some big ones, too.
"I wouldn't doubt that there is a 100-pound blue in here. But it takes a lot of days on the water and some luck to catch a fish like that."
Jones paused and shouted, "Isn't that right, Angel?"
The dog sighed and plopped down on her cushion at the front of the boat. It had been a long, but productive day.
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