MILFORD, Kan. — As his boat plowed through whitecaps on Milford Lake, Rich Witt was headed for big cat country.
Big catfish, that is.
A flat that stretched for almost a mile was a favorite feeding ground for hungry blue catfish, the creatures at the top of the food chain in Milford Lake. And with the wind blowing hard, Witt knew conditions were ideal to drift and cover a lot of water.
“These blue cats like to get up on these flats and just roam,” Witt said as he slowed his boat to a stop. “They follow schools of shad.
“They’re not concentrated right now. But if you cover enough water, you have a good chance of finding a few.”
As his boat rocked in the waves, Witt began cutting large shad into sections. Then he and his fishing partner, Josh Carlson, started baiting the hooks and letting the lines stream out of the reels.
Two wind socks were lowered to slow the speed of the drift and Witt used the trolling motor to straighten the course every once in a while.
Before long, Witt saw what he was waiting for. One of the rods slowly bent in the holder, and Witt quickly grabbed it and set the hook.
Then the fight was on.
“These big blues don’t mess around when they take a bait,” he said as he fought the fish. “You can usually tell that it’s a blue by the way it hits.”
The fish fought hard in the rough water, but eventually surrendered. And Carlson reached over to pull the 10-pound catfish into the boat.
“I was a little worried about today,” Witt said. “They hadn’t been biting.
“But this wind will get them stirred up.”
Witt paused and admired his fat catch for a second before releasing it.
“That’s a nice fish,” he said, “but there are bigger ones in here.
“Milford is getting to the point where it’s known for its trophy catfish. It’s not a secret anymore.”
A few minutes later, Witt proved why. As the rod again slowly bent, Witt set the hook and felt the weight of one of those trophy fish he was talking about. He held his fishing rod high and watched as the giant creature at the other end put a sharp bend in it.
From there, it was an extended tug of war. The big cat would strip out line for a few seconds, then Witt would regain ground by reeling. That lasted for a few minutes until the giant finally tired and floated to the surface.
Carlson used an oversized pair of pliers to grab the fish and flop it into the boat. Then Witt was able to exhale.
The fishermen dropped the cat into the live well and went to Milford Lake Marina to have it weighed. When the numbers on the scale stopped at just short of 21 pounds, Witt smiled.
“Big fish,” he said as he eased the fish back into the water. “But there’s always a chance of catching bigger ones than that out here.
“My biggest is 42 pounds. But we’ve officially weighed a 65-pounder here.
“I think this is only the start. In the next four or five years, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone will pop a 100-pounder here.”
Until then, Witt and many others will content to catch the “smaller” ones. He and Carlson pulled in several other blue catfish that day, all of them weighing 5 pounds or more.
Milford, a 16,000-acre reservoir in northeast Kansas, has developed into a big-cat paradise. It always was known for trophy channel catfish. Witt remembers the days when he and others would catch 20-pound plus channels.
But that trophy fishery took a leap when the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism began stocking the reservoir with blue catfish in the early 1990s. From 1990 to 1995, large numbers of blue cats were put in the lake, then fisheries biologists waited to see what would develop.
Even they were surprised to see how well the blues took to the big reservoir. With its abundant shad, good spawning habitat and rocky structure, Milford proved to be the perfect environment for the catfish.
It wasn’t long before the blues were spawning, building a sizeable population and showing impressive growth rates. Now they have a population that has earned national attention.
Witt is one of many who has a passion for chasing the big fish. He grew up fishing for big catfish with his grandfather, who fished the area rivers before Milford Reservoir was even built. He still remembers the day that he was running trotlines with his grandfather on the Smoky Hill River and the fishermen hit the jackpot.
“We had an 84-pound flathead that day,” Witt said. “But that was just part of it.
“We took 36 fish that day. We had a couple fish in the 40s (pounds) and some others in the 30s. We threw a lot of them back, but it was something I’ll never forget.
“That’s what really got me going in catfishing. When you see fish like that, it inspires you.”
Today, Witt is still inspired. He and friend David Studebaker run the Catfish Chasers tournament circuit and they also operate a guide service by the same name. Go to catfishchasers.com
for more information.
“It’s fun to take people out here and get them into big fish,” Witt said. “It doesn’t happen every day. They can be hard to find at times.
“But we know there are some big fish out there. That keeps us going.”