KANSAS CITY — For John Trager, the life of a "river rat" isn't so good right now.
Trager, who runs the Captain Catfish Guide Service, has made a name guiding fishermen to big catfish on the Missouri River.
But with the big river enduring a spring and summer of nightmarish flooding, all Trager can do these days is fish elsewhere — and wait for the day when the Missouri will return to normal.
"The fish are still there. We just can't get to them," said Trager, who lives in Merriam, Kan. "When the water is moving this fast, you can't fish it. It's hard to anchor and it's hard to drift.
"Besides, I wouldn't take my clients out in water like this. It's just not safe."
So for the time being, Trager either loses guide trips or takes fishermen to other bodies of water.
"I've lost two guide trips a week," Trager said. "What kills me is that we would be catching fish right now on the Missouri if we had normal conditions."
But these aren't normal conditions.
After a spring of heavy snowmelt and rain upstream, reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas filled to the brim and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has had to make record releases that are sending a torrent of water down the Missouri River.
That has resulted in flooding that has rivaled the Great Flood of 1993. Farm fields in northwest Missouri have turned into giant lakes. Towns have been evacuated and lives have been turned upside down.
And there is no end in sight. The corps has warned that the heavy releases will continue for weeks.
Outdoor recreation hasn't been spared. Despite the long-term benefits that fisheries biologists say the flooding will bring, there are plenty of short-term worries.
- Because of safety concerns, the Coast Guard has closed the river to all boating from mile marker 397, near Leavenworth, Kan., to mile marker 811, near Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota.
- Fisheries officials are concerned that this could be a banner year for Asian carp, the invasive species that is causing so many problems in the Missouri River. The species, known for its prolificacy, has established a stronghold in the river. But officials fear a population explosion this year.
"The Asian carp love these conditions," said Duane Chapman, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. "They have their best (spawning) years in high water."
- The managers of famous wetlands along the Missouri, such as Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and the Bob Brown and Grand Pass conservation areas, are crossing their fingers. Despite heavy flooding around them, the levees protecting their wetlands have held. But for how long?
"If I were a betting man, I would bet that our levees will eventually give way, and we'll get some flooding," said Craig Crisler, manager of the Bob Brown Conservation Area in northwest Missouri. "If the projections of how long we're supposed to have high water (on the river) are true, I would expect our entire area to be under 6 feet of water for some time. And that would hurt.
"We have a lot of food (for waterfowl) right now. But we could lose a lot of it if it's underwater for some time."
- The flooding already is affecting many private duck clubs near the Squaw Creek refuge. Many are underwater or on the verge of being that way.
"A lot of the clubs have been evacuated, and the pump heads (used to flood pools in ordinary years) have been pulled out of the fields," said Rusty Burnam, an avid duck hunter from St. Joseph who has a duck camp in the area. "Everyone knew this was going to be bad, and it has been."
The Missouri Department of Conservation doesn't expect the flooding to have much of an effect on other wildlife. Species such as deer and wild turkeys are highly adaptable and able to get to higher ground.
There is even some good news to come out of this traumatic time: Fisheries biologists expect river fish to experience long-term benefits from the flooding.
"While this flooding has been devastating for humans, these are very good times for our aquatic system," said Vince Travnichek of the Department of Conservation. "There will be a lot of new nutrients, cover and phytoplankton introduced to the water, and that will definitely help the fish.
"Following the flood of '93, we noticed a bump in the growth rate of the catfish. And I would expect that to happen this time, too."
Many of the catfish probably were spawning or getting ready to when the high water hit this time, but Travnichek doubts the high water will affect things.
Other species may benefit from the added cover, Travnichek said, which will give their fry more hiding places from predators.
"From a fisheries standpoint, we could see a lot of new habitat," Travnichek said. "We could see a large amount of woody debris added behind wing dikes, which makes great habitat for catfish."