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Start tuning up your stinkbaits and lay in a supply of shell-on shrimp, tournament catfish action is coming to the Billings area on May 19.

The Yellowstone Challenge catfish tournament will be based out of the Minnow Bucket, at Huntley, from noon to 7 p.m. on May 19.

Tourney anglers will be able to fish from boats or shore from Duck Creek Bridge, above Billings, to the confluence with the Bighorn near Custer.

A mandatory rules meeting begins at 11:30 a.m., including a boat inspection for anyone who plans to fish the event from a boat.

The tournament is a testament to the growing popularity of angling for catfish on the waters of the Yellowstone River below Billings.

Catfish angling on the Yellowstone River has been a low-impact activity for years, but is gathering a growing following based, in part, on the simple fact that it's a pretty-darn-good fishery.

Jason Flaten, the tourney director from Billings, cut his catfish angling teeth on the waters of the Milk River at Glasgow. But he's finding that catfish action begins a lot earlier on the Yellowstone here.

"Up Glasgow way, it doesn't seem like the catfish turn on in the Milk until May," he said. "I've been surprised how early you can catch them down here. We went out here on March 25 and caught a 21-pounder.

"I've been doing quite a bit of fishing this year already," he said. "My brother, Brady, got a 21.6-pounder. Tyler George got a 14.4."

Asked what tactics work on the Yellowstone, Flaten laughed.

"Now, we're getting into some of my secrets," he chuckled. "Early in the season, until mid-April or so, fish are generally in the deeper, slower water. Generally, they winter in the slower-moving stuff.

"As soon as the water temperatures start moving up, the fish start to move upstream looking for spawning habitat. They're looking for any crevice in the river bank. Or any kind of hollowed-out tree. They need to lay their eggs up in something generally where it's held out of the current," he said.

"They really spread out. You're going to be able to catch them in a lot of different areas," Flaten said. "They may move out of the deeper holes. Current breaks are a very good spot to target. Any type of cover that will break the current like bigger boulders or snags in the river.

"The classic catfish baits seem to work the best here," he added. "Either cut bait or live minnows are good on the Yellowstone. Shrimp is always a good producer - raw, uncooked, shell-on shrimp - only the best for a catfish. Liver is good. I generally go with raw chicken livers. Some people like to mix ingredients with them and leave them out in the sun. Everybody has their favorite bait."

The Yellowstone Challenge tournament is open to two-person teams. Entry fees are $50. After the 11:30 a.m. rules meeting, fishing is due to start at noon with teams required to be back at the Minnow Bucket by 7 p.m. for the weigh-in.

Only rod and reel fishing will be allowed, he said, with two rods per person. No setlines or jug lines are allowed.

The field is limited to 50 teams. About 10 have signed up already. For entry information, you can go to www.montanacats.com and print off an entry form or stop by the Minnow Bucket. For questions or entry info, you can also contact Jason Flaten at 406-591-3528.

"Each team should bring in their four biggest catfish for the weigh-in," Flaten said. "They have to be alive. We're going to release everything back into the river.

"I recommend that the teams have really big coolers and keep them aerated. Some teams will keep them on a stringer," he said. "We've had pretty good luck with keeping everything alive on our tournaments on the Milk River."

The Yellowstone Challenge will be the first catfish event of the year in Eastern Montana with the eighth annual Milk River Catfish Challenge set for June 2 and the Savage Fire Department Catfish Tournament set for June 9.

"Catfish tournaments are growing in popularity across the country," Flaten said. "I know we've been having a lot of fun at them on the Milk River. This will be our first one in the Billings area and we're looking forward to having fun here, too."

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted at 657-1395 or at henckel@billingsgazette.com.

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