On the pages of a tattered old book titled Steamboating: Sixty-Five Years on Missouri’s Rivers, author William Heckman describes several well-documented accounts of truly colossal North American catfish: “Of interest to fishermen is the fact that the largest known fish ever caught in the Missouri River was taken just below Portland, Missouri. This fish, caught in 1866, was a blue channel cat and weighed 315 pounds. Another ‘fish sensation’ was brought in about 1868 when two men brought into Hermann, Missouri a blue cat that tipped the scales at 242 lb.” Heckman’s tome cites additional evidence suggesting that 125 to 200-pound blues taken from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were fairly common in the 1800s. Even Mark Twain once talked of “a Mississippi catfish that was more than six feet long and weighed 250 pounds.”
Whether or not you believe such giant cats ever lived, you can’t completely discount the tales out of hand. For this was a bygone era when no one worried about world records; when monstrous river dams didn’t yet exist; and before large-scale commercial fishing had taken hold.
Danny Brown, Big River Fisheries Biologist for the Missouri Conservation Department offers insight for modern record hunters. “We used a form of spine sampling to determine that Greg Bernal’s (previous world record) 130-pound blue catfish was merely 18-years old,” said Brown. “This was a very healthy, youthful fish. It’s conceivable that catfish like this could easily continue growing for another decade or two.”
Further, in a cooperative effort conducted by Tennessee and Florida state biologists, 773 blue catfish from diverse U.S. rivers and reservoirs were sampled and aged. The results showed that blue catfish can easily live to at least 34 years of age.
Blue Cat Records Rising
Blue cat biology aside, the only thing catfish guide and tournament champion Phil King knows for sure is that there are catfish big and old enough swimming around that can hurt more than your feelings. The fish King calls lucky number 13 was a 103-pounder that helped him capture first-place at the 2007 Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee. “Over the years I’ve had on the line twelve giant fish that either spooled me or that simply could not be landed. The 103-pounder was lucky thirteen.”
King says that when he retires, he plans to fish for a world record, focusing his efforts mainly on the Mississippi River stretch between Baton Rouge and Venice, Louisiana. “This is totally untapped water,” notes King. “Spent a few days there a few years back and on every spot we tried, we got bit by or caught a big fish. There’s more structure and good catfish water here that I could fish in a lifetime.”
Yet while several previous world blue cat records have been pulled from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, including fish of 130 and 121 pounds, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the biggest fish may in fact live in large reservoirs. The current 143-pound record blue bit high school football coach Nick Anderson’s bait while fishing Virginia’s Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir in June 2011. With help from his father and stepbrother, Anderson eventually wrestled the gargantuan blue, which boasted a 57-inch length and massive 47-inch girth, into his pontoon. Although Anderson has remained tight-lipped about his exact location and bait, the fish was allegedly caught below the tree bridges area near Clarksville, Virginia; his world record application reportedly stated “chicken breast.”
During the past year, the next downstream reservoir on the Roanoke River system has emerged as a potential site for another record blue. Lake Gaston has already produced at least a few fish over 100-pounds, including the 117-pound 8-ounce North Carolina state record, caught by a 15 year old angler in June 2016. Beyond Buggs Island, Gaston and America’s big rivers, the ‘where,’ ‘when’ and ‘how big’ of the next record blue catfish remains anyone’s guess. Some of the country’s best anglers, however — including King — believe a 200 still swims.
Of Fables and Flathead Records
It’s commonly believed that the blue catfish represents the largest North American catfish species. And yet, few diehard catfish folks would be completely shocked if the next world record flathead surpasses Ken Paulie’s current 123-pound monster. Extracted from Elk City Reservoir, Kansas in May 1998, Paulie’s record cat measured 61-inches with a 43.75-inch girth. While no one particularly doubts the fish’s amazing dimensions — verified by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks — the legitimacy of the catch itself has occasionally been called in to question, due to the light tackle used to apparently land the monster while Paulie was crappie fishing.
While plenty of 100-pound and larger flatheads have been caught by unconventional methods — including trotlines, commercial nets and snaglines — no other state rod-and-reel record approaches the century mark. Texas’ state record, a 98-pound 8-ounce whopper, comes closest. This giant cat surprised crappie angler James Laster, while fishing Lake Palestine in December 1998. After a two-year stint in a Texas aquarium, Laster’s flathead was eventually released back into Palestine Lake.
On display at the same Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas is a replica of a 122-pound flathead goliath, taken by illegal means from Lake Tyler in 1984. In 1982, an astonishing 139-pound 14-ounce flathead was weighed on certified scales, taken on a snagline by Mackey and Bruce Sayres from the Arkansas River.
Many folks believe even larger flatheads haunt America’s waterways — including scary-size fish below inaccessible dam tailraces. Here, as in other remote or hard-to-reach locales, flathead cats of immense proportions are known to exist. The fish can surely be hooked. But even once anglers overcome the difficult dilemma of how to put a bait into these tricky spots, they’re still faced with the nearly impossible task of extracting the fish from tangled cover. It’s a challenge worthy of the best catfishers on earth.
The Channel Cat Conundrum
The most widespread of all North American catfish species, the world record channel catfish is in many ways the most surprising of all. The IGFA all-tackle world record was caught by W.H. Whaley from Santee-Cooper Reservoir, South Carolina in July of 1964. The fish weighed 58-pounds even, an amazing stat given the glaring lack of documented channel cats that have come even within 20 pounds of this mark in modern times.
Referencing Heckman’s opening quote, you note use of the term “blue channel catfish.” Even today, it’s not uncommon to hear the expression, which may refer to either species, depending on who you’re talking to. Particularly with larger channel cats, distinguishing the species isn’t as easy as, say, a walleye versus a pike — two more fish often referred to by both names (i.e. walleye-pike).
All of which makes the 58-pound Whaley fish appear to perhaps be a blue rather than a channel cat. Clear photos of the Whaley fish are rare, though the few I’ve seen show a fish whose tail appears less deeply forked than a channel cat. More confusion hovers around the 1949 South Dakota state record, a 55-pounder from the James River. In a July 1949 article in the Chicago Tribune, reporter Bob Becker recounts how angler Roy Groves landed a 95-pound blue catfish, referred to as “a record for fresh water fishing with rod and reel.”
The article also notes: “Later Groves caught a 19 and a 55 pounder,” but makes no mention that the latter may have been a channel catfish. Certainly, a cursory glance at the only photo available casts some suspicion upon the Groves 55-pound ‘channel’ cat. While it’s hard to make definitive statements about the fish’s tail based on the photo, the cat’s seemingly squared-off anal fin certainly seems suggestive of a blue.
The reality is, we’ll likely never know for sure. For their own sakes, ambiguous old records sometimes serve as more intriguing tales as they stand, adding to the overall mystique of catfishing.
This relatively undersized catfish fills a necessary niche, occupying Atlantic slope tidal streams from New York to Florida, and Gulf Coast drainages in Alabama and Mississippi. White catfish thrive in New England and Northeastern states, where other catfish species can be comparatively scarce. This, of course, has evolved in recent years and decades, as non-native blue catfish have proliferated many tidal rivers on the Atlantic coast. Likewise, the white cat range has been expanded, with fish stocked in ponds, lakes and rivers in California, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon and a few other states in the Midwest and Northeast.
Moreover, because white cats rarely exceed ten pounds, they garner far less coverage or angling attention than their larger brethren. Interestingly, white and channel catfish grow at similar rates for their first four years, after which, channel cats experience relatively rapid growth.
As with blues versus channel cats, differentiating between white, blue and channels can be tricky. One surefire way to know for sure is to count the rays on the fish’s anal fin. White catfish have between 19 and 23 rays, channels cats between 24 and 30 and blue cats between 30 and 36. Other than sheer size, the other way to distinguish between a white catfish and a blue is to compare anal fin structure: white cats sport pronounced, rounded fins, while blues’ fins appear more straight and squared off in the corners.
Currently, at least sixteen states list a white catfish record. California also boasts the largest white, an impressive 22-pound specimen caught by James Robinson, from William Land Park Pond in early 1994. Interestingly, the all-tackle world record, as certified by the IGFA, is listed as 19-pounds 5-ounces, caught by Russell Price in May 2005, also from California waters. While most states’ white cat records stand at 10 pounds or less, Florida, Nevada, Oregon and Rhode Island all boast record fish of 15 pounds or larger.
What would you do, if big ol’ WR decided to ring your bell?