I was struck early on with the impressive size that catfish could attain and the great hold that this had on some men. When I was 10, in 1959, Ed Elliot caught the record blue catfish of 97 pounds from the Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota, not far from where I lived in a small town in northwest Iowa. My parents took me to see the fish, which was on display in a chest freezer in a store in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The fish attracted a crowd for weeks. I remember marveling at the heavy squiding line (heavy dacron) that still hung from the fish’s mouth. The fish had been allowed to swallow the big baitfish and the line had been cut after his capture.
At the time, just after construction of the last dam on the Missouri River at Gavins Point in Yankton, some large blue catfish gathered in the deep holes downriver, their traditional upstream migratory route now blocked. We learned later from Elliot that only a few men in this area knew enough to attempt to catch these fish. When asked whether he assumed other larger fish might be present, he said that he’d had other larger fish on. What size these fish might have been, he didn’t know.
That flurry of big-fish-catching activity in the late 1950s and early 1960s gave way to several decades in which only a few blue cats approaching the record were caught. Then, beginning around 1990, bigger fish again entered the picture as a succession over 100 pounds were caught. Catches of 70- to 90-pound fish also increased dramatically.
Statistical evidence suggests that once catfish attain a larger size they may grow exponentially. One key to catching bigger catfish is to limit the harvest of large fish, in favor of releasing them to be caught again.
Managing Missouri’s Catfish—A Statewide Catfish Management Plan by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Therein are notes from steamboat Captain William Heckman’s book, Steamboating Sixty Five Years on Missouri’s Rivers. “Of interest to fishermen,” writes Heckman, “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.” Heckman also reports that two anglers, Sholten and New, brought into Hermann, Missouri, in 1868 a “blue channel cat” that tipped the scales at 242 pounds.
Some question the veracity of these weights. Credible evidence of huge catfish from the Missouri River in the 1800s comes from a shipping invoice from 1879. The invoice is for a 150-pound blue catfish purchased at a St. Louis fish market by Dr. G.W. Steedman, then chairman of the Missouri Fish Commission, for shipment to the U.S. National Museum.
“Back when the Missouri River ran free, there was no fishing pressure and the river was full of forage fish, so it’s hard to imagine how big the catfish grew,“ says Kevin Sullivan, Resource Scientist with Missouri’s Statewide Catfish Management Plan. “Since commercial fishing was banned, we’ve seen a steady increase in the size of both blue and flathead catfish from the Missouri River.”
Sullivan doubts that we’ll ever again see 200- or 300-pound catfish from the Missouri, because all the navigation control structures and upstream dams have eliminated much of the flooding and channels and backwaters that provided habitat—and a huge base of forage fish—to nourish mega-catfish. But he believes that if anglers practice catch-and-release on larger blue and flathead catfish, we may see catfish up to 150 pounds pulled from the Missouri.
“We’ll never see a lot of 150-pounders,” he says, “but we’ll see a lot more 80- to 90-pounders, the fish of a lifetime for most anglers.”
Taken from Elk City Reservoir, Kansas, on May 14, 1998, the fish stretched the tape a whopping 61 inches and sported a pleasantly plump, 42¾-inch girth. Paulie was crappie fishing at the time, and hooked it on a jig-and-minnow. Like many world records, it was not without controversy. It was verified while alive by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks fishery biologist Sean Lynott. But details of the catch—such as the relatively light tackle Paulie was using, and his statement that it didn’t put up much of a fight—raised eyebrows in the cat community. Still, the record stands to this day as a testament to the immense proportions flatheads are capable of attaining.