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."
All-Tackle World Record - Ken Paulie
If Ken Paulie's gargantuan world-record flathead doesn't make your heart skip a beat, you best check your pulse. At 123 pounds even, it tops the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame's all-tackle and 14-pound line class standings, and photos of the behemoth will make you think twice about dabbling your toes off the dock.
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.
Georgia - Carl Sawyer
The Peachtree flathead record rests in a tie, and it's a whopper. Eighty-three pounds is the mark to beat, thanks to Carl Sawyer and Jim Dieveney. Sawyer struck first, pulling his 83-pounder from the Altamaha River near Jesup on June 22, 2006. In doing so, he literally destroyed the old record of 67 pounds, 8 ounces. Sawyer was fishing a 'hand-sized ' bluegill on a 7/0 circle hook with 50-pound mainline and a 3-ounce sinker, in a 15- to 17-foot deep hole. He reported that the 54-inch giant offered a 15- to 20-minute battle before surrendering boatside.
Georgia - Jim Dieveney
Carl Sawyer retained solo claim to the record until Dieveney hooked a nearly identical leviathan July 11, 2010, while fishing the Altamaha in Wayne County. Fishing alone but wielding a rod fit for sharks, he managed to land his 52½-inch prize all by himself. Interestingly, a mammoth 103-pound flathead was taken on trotline on the Ocmulgee River in August of 2009, leaving little doubt a tiebreaker resides somewhere in Georgia's cat-rich waterways.
Iowa - Joe Baze
'Catfish ' Joe Baze of Chariton, Iowa, set the Hawkeye flathead record in June 1958 with this 81-pound behemoth, taken from Lucas County's Lake Ellis. Baze was a consummate fisherman, with numerous trophy catches to his credit. As the story goes, he loved devoting Saturdays to fishing a nearby lake, but almost stayed home the day of his big catch due to a foul east wind. When the wind switched late in the day, however, he and his son geared up, headed for Ellis — and made history.
Michigan - Dale Blakely
Michigan's state record might not rank among the top 10 fattest flatheads of all time. But it's the newest record-holder we ran across — taken on January 12, 2014 — and has an interesting story to boot. For starters, the 52-pound fish was caught through the ice on Cass County's Barron Lake. Dale Blakely was enjoying his second-ever hardwater adventure, fishing a jig and waxworm for crappies. He hadn't had a bite all day when, at 3 p.m., the giant cat inhaled his jig. The catch trumped the existing record of 49.8 pounds, and was quickly verified by the state DNR. Officials noted that flatheads do not naturally occur in the lake, and speculated that the fish may have arrived with the illicit assistance of a 'bucket biologist ' at some point in its life. Regardless of its origins, Blakely's record stands. 'Catching this fish was the most exhilarating experience, ' he said.
Oklahoma - Richard Williams
Richard Williams was fishing for bass in El Reno City Reservoir on May 11, 2010 when he hooked into a monstrous fish far bigger than anything he'd expected to hit his Strike King crankbait. After a pitched battle, he reeled in a 51-inch-long, Sooner state record flathead weighing in at 78 pounds, 8 ounces. Williams' big cat topped the old record of 76 pounds, set on the Poteau River near Wister. Though admittedly not a cat fancier, Williams told the press at the time that he considered his record catch 'pretty cool. ' Indeed. And so do we. Although truth be told, we'd rather hook up with the 60-inch, 106-pound thug C. Clubb caught on a trotline in Wister Lake in 1977. That remarkable giant holds the Oklahoma record for 'unrestricted ' tackle.
Texas - James Laster
At 98 pounds, 8 ounces, James Laster's Lone Star lunker was big enough to topple the previous Texas benchmark, but not the all-tackle world record. It did, however, capture the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame's 16-pound line-class record. Laster pulled the mighty flathead from Lake Palestine on December 2, 1998 while bank-fishing for crappies. It measured 53 inches long, with a 40-inch girth. The previous Texas record, 98 pounds even, had stood for 22 years. The new record flathead — named Taylor after Laster's grandson — was transported to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens for display, but was released back into Palestine two years later after it stopped eating.