May 16, 2015
Giant fish have fueled the dreams of catfish anglers since the beginning. Modern times have seen records fall at an increasing rate, particularly for blue cats, where the world record has been broken several times just in the past 12 years. No record fish in recent history had become so famous so quickly as Splash.
It is the winter of 2003 when Cody Mullennix pulls the world-record blue cat he names Splash from Lake Texoma, takes great care to keep it alive, and donates the fish to the state of Texas for display. Splash becomes the most famous catfish of all time, perhaps the most famous world-record fish of all time. The fish appears with Mullennix and Stange on In-Fisherman Television in 2004. Splash dies
in 2007, from an infection from an old hook wound.
Another world-record fish is pulled from the lower Mississippi River several years later, a fish weighing 125 pounds, followed by a 130 from the Missouri River and a 143 from Buggs Island Lake, all in the last 10 years. We await 150. We can think of at least a dozen waters where such fish might swim, and a half dozen where it's more likely to happen.
Flatheads and blue cats grow to be the third or fourth largest freshwater sportfish in North America. Only white sturgeon, alligator gar, and lake sturgeon get bigger. Take note that boats aren't always needed to beach a whale. Many giants, including Splash, are caught from shore, using the tactics covered in this article, originally appearing in In-Fisherman in 2004.
The undisputed world-record blue catfish of 121.5 pounds caught by Cody Mullennix of Howe, Texas, late last winter is one of the most magnificent creatures I've seen. "Splash," as the fish is called, measured 58 inches by 39 inches, longer and a little leaner than most other huge blue cats that have in recent years approached or held the record. Some past world-record-class blue cats have had the proportions of a 50-gallon drum. Splash looks more like a world-class athlete of gifted proportions — an in-his-prime, sweet-on-his-feet Mohammed Ali, as compared to the hulking George Foreman in his later heavyweight years.
Swimming slowly, effortlessly, in almost suspended animation in the 24,000-gallon tank at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas, Splash looks to be a healthy younger fish with a ways to grow, yet. If records from the 1800s are to be believed and a 15-year trend in big-blue catches from around the country are apt indication, then my prediction of a fish weighing in at 150 pounds may become true before long, the Shrek of blue catfish.
On that fateful day, the 14-foot Shakespeare surf rod buckled from the tip down to the butt in the rod holder, which had been placed in the sandy bank of the south Lake Texoma shoreline. Mullennix lifted against the heavy fish as it surfaced, rolled, and flipped its great body out there 100 yards from shore. "Just a half hour before, I'd landed a 56-pound blue," he said. "This fish was way — I mean, waay — bigger."
The battle lasted about 20 minutes, man and 20-pound-test line against mammoth fish. Mullennix didn't get a good look at the fish again until it was right along shore. "I saw it close up and thought, 'This fish is a hundred pounds,'" he said. He went right in after it to push it over, then onto, a shallow shoreline shelf.
"All I knew was that it was huge. I just kept thinking a hundred pounds," he said. "That's when I used my cellphone to call Jason (longtime fishing partner, Jason Holbrook). "'I need help,' I told him. 'And bring the 100-pound scale.'"
Holbrook and Mullennix grew up fishing, spending a lot of time together along the shores of Lake Texoma about a half hour from their home. "For the last 20 years or so, we have been fishing specifically for big cats," Holbrook told me. "People are catching a lot of 50- and 60-pound blues these days — quite a few into the 80s, actually." Holbrook held the Texas state record for several years with an 80-pound-class blue.
So Mullennix and Holbrook are no strangers to big catfish. This was no purely lucky catch — man fishing with Snoopy pole and wiener off a marina dock. This was world-record by design — at least as much design as is possible in such instances.
Holbrook and I have corresponded over the years, he sending me a letter in 1996 asking about the best hooks for shorefishing. Curiously, I'd called him the week before Mullennix caught the fish, just to see if he was fishing and how things were going.
As Holbrook and his brother helped Mullennix, the fish bottomed-out the 100-pound scale. "We'd actually talked 'what ifs' before many times," Mullennix said. "I mean, this is what we were fishing for. Something like this is always a surprise — yet it wasn't a total surprise. We knew that fish like this were out there. We knew our fishing system worked. So here we were, and here the fish was. It happened. And now what?
"Well, we release 95 percent of the fish we catch — certainly everything above 20 pounds. It makes no sense to kill such incredible fish. Big fish are priceless, swimming out there alive, inspiring further hope that someone else might come in contact with them. The only way we can grow these monsters is to release all the bigger fish so they can continue to grow. Our immediate concern was to keep this huge fish in good shape, weigh it, and then release it. We used Jason's big stainless-steel beach cart filled with water to transport the fish."
So Mullennix became not just world-record holder, but the first angler of such status with the conscience and concern to keep a high-profile record fish alive. It was at a local tackle shop where the fish was finally weighed that a conservation officer suggested the fish be donated to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, to be on display and inspire those who visit.
Mullennix agrees that his record probably will eventually fall. If it does, both he and Holbrook won't bet against the fish coming from Texoma, although there are plenty of other great blue-cat fisheries around the country. It's likely fish of this quality swim in at least a dozen areas of the country, almost certainly in portions of the middle and lower Mississippi, the lower Missouri, the lower Ohio, and sections of rivers and associated reservoirs that connect with these rivers. The Tennessee River is a top bet. The Osage. The Cumberland. Along with traditional monster-fish-producing reservoirs like Santee-Cooper. Many other Texas reservoirs and some in Oklahoma, too, as well as others in the Southeast. And up-and-coming reservoirs where the fish haven't been that long but have already proven to grow huge quickly — places like southern California.
But I begin to digress in a direction I love to head. You can return another day to hear me tell stories of the ongoing search for world-record-class catfish. The story here is the straightforward system that Holbrook and Mullennix use to catch a ton of blue cats from shore each winter.
About Texoma and Reservoir Blue Cat Location
First, a bit about Lake Texoma, which straddles the Oklahoma-Texas border a little more than an hour north of Dallas. Gizzard shad and threadfin shad key catfish location in this huge reservoir. The story here is somewhat the same for other reservoirs in the country.
During much of the year, bigger blue cats hold in the deep water associated with the main-reservoir channel, or along deep cuts at or near the mouths of creek arms. During winter, though, beginning in November — certainly by mid December — as waters cool through the 60°F range and into the 50°F and even the 40°F range, shad move into the headwaters of the Red River and into the shallower portions of creek arms. Of course, some blue cats stay deep most of the year, including during winter. Still, lots of fish also follow some shad shallow.
Splash was caught in the Big Mineral Arm of the reservoir, which pokes south from the main east-west run of the Red River and the main portion of Texoma into north Texas. Holbrook: "The Big Mineral Arm's about 8 miles long and we mostly fish the lowest end — that portion in the Hageman Wildlife Refuge. Most of this area's no more than about 10 feet deep. Most of the fish follow a gradual drop-off line somewhere off the shoreline, especially windward shorelines where the shad stack up. You don't always have to fish facing into the wind, though. Just generally consider which way the wind's been blowing for several days before you fish. A wind switch doesn't hurt, so long as its general direction has been into a shoreline for several days. Even this isn't an absolute predictor of where the fish might be. They can be wherever they want. They just roam trying to stay with the shad. The main thing is to get out there and fish."
Mullennix: "It's no secret where I caught the fish. I originally highlighted the general spot on a map for anyone to see. It's where we fished to shoot a segment for the In-Fisherman television show for 2005. There's no reason to keep such a secret, because the spot's not a secret. It's a good place to fish, but there are 20 other places just as good, just about like it, around the lower end of this creek arm — which, as Jason said, for the most part gets no deeper than about 10 to 15 feet. Splash bit about 100 yards from shore, but the water out there was only about 5 or 6 feet deep.
"A foot or two difference in depth can make a difference, sometimes. The bottom's mostly sand, with washout edges here and there that offer a little bit deeper water. Sometimes these gradual drop-off edges help to gather some fish. Lots of places that we fish, you can wade out 30 yards or so to make an even longer cast, checking for a drop-off. Cast out and count the weight down. You can pretty well guess how deep it is. Still, tremendously long casts aren't always a key. Sometimes we catch fish 50 yards out. It still pays, though, to be able to make long casts. That's one reason for the surf tackle."
Holbrook: "In the end, after you get the basic presentation system worked out, catching big fish is a matter of percentages — picking the right spot, to be sure, but also how often you fish, how many rods and lines you put out, having fresh bait, and so on. The day we fished with you, for example, we set up on the same location where Cody caught the record. Yet, that day, as you remember, friends fishing 200 yards south of us were into way more fish than we were. The biggest fish they caught was only about 20 pounds. They must have caught 60 fish that day. It was nonstop action for them, while we caught probably two dozen fish in about 5 hours — and our big fish was about 20 pounds, too.
"Once we pick a spot and use our beach carts to haul all our equipment down and get set up, well, we've made a pretty big commitment to a spot. It isn't that easy to pick up and move a bunch of times. We usually have a set of at least 15 rods — sometimes more — spread up and down 100 to 200 yards of beach. Sometimes the fish seem to be in one spot along the beach more than in others. Sometimes the fish are just spread everywhere. You just have to get out there and get plenty of baits out, so the fish have a chance to tell you where they're at."
The guys gather fresh shad by throwing cast-nets in the back ends of creek arms the night before they fish. "Fresh bait's certainly important," Mullennix said. "First, it's firm, so it doesn't throw off on a long cast. Secondly, it just fishes better — attracts more fish. Keep it bagged and on ice. We often go through at least 100 baits on an outing."
Holbrook: "The other places that produce fish on Texoma during winter are deeper, shorter creek arms closer to or directly connected to the main reservoir. Points at the mouths of or inside these creek arms often produce fish. Again, the fish are searching for shad.
"We fish almost entirely during the day in the shallow portions of Texoma, where the water's usually dirtied by wind. Some anglers fish at night in the deeper creek arms, where the water's much clearer. The Big Mineral Arm isn't the only shallow area. Wherever you can get at shallow shoreline in the upper end of the reservoir, you may get into fish. Lots of that area, though, is only accessible by airboat."
Since scoring the noteworthy catch, Mullennix and Holbrook have refined their tackle just a little, with the help of the people from Berkley, Shakespeare, and Eagle Claw. Some of their old 14-foot fiberglass Shakespeare Alpha Big Water spinning rods (ABWS 514-2M) have been replaced with 12-foot Ugly Stik Custom Graphite Surf Rods (USCSSP 1112-2M).
"No question the graphite construction of the Custom Ugly Stiks helps to whip 8 ounces of lead out farther than you can cast with the longer fiberglass poles," Mullennix observes. "The rods are a lot lighter, too. We still fish with some 14-foot fiberglass poles, though. We proved you can fish effectively with fiberglass poles. If you want to kick it up a notch, try the Customs. They're a great-looking rod, too."
The reel of choice is the Shakespeare Prius Bigwater Spinning Reel, the P480, which is the largest available and can hold 200 yards of 30-pound monofilament, or about 300 yards of 20-pound. Holbrook: "Snags aren't much of a problem in most of the areas we fish. We also often need to make long casts, so we want to fish with the lightest line possible. Twenty-pound Berkley Big Game is perfect. Go any lighter and you snap sinkers off on a cast. Go heavier and it cuts casting distance. The 20-pound's heavy enough to land huge fish. Cody proved that."
The terminal rigging they use is a dropline of about 24 inches, tied to the end of a two-way swivel which is tied into the mainline. The weight is added to the end of the dropline. Meanwhile, a hook dropper about 18 inches long is tied off the top rung of the two-way swivel. They use 8/0 Eagle Claw L7228 circle hooks.
After making the cast, the drag on the reel's set so it gives gradually by pulling line just above the reel. The rod butt is placed in the rod holder, with the rod tip up at about a 45-degree angle to the water. They keep a tight line to the bait. When a fish eats the bait, the tight line makes the hook point catch flesh. As the fish moves farther, the combination of the stretch of the line and the bending rod in the holder keeps the hook point digging in and finally setting.
Mullennix: "There's no way for fish to reject the hook, unless for some reason the hook point happens to get covered by a portion of the bait. It's fine to let an aggressive fish load the rod before picking the rod out of the holder and reeling. No need to set the hook. When fish aren't aggressive, but you can tell one has taken the bait and is just lying there, just ease the rod out of the holder, point the tip out at 45 degrees and start reeling. No setting. Just get the rod to load. Remember that the drag has to be set firmly enough to keep the line taut, yet just loose enough so it will give, if a big fish eats and surges off before you can get the pole out of a holder.
"We usually monitor all the rods from a central position on the beach. If we get the rods really spread out, an angler monitors a particular stretch of shoreline. With the surf rods, you can see the rod tips from quite a way to tell if fish are there. We constantly walk up and down the line of rods, occasionally moving the baits in a little bit. Sometimes a bait gets into a spot that makes it hard for a fish to reach, so it's important to reposition the baits occasionally by moving them just a bit.
"We also sweeten our baits at least every half hour. Just reel the baits in and give them a pinch to get the body juices flowing. Don't hesitate to switch baits. Fresh bait triggers more fish.
"Most days we're set up by sunrise. Some days there's competition for spots, but not too bad, so far. Really, almost every foot of shoreline in the Hageman Refuge can produce fish. If the bite's not happening, we might move to a different spot for the afternoon or evening bite."
"So, did fame and fortune come calling along with the record?" I asked Mullennix.
"Well, not exactly," he admitted. "The award ceremony by the state (Texas) was fun. You know that — you were there at the Fisheries Center in Athens. The fish got featured in a lot of papers, especially around Texas and Oklahoma. Sports Illustrated ran a short item on the record. You put us — Holbrook, his brother, and Mullennix — on the cover of last year's Catfish Guide. That was exciting. Got lots of great comments about that. The aforementioned tackle companies helped us out. We shot a short television segment with you on how we fish. That was great. Now this story. But I really didn't make any money on the fish.
"The best part to this day is knowing the fish is on display in Athens. Hearing about all the people that drive to Athens just to see Splash. Hearing all the wonderful comments about how incredible the fish is, swimming in the tank and showing off for everyone. Knowing that the fish inspires at least some people to think about not killing big fish. It's been a great year — just a great year, and we're happy to be able to help others catch more catfish, if we can."
I was at that point reminded of the P. S. on Holbrook's 1996 letter to me, in which he'd told me about his fishing. It said: "I am going to beat that 111-pound world record this coming winter. So be ready to hear from me again."
Obviously, it took more than a winter, and it didn't happen to Holbrook, but to his best fishing friend. Holbrook couldn't have been happier. I wouldn't bet against it happening to one of the guys again. Holbrook's turn, this time. After that, since Holbrook and Mullennix are both just 28, maybe time for Mullennix again.
I can see it now on T-shirts across blue-cat country: "150 Or Bust!"