February 05, 2020
By Cory Schmidt
Zakk Royce remembers the day, 17 years ago, when mega blue catfish first registered on his fishing radar. “That September, we’d had a lot of rain and flooding and a big hurricane,” says Royce, an exceptional catfish angler and guide on Lake Gaston, North Carolina. “The Kerr Lake dam was running non-stop, pumping huge volumes of water. Piles of big stripers and cats had migrated up into the tailrace to feed.
In December 2015, Royce pulled off an unthinkable accomplishment, boating two mega blue catfish in one 18-hour period. Known for his 72-hour catfish benders on Lake Gaston, North Carolina, he hooked a 91-pound blue while controlled-drifting with a chunk of white perch. Having weighed the fish on a certified scale, he released the new North Carolina state record back into the water near its original catch site. “We still had some good bait left, so my dad and I continued fishing,” he says. “Dad caught a 20-pounder before I got another bite. The fish ripped serious drag, and when we saw it, we were sure it was over a hundred pounds.”
Royce’s second monster blue, weighed on the same certified scale at Lake Gaston Ace Hardware, overtook his fleeting state record catfish by 14 pounds. Less than a year later, 15-year-old Landon Evans landed a 117-pound 8-ounce Lake Gaston blue while fishing from his dock. This particular giant blue, however, merely represents the next step in the intriguing story of a trio of lakes on the Roanoke River.
Nearly nine years have passed now since high-school football coach Nick Anderson hoisted the current world-record blue, a 57-inch, 143-pound mammoth, from the waters of Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir. Kerr, just upstream from Lake Gaston, has produced numerous 90- and 100-pound blues in recent years. Likely the second largest catfish ever recorded on hook and line was a 141-pound 12-ounce, 61-inch monster caught by Dale Lowe, Jr. at Kerr Reservoir in January 2017. A 135 was also caught there in March of 2014, plus numerous others over 100 pounds, with most of the big fish caught in late fall through winter.
Atlantic Catfish Emergence
The rise of blue catfish in the Roanoke River, which flows from Virginia and into North Carolina before entering the Albemarle Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, remains somewhat under suspicion. Virginia fishery biologist Dan Michaelson notes that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) stocked blue catfish into several smaller impoundments in 1984. “The flood of 1985 subsequently caused many lakes in the watershed to spill, likely resulting in blue catfish joining the Kerr Reservoir fish community,” he says.
Otolith aging of Anderson’s blue cat revealed it was 18 years old. Michaelson says. “The oldest catfish we’ve aged at Kerr have been 19. But there are likely older fish in the population, given that the species can apparently live 25 to 30 years in some environments.”
Farther north into Virginia, blue catfish became established in the James and Rappahannock rivers, somewhat infamously, when VDGIF stocked a small number of fish into these systems in the 1970s. With a rich abundance of forage, such as shad, herring, and prized blue crabs, the catfish population has exploded in the tidal rivers, and spread into the Potomac—also connected to Chesapeake Bay. A Virginia of study of over 16,000 blue catfish stomachs found that juvenile catfish primarily eat vegetation and invertebrates, switching to a mostly fish diet at 20 to 36 inches. Dominant prey among larger catfish was gizzard shad and juvenile blue catfish.
While fishing with guide Neil Renouf, Stephen Miklandric boated a 102-pounder from the James River in December 2014. Miklandric and Renouf prefer chunks of freshly killed gizzard shad fished on 8/0 circle hooks. Renouf says the James River blue cat bite peaks when water temperatures dip into the mid-40s in late fall into winter. He believes the best fishing occurs one hour either side of the high or low tide. “When water’s moving, blues station in reliable, predictable locations,” he says. “A large submerged tree or brushpile on a shallow flat or along a channel edge typically hold big blues. Wing dams also attract fish.
“Depth isn’t a major factor,” says Renouf, who’s caught catfish from 5 to 70 feet deep in the James. “Cover and current are trump cards. Deep undercut ledges on outside river bends can be good, as can the downcurrent side of an inside bend where a small depression has formed behind a build-up of sediment. Catfish also move into feeder streams and shallow bays at times, if bait is present. This winter movement especially occurs on warmer days in bays with flat mud bottoms.”
Virginia fishery researchers estimated a population of nearly 100 million blue catfish in the Chesapeake Bay region in 2015. Although numbers of blue cats in the James continue to register off the charts, indications are the potential for giant fish may have peaked. According to local anglers like Archie Gold of Night Stalker Guide Service, commercial fishing measures meant to control the population and tap a growing blue catfish market have made fishing for record-class blues tougher in recent years.
In 2017, commercial fishing crews harvested a record 200,000 pounds of blue catfish in Maryland and at least twice that quantity in Virginia. The fishery is likely still spreading, however. Record rainfall in 2018 brought a freshwater deluge into the bay, allowing blues to disperse into additional feeder rivers and estuaries—including the mouth of the Potomac River. For now, the potential for record-class catfish remains. The next five years should reveal the region’s ability to foster a world record.
Record-Seeking on the Roanoke
What remains unique and compelling about the ongoing story of world-record blue catfish is the possibility that one or more completely overlooked reservoirs or river stretches remain to be discovered—only to pop up on our radar with the emergence of a single giant fish. The Lower Mississippi River, south of Memphis and down past Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is perhaps the most underfished stretch of this classic river. But it’s just as likely that a world record is swimming in any number of different reservoirs in Arkansas, Tennessee, and South Carolina, where bass are king and catfish are largely ignored by rod-and-reel anglers. Lake Ouachita, Arkansas, Chickamauga Lake, Tennessee, and Lake Murray, South Carolina, are just three under-the-radar fisheries with world-record potential.
Kerr and Gaston reservoirs remain the current strongholds of record-class blues. Every season, multiple 100-pound fish are caught on these lakes. Many of them go unreported because they’re no longer surprising nor significant in terms of records. A glance at Virginia’s Trophy Fish program alone reveals at least a few 100-pound-class blues are caught every season—all from Kerr and Gaston reservoirs.
Of the two lakes, Royce believes Gaston harbors more potential for the next world record. “Gaston’s fish migrated here from Kerr, so they’re still growing and expanding,” says Royce, who occasionally fishes Kerr, as well. “Gaston’s blue cats are growing fast. They’re clean, robust fish with small heads and massive bodies.
“I believe a realistic goal we’ll see at some point is 150 pounds. The fishery started to peak in the last five years. Growing up, we caught huge numbers of 5- to 10-pound catfish. We’re catching lower numbers of fish now, but quality has skyrocketed, and we’re looking at a true trophy fishery. For me, magic water temps for big fish range into the low to mid-60s, with fall, winter, and spring having the best bite.”
One major difference-maker, he says, has been his adaptation of walleye-style planer boards for controlled-drift fishing. “The biggest key is covering as much water as possible and maximizing the time my bait’s in the water. That means spreading lines horizontally as well as vertically. Planer boards also let me steer baits under treetops and next to boat docks.
“I run 0.5 mph with six lines most of the time—two rods spread way out off both sides of the boat. But I also spread my rigs so I’m hitting 3 feet to 20 feet below the surface, at times, as well as right on the bottom with slinky (dragging) weights. I rig two far outside lines with short leads behind the planer board, depending on the depth I want to target for fish keying on suspended shad. Two more rods with planer boards run tighter to the boat, rigged to drag bottom. Then I might run a few more rods straight off the stern with a large float to keep the bait up close to the surface, or down to 10 or 15 feet,” he says.
To determine the depth he fishes with suspended three-way rigs, he monitors shad on his electronics. Conversely, while dragging bottom, he’s aware that catfish can be difficult to discern on sonar. So, he concentrates on ledges near the main river channel, particularly areas with timber or humps near the ledge, or up on the adjacent flat. Mussel beds on soft bottom produce, too. And creek arm junctions with the main river channel can also be potential blue cat gold mines.
“A big factor for dragging bottom is to prevent your rig from bouncing up and down, or constantly snagging and popping free,” he says. “A soft, slinky-style sinker is ideal because it moves cleanly across the bottom without snagging a lot, presenting your bait in a more natural manner, which big cats favor.”
Royce uses 1.5-ounce sinkers on planer board rigs and 2.5- to 4-ouncers on his dragging rigs. He’s developed his own Zakk Royce Planer Boards, available at bottomdwellerstackle.com. Royce’s Dragging Weights are offered by Hooker’s Terminal Tackle. He runs a three-way swivel with a 12-inch to 4-foot leader of 60-pound-test Berkley fluorocarbon for abrasion resistance. Each bottom rig carries a cigar-shaped slipfloat that slightly elevates the bait and keeps it from fouling snags. Hooks are 9/0 octopus circles for larger bait chunks and 7/0 for smaller pieces of cut white perch. Big Cat Fever 7- and 7-foot 6-inch medium action trolling rods adorn Royce’s rod holders.
Since that day in the Roanoke River tailrace 17 years ago, Royce says attitudes toward trophy catfish have improved. “North Carolina has instituted special regulations that allow for the harvest of only one blue catfish over 32 inches daily.” Now, and into the 2020s, Lake Gaston remains a top destination for “Operation 150-Pounder.”
The Forgotten Stretch
Other than a handful of hidden gems and the inevitable emergence of the next Lake Gaston, the only other logical place for a blue exceeding 143 pounds is the Mississippi River. According to both Phil King and John Jamison—two of the sport’s most accomplished anglers—the Mississippi River system from St. Louis to Memphis and beyond is producing as many giant fish as any time in modern history. It’s been over nine years since the last world record there—Greg Bernal’s 130-pounder, technically caught in the Missouri River near its confluence with the Mississippi.
“We’re seeing more fish in the 70s, 80s, and 90s than ever before,” says Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas. “A 112 was caught near Memphis a few weeks ago. And guide Ryan Casey has caught at least 3 or 4 over 100 this year alone.”
Jamison believes the uptick in catfish growth is due to a singular standout factor. “The foodbase is absolutely through the roof in abundance. Silver and bighead carp are so abundant now in the Missouri and Mississippi. Recently, I made one throw with a cast net and it took two of us to pull in over 200 pounds of carp—all 2 to 6 inches long. You see the same thing in Memphis and other epicenters. Go behind any barge where grain enters the water and it’s wall-to-wall carp.”
He says that while the catfish are growing larger faster, fishing patterns have become less predictable. “Catfish no longer need to pattern baitfish movements. Now, they feed any time they want, so some of our traditional patterns have faded. There’s no doubt someone on the Lower Mississippi will eventually catch a 150.”
King, among the most widely traveled catfish anglers in America, believes the most overlooked stretch of river for a goliath fish is near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, although he says a few other famous waters continue to offer world-record potential. “Wheeler and Wilson (reservoirs) have slower-growing fish, but the genetics and big fish are still there,” says King, who recently retired from catfish guiding. “A 115-pounder was caught at Wheeler in a March Cabela’s King Kat tournament. Santee-Cooper still has the fastest growth rate of any lake I know of, and a 113-pound state record was caught there in 2017. A 140 was also caught on a trotline in 2012.”
Other entries on King’s list include the Missouri River. “It holds huge fish, but the fast current there makes it tough, at times,” he says. He also casts another vote for Gaston and Kerr lakes. “I hear stories all the time about guys who hook giant fish that just burn the reel. Lots of fish anglers just can’t land.”
But for King, it all boils down to the Mighty Mississippi, the river that produced his 103-pound whale during the 2007 Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest. “Over the years I’ve had on the line 12 giant fish that either spooled me or that couldn’t be landed. The 103 was lucky number thirteen”
On his first catfish expedition to Louisiana, he couldn’t believe the fish he caught, nor the lack of other anglers on the river around Baton Rouge. “It’s untapped water,” he says. “Last time I was there, we got bit by or caught a big fish on every spot I fished. You’ve got all kinds of current breaks down there, with an easy flow of 2 to 2.5 mph. Lots of 30- to 100-foot holes through that stretch. The blues are in healthy condition, especially with all the grain that comes through (via barge traffic). When I retire, I’ll make this an annual trip.”
Although next to no one guides for catfish on this sprawling, lower river section, redfish captains operating out of Cajun Fishing Adventures—a lodge on the river near Buras—occasionally report seeing and accidentally catching mammoth blue cats in the brackish water. Lodge manager Ray Stansberry says when they dispose of the filleted remains of saltwater fish, “it chums up big 30- to 60-pound blue cats almost immediately. We don’t run any catfishing charters, but the fishing is certainly doable, and untapped.”
The current Louisiana state record stands at 114 pounds. But as top anglers begin exploring this immense section of river, who knows what might come to the surface.
With each subsequent record-breaker, anglers far and wide ponder the same question: How large can these fish grow? Danny Brown, big-river fishery biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, might have an answer, and great news for record-seekers. “We’ve received aging data on Greg Bernal’s 130-pound blue, which was determined from a spine sample to be merely 18 years old,” he says. “This was a healthy, youthful fish. It’s conceivable that catfish like this could easily continue growing for another decade or two.”
Tanner Tabor, tournament director for Cabela’s King Kat circuit, summarizes the buzz surrounding record-class blues. “It’s not just the size of the catfish that have gotten bigger, it’s the number of anglers targeting—and releasing—theses monsters. One big difference between bass and catfish tournaments is that at a bass tournament, spectators come out to see the anglers who have achieved rock star status. In a catfish tournament the rock stars everyone comes to see are the giant fish themselves.”
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an astute multispecies angler and longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.