October 28, 2011
By Dr. Rob Neumann
The attention of those who follow the goings on in the catfishing world turned to Buggs Island Lake, Virginia, this past June. Really, the turn was more like whiplash. With the super efficiency of social networking on the Internet, it wasn't hours before the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and hows about the pending world-record blue catfish filled comment threads on Facebook and fishing forums. Digital photos of Richard Anderson's 143-pounder were posted lickety-split for all to gaze at in amazement. Barnum & Bailey couldn't have dreamed of working it better. Step right up folks and see the giant whiskered beast!
It hadn't been a year since the previous world record 130-pounder gulped up a chunk of Asian carp that Greg Bernell was soaking in the lower Missouri River near St. Louis. Bernell's fish surpassed Tim Pruitt's record blue, a 124-pound brute caught on the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois, in 2005. Prior to that, Lake Texoma was it, giving up the 121.5-pounder caught by Cody Mullennix. The fish called Splash captured the imagination and fascination of thousands of visitors at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center aquarium in Athens.
Reports of remarkable fish have come in from rivers and reservoirs from Virginia to California, the big rivers in the Heartland producing perhaps the most consistent legacy of giant fish, although waters like Santee-Cooper, Texoma, Wilson, Wheeler, and So-Cal reservoirs, among others, put up points on a fairly regular basis. But when the topic of the next world record comes up, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are always key players in the conversation.
Besides giving up three of the last seven world records — a number no other system can claim — we're frequently reminded of the beastly bounty the lower Missouri and Mississippi rivers can deliver. For example, in November 2007 Phil King, fishing with partners Tim Haynie and Leland Harris, astonished the crowd with a 103.11 pounder caught during a Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest tournament out of Memphis. That was the first blue over 100 pounds weighed in at a catfishing tournament. Then came number two — not one year or two years later. The next day of the event, Harold Dodd and Cary Winchester hauled a 108-pounder to the scales.
"The lower Missouri and Mississippi have always been unbelievable fisheries," In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange says, "and they're still largely untapped for big blue cats. Historically that's been the case. We hear about early accounts of fish to 200 pounds and even heavier. We can never be sure those sizes are accurate, but fish up to 150 pounds must have been common and fish of that size likely still swim there today. If I had to fish one water in search of a 150-pounder, I'd head there. Anglers have a better shot today of catching a catfish that big than they've ever have had."
An amazing statistic indeed, the world record has been broken seven times since 1991, and there hasn't been another species that has flipped records that many times in such a short time. That wasn't always so. Prior to 1991, Ed Elliott's 97-pound blue caught from the Missouri River near Vermillion, South Dakota, reigned at the top for over three decades.
"After Elliott's catch, reports were stagnant for giant blues for about 30 years," Stange says. "Then in the mid-1990s, more huge fish were showing up. It's not like we didn't hear about any big fish in the meantime. Trotliners, jugliners, and a handful of rod-and-reel anglers were occasionally reporting giant fish. These guys were the best of their time and ran in small circles. So you had pockets of activity here and there and when a big fish was caught, news didn't spread far or quickly. Not like today. Communication in angling has changed dramatically over the years."
News is one thing, but spreading the word on how to effectively fish for big blue catfish is another. "I don't think it's any surprise we see a surge in big fish catches timed closely with the advancements in catfishing education that have occurred beginning in the early- to mid-1990s," Stange says. "That's when we first started publishing the In-Fisherman Catfish In-Sider magazine, the first national magazine devoted specifically to catfishing. Around that time we also began regularly including catfish articles in In-Fisherman magazine. The 1990s ushered in the new era of modern catfishing. Anglers were constantly getting better at locating and catching catfish. Before that, catfishing was fairly rudimentary, knowledge and equipment-wise. Now anglers are beginning to untap big rivers for giant blues."
In-Fisherman Contributor Dr. Hal Schramm is a professor of fisheries and leader of the Mississippi Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and a leading researcher on catfish. "In regards to the lower Mississippi River, I think you and Doug have hit the nails squarely," he says. "Tackle, both to handle huge fish and to effectively present bait, is certainly part of the equation. There is a lot beneath the surface on the 'smarter angler' point. I don't think the learning curve is linear. A growing group of anglers (especially big-cat anglers) have learned enough that they're starting to 'understand' the fish rather than just catch a few — they have entered the exponential phase of the learning curve."
Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, and John Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas, are two top catfish anglers who are leading the way into the exponential phase of the learning curve. These pros have pioneered tactics for locating and catching giant blues in big rivers. "With all the information out there on the Internet, magazines, and group discussions after tournaments, a fisherman can go from a beginner to an experienced trophy angler in a short time," King says.
Many catfish anglers also are shifting from being harvest oriented to targeting trophy blues. "I think catfishing has matured from 'fill the cooler' to 'I want to fish for the largest fish in my area that I can possibly catch'," King says. "I certainly can sit and wait on one good bite now. A few years ago, I just wanted to fish and catch as many as possible because that was exciting and fun. Now the thrill of catching a few good fish has replaced the numbers game. I'm not saying I don't like catching smaller fish. Trophy catfishing simply gets in your blood after you see the scale you currently have bottom out and you break your personal best. You want to do better and catch a bigger one. Now we're learning more about how to target big fish."
Jamison: "A lot more 100-pound-plus blues have been caught recently and I believe we'll continue to see more because there are many more educated anglers fishing the big rivers armed with the latest information. Sources of information like In-Fisherman and seminars from top catfish pros are keeping anglers on the cutting edge of how to catch big fish. More people are trying new techniques developed by tournament pros. Anglers see how successful some of the pros are and are adopting our techniques, like controlled drifting.
"I can't say enough about the role advancements in electronics have played. More people are utilizing side-scan and down-scan sonar to find habitats that hold the biggest fish. Now anglers are identifying new spots to fish that haven't been touched before. Electronics is one of the most common topics I get questions on by audiences at my seminars.
"Big-river fishing is becoming more popular, too" he says. "In the early 1990s, I saw few recreational fishermen on the Missouri and Mississippi. Many people were afraid of big rivers. I'm constantly asked how to navigate on them. Day boards and crossing/channel markers were not understood by the general public but they're starting to figure it out. Today, on almost any day I see several boat-loads of anglers on the water pursuing big fish.
"Anglers also are using better equipment. Circle hooks, braided line, and advanced rods and reels have all played a role in more big fish being caught. People are learning that big blues don't just relate to wing dikes — they use the entire river from the channel to shallow flats."
More than Angling
In addition to more anglers targeting big catfish and getting better at doing so, habitat and management factors have contributed to the production of big catfish in large rivers. In the 2010 Catfish In-Sider Guide, Schramm wrote about the flood-pulse concept. In a nutshell, portions of the watershed of floodplain rivers are periodically inundated during flood events. Some fish move into the floodplain to feed on temporarily available forage, moving back to the main river as waters recede. Flooding connects production of the floodplain to the river. "Big catfish from big rivers is more than coincidence," he wrote. "The high productivity of floodplain rivers can be conducive to fast growth and giant cats." Today, however, floodplains of almost all of America's larger rivers are constricted by man-made levees.
"The lower Mississippi river still has a flood pulse and produces big fish," Shramm says. "Anglers are learning how to catch them and commercial fishing effort and catch are miniscule. The upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers are made up of a series of lock-and-dam pools so they have no flood pulse, and produce fewer giants. Of course, the giant blues from Kerr Lake, Lake Texoma, and other reservoirs are evidence that you don't need a floodplain to grow giant blues. Time will tell if the flood-pulse message is correct."
On the Ohio River, Cincinnati-based guide Dale Broughton says that catches of blue cats to 50 pounds have increased in the last 5 to 10 years. While the Ohio doesn't produce numbers of giant fish like the lower Mississippi and Missouri, catches of big fish are occasionally made there, like Chris Rolph's Ohio state record 96-pounder caught in 2009 near Cincinnati.
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources fishery biologist Ryan Oster, who also fishes for blues in big rivers, says people used to call the Ohio a dead river, but it's a good catfish factory. "The Ohio has seen issues with habitat and water quality, but water quality seems to be improving, as well it has in other big rivers," he says. "It's still impaired in terms of floodplain habitat, sedimentation, and navigation, but water quality may be better now than in years past, which may be contributing to bigger fish catches.
"It could be that numbers of big catfish are increasing, but sampling big rivers and getting good data on abundance, especially for big fish, is difficult," he says. "There's no doubt we're seeing more big fish in samples, but we don't know for sure yet if it's because we're getting better at sampling or whether it's real. We've had no dramatic changes in regulations over the years. Kentucky is experimenting with techniques for collecting data on catfish in rivers. We haven't yet found an ideal sampling method, particularly on the very large specimens of the river."
Oster agrees that in the last decade or so, more big catfish are being caught in the U.S. "Perhaps large blue catfish numbers were down in big rivers previously and have increased as of late," he says. "But personally I think this is probably not the case, and that the abundance of large blue catfish in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers is probably similar to what it was 20 to 30 years ago.
"I think the biggest factor in the surge in big fish catches has been the explosion of interest in big catfish by anglers. Today's catfish anglers are better equipped and educated in their pursuits. It seems more socially acceptable to be known as a catfisher today and people are proud of it. In tournaments in Kentucky, anglers who participate in these events come from a diverse background and not just the old stereotype catfish angler," he says.
Reductions in commercial fishing also may have had an affect on the production of large catfish in big rivers. Widespread before about the 1940s, commercial fishing landings in the upper Mississippi river showed steady declines from the 1890s through the 1940s, and the size distribution of the catch suggested overharvest in latter years. While some studies show improvements to channel catfish populations after implementation of more conservative commercial catch limits, data are lacking on blue catfish. Commercial catfishing effort has generally declined, especially after about the 1970s when catfish aquaculture became a viable industry. In 1992, commercial fishing for catfish was banned in the Missouri River.
"Almost certainly there are blues over 150 pounds swimming in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers," Jamison says. "The lower reaches of both rivers are better but don't over look the middle Missouri from Kansas City to Columbia, Missouri. Two-hundred-pound fish? Doubtful but possible.
"In my opinion the number one untapped fishery nationwide is the lower Mississippi, specifically from Memphis south. It's drastically underfished, and the farther south you go the bigger the river gets. My money is all on the lower Mississippi holding a world record. Too much water and too few fishermen. Learn how to use side-scan and down-scan sonar and look for submerged timber, rockpiles, ledges, and other structural elements that are hardly fished.
"Get away from run-of-the-mill fishing around wing dams," he suggests. "Instead, concentrate on the main channel that's being underfished. Once you master your electronics for locating hidden structure, or in some cases structure that's never been fished, learn how to 'walk' baits so you can make precise presentations.
"And fish big baits, not just chunks or fillets. Fishing larger or whole baits helps limit small fish, giving big fish a chance. Once you get a feel for walking baits, learn how to control-drift. This technique lets you cover more underfished water."
King says many relatively untouched fishing areas exist in the U.S. "In some areas catfish still aren't very popular, and anglers fishing these areas keep it quiet." King points to a recent 114-pounder caught in the Tennessee River, two miles downstream from where he and I filmed a TV segment last year. "I just happened to find out about that fish — many big ones are just caught and released under the radar.
"There's so little time to explore all the great fishing areas," he says. "One is the lower Mississippi River. Three years ago I fished in the Baton Rouge area with Mark Hunt, who purchased my side-scan Humminbird unit. The stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is hardly fished except for occasional locals. I've talked to fisherman who report seeing 30- to 60-pound blues lying at the edge of the grass beds above New Orleans. After we scanned one side of a section of river, I told Mark he had more fishing areas in this seven mile stretch, from 10 to 100 feet deep, than he had time to fish in his lifetime. We either caught fish or at least got bit at every spot we anchored on. Be sure to respect the big barges and ships up to Baton Rouge. They're like trains and they always have the right of way.
"The Alabama River around Wetumpka, Alabama, is another overlooked area that has quality fish and is reasonably untapped for trophy fish," he says. "This river has dams and lots of bends with deeper spots, with narrow stretches of river with neckdowns blowing out deep holes up to 70 feet. Because it's so close to the coast, like the lower Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, a lot of fishing is for saltwater fish, and catfish are lightly fished.
"To fish a large river like the lower Mississippi, break the river into inside bends, outside bends, and straight sections. Look for unique areas like a roller-coaster bottom with depth variations that provide current breaks for cats. Once you break a mile-wide section of river down in smaller chunks, it's not so intimidating," he says.
Again, don't overlook the lower Missouri River, and the James River in Virginia is due to give up more 100-pound-plus fish.
Having good equipment is critical in determining whether you put a big blue on the scale or guess it's weight after it snaps your line or rod, or the reel's gears give way. So don't ignore the basics. Tie good knots (learn to tie a snell knot). Use top-notch hooks and spool up with a quality line (many top cat anglers prefer braid). Don't skimp on rods and reels (you don't need to spend a fortune), and don't ignore details about riggings and presentations. Practice boat control and presentation deliveries. Enough can't be said about utilizing the maximum potential of sonar, including side- and down-scanning.
Beyond that, go exploring and be safe. When the rod goes down, you know you're prepared to reach out and touch one of those untouched, big-river mega blues. Step right up folks and see the giant whiskered beast!
Wanted Alive! What's a Giant Blue Worth?
Trophy fisheries lure anglers, bringing economic boosts to the travel industry and regional businesses. Beyond the notoriety of catching a record, an angler might choose to make a little profit off the catch. The true worth of a giant blue cat, however, is in its lasting impression on the public. Monster fish have made their way into the popular culture of America, with several popular television shows focusing on the huge species inhabiting the world's fresh waters, often with a conservation angle.
Splash, the world-record blue catfish of 121.5 pounds caught by Cody Mullennix in January 2004 was donated to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, remains perhaps the most famous catfish in the world. Splash was on display, swimming in the Fisheries Center's 24,000-gallon aquarium. Allan Forshage, the Fisheries Center director, told us that attendance was immediately up ten-fold after Spash's arrival. Forshage put the impact of the fish's presence in clearer perspective. Attendance at the Center was up 20,000 during the first year Spash was a resident. Forshage: "A world record fish like this fuels the imagination of anglers and nonanglers alike." Priceless, we say. Splash ultimately succumbed to an infection. A replica is mounted above the fish's actual skeleton, and is on display permanently at the Fisheries Center.
Blue catfish anglers have a better chance now of catching giant blues than ever, but few are prepared to keep their catch alive and healthy through the timely process of being weighed and certified, whether the intent is to release the fish or transfer it to an aquarium for display. After the catch, keep out-of-water-handling to a minimum. Have a plan to get the fish on board and into a stock tank of suitable size. If you're a serious big-cat angler, a 100-gallon tank is minimal. Refresh the tank water with fresh water often to keep dissolved oxygen levels up and temperatures steady. Commercial minnow-bucket aerators are too small.
Know ahead of time where you can access a certified scale with sufficient capacity. Keep phone numbers — business with scale and local conservation officer and fisheries office — handy. If businesses with suitable scales are closed at night, ask ahead of time if they'd be willing to accept a phone call and open their doors if you catch a record fish. If not, keep refreshing water in the tank until the scale is available, and contact your fisheries office as soon as possible.