Cat Tales

Diver with giant catfish

You don’t have to hang around a bunch of anglers very long before one thing becomes perfectly clear: there’s about as much bull as there is beef whenever fishermen start swapping stories. That’s fine, of course, unless you decide to swallow some. Then you better be sure which is which.

If your fishing buddies start telling tales about big catfish, be especially careful what you swallow. Catfish have inspired more than their share of campfire stories, most of which are long on exaggeration and short on documentation. Separating catfish facts from homespun fiction isn’t all that simple, and a gullible novice, hearing the proliferation of tales about giant cats, might be led to believe that all catfish are big as Hereford steers.

You’ve probably heard this one, for instance. A scuba diver is exploring the depths of Lake Hookahawg. Seems this fellow went down in the water, and when he surfaced, he had to be helped to the bank. His face was white as a catfish belly, and he was nearly paralyzed from fright.

His companions pressed him for information about the source of his distress, and when he finally calmed down enough to recount his experience, he told of seeing catfish the size of porpoises lurking in the inky blackness below, waiting to devour some unsuspecting human. I’ve never met this diver myself, but I’ve spoken to scores of people related to him, and each and every one will vouch for his honesty.

Whoppers like this (the stories, not the fish) didn’t start with our generation. In the 1600s, American Indians warned explorers Marquette and Joliet of a fierce beast that lived in the depths of the Mississippi River, waiting to devour unsuspecting river travelers. Imagine the surprise these Frenchmen must have felt when hefty catfish collided with their boats. In his journal, Marquette wrote, “We met from time to time these monstrous fish, which struck so violently against our canoes that we took them to be large trees, which threatened to upset us.”

Old photo of 102-pounderMarquette didn’t hypothesize on those canoe-whacking cats’ size, but as no less a river authority himself, Samuel Clemens, alias Mark Twain, reported two centuries later, “I have seen a Mississippi catfish that was more than six feet long and weighed 250 pounds, and if Marquette’s fish was a fellow to that one, he had a fair right to think the river’s roaring demon had come.”

Twain no doubt had the same two-yard-long catfish in mind when he wrote his classic Huckleberry Finn, for in that book, Huck and his companion Jim caught a cat that would have rivaled the one that unsettled Marquette and Joliet’s canoe. As Huck told it, he and his buddy Jim baited a big hook “with a skinned rabbit and set it and (caught) a catfish that was as big as a man, being six foot, two inches long, and weighed over 200 pounds. We couldn’t handle him, of course… we just sat there and watched him rip and tear around till he drowned…”

Seems that even in Mark Twain’s day, folks appreciated a good cat tale.

Nineteenth century author Francis James Robinson spun one of the greatest catfish tales of all times when he wrote the story “Rance Bore-’em”. Bore’em was a braggart extraordinaire who would talk for hours, “awake, asleep, and maybe in a trance.” He was the hero of each and every tale he told, including this little ditty which ole Rance claimed was “fact, every word of it.”

“Were you speaking of fishing, sir? Well, gentlemen, I had some experience in the ‘art of hooking’ when I was in Texas, which I must tell you. Expecting to find large fish in the waters of the great state of Texas, as I passed through New Orleans, I had made to order some extra large hooks and a supply of lines, such as vessels use for anchoring! The place at which I stopped was near a large river, and the sport promised to be excellent; but it far exceeded my expectations, for we often had to send home for several yoke of oxen to pull out some of the fish we hung, and it was sometimes hard work at that!

“This is a fact, gentlemen, I could get twenty men to testify to–but this is nothing to one haul we made, which, if I hadn’t seen, no man on earth could have made me believe in a moment. We made up a party and prepared a large quantity of bait and provision for several days fishing. When we reached the banks of the river, we put in our hooks–those same big ones I had made in New Orleans–and I think there were ten of us fishing close together! All at once we had a bite, every hook was swallowed, and away we pulled, but couldn’t move whatever it was; so we carried our lines out and made them fast to a few small trees–I suppose none of them more than twenty feet in diameter–until we could get help. So we sent after and procured twenty yoke of oxen–hitched two yoke to each line, and with a long pull and a strong pull of men and oxen, up and out came one of the largest kind of Catfish–his mouth being at least ten feet across–out of him we made fifty barrels of oil, for which, in N. Orleans, we obtained thirty dollars each, thus making the pretty little sum of fifteen hundred dollars–a nice morning’s work, gentlemen. Ah! Texas is great–a glorious–a grand country to live in–everything grows in such plenty and profusion!”

Even the most trusting soul among us would feel justified in doubting the authenticity of these giant cat tales. But some of the true stories about catfish are equally amazing. Consider this one about brothers Bruce and Mackey Sayre of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Arkansas catfishIt was May 1982. For two nights straight, Bruce and Mackey had been snagging catfish in the waters below David D. Terry Dam on the Arkansas River just downstream from Little Rock. The river was high, ideal for catching cats, and the brothers had been successful, landing several over 50 pounds. But according to Mackey, those 50-pounders didn’t hold a candle to some of the cats that got away.

“We were fishing with big river rods,” he says. “And we snagged into some huge catfish we couldn’t handle, even both of us together. The 50-pounders didn’t pull anything like these fish did.”

So on the third night of fishing, the Sayre brothers set a snagline–in essence, a long, unbaited trotline rigged with 10/0 treble hooks instead of bait hooks. “The line is tight enough so if a fish swims into it and a hook penetrates the skin, if the fish pulls, it’ll get stuck,” says Mackey.

And on that dark night, that’s exactly what happened. When Bruce and Mackey returned from dinner, a pair of 2-1/2-gallon jugs used to float the line was submerged. A fish was hooked.

Upon reaching the line, they knew immediately they had a monster. It was too large to land in their 14-foot flatbottom, so they cut the line, came ashore and pulled the fish to the bank, hand-over-hand.

“When I first saw the fish, I knew it went over 100 pounds,” says Mackey. “My knees started shaking, and then my legs went clear out from under me. Bruce was even more excited.”

When weighed the next day, the 5-foot, 9-inch flathead pulled the scales to 139 pounds, 14 ounces. An all-tackle world-record, caught in Lake Lewisville, Texas the same year, weighed 91 pounds, 4 ounces. The current record weighed 123 pounds. Unfortunately, the Sayres’ flathead didn’t qualify as a record, because it wasn’t caught on a hand-held pole and line. It was one of the largest freshwater fish ever caught in North America, but it received little attention.

“We didn’t think a whole lot about it,” says Mackey, whose father was a commercial fisherman. “It was just a big fish to us. I’ve seen 200-pound alligator gars when I was little, and they didn’t mean anything.”

When I ask Mackey if he and Bruce realize they caught the largest flathead catfish recorded in modern times, he says, rather matter-of-factly, they did not. “Our flathead wasn’t as big as one my daddy and grandfather caught on a trotline,” he tells me. “They weren’t exactly sure how big it was, but they figured it weighed 160 or 175 pounds. I heard stories of that fish long before mine was caught. And I know another commercial fisherman who caught two bigger than ours. One was over six feet, but it was in poor shape, so he turned it loose.”

The Mark Twain stories don’t sound quite so “stretched” now, do they?

Mackey thinks someday someone will catch a flathead bigger than his and Bruce’s 139-pounder.

“And how do you think it will be done?” I ask.

“With scuba gear and a harpoon gun,” he replies.

Which reminds me: Did I tell you the one about the scuba diver in Lake Hookahawg?

…by Keith “Catfish” Sutton

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