A Look Back at Mississippi River Catfishing
September 24, 2010
No lake or stream in America has historical tradition -- or catfishing! -- like the Mississippi River's.
By Keith Sutton
When I was a youngster, I remember, Mom read me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Oh, how I loved that story about Huck and Jim running around on the Mississippi River and doing all kinds of fun stuff.
My favorite part was when they caught a real whopper of a catfish - over 200 pounds! Ever since Mom read that to me, I've been dreaming of catching a cat like that.
As I got older, I thought I was Huck Finn. I fished and camped on the Mississippi River every chance I got, and had my share of close scrapes now and again. But try as I might, I couldn't catch a cat big as Huck and Jim's. I haven't quit trying, though, and I never will.
In the meantime, I nurture my dreams with stories of giant Mississippi catfish I find in literature, old journals, newspapers and magazines. The monsters in these stories are real, which gives me hope that someday, maybe I, too, can subdue a Mississippi River leviathan. Read on, and build some dreams of your own.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
CAT TALES FROM THE 17th CENTURY TO THE 19th French missionary Jacques Marquette was perhaps the first to describe the gigantic catfish inhabiting the mighty Mississippi. In 1673, Marquette accompanied Louis Joliet on an extensive exploration of the Mississippi. In his journal of their historic venture, Marquette told of hefty catfish colliding with their canoes. "We met from time to time these monstrous fish," he wrote, "which struck so violently against our canoes that we took them to be large trees, which threatened to upset us."
Two centuries later, Mark Twain resurrected the tale of Marquette's catfish in his romantic history, Life on the Mississippi (1883). He lends veracity to the story by relating his own encounter with a Mississippi giant.
"A big catfish collided with Marquette's canoe, and startled him," Twain wrote. "And reasonably enough, for he had been warned by the Indians that ... the river contained a demon 'whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt.' I have seen a Mississippi catfish that was more than 6 feet long and weighed 250 pounds; and if Marquette's fish was the fellow to that one, he had a fair right to think the river's roaring demon was come."
Twain probably had the same two-yard-long catfish in mind when he wrote his classic account of Huck Finn's exploits, for in that 1884 book, the runaway boy and the escaped slave caught a Mississippi cat that would have rivaled the one that unsettled Marquette and Joliet's canoe. Huck told it this way:
"Well, the days went along, and the river went down between its banks again; and about the first thing we done was to bait one of the big hooks with a skinned rabbit and set it and catch a catfish that was as big as a man, being six foot, two inches long, and weighed over two hundred pounds. We couldn't handle him, of course; he would a flung us into Illinois. We just set there and watched him rip and tear around till he drownded."
As outlandish as it sounds, Twain's claim of seeing a 6-foot 250-pound catfish is probably truthful. Twain was a Mississippi riverboat pilot, and huge catfish were often caught in the river during the 19th century. One often cited example concerns Dr. J.G.W. Steedman, chairman of the Missouri Fish Commission. In November 1879, Steedman visited a fish market where he purchased a pair of blue catfish weighing 150 and 144 pounds, respectively. These were caught in the Mississippi River near St. Louis and were sent to the U.S. National Museum.
In the October 1849 edition of The North American review, we find further evidence that catfish in the Father of Waters reach enormous sizes. "The largest and unquestionably the most abundant variety of fish found in the Lower Mississippi is the cat-fish, and here, I believe, they are found in the greatest perfection," wrote the unidentified author. "They vary from one to six feet in length, and in weight, from three to one hundred and fifty pounds."
Another such tidbit comes from Maximilian Schele De Vere in Americanisms, published in 1872. "The Catfish of the Mississippi sometimes grows to a length of three or four feet," he said, "and strikes with great force any object that comes in its way, endangering even the safety of a canoe."
My favorite big Mississippi catfish story comes from the August 1867 edition of Harper's new monthly magazine. It is one of the most unusual cat tales ever published, about a man crossing the Mississippi in a boat rowed by some soldiers, when " ... he saw approaching them what appeared to be a large fish, bobbing up and down upon the surface of the water like a porpoise. He handed his sabre to one of the men, and told him to strike it as it passed. The soldier watched his opportunity and gave the fish a vigorous thrust, but the point glanced as if it had struck a bladder. Resolved not to let the creature escape, the man jumped into the stream, and seizing it by the gills managed, with assistance, to get it into the boat. It proved to be a large cat-fish, which had swallowed a musk-rat. The animal's tail still hung out of its mouth."
RECENT CATCHES From the late 1800s until the 1990s, little was written about big catfish in the Mississippi River - at least, little that I can find. However, during the 1990s, there was an astounding increase in the number of enormous catfish surfacing in the Mississippi.
On May 29, 1995, John D. Harmon of Dermott caught a 116-pound, 8-ounce blue cat on a trotline in the Mississippi River south of Yellow Bend near Dermott. The gargantuan fish was 55 inches long, with a girth of 42 inches. It established a new unrestricted-tackle state record for the species.
On Sept. 27 that same year, Raymond Gray of Osceola caught a second record blue while fishing the Mississippi River near Osceola. Using a rod and reel with skipjack herring for bait, he subdued a 96-pound giant that smashed the old state record of 86 pounds, 15 ounces established in 1983.
Another leviathan Mississippi River cat was subdued on March 18, 1999. Jonathan Stortz of St. Charles frequently runs trotlines in the Mississippi, and, on occasion, he's caught some 50-pound-plus catfish. He never imagined, however, he might land a catfish weighing over 100 pounds.
That's what happened that spring day. When Stortz lifted one of his trotlines in the Arkansas portion of the river near Rosedale, Mississippi, he laid eyes on the biggest catfish he'd ever seen - a giant blue cat more than 5 feet long.
After a brief but difficult struggle, Stortz managed to get the huge fish in his boat. When it was placed on certified scales later that day, it weighed an amazing 102 pounds.
"I knew it was an exceptionally large catfish," Stortz said. "But I didn't think it would top 100 pounds."
Surprisingly, Stortz's cat wasn't the biggest taken from the river that year. That summer, a 121-pound blue was caught in a net by an Augusta angler at an undisclosed location in the Arkansas portion of the Mississippi.
WORLD RECORD When the 100-pound-plus cats began to turn up, folks began speculating on the possibility that the Mississippi River could produce a new world record. In 2001, it happened.
On Aug. 3, around 6:30 p.m., Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion was catfishing with two friends on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River at West Memphis. Ashley was fishing with an inexpensive medium-weight spinning combo he had recently bought. He baited it with a chunk of Spam, cast it out, let it sink to the bottom and set the hook on a 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat just minutes later. The next day, I certified his fish as a new Arkansas rod-and-reel record, and, just recently, it was certified as a new all-tackle world record.
No one in the catfishing community was surprised to hear the new record came from the Mississippi River, but most were be amazed that it was caught on a 100-degree summer afternoon on tackle better suited for bullhead fishing - and with a chunk of Spam for bait.
Still, I'm betting Ashley's record won't stand long. Bigger catfish are out there. But exactly where, how and when the next giant will be caught, I'm unwilling to speculate. I figure it will be like the opening lines for the old Candid Camera show: some time, some place, when you least expect it.
(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing for Catfish ($22.00) and Fishing Arkansas ($28.25). Order autographed copies by sending a check or money order to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002, or log on to www.ccoutdoors.com.)
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