By Keith Sutton
If catching a giant catfish is your ticket to happiness, then Arkansas is the place to be. Some of the biggest cats caught in North America have been pulled from Natural State waters. Here are the stories of some of those fish.
On just about any day – rain or shine – you can find anglers snagging for catfish below Franklin County’s Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam on the Arkansas River. They use no bait. Their rods are extraordinarily long – sometimes more than 16 feet. They cast huge weighted treble hooks far into the roiling water and then snatch them through the water with hard jerks that jar their bones. It looks like work. And it is.
On Oct. 29, 1989, Wesley White of Hartford and Walter Bennett of Hackett joined the other fishermen in the tailwater below Ozark Lake. Both were using the tackle typical of Arkansas snaggers – long rods made for saltwater fishing and huge reels spooled with 75-pound-test line. It’s fortunate their tackle was heavy, for around 10:30 p.m., White snagged an enormous fish. The piscine Gargantua reacted immediately to the sting of the hook, and as White reeled furiously, trying to subdue the monster, the catfish did its best to thwart the man’s efforts. Many minutes passed before the fish finally was landed.
“It was the biggest catfish I’ve ever seen,” said Franklin County Wildlife Officer Charles Bonner, who certified the fish’s weight. “First we weighed it on a set of deer check-station scales just to get some indication of its weight. Then we took it to a set of certified scales. It weighed 80 pounds both times.”
Fifteen years later, White’s enormous flathead is still the Arkansas rod-and-reel record. It is not, however, the biggest flathead caught in the Natural State – not by a long shot.
“The river was high that spring, and we were snagging almost every night.”
In 1982, Mackey Sayre, 24, and his brother Bruce, 20, worked at a Little Rock drive-in. When they closed up each evening, they drove to the Arkansas River to snag for catfish.
“We were snagging below Terry Lock and Dam (downstream from Little Rock),” said Mackey, “and we tussled with some huge catfish several nights in a row.”
In the two months prior to this night, Bruce landed 25 catfish weighing 50 pounds or more; Mackey scored on 27. Yet much bigger fish had managed to elude them.
Enter John Sayre, Bruce and Mackey’s father. A retired commercial fisherman, John had caught thousands of out-sized cats. The young men sought fatherly advice on how to catch the giant catfish. Use a snagline, their daddy advised them.
Snagging and snaglines are two very different methods for catfishing. The latter employs a long line like a trotline rigged with needle-sharp 10/0 treble hooks instead of baithooks.
“The line is stretched tight between two anchor points,” said Mackey. “If a fish swims into it, a hook penetrates the skin; if he pulls, he gets stuck. And if he swings his tail a couple of times, he gets stuck again.”
The Sayre brothers’ snagline consisted of 100 feet of quarter-inch nylon rope. Hooks were tied to 18-inch stagings set 2 feet apart along a 50-foot section near the rope’s midsection.
“We set the line about a quarter-mile below the dam,” Mackey recalled. “We tied the ends to iron fenceposts driven down in the riprap. We did that about 10 p.m. – then went to town to eat.”
When they returned, Bruce shined a flashlight toward the line: Something had been hooked – something big enough to submerge two 2 1/2-gallon jugs used as floats. “I told Bruce, ‘Man! We’ve got something on there now!’ But in a few seconds, the jugs popped back up. I thought it might be the current or a log wrapped in the line. But it wasn’t.”
Bruce and Mackey carried a johnboat to the water, slid it in and paddled to the line.
“When I put my hand on the line, I knew it was something really big,” said Mackey. “I had caught big flatheads on trotlines before, and I was sure we had a big fish.
“We didn’t try to get it in the boat, because I knew we couldn’t manage it. I cut the upstream end of the rope, and we paddled to the bank and tied it to a tree. Then we cut the other end, went to the bank and both started pulling.”
Landing a giant flathead, even one connected to quarter-inch nylon, is no easy feat, especially on a riprapped bank on a dark, moonless night.
“We wanted to get the fish to the bank quickly,” Mackey said, “but he was making his runs. It was like lassoing a bull and trying to drag him in.”
To the young Sayres, it seemed like hours before the big catfish was high and dry on the bank. Actually, less than 10 minutes passed while they fought the fish to shore.
“When I first saw the fish, I knew it went over 100 pounds,” Mackey states. “It was as long as we were tall!”
When they regained their composure, the brothers loaded the leviathan in their pickup and headed for the Waffle House where Mackey’s wife worked.
“We stopped in there to eat every night when we went home from fishing,” said Mackey. “And everybody there would always run out to the truck to see what we’d caught. When they saw the cat we caught that night, a crowd drew up real quick.”
After several hours, the big flathead was weighed and measured. “From the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail was 5 feet, 9 inches,” Mackey noted. “And though we didn’t measure the girth, it was 21 inches from gill plate to gill plate across the top of the head. You could lay a dinner plate between its eyes – no problem.
“We couldn’t find a good scale big enough to weigh it on, so we put it on my daddy’s cotton scales. It pulled the needle over 139.5 pounds and just under 140.”
Later that day, the gigantic flathead was weighed on a certified scale. “We can’t say it was exactly 139 pounds, 14 ounces, because the scale weighed in half-pound increments,” reported Mackey. “But the needle was far enough up that it was almost right on 140 pounds.”
The current all-tackle world record, caught in Elk City Reservoir, Kans., in 1998, weighed 123 pounds. But the Sayres’ flathead didn’t qualify for a record, because it wasn’t caught on a handheld pole and line.
The Arkansas River behemoth was one of the largest freshwater fish ever caught in North America, but it sparked little attention. Had it been caught more recently, it would have caused a stir. It’s still the biggest flathead ever recorded anywhere.
Prior to the 1990s, all of Arkansas’ record blue cats were caught in the Arkansas River. All but one of those seven record fish weighed over 40 pounds. The largest was an 86-pound, 15-ounce giant taken at Dardanelle Lock and Dam in 1983.
Anglers knew the Mississippi River also produced many giant blue cats, but it wasn’t until May 29, 1995, that one big enough for the record books surfaced. John D. Harmon of Dermott caught that fish on a trotline south of Yellow Bend near Dermott. It weighed an astounding 116 pounds, 8 ounces, was 55 inches long and had a girth of 42 inches. It was the first catfish in the newly established “unrestricted tackle” category (legal non-commercial tackle other than rod and reel) for state records.
On Sept. 27 that same year, Raymond Gray of Osceola caught a second record blue from 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 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’ cat wasn’t the biggest taken from the river that year. That summer, a 121-pound blue cat was caught in a net by an Augusta angler at an undisclosed location in the Arkansas portion of the Mississippi. Catfishing experts started speculating that the Mississippi might produce a new rod-and-reel world record.
Sure enough, it did.
Charles Ashley Jr. lives at Marion, just a short drive from the Mississippi River. On Aug. 3, 2001, he was doing what he often does: fishing for catfish in the “Father of Waters” – with two buddies, in this instance. All in the trio were using chunks of Hormel Spam for bait near a wing dike downstream from the Interstate 55 bridge between Memphis and West Memphis.
For half an hour, Ashley and his buddies had no bites. Then, suddenly, Ashley’s line started moving off. When he set the hook, he knew immediately that he’d hooked a huge fish, and worried that his medium-weight fishing outfit wasn’t going to hold it. The reel was spooled with 20-pound line – and Ashley was sure that this fish was bigger than 20 pounds.
Line and pole held up, though, and after 45 minutes of fighting, Ashley managed to bring the cat to the top. That’s when his buddies got excited. The one holding the landing net just laid it back down; he knew that the cat wasn’t going to fit.
Ashley finally wore the monster catfish down, pulled it alongside the boat and wrestled it in. Then he and his partners headed for shore. Several hours later, when the fish was weighed on a certified scale, Ashley knew he’d caught an exceptional fish. The humongous cat weighed 116 pounds, 12 ounces.
The next day, I certified Ashley’s cat as a new Arkansas rod-and-reel record. A few months later, it was officially recognized as an all-tackle world record.
While Ashley’s fish still holds the top spot for blues in the Arkansas record book, it was eclipsed as the all-tackle world record when Cody Mullenix caught a 121-pound, 8-ounce blue from the waters of Lake Texoma in Texas on Jan. 16, 2004.
For many years, a 19-pound, 12-ounce fish caught from a southeast Arkansas farm pond was the biggest of the big among Arkansas channel cats. But on March 28, 1985, Maxine Bryant of Chidester landed one bigger in the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s White Oak Lake.
Bryant wasn’t fishing specifically for catfish. Rather, as she explained it, she was fishing for “just whatever was biting.” She was dunking a red wiggler threaded on a No. 4 hook when she hooked a hawg that managed to break loose. But not to be outdone, she continued fishing, and an hour later managed to hook and land a whopping 22-pound, 14-ounce channel cat. (Ironically, just a few days later, Eddie Allen of Bluff City landed a 22-pound channel cat from the same area.)
Some speculated that Bryant’s record might stand for a long time, but only four years passed before Joe Holleman of Waldron landed a much larger channel cat. The year was 1989.
“My relatives were visiting from California, and they were planning to leave June 6,” Holleman related later. “It was windy on Friday night, but it was the only chance we had to go fishing. So we went.”
They fished the lake’s upper section near the Highway 27 landing at the mouth of Muddy Creek. Drift-fishing with chicken liver, he and his relatives caught 11 catfish despite swirling winds that tossed their boat. Most of the fish were 1 1/2 to 3 pounds, but there was one exception. About 3 a.m., Holleman hooked and landed a 38-pound channel cat. It remains to this day the top channel cat in state record books.
Is it possible someone could land a channel cat, blue or flathead that will establish a new Arkansas record? Yes. In fact, not only is it possible, but it’s highly likely as well.
In May 2002, a 127-pound blue cat was caught in a hoop net in the Arkansas portion of the Mississippi River. It wasn’t eligible for the record book because it was taken using commercial fishing tackle, but it shows the amazing potential of this enormous river.
A flathead bigger than the Sayre brothers’ 139-pounder isn’t likely to be caught, but fish bigger than the current rod-and-reel record of 80 pounds are caught every year in lakes and streams throughout the U.S. Several Arkansas waters have the potential to produce a flathead exceeding 80
In the last issue of Arkansas Sportsman, I reported on a 51-pound channel cat snatched from 300-acre Lake Wilhelmina. (The angler who caught it didn’t want to submit it as a record.) That’s huge by all standards (the world record is 58 pounds) but it proves that even small waters in the Natural State have the potential to produce monster cats.
Be ready if it happens to you. Study the rules you must follow in order to have a fish certified as a record. They’re published annually in the state fishing regulations guide and are available on the AGFC’s Web site, www.agfc.com.
May luck be with you.
(Editor’s Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing for Catfish, $22.00, and Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State, $28.25. To order autographed copies, send a check or money order to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders and more information, log on to www. ccoutdoors.com.)
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