July 14, 2021
By Lynn Burkhead
Roaming the Internet the last couple of days, one great fishing story is making the rounds this week after a North Carolina man caught an apparent new Tar Heel state record blue catfish over the weekend.
Weighing in at 127.1 pounds, media reports ranging from local TV stations to Fox News and beyond, indicate that Rocky Baker of Four Oaks, N.C., pulled the big fish out of the Roanoke River last weekend. He shared the experience with his fishing buddy Justin Clifton.
While the Baker whiskerfish falls below the International Game Fish Association world record, a 143-pound blue cat pulled from Virginia's Kerr Lake on June 18, 2011 by angler Richard N. Anderson, the big blue will apparently displace the previous Tar Heel State record blue cat mark set only last summer.
That blue cat, which weighed in at 121.9 pounds, was caught by Joey Baird of Gasburg, Va., who landed the fish on the Tarheel side of the state line at Lake Gaston, which lies mostly in North Carolina and partly in Virginia.
Baird's N.C. record had taken out the previous state record from Lake Gaston, a 117-pound, 8-ounce blue cat that was caught on June 11, 2016 by then 15-year-old angler Landon Evans.
Incidentally, Evans’ fish remains the IGFA junior world record to this day and it was a giant killer of its own, taking out the previous state record set at Lake Gaston in December 2015 by Zakk Royce, who actually broke the state record twice in less than 24 hours, catching a 91-pound state record on Dec. 20, 2015, and following that up the next day on Dec. 21, 2015, with a 105-pound blue cat.
Caught, Weighed, Released
Baker’s pending record catfish has a chance to bend another eager angler's fishing rod. E-Z Bait and Tackle in Goldsboro, where the catfish was weighed on a certified scale, said on its Facebook page that the monster cat was released back in good shape back into the Roanoke River the day after it was caught:
"Rocky Baker and Justin Clifton transported the fish BACK TO the ROANOKE RIVER. They were proud to report that it swam off on its own power. These Two Catfish Anglers, The Crew at EZ Tackle, the Community of Catfish Anglers Surrounding this Sport, Local Law Enforcement, and Wildlife Biologist Ben Ricks - took all the precautions able to assure it's healthy release and we hope that this monster continues to grow and prosper in the waters of our amazing state!"
Reports say the fish was caught while the anglers were fishing with Mad Katz Catfish Down rods, Penn Squall and Abu Garcia 7000 reels, and 40-pound Berkley Pro Spec line and a 100-pound leader. The cat bit a 3-inch gizzard shad bated on a 9/0 Charlie Brown hook.
Baker told CatfishNow he and Clifton had caught a 51-pounder and a few more over 20 pounds before the big fish struck. "It looked like a baby whale," said Baker about the behemoth when he saw it at the boat
"Once we hooked the fish we could tell instantly that it was going to be a great fish. I was thinking 80 pounds plus. The fish fought for a solid 20 to 30 minutes. It crossed the river back and forth several times before it got close enough to see. At that point, we were kinda freaking out."
There's little doubt that North Carolina--particularly at Lake Gaston, a 20,000-acre lake that averages 40 feet in depth and has a solid game fish and forage base--is in the spotlight right now as one of the nation’s blue catfish meccas.
But other spots across the U.S. have also produced 100-pound plus blue cats in recent years, including Alabama, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas, to name a few. Loads of other big blue cats in the 70-, 80-, and 90-pound ranges have also been caught from spots like the Oklahoma side of Texoma and Grand Lake, along with the Lone Star State’s other whiskerfish hotspot at Lake Tawakoni to the east of Dallas. Heck, for what it's worth, even the IGFA world-record blue cat on a fly rod checks in at a respectable 67 pounds from Pavilion Lake in Alabama.
Obviously, as this week's run of news headlines shows, along with the spate of huge blue catfish catches in the 21st Century, there is a nationwide fascination with these blue-hued whiskerfish that reach such gigantic proportions.
The Surge of Big Blues
Why the nationwide enthrallment with big blue catfish? Mainstay Game and Fish magazine contributor Keith "Catfish" Sutton--who has forgotten more about catfish than most of us will ever know--chronicled it all very well in a GameandFishMag.com piece entitled "In Search of the Next World Record Blue Cat" a few years ago:
"In the 1970s and 1980s, stocking expanded the blue cat’s range from California to the Carolinas," Sutton wrote. "Many lakes were stocked where blues previously were absent. And the huge size of the fish in many of these lakes sparked renewed interest in trophy blue cat fishing.
"Big river fish started turning up, too—most on trotlines—including a 118-pounder from Arkansas’ Big Creek; 120-pound blues in Texas and Oklahoma; and a 128-pounder in Louisiana.
"Perhaps blues started adapting to habitat changes. Perhaps decreased fishing pressure allowed them to grow. No one knows for sure, but more anglers began seeking these freshwater giants."
Growth of Catfish Fascination
No doubt, and certainly, catfishing opportunities are better now as Sutton explained. But that increase in big blue cat numbers and angling opportunity has also coincided with a perfect storm in the rebirth of media over the last quarter century, fueling the rise of blue catfish fascination across America. After all, in the land of the red, white, and blue—blue catfish, that is—bigger is better, right?
Some blue whiskerfish observers might credit TV shows like Trev Gowdy's Monster Fish on Outdoor Channel, YouTube videos showing big cat catches, or even the angling exploits of famed big-fish guru and IGFA Hall of Fame member Larry Dahlberg for helping fuel the interest in and information about how to catch these big fish down through the years.
Others would point out that in today's age of social-media platforms, almost any huge fish that's the size of a moderately sized human being has the potential to go viral quickly. In other words, if a big piscatorial critter can survive being caught, live in seclusion long enough, and eat enough shad or bluegills in the deep shadows of a reservoir or river, such a fish can become a social-media sensation in minutes, hours, or at worst, overnight.
All of the above is true, and to some degree, I'd say that the nation's fascination with big blue catfish can also be blamed a good bit on Splash, the former Texas state record and IGFA world record that really set the spotlight on the species in a way that has never really diminished.
Catfishing's Big Splash
Splash, of course, was the 121.5-pound blue catfish and former world record that was pulled from Lake Texoma on Jan. 16, 2004, and perhaps the first real blue cat rock star. The huge whiskerfish fought angler Cody Mullenix for 20 minutes or so as several of his angling buddies looked on. After Mullenix landed the big fish—which he latter dubbed as "Splash"—it was taken to a big minnow vat at a local tackle and bait shop to the northwest of Denison, Texas, my hometown.
It was there that word about the huge specimen from the Texas/Oklahoma border lake began to spread.
How do I know? On my way to Dallas for some business that chilly winter's day, I was fortunate enough to receive a phone call from my retired Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden friend Dale Moses. Moses asked what I was doing, then told me that I might want to turn my truck around and grab the Nikon since a potential WR blue catfish had just been pulled from the reservoir I live barely five miles from.
An hour later, as I photographed Mullenix lifting up the head of the enormous "Splash," I gasped at the fish’s size and heard Moses utter his famous quip to Texomaland locals of "Don't skinny dip in Texoma!"
A stranger to the world of big blue cats, I was suddenly thankful that I had cancelled my plans, turned the truck around, and headed back up Hwy. 75 to take a series of photos that I'll occasionally still find on the Internet to this very day.
Mullenix became nationally famous almost overnight, both for the huge world record catch and his decision to donate "Splash" to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas, a little more than an hour southeast of Dallas. There, in the shadow of the East Texas Pineywoods region, the huge blue catfish became quite the celebrity as she took up residence in the facility’s big aquarium and was fed daily by TFFC workers.
In fact, on the first anniversary of her arrival at the state-of-the-art facility, more than 700 people came to see the fish and 133 children brought along hand-made birthday cards for Splash.
While Splash's IGFA benchmark status fell the next year when a 124-pound blue cat was pulled from the Mississippi River, the big female blue cat in East Texas was one of the region’s biggest tourist attractions until she unexpectedly died in December 2005.
Even after the big fish passed on to the shad-rich reservoir in the sky, she continued to be an influencer in Texas fishing circles.
"Splash had such an impact on TFFC,” Allen Forshage, then director of the TFFC, said in an interview with the In-Depth Outdoors website in 2006.
"Her first year here she increased our visitation by 43 percent," Forshage added. "She was an amazing fish to look at. She would look at you eye-to-eye from her home in the dive tank. Her death saddened everyone here at the center, plus we had inquiries from around the country about her death."
Even years later, Splash continues to enthuse visitors at the TFFC in Athens, thanks to a full-size fiberglass replica and the display of her huge skeleton, which was cleaned up by more than 10,000 dermestid beetles.
'These Big Cats are Fast Growers'
Splash even fueled a burst of scientific research into the species, as Heart of the Hills fish researcher Dave Buckmeier did some tests and found out that Splash was at least 23, and perhaps, as old as 25 years old, when she died. That finding was a bit of a surprise to Buckmeier.
In fact, TPWD went as far as saying that the findings "...confirmed the feeling many people have that there was something special about Splash."
"We’ve been seeing that most fish 90 pounds and up tend to be fairly young relative to their size, whereas the older fish tend to be much smaller—blue cats weighing only 8 pounds have been aged at 32." Buckmeier said in a TPWD news release about the catfish’s young age, relatively speaking. "It appears that these really big fish are fast growers for some reason. Conditions in the reservoir are part of it, but growth can vary a lot, even in the same system. Perhaps there’s a genetic link, but we don’t know that."
How Big Can They Go?
But what we do know is that another big blue catfish has grabbed the news headlines again this week, continuing a run that has been impressive to say the least over the last 15-plus years. And with blue catfish-rich locations like North Carolina's Lake Gaston, the Mississippi River, or Texas’ Texoma and Tawakoni, there's little doubt that even more blue-tinted monsters are out there roaming in the deep.
And when and where they get caught, they'll be national newsmakers and Instagram rock stars almost immediately, just as Rocky Baker's big North Carolina state record blue whiskerfish earlier this week shows.
Big blue cats are apparently increasing in numbers and frequency of being caught, they are growing to ever bigger dimensions, and the angling and non-angling world alike are all utterly fascinated with this big piscatorial species.
Splash sort of helped get the parade of big blue cat headlines started earlier this century, but the headlines continue unabated all the way to Baker’s big blue cat catch just a few days ago in North Carolina.
And as catch-and-release ethics, better fish care, more stocking, and improving quality of rods-and-reels and fish-finding electronics continues, don't be surprised to see another big blue cat grab the headlines someday really soon.
After all, these are the good old days of America's big blue catfish, right?