Last year, Houma's Harold Clubb was awarded a certificate recognizing the state-record channel catfish he caught ... 26 years ago!
By John N. Felsher
Harold W. Clubb and his 13-year-old son, Mike, had already enjoyed an excellent summer day on the water on Friday, Aug. 19, 1977.
The morning dawned beautiful and warm - a perfect day for a father and son to share the waters southwest of Houma. They launched at Cannon's Landing on the Miner's Canal and fished canals that led into Lake Theriot. They landed a stringer of bass up to 3 1/2 pounds.
As morning turned to a hot afternoon, they headed back toward the landing, but stopped at one more of Harold's favorite spots. A small trenasse or marshy ditch fed into this canal. Over the years, silt had created a barrier at the mouth of this trenasse.
Harold and Mike scooted their small bass boat over the bar and began casting for more bass. On 10-pound-test line, Harold tossed one of his favorite lures, a homemade spinnerbait with a curly plastic tail. He called it a "Turtle Bayou Special."
"I put it together from components," he said. "It had a lead head with a black and chartreuse curlytail worm. I added a No. 3 spinner blade. The whole thing was about 2 inches long. I used that lure for three or four years and won several bass tournaments in my local club with it. I ran it close to the bottom and never knew what I'd catch. I caught a lot of bass on that bait and catfish up to 20 pounds."
With a homemade medium-action baitcasting rod, Harold tossed the Special toward some trees overhanging the trenasse. Then something big engulfed the bait.
"Something solid thumped it," Harold said. "I thought it was a choupique (bowfin). I set the hook, and the fight was on; I knew I was in for a battle. I realized it was a good fish and loosened the drag. I was using my thumb on the spool to maintain control."
Mike and Harold Clubb pose with part of their day's catch from August 19, 1977: a couple of nice bass -- and a state-record catfish! Photo courtesy of Harold W. Clubb
THE LEVIATHAN REVEALED Harold fought the beast for about 30 minutes. At times, the Clubbs chased it with the electric motor to keep it from breaking the line. Finally, the massive fish tried to cross over the silt barrier, and they saw their adversary for the first time - a monstrous catfish!
"The line was singing in the water," Harold said. "I never heard line do that before. The fish passed about 5 feet from the boat, hit the silt and washed up. That's when I saw it. I told my boy, 'I've got a monster!' It was able to get over the silt and I was right behind it with the bass boat moving with the trolling motor."
Free of the bar, the fish raced for a willow tree partially hanging in the water. It tried to wrap itself around the tree and break the line. The Clubs maneuvered it out of the willow and back into open water.
"The big fish ran toward a willow tree," said Mike, now 38 and living in Gonzales. "That was the only time it was really a desperate situation. We finally turned it in the middle of the canal."
After a grueling 30-minute battle on such light tackle, the exhausted fish finally surfaced near the boat. Not designed to counter such brute power, the hook on the tiny Turtle Bayou Special almost straightened. In another few minutes, the whiskered leviathan would probably have spat the hook and slipped back into the murky water, to appear in the future only as a memory or a hard-to-believe fish story of another big one that got away. However, this one didn't get away.
"How are we going to land that fish?" Mike asked his father. "It's bigger than our landing net!"
The elder Clubb told Mike to get him a stout rope from one of the boat compartments. Harold thrust his hand down the fish's throat and slipped the rope out of its gills. The fish didn't like that maneuver.
"Dad stuck his hand down in the fish's mouth," Mike remembered. "I remember him getting his hand chewed up. The fish gnawed on his arm. We put the fish on the back of the boat. The tail dropped down from the ice chest to the boat deck."
"When we got it in the boat, I just shook," Harold said. "I've caught 10- to 20-pound catfish before, but nothing this big. This was the same canal near where Kevin VanDam won a major bass tournament in 2001. I recognized the wellhead where he fished. If I hadn't gotten the rope into him when I did, we might have lost it, but it was exhausted by the time we finally landed it."
THE SCALELESS FISH GOES ON THE SCALES After Harold finally lifted the big catfish into the boat, the Clubbs headed for the landing - and a scale! A biologist identified it as Ictalurus punctatus, a channel catfish. It weighed 30.31 pounds.
"When we got home, Dad put the fish's head on top of a 48-quart ice chest," Mike said. "The fish was so large that its tail curled up on the cement."
The Clubbs filled out an application to submit the fish as a state record. At the time, it placed about seventh in the book. The Houma Courier published a photo of the Clubbs with their catfish on the front page the next day. Not long afterward, the Clubbs enjoyed a delicious catfish meal.
For many anglers, the story would certainly and happily end there. However, in this case, the story just began. At the time, Louisiana grouped all catfish together under one heading in the record book.
The smallest of the "big three" whiskered sportfish, channel cats cannot compete with monster blues or flatheads. Channel cats can grow as large as 58 pounds, as the world record from South Carolina indicates. However, flathead catfish can grow larger than 120 pounds. Blue cats can also top the century mark. Old records tell of massive blues weighing nearly 400 pounds pulled from the Mississippi River in the 19th century.
Today, Joseph Wiggins holds the record for Louisiana's largest cat caught in modern times, a blue weighing 105 pounds that he caught from the Mississippi River in 1997.
Channel cats resemble blue cats, but seldom grow more than 20 pounds. Both have forked tails, unlike square-tailed flatheads. Predominantly silver to gray in color, blues and channel cats easily confuse most anglers, but subtle differences distinguish them. Channel cats usually show loose black to gray spots on their sides while blue cats remain monochromatic along their sides. Channel cats have thick, fleshy, dark-colored barbels.
Blue cat barbels are thin and light-colored. The anal fin of a channel cat is shorter and more rounded than that of a blue cat.
All three species often share Louisiana waters. Blues prefer clean, flowing rivers and can tolerate salinity more than other species, a must for living in the brackish estuaries of south Louisiana. Channel cats thrive in lakes, but also live in rivers. Flatheads prefer large lakes and reservoirs with heavy cover, but may also live in rivers.
Blue and channel catfish eat almost anything, but prefer dead animal matter. They glide through the water scouring the bottom for morsels, but also prey on live creatures. Nocturnal flatheads almost exclusively prey upon live fish such as bream, shad, minnows or other catfish.
The biologist positively identified Clubb's fish as a channel cat. With competition from such giants, larger blues and flatheads soon bumped Clubb's catfish from the official tally of record whiskerfish. His fleeting fame seemingly disappeared forever outside of his immediate family and cluster of friends.
THE RECORD BOOK BUDGES However, in 1994, fate again stepped in to assure Clubb's rightful place in the history of Louisiana fishing. The record keepers split the catfish category into three separate species. Nevertheless, the channel catfish category remained vacant for years until Clubb read a newspaper article about record fish.
After all these years, he still had his original certificate from entering the record book the first time. He resubmitted his application and claimed the top spot in the channel catfish category after 25 years. Even after resubmitting the paperwork, Harold didn't know he took the top position until he saw his name on the list during the summer of 2002. His fish remains the only entry in the category.
"I didn't know about it until after it was officially recognized," said Harold, now 67 and still living in Houma. "I was flying high when I discovered I had the record. I finally got full recognition for it after 25 years. Getting recognition for this fish is almost as exciting as catching it. It's nice to leave a legacy for my grandchildren. Having a state-record catfish will be a good legacy to leave them."
Someone may someday break Harold's record, but Harold's grandchildren will know that for at least 26 years their grandfather was credited with catching the largest channel catfish ever seen in Louisiana waters - a distinction earned after a 30-minute fight and a 25-year wait.
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