October 31, 2018
By Keith 'Catfish' Sutton
On September 16, 1959, on a South Dakota stretch of the Missouri River near Gayville, Ed Elliott of Vermillion, SD, caught a 97-pound, world-record blue catfish while fishing with his friend Charles Gray. The duo had caught 90-, 72- and 55-pound blues the same year. On this day, they set out from home with the specific intention of catching a new world-record blue.
They were on their fishing hole less than 30 minutes when Gray yelled, “Fish on!” Elliott grabbed the rod and “banged the hook in as hard as I could manage.”
It took 40 minutes to haul the big fish up. When the cat rolled, Gray yelled, “You got a 100-pounder!”
“Boy, did I get excited,” Elliott recalled in a later interview. “I knew the world record was only 94-1/2 pounds.”
What Elliott couldn’t know was that it would be more than three decades before an angler caught a bigger blue catfish on rod and reel.
Years passed. River “improvement” work begun after World War II continued taking an enormous toll on large river systems inhabited by blue cats. Catfishermen seeking trophy blues visited big rivers with increasing frequency. But their outings usually were frustrated by too few fish and a lack of trophy specimens.
Soon, fishing for monster blue cats was a sport relegated to trotliners and jug fishermen. Few rod-and-reel anglers would invest the time needed to catch the rare trophy-class blue. Channelization and dam building had worked their destruction. Few anglers thought Elliott’s record would ever be broken.
They were wrong, however. In fact, a renaissance was beginning.
In the 1970s and 1980s, stocking expanded the blue cat’s range from California to the Carolinas. 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.
32 Years Later
One highlight of the blue cat’s comeback came on March 14, 1991. When he left home that day, George Lijewski didn’t know he was about to turn the catfishing world upside-down.
While fishing in the Tail Race Canal below South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie, Lijewski landed a 109-pound, 4-ounce blue, a new world-record. After 32 years, Ed Elliott’s record had fallen.
Many other records fell during the 1990s as well—state records, that is. Three giants were among the catches: a 103-pound Missouri record from the Missouri River, a 104-pound Indiana/Kentucky record from the Ohio River and a 105-pound Mississippi River blue that established a new benchmark for Louisiana.
Anglers in Mississippi and Virginia caught new state-record blues at least three times during the decade; California, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas records fell twice; and new records also were established in Alabama, Florida, Illinois and New Mexico.
This surge in record activity and Lijewski’s record catch had folks thinking: “Could the world record fall again?”
Record Keeps Falling
Indeed. On July 5, 1996, William McKinley landed a 111-pound world-record blue in Alabama’s Wheeler Reservoir. And to no one’s surprise, two years later, on June 7, 1998, a 112-pounder from Tennessee’s Cumberland River established yet another world-record benchmark.
Y2K had hardly begun when the first “century-mark” blue of the new millennium was reported in California. Roger Rohrbouck caught that 101-pound behemoth on March 12, 2000, in southern California’s 1,000-acre San Vicente Reservoir, proving that waters outside the blue cat’s natural range also had record potential.
Once again anglers were speculating on the possibility of a new world record being caught, and once again it happened.
On August 3, 2001, Charles Ashley Jr. landed a whopping 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat on the Mississippi River at West Memphis, Arkansas.
Ashley’s record was short-lived, however. It stood just over two years until Cody Mullenix of Howe, Texas, caught a leviathan weighing 121 pounds, 8 ounces in the Texas portion of Lake Texoma. Landed on January 16, 2004, that blue cat, which Mullenix named Splash, was exhibited until its death at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. The International Game Fish Association certified the fish as a new all-tackle world record in May 2004, but one year later, that record, too, would be broken.
The date was May 21, 2005. Fishing below Melvin Price Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River at Alton, Illinois, Tim Pruitt hooked a blue cat that was 58 inches long with a 44-inch girth. The two struggled for more than half an hour, and at one point before he reeled it in, the monster catfish pulled the boat carrying Pruitt and two friends. Pruitt finally prevailed. That blue cat weighed an even 124 pounds.
The next world record was caught on July 20, 2010, by Greg Bernal of Florissant, Mo., during an evening of catfishing near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in Missouri. That fish was hooked on a chunk of carp bait just as a storm was approaching.
Almost an hour passed before Bernal and his fishing partner finally got the behemoth into the johnboat. It was the biggest fish either of them had ever seen, pulling a feed store scale to the official 130-pound mark the next morning.
On the Way to 200 Pounds?
The current world record — the one now officially recognized by both the International Game Fish Association and the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame — would astound anglers everywhere with its incredible size. Caught on June 18, 2011 by Nick Anderson of Greenville, North Carolina while fishing John Kerr Reservoir on the Virginia/North Caroline border, that whiskerfish tipped the scale at an amazing 143 pounds!
Could even bigger blue cats be swimming somewhere? Despite the doubts many people have, the probability is high.
Nineteenth-century documents indicate blue cats weighing up to 200 pounds were then fairly common, so blues definitely have the potential to exceed the size of Anderson’s 143-pounder. Therefore the question on every cat man’s mind is not if a new record will be caught, but where.
Based on available evidence, the following bodies of water are among the best possibilities.
No body of water in North America has produced as many 100-pound-plus blue cats as the Mississippi, and several gigantic fish have been caught and released in recent years, including at least one from the Magnolia State, Mississippi, that many anglers believe could have weighed nearly 160 pounds. A new Louisiana record—110.3 pounds—was caught at St. Francisville in April 2005, and a year earlier, Matt Bingham of Memphis, Tennessee caught and released a blue that was 56 inches long with a 36-inch girth. That fish, which undoubtedly exceeded 100 pounds, may still be swimming the river and growing larger with each passing day. As more catfish anglers realize the Mississippi is a mother lode of giant blues, more are fishing it specifically for trophy fish. Sooner or later, it’s likely to give up another world record.
Straddling the Oklahoma/Texas border, this vast reservoir has produced some of the biggest blues ever documented, including Cody Mullenix’s Splash, the previous world record; three recent Texas records (a 116, 100 and 90 pounds); and two recent Oklahoma records (87.25 and 98 pounds). Texoma’s capacity for churning out monster cats seems boundless, and somewhere beneath its surface another world record is likely lurking.
- Lakes Marion & Moultrie (Santee Cooper)
Catfish in these Palmetto State lakes reach massive sizes. Consider, for example, a blue cat caught on a trotline Feb. 8, 2012 that tipped the scales at 136 pounds, 6 ounces. That fish would have surpassed the current 21-year-old state record of 109 pounds, 4 ounces (the former all-tackle world record) had it been caught on a rod and reel. On April 12, 2000, a 100.5-pound blue was landed in the upper end of Lake Marion. Fifty, 60- and 70-pound blues are caught so frequently in winter, they hardly draw attention. Many anglers believe this 170,000-acre dual reservoir system definitely could produce a fish larger than the current 143-pound world record from Virginia.
Seasoned cat men I’ve spoken with say they are certain there are blue cats in these Missouri waters pushing the 150-pound mark. At least one angler, Virgil Agee of Chamois, Missouri, has released blue cats back into the Osage that weighed 101 and 121 pounds. And he claims to have hooked some bigger. As long as hardcore cat men are out there chasing them, odds are good we’ll someday see a world-record approaching 150 pounds.
In recent years, Wheeler Lake, a 67,100-acre Tennessee River impoundment in north-central Alabama, has been the country’s hottest blue-cat lake, producing several fish around 100 pounds and scores exceeding 70. Fishing is good year-round, but winter fishing excels, as evidenced by the clients of guide Mike Mitchell who caught a 98-pounder in January 2008 and a whopping 102-pounder in February 2010. The lake also produced a 95-pounder in March 2011 and 101-pounder in November 2009. Any trip here could produce the fish of a lifetime, or perhaps a new world record.
Other Tennessee River impoundments could be potential record holders, too, including lakes Guntersville, Wilson, Pickwick and Kentucky. Few aficionados would be surprised if the next world record comes from this river system.
Missouri’s pole-and-line state-record, the 130-pound former world record, was caught in the river in St. Louis County in 2011, showing the river’s excellent potential for producing monsters. In March 2015, a trotliner in Saline County, Missouri caught a 120-1/2-pound beast. And most recently, from the depths of the Missouri near Decatur, Nebraska, anglers landed a 5-foot, 1-inch, 113-pounder in waters that have produced numerous 75-pound-plus blues in recent years. There’s little doubt that even bigger specimens could lurk in these waters.
Bigger blues are out there, no doubt. But exactly where another world record will be caught, no one can predict with reasonable certainty.
I figure it will be like the opening lines for the old Candid Camera show: “Sometime, some place, when you least expect it ...”