The Fascinating Story of Two World-Record Bluegills

These small panfish can be big fighters, making them one of the most sought-after fish species in America

Considering the fact that bluegills are among the most-sought, most-caught sportfish in the United States, it seems strange that so few people are familiar with the story of the two biggest bluegills ever caught. This fascinating tale centers on a pair of flooded quarries in Alabama known as the Ketona Lakes.

Located near Tarrant just north of Birmingham, the Ketona Lakes originally were side-by-side open-pit mines. Built in the late 1800s, the quarries provided dolomite and limestone used as flux. Flux assists in removing impurities from iron ore, which made it important for Birmingham’s burgeoning steel industry.

In 1903, the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company (TCIRC) purchased the property and continued removing minerals from the rich deposits there. The company built rudimentary housing for its workers, establishing the Ketona community for which the lakes would later be named.

The nature of the mining operations created deep pits with steep vertical sides. According to local sources, a blast in one of the quarries opened a huge underground spring, and mine workers barely escaped before the pits filled. The water exceeded 1,000 feet deep in places, covering the mining company’s equipment. TCIRC ceased operations at the site in 1932.

For decades afterward, the Ketona Lakes were popular swimming holes for local residents, despite the presence of cold-water currents below the surface that caused cramps and led to multiple drownings. The lakes also were frequently used as dumping sites for stolen vehicles.

The McKenzie Monster

For safety reasons, fences were erected to exclude unwanted guests, but by the 1940s, the smaller of the two lakes had become a popular fishing spot for people like Coke McKenzie of Tarrant who often visited after his shift at the local bolt-and-rivet company.

At 18 acres, the smaller lake was still pretty big, and because there was no in-flow from creeks or erosion, the water was crystal clear. One could easily see the bottom in 10-foot depths. This made catching the big bluegills there difficult unless one used the right tactics.

“The trick was really simple,” the 77-year-old McKenzie told writer Louis Bignami in an interview 40 years after he caught his world record. “We rigged with no weight and a quill bobber and crawled up to the edge of the bank. If you hunkered down real quiet and stuck the pole out over the water, your gob of worms would sink naturally until it was four or five feet deep. The quill would lie there flat on the water. When you got a hit, you would watch the quill tip up and follow it down with the tip of the pole until the quill was a couple of feet deep. Then set the hook.”

On the day in May 1947 when McKenzie caught the big one, he was using a long cane pole. He tied a No. 3 hook on his 6-pound-test line, baited it with a red worm and then crawled to the edge of the lake and flipped the bait out. He and a friend already had caught more than a dozen bluegills, but fishing was slow.

When the next fish hit, McKenzie knew immediately it wasn’t a bluegill. He set the hook but couldn’t bring the fish to the surface. It dove and circled, fighting as hard as a bass but without jumping.

As he tried to land the fish, two kids out gigging frogs approached. They were a bit annoying, asking questions while McKenzie was busy trying to land the fish. But the fisherman soon would be glad they were there.

“Suddenly, this monster, the biggest bluegill I’d ever seen, rolled up on its side,” McKenzie told Bignami. “But there was no way to get it up the steep bank.”

Thinking quickly, McKenzie had the boys bring him their gig. The sun had already set. It was dark outside. But somehow the angler managed to harpoon the huge panfish. Because it was late, McKenzie and his friend headed home, leaving the boys to gig frogs.

McKenzie wasn’t record conscious. He knew the bluegill was a whopper, but he planned to clean and eat it. When he arrived home, though, some friends had come to visit. So he placed the big bluegill in his refrigerator in a pan of water, intending to clean it the next day.

“But the company stayed late, and I had to rush to work the next day,” he said. “We got to talking about the fish. The foreman and I got to arguing about its size. Then my boss heard how big it was. So he sent a man over to the house to get the fish. When it was weighed that afternoon, it ran 4 pounds, 10 ounces.”

No one knows for sure how much the bluegill would have weighed had it been put on scales immediately after McKenzie caught it. There’s little doubt, however, it might have been several ounces heavier if it had not sat in the refrigerator for 20 hours.

What wasn’t in doubt was the fact this fish was a monster of its kind. Record application forms were completed and sent to Field & Stream, the record-keeper at that time. And soon it was official: Coke McKenzie had caught a new world record, a fish of astounding proportions.

The previous all-tackle, world-record bluegill weighed only 2 pounds, 8 ounces – just a little over half as big as McKenzie’s fish.

The Hudson Hawg

It didn’t take long for word to get out about McKenzie’s record catch, and more folks went to the Ketona Lake to try their luck. Just three weeks after McKenzie caught his gigantic bluegill, another whopper surfaced – this one weighing 3-1/2 pounds. Before 1947 was out, a 2-1/2-pounder also was caught there.

Enter T.S. Hudson of Birmingham. We don’t know for sure if he’d heard about the enormous bluegills coming out of Ketona Lake, but chances are good he had.

On April 9, 1950 – Easter Sunday – he went to the lake to fish, and using the same “sneak up” system McKenzie had employed to catch panfish in the crystalline waters, Hudson stretched out a long cane pole and watched as his worm bait fluttered down toward the bottom.

Details of his catch are scanty, but sometime that day, he landed a monstrous 15-inch-long bluegill with a girth of 18-1/4 inches. When officially weighed, it pulled the scales to 4 pounds, 12 ounces – just 2 ounces heavier than McKenzie’s bluegill but heavy enough to be recognized as a new world record.

Sixty-seven years have passed since Hudson landed that colossal Alabama fish, yet no one has ever caught a heavier bluegill. Many people think Hudson’s record will never be broken.

Four states – Arizona, California, Idaho and Illinois – have produced state records between 3-1/2 and 4 pounds. And two besides Alabama have records exceeding 4 pounds. A Kentucky strip mine lake gave up a 4-pound, 3-ounce state-record bluegill in 1980, and a 4-pound, 5-ounce bluegill from an unspecified body of water in Henderson County established a new benchmark for North Carolina in 1967. But no bluegill the size of those caught by McKenzie and Hudson has ever been reported.

Why Ketona?

One might ask, “What combination of factors allowed an 18-acre Alabama lake to produce two world-record bluegills in just three years?” State fisheries biologists certainly wanted to know, and in 1972, they got permission to study the lake and its fish.

Some of the fisheries men thought there might be a genetic reason for the massive fish, but this was not the case. Instead, biologists found a just-right combination of environmental factors that allowed Ketona bluegills to live much longer and grow much bigger than typical panfish.

First was the presence of limestone, which enhances nutrients in the water and promotes high growth rates of fish. The fertile water fostered an abundance of aquatic invertebrates and baitfish that kept the lake’s bluegills healthy and well-fed.

Second were factors that limited the number of bluegills in the lake, thus preventing overcrowding and stunting. These included the lake’s steep sides, which limited spawning habitat to a few small sites, and an abundant population of bluegill-devouring bass. Few bluegills hatched, and most smaller fish became bass food. Bluegills that survived had plenty of food and space to grow, allowing them to reach mammoth sizes.

Third, limited fishing pressure and harvest allowed these fish to grow longer. This might be accounted for by the fact that few anglers had access to the private lake, and those who did found it difficult to catch fish in the gin-clear water. Auburn University aged McKenzie’s record fish at nine years. That’s extremely old for a bluegill. At the time, the maximum age was thought to be about six years.

Could bluegills even bigger than Hudson’s 4-pound, 12-ounce record still be swimming in one or both of the Ketona Lakes? Possibly. Locals say conditions in the lakes have changed very little since the midpoint of the last century, so oversized bluegills could still grow there. But we may never know.

The lakes, which lie just east of Highway 79 in Tarrant, have been privately owned and closed to public fishing for many years. Unless ownership changes and the new owners grant access, the next world-record bluegill may die of old age before anyone has a chance to catch it.

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