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Singing The Blues – In Big Blue Catfish, That Is!

Photos by Larry Weishuhn Outdoors

“Larry, have you ever caught a really big catfish, something bigger than, say, 30 pounds?”

Luke Clayton, with whom I do a weekly radio show, a weekly podcast on Sporting Classics Daily, and a weekly television show, (A Sportsman’s Life” on CarbonTV.com) was asking.

Before I could respond, he continued. “I’ve got a friend, David Hanson, who fishes Lake Tawakoni for big blues. He’s invited us to fish with him. He said if you had a friend you might want to bring with you, that would be good, too.”

That’s where I interrupted him. “NO! And YES!”, I responded.

Luke started laughing, then quickly went on to explain that winter was the best time to fish for monstrous blue catfish. Thankfully, it was winter. Luke and I had just finished with the DSC Annual Convention. I had asked him to appear on the DSC Conservation Stage to discuss wild hogs and the cooking of wild game. In fact, I was on my way home from Dallas when I got Luke’s call asking about big catfish.

The biggest catfish I had “been involved with” until now was a flathead. I helped pull it out of the water while assisting fellow Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists many years ago. That was back when I was with the Wildlife Division and shared an office with Fisheries Division biologists. We often helped each other. That day, I helped pull in a 64-pound yellow flathead that came out of a northwestern Texas lake.

Braided line
Braided line and stout rod and reel are required for truly big blue catfish!

Early Experience

As a youngster, I grew up hunting and fishing just north of the Gulf Coast Prairie of Texas. Fishing for catfish involved a cane pole, using worms or cut bait, and trotlines baited with “perch” in Cummins Creek. That creek flowed through my grandfather’s place on its way to the Colorado River. It’s likely the catfish living there weighed in excess of 30 pounds, but we seldom caught anything beyond 12 to 15 pounds, either flathead or blue catfish.

I was remembering some of those “bigger” catfish when I called Rick Lambert. He’s a dear friend I hunt and fish with (along with another very dear friend, Jim Zumbo) whenever time allows. Most anyone who has ever read an outdoor magazine or watched outdoor television knows who Zumbo is. Rick Lambert is famous in his own right as a private investigator, songwriter, and avid outdoorsman who taught his now-famous daughter, Miranda, how to hunt, fish, and play the guitar at an early age.

So the call with Rick continued. I said, “Zumbo is tied up in Wyoming. Care to join me to fish for big bluecats on Lake Tawakoni?” (Rick’s home near Lindale, Texas, isn’t far from Tawakoni.) He said “yes” so quickly I almost missed it. I told Rick the dates and the jump-off marina. I explained that David Hanson would be providing boat, rods and reels, and bait. We simply needed to show up on time.

Big catfish require big hooks.
Big catfish require big hooks.

Just Show Up

Loaded into Hanson’s boat, Luke, Jeff, Rick and I sat back as our guide told us what to expect.

“We’re fishing with cut bait, and will be trolling slowly over relatively open areas with clean bottoms, in water 30 to about 50 or so feet deep,” he explained. “The bigger blues are moving into or have already moved into these areas preparing to spawn. We’ll put out six rigs. You all will take turns at catching a blue.” He continued the instructions. “Luke, you and Jeff have caught decent-sized catfish in the past, so Rick, you’re up first. Larry, you’ll take the second bite, then Jeff and Luke will be last. Will that work for ya’ll?” We all nodded with affirmatives.

When we got into the area with the “right bottom,” David started cutting bait and putting out lines. He used heavy braided line and large “circle” hooks inside a chunk of fish. With lines in the water, we started slowly trolling. Our guide continued. “The fish will grab the bait. Let her run a little. I say ‘her’ because most all bigger fish are females. Set the hook like you’re trying to jerk a horse over backwards. Then hold on.” Again, we nodded. “Keep the rod tip high, reel as you bring it down, then up again.

Reel line in with a pumping action. Do not point the rod tip at the fish,” he advised.

Cut bait ready for the hook.
Cut bait ready for the hook.

Catfish Action

We had hardly started along a path where David had caught many big blues in the past when a fish grabbed the bait and started moving. “Rick, grab the rod, reel in any possible slack, and then set the hook really hard! The rest of you grab a rod and reel in so the fish doesn’t tangle with the other lines,” our guide told us.

Rick obeyed. The fight was on. “Oh, my goodness! She’s strong!” Rick exclaimed, as the drag started screaming. David maneuvered the boat toward the fish. “Reel, reel, reel! Quick, take up line!” blurted Hanson. I shot still photos while Jeff filmed for our “A Sportsman’s Life” show.

Little by little, Rick started taking line, but I could see he was really straining, even though he was smiling. “She’s huge, gotta be the biggest catfish I’ve ever hooked with a rod and reel,” he exclaimed. The fish made another run pulling out line. “Gracious, is she ever gonna stop?” he asked. At that point, I glanced at David. He was standing next to Rick encouraging him to continue reeling and to not allow any slack.

The fish stopped running, turned, and headed back our way. Again, our guide advised: “Reel, reel, reel, reel! Don’t let her get any slack!” Meanwhile, Rick was cranking as fast as he could. The blue catfish saw the boat, turned, and again headed the other way. You could tell she was tiring. So was Rick, and despite near-freezing temperatures, his forehead was beaded with sweat.

Moments later, David instructed Rick to bring the fish alongside, and he did. David slid his huge net under the fish and started to bring her on board. Rick breathed a sigh of great relief and smiled broadly. David swung the fish on board, pulled it from the net, and handed it to Rick. “Think she’ll go 40 or a little better,“ said David, estimating the fish’s weight. “Congratulations! Let’s get some quick photos, weigh her, and get her back in the water.”

She’s 40+

“Forty-four pounds!” proclaimed our guide, looking at his digital scale. Another quick picture and we released her.

Our guide explained, “We release all big fish, those over about 20 inches long. They become sexually mature when they reach about 24 inches in length. If we catch some small ones, which I doubt we will where we’re fishing, and y’all want to save them to eat, that’s fine. But we release all big fish; they’re our breeders.”

Rods set and ready.
Rods set and ready.

Second Up

Starting up again, we again put out the six lines. We had scarcely gotten lines in the water when we had a second bite. “Larry you’re up,” our guide said. I grabbed the rod and pulled back hard to set the hook, bowing the stiff rod. “What’s your biggest catfish,” asked David, as I fought my fish.

I answered, “On a rod and reel, 21 pounds, a flathead I caught several years ago. The way this one is fighting, I’d say it’s bigger!” David smiled, knowing it would be!

I was amazed at how hard the fish fought. Finally, the fish, just like me, was beginning to tire. I started gaining line and brought the fish alongside. As I did David slid her into his net and pulled my fish on board.

“In the mid-thirties!” said the guide, as he handed me the fish. Luke quickly shot photos. Then we weighed her. “Thirty-four pounds,” he exclaimed. This was my biggest blue catfish, and at the time, my heaviest freshwater fish. We released her and rigged for the next bite.

Rick Lambert
Rick Lambert hangs on as his big catfish starts another run.

Jeff’s Turn

The hit came scant minutes later. Jeff did an admirable job of fighting the monstrous catfish on the end of his line. After about 12 minutes, he brought it alongside. Huge! David struggled to net the big fish. It took a bit more tugging to get Jeff’s fish onboard compared to either Rick’s or mine. “She’s over 50,” grunted Hanson, as he raised the fish, handing it to Jeff.

We took several photos and officially weighed the monster. “Fifty-four pounds!” said David, “That’s a ‘biggun’! We’ve caught them bigger, but not by too much! They’ve caught them here on the lake in the low 80’s. Of course, there are rumors of even bigger ones!” Jeff was ecstatic. He had just caught his biggest catfish ever!

Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)

Luke Is Next

We rigged up again and a short time later, Luke caught one almost identical to mine. Then Rick was up again. Almost immediately, he had a bite. Rick set the hook and the fish never stopped, quickly breaking the line. “The one Jeff caught was big, that one was bigger!” explained Hanson.

After the bite stopped, we headed to the marina, and from there to David’s house to enjoy a fried catfish dinner. The fish were absolutely delicious! What a way to end a great day!

Me, catching the 30+ pound blue catfish, watching Rick and Jeff catch even bigger fish, and then watching Rick lose what had to be a true monster left me extremely interested in fishing for big blue catfish. I could hardly wait for another opportunity to do so!

Michael Littlejohn
Michael Littlejohn prepares to net a big blue.

Some Research

Back home, I did a bit of research on blue catfish, reputedly the largest catfish species in North America. Ictalurus furcatus, the blue catfish’s scientific name, is a native that initially lived in the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Rio Grande, and several of the Texas rivers. They were introduced into lakes and watersheds in South Carolina, Virginia, and Illinois. They continue to expand their range.

As for being big, the current IGFA record blue catfish was taken by Richard N. Anderson in Kerr Lake in Virginia in 2011. It weighed 143 pounds and was 4 feet 8 inches long. Interestingly, however, I have talked to divers who told me they have seen much bigger ones, likely weighing well over 150 pounds and exceeding 6 feet in length. Since most blue catfish can live to be 25 years of age or possibly older, there is no reason not to believe them!

Are there record-breaking blue catfish waiting to be caught? Several fisheries biologists I have spoken with seem to think so, and they believe that it’s only a matter of time!

Finally, in the net!
Finally, in the net!

Going Again

Watching Jeff catch his big fish, I was anxious to return to Tawakoni, a lake famous for its big catfish. So, I called David Hanson again. Unfortunately, David had quit guiding professionally. He suggested I contact Michael and Teri Littlejohn with Tawakoni Guide Service. I had often heard their names and guide service mentioned when I asked about big blue catfish. A call confirmed a date. I could hardly wait.

Me and my friend, Billy Shoemaker (who has since passed away), arrived at the jump-off point the same time Michael did. Moments later, we stepped onto Michael’s well-equipped boat and were soon fishing. This trip was much in the same manner as I had fished with David Hanson.

The result of a coin toss meant I was up for the first bite. The hit came quickly and violently. I reeled the line tight, then set the hook as hard as I could. It felt like I had hung the bottom for a mere second. Then the fight was on. Initially, I mostly lost line, but I took line when I could. The stiff catfishing rod was bent severely. Ten minutes into the fight, I was certain I was more tired than the catfish on the end of my line. Fifteen minutes into the fight, I was thinking the catfish was winning. Muscles in my arms and back screamed “help me!” At 17 minutes, I was questioning whether I really wanted to catch a big catfish (well almost)!

Finally, the big fish started tiring and I was able to take up a line. As the fish neared the boat, Michael grabbed his big dip net. “Start bringing her alongside,” he said. I moved along the side of the boat and hung on. Thankfully the fish followed and rolled. Oh, my goodness…she was huge!

“Got her!” shouted Michael. I am certain fisherman a half-mile away could hear my sigh of relief. I heard Michael grunt as he pulled her on board. I confirmed what I already knew: I had just taken my biggest-ever freshwater fish.

Michael held her up and handed her to me. She was long and heavy! He told me how to hold her for the most impressive-looking photos. My guide, using my camera, took many pictures. Next, we weighed her: “72.3 pounds,” the guide called out. I was thrilled beyond words! I took one last photo as Michael released her.

Rick Lambert
Rick Lambert with his big blue!

Continuing On

The morning’s trip was far from over. Twenty minutes later, Billy hooked and landed one that weighed 63 pounds, which was his largest. After photos, we released her as well.

It was again my time. Ten minutes later, I had another bite. After a long, fun, hard fight, I landed my second big blue catfish of the morning. This one weighed an even 55 pounds, so became my second largest freshwater fish ever! More pictures. Again, I was nearly speechless. All I could utter was “Thank You!” In less than two hours I had caught two blue catfish with a combined weight of 127.3 pounds. Amazing, truly amazing!

I know there are other places with reputations for producing big blue catfish, and maybe someday I will fish them. Then again, maybe not. But there is no question I will return to Lake Tawakoni to continue my quest for an even bigger blue catfish!

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