Light Gear, Heavy Fish

Texas Flathead Catfish
by Tex Meyer

Sometimes you can improve your fishing chances. Sometimes it helps to be plain lucky. Mike Rodgers improved his chances at crappie from Lewisville Lake, a mature impoundment with sometimes sparse cover, by sinking his own private artificial reef of Christmas trees early in 1982.

By March, crappie had moved in to feed. Rodgers had the ideal outfit for crappie -- a small Mitchell spinning reel filled with 12-pound test line, light Berkley rod and a crappie-size hook lightly weighted to take a live minnow down to the tinsel-draped branches below. Crappie fishing seemed a bit slow that day. Then Rodgers had a light bite and set the hook. According to Rodgers, "the fish took off like a submarine."

Rodgers, and his fishing buddy Don Teeple, had hooked a lot bigger fish than they expected. They knew at once it was a monster catfish. Only catfish chug off a spool of line with a slow, steady pace. For a moment Rodgers considered breaking off the fish so he could get back to crappie fishing. Then he flipped open the bale of his spinning reel so the fish could run as he tried to plug in his electric trolling motor. His buddy, Don, got the anchor up.

According to Rodgers' statements in Mike McDonald's Dallas Times Herald column of May 28, 1982, "It was like a fire drill. I got the trolling motor hooked up only out of sheer panic. Away we went. We did some figure eights, circles -- it was a regular Ice CapadesĀ®. The fish would stop and sound on me, I guess trying to dig into the mud. Bubbles would come up. I thought maybe I hooked a skin diver."

Rodgers continued, "My arm was about to give out. It felt like Jell-O. It got so I didn't care. I said to myself, 'You're never going to see this fish.'" When I said to Don, "Maybe we should cut the line."Don said, "You cut that line, and I'll cut your throat." 

According to Don Teeple, it took 35 minutes for the fish to roll at the boat. Teeple reached gingerly for the fish; its head looked big enough to swallow his entire arm. The giant flathead chugged away. Ten more minutes went by. Rogers wondered if the line would hold. Teeple wondered how he would grab the huge cat. When the cat came near the boat again and its huge head broke the water, Teeple said, "Mike, we need a bigger net."

Teeple was right. After several attempts, Teeple grabbed the cat's tail, Rogers hauled on the head. On the first haul the catfish balanced on the gunwale. A second haul sent it thumping into the bow of the boat. Teeple and Rodgers moved back to the boat's stern out of range of the big cat's mighty mouth.

It took ninety minutes to get the huge fish to a set of beef scales. It probably lost a couple of pounds to dehydration, and might have topped 100 pounds. After weighing the fish and a photo session, Teeple and Rodgers field-dressed the huge catfish.

Rodgers remembers "When we opened it up, I expected hubcaps and license plates to fall out." They saved the head for mounting and cut up the rest of the fish on a butcher's bandsaw. Rodgers regrets not keeping the fish alive. "I was in such a daze, I let everybody do my thinking for me," he reported, "I should have kept it and taken it to the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park." 

It took some time for Rodgers to calm down. He reported, "Right after I caught the fish, I was so high I couldn't sleep for about a week. After a while, I was getting everything under control, but after the news release from the state and all the phone calls I'm hyper again."

The joke here, for the dozens of Lewisville Lake catfish specialists, is that Rodgers still doesn't consider himself a catfisherman. He reported, "Catfishermen go out for the meat. I like to watch fish dance on the water. I love to eat fish, but I like the sport of catching them on rod and reel." So much for specialization!

Lewisville Lakes Lunker Cats

Lewisville Lake, a 23,280-acre reservoir north of Dallas, is one of those special waters that, like Florida's Merrit Pond for shellcrackers, offers ideal conditions for Flathead Catfish. According to Bobby Farquhar, a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, "Shallow, turbid reservoirs with plenty of food for both large and small catfish aren't that common. Lewisville is perfect. It's got shad and bass for big catfish to eat and insects for small fish. It's the best catfish lake in Texas." 

Farquhar continued, "April action around the riprap on the dam and bridges peaks when catfish gobble gar eggs. Otherwise deep water near the dam is the choice. Lewisville may offer the most comfortable fishing in Texas too! An air conditioned fishing barge suits summer fishermen when it's hot and humid."

Only In Texas

Texans do look at catfish differently. They recognize both rod and reel and unrestricted records, and residents seem to practice some rather unconventional techniques. For example, William Stephens of Lewisville once held the IGFA record with a 98-pound flathead caught out of the Lake Lewisville spillway on June 2, 1986. For a period this fish held the world all-tackle record. Then, when Mr. Stephens was discussing his record with a writer from In Fishermen who was doing a book on catfish, Stephens admitted that he had snagged the fish. This is both legal and accepted practice in Texas and some other states. When the writer asked, "How could the fish be the record? You can't snag IGFA or NFWFHF records!" Stephens immediately responded, "I didn't know that. We better tell them right away." Stephens did. Both bodies rescinded Stephens' record.

More exotic methods qualify under the Texas rules too. Charles J. Booth of Houston took the Texas unrestricted record 114 pound catfish in 1976 with a trot line. But some other systems fail even the liberal Texas rules. When interviewed about another record, Bubba Phillips, a well-known outdoor writer from the Southeast who also runs "the largest taxidermy service in the U.S." noted, "We mounted a 132 pound catfish telephoned from a Texas Lake that was 8 inches between the eyes." Even when queried about the Texas measurement "eight inches between the eyes" -- the punch line of many jokes, Phillips sticks by his story.

He also explained "telephoning" as a system that uses an electric generator, supposedly once from old hand-cranked telephones, to stun fish. This is, even in Texas, neither sporting nor legal.

That's the problem with flathead catfish. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect and, for many, anything goes with gear and techniques. If more fishermen considered them as one of the few heavy tackle challenges in freshwater, they might be better treated. Anything that large, and that old, deserves that.

Publisher's note: To see what's where topographic maps help. While you can buy individual "quads" for limited areas you might consider the new, and up to date CD-ROMs that might cover 200 or more quads. These let you examine large areas in great detail to turn up new spots to fish, and they allow you to then print only the areas you want. Even