Living the Good Life

by Jeff Okida

Tuesday evening, September 23, 1959, the Yankton Press and Dakotan ran a rather grainy photo with the following caption: "CLAIMS CATFISH RECORD. Ed Elliot of Vermilion, left, displays the 97-pound record-breaking silver channel catfish which he caught in the Missouri River near Gayville last week.

The whopper, which measured 57 inches in length and 37 inches around the middle, weighed 2 1/2 pounds more than the largest catfish ever caught on a rod and reel. Pictured with Elliot is Charles Gray of Vermilion, who has caught more than 250 catfish weighing 65 pounds or over, during his fishing days and who pioneered the idea of fishing big catfish with a rod and reel. It was he who led Elliot to the deep hole in the Missouri where the record breaker was caught."

Then IGFA and NFWFHF World Record 97-pound Blue Catfish caught on September 15, 1959 by Edward B. Elliot from the Missouri River near Vermillion, South Dakota.

It took a long letter from James T. Shields, then South Dakota's Superintendent of Fisheries, to convince Elliot that his fish was, in fact, a blue catfish rather than a "silver channel," apparently a local nickname for these fish. Catfish and bullhead identification remains a problem. For example, the IGFA does not recognize the fish the NFWFHF lists as the Black Bullhead all-tackle world record.

However, Mr. Shields made a good case for the angular fin and 30 to 35 rays of the blue catfish rather than the rounded anal fin and its 24 to 29 rays characteristic of the channel catfish. IGFA and NFWFHF agreed. Mr. Elliot was apparently harder to convince.

In a 1964 letter to the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, Mike Bell, who then ran the Field & Stream Fishing Contest noted, "...the angler thought the fish was a silver channel catfish....Mr. Elliot accepted that decision, although I think he still was not completely convinced the fish was a blue catfish."

Eventually, Mr. Elliot changed his mind and, somewhat reluctantly, agreed his record was, in fact, a blue catfish. Elliot hasn't seen the need to change much else. When interviewed in 1991, he noted that he "had the same phone number, house and wife that he had when he caught his record fish and entered it in the 1959 Field & Stream Contest." Note: he won big!

Like many modest record holders, he cites the help of a mentor who, he said, "Should have had the record. Charlie Gray caught more big catfish on a rod and reel than any man living or dead. I was lucky to fish with him. We fished together for years, and we always caught fish."

Elliot continued, "I'd heard of Charlie for years before I met him. You'd hear about Charlie all the time, and the stories were always about 75 to 100-pound catfish. He used to fish for the market, but we switched to rod and reel after we started fishing together."

Elliot and Gray fished from a 10- by 26-foot "barrel barge," a homemade, platform-type boat well suited to stand-up fishing on the Missouri River. Elliot and Gray were lucky enough to fish in one of the few remaining natural bank sections of the no longer so "mighty" Missouri. The stretch alternates between deep holes and shallows, and divides South Dakota and Nebraska.

They were, according to Elliot, "pretty advanced for the time." They powered their home-made craft with an 18-H.P. Johnson motor. At the time most catfishermen used sturdy hand lines, jugs or trot lines. Elliot and Gray rigged up with heavy ocean rods, and Penn level wind reels filled with 100 yards of 80 pound test line. Elliot noted, "More line was not needed because catfish tend to sulk deep when hooked, and only reluctantly move out of their favorite holes."

Huge 9/0 Eagle Claw hooks jammed through hunks of carp "as big as your fist" and rigged on 76-pound test leaders were held on bottom by at least two ounces of lead. At times more lead was needed because currents ran seven or eight miles an hour; other times they went up to pound sinkers.

However, by properly positioning their barrel barge at the head of holes and securing it with a big anchor, the two catfish specialists could let the boat's swing move their baits back and forth to cover the entire hole. Catfish would smell the bait and, like crayfish after a slice of bacon, would move upstream to bite.

Gray had discovered that the presence of smaller catfish from "arm- to leg-size" meant big cats were somewhere else. So, by prospecting with lighter gear, Gray and Elliot knew their hole of choice about six miles West of Jaquith's Boat Landing at Vermilion, held at least one huge fish.

The day they caught the big fish, Charlie Gray came by Elliott's shop early. He suggested that the mist made it an ideal day. Elliot didn't want to fish. Gray convinced him to play hooky. So they launched their barge from the old wildlife landing west of Vermilion and chugged downstream to a deep hole in the main channel of the Missouri. Elliot notes, "We anchored just below a sandbar near what's now Clay Country Park and set our baits -- we only had a small carp that we cut into chunks -- in about 30 feet of water."

When they pulled into their favorite hole about six in the evening, they had a good idea about records. As Elliot notes, "a friend had just caught the 94 1/2-pound record. That sure didn't last long!" They were hopeful because Charlie Gray had caught a 72-pound cat from the water, and he thought that there might be another in this untamed section of the river.

After they set out their big rods in holders, they started to fish away from the hole with spinning gear for saugers, a favorite dinner fish. As Elliott remembers it, "I had my camo rain suit on because it was still misty, and I was looking the wrong way when the fish hit. Charlie yelled 'Fish on.' It hadn't been long at all; they had been on the hole for less than 30 minutes.

When Elliott grabbed his sturdy rod, its tip was already submerged. He could feel the fish surge off as he struggled to haul the rod out of the holder. Then he set himself, and "banged the hook in as hard as he could manage." The fish smoothly, if somewhat slowly, raced off. Elliott braced himself on the side of the barge and held on. Gray cleared his line, moved gear out of Elliot's way, and freed his big home-made net. Elliot says, "I told him to put the net away. This one was going to take a while."

By the time the first run stopped, Elliott could see the spool through his last layer or two of 80-pound-test line. Then the fight settled down into a slugging match. Elliott would pull and pump, but even with 80-pound-test line, the catfish would turn sideways, then bank away from the boat and sail downstream with the help of the current. Only the length of the hole, and the big cat's desire to stay in deep water, kept the fight within the 100-yard capacity of Elliott's reel.

Even so, Gray considered firing up the engine, and twice had to clear the anchor so the big fish wouldn't snag it. It took over 40 minutes to haul the big cat near the boat. The big fish broke water about 20 yards out. As Elliott remembers it, "When the cat rolled, Charlie yelled, 'You got a 100-pounder." "Boy, did I get excited," Elliot said, "I knew the world record was only 94 1/2-pounds."

Finally they saw a tail through the muddy water. Then the back -- "as broad as a big dog's" appeared. The massive head still strained downward. Gray poised his net. Then with a doubtful look at the size of Elliot's monster catfish, submerged the net in the current. Elliot steered the tiring cat over the poised net. As its body brushed the mesh, the big fish dived. Its head hit the mesh. It took both Elliot and Gray to lift the catfish, its body overlapping the net even when bent double, into the boat. At that the net sagged out of shape.

They moved the fish into the cabin on the barge. As Elliott remembers, "It had scars all over its mouth and head. It had to be the ugliest fish I'd ever seen. Still, it didn't seem nearly as wet and uncomfortable as I felt before the fish hit." 

A rest, a cool drink, some speculation on the size of the fish and, with fishing time left, Gray and Elliot stayed out on the river. As Elliott remembers, "It was six hours or more before we weighed the fish at a certified scale at the local dairy." South Dakota Fisheries experts report that, "It was certain to have weighted more than 100 pounds when fresh. It's amazing that Elliott and Gray didn't come in right away."

The reason for their lack of haste may have been the 90-, 72- and 55-pound fish they had taken that year and the "over 650" catfish above 65 pounds which Gray had caught as he perfected techniques and refined his approach.

"Charlie never did catch a record-book fish," Elliot explained, the regret in his voice plain. He continued, "I wonder how many other fishermen do the work only to see someone else set the record. It's a shame really. These days, with the river way down because of dams and agricultural needs, the average catfish size has dropped so much you don't have to worry about records. I wish Charlie had his name somewhere. I've got both the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and the International Gamefish Association records. Too bad he couldn't have shared these. I never would have landed the fish without his help. Never would have got started fishing cats if it hadn't been for him either."

When questioned about his record fish, Elliot said, "I had it mounted. That seemed a shame. It was such a homely fish. I didn't even want to hang it in the basement." So a friend displayed the fish in a bar until 1965. The fish looked worse every year. Then the bar burned down. When told that fiberglass replicas were available, Elliot responded, "Why would anyone want to display something as ugly as that?"

Clearly, Elliot looks ahead, not back. When interviewed at 83 years of age , he had been married 54 years and drove his 26-foot Airstream from Eastern South Dakota across to British Columbia every year for a two or three month stay. He noted, "Salmon do fight better than catfish, but I've only caught salmon up to 33 pounds. I often wonder what a 97-pound salmon would feel like."

"It took a heap of luck to catch that fish. There were a lot of snags -- trees, snags, cables and barrels on the barge -- it was lucky." However, turning up with the expert who had caught more catfish that anyone, securing saltwater gear in the middle of the country, and being able to slug it out with such a heavyweight seems far more than luck!

Blue Catfish Records In Perspective

Blue catfish line class records range from puny fish on 2-pound-test up to respectable 50-, 60-, 70-pound fish, with several IGFA fish in the 80 pound range. Some NFWFHF records --pole/line/no reel, Ice fishing pole/line and tip up and the 45-, 50-pound and unlimited line classes are within reach.

No area corners records. California, the Midwest and South all offer chances. The hot spot for blue cats may be Lake Texoma, in Texas, with five NFWFHF and three IGFA records.

While a monster catfish may hide in some now obscure pond, low water and increased fishing pressure on many rivers and reservoirs don't encourage massive catfish. So accounts of Elliot's catfish record could keep Elliot's name in the books for some time. Gray won't be forgotten until Elliot's record is broken. It's sad that Gray, like so many angling innovators, fell through the cracks. Elliott hopes their names, like their friendship, remain linked for all time.

NOTE: The new record tops 100 pounds and will be covered shortly.