Big Fish Fridays: Record blue cat
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Don’t tell Greg Bernal that the Missouri River has seen its better days when it comes to fishing.
Maybe the river that cuts across the Show-Me State is muddy and polluted and has been tamed by man to the point where it looks like nothing more than a drainage ditch. But it still contains some monstrous fish, he’ll tell you.
Want some proof? One week in the life of the river is all it takes.
On July 20, Bernal landed a 130-pound blue catfish near the point where the Missouri joins the Mississippi. Three days later, a 99-pound flathead catfish was taken on a bank pole in eastern Missouri by Robert Davidson.
Both fish have been approved as Missouri state records, and Bernal’s monster may become a world record.
So, what do you think of the Missouri River now?
“People bad-mouth the Missouri River, but it still has some huge cats in it,” said Bernal, 47, of Florissant, Mo. “There are still fish in there tha t would dwarf the one I caught.
“I’m not kidding. I’ve been fishing this ol’ river since 1995, and I’m constantly amazed at the quality of fish it puts out.
“When we go fishing, we’re going after the big boys. And this river has ‘em.”
Bernal should know. In his first year of fishing the river, he landed a 79-pound, 12-ounce blue cat, a fish that became an Illinois state record. That mark has been broken several times since then, but Bernal continues to catch big fish.
The one he caught in late July may be tough to beat, though.
Bernal, an unemployed land surveyor, had been waiting for the river to drop low enough that he could fish it. After a spring and early summer of constant rain, the Missouri was high and rolling for most of the first part of the fishing season.
But Bernal made up for lost time when he could finally get on the river. Fishing near the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in eastern Missouri, he watched as his bait literal ly jumped into the boat.
An Asian carp practically leaped into Bernal’s lap, and he and friend Janet Momphard of St. Charles, Mo., cut the rough fish into chunks for bait.
That bait went unnoticed at first. Bernal and Momphard went a couple of hours without getting so much as a bite.
But that changed when Bernal positioned his boat farther into the river. The fish-finder he had bought last year started showing huge arcs, a sign that big catfish were on the roam. Bernal dropped anchor, and he and Momphard decided to try one last spot.
At about 12:45 a.m., the reel on Bernal’s heavy-duty rig started screaming and the 40-pound test line began streaming out. Bernal grabbed the rod and held on as the huge fish strained to get away.
Luckily for Bernal, the fish swam at the boat, not away from it. In fact, it swam under the boat for a moment before Bernal was finally able to bring it to the surface.
That’s when the battle got interesting. Momphard scrambled for a net - a big net - but the two fishermen quickly realized that it wouldn’t be big enough to corral the monstrous fish, which was 57 inches long and had a girth of 45 inches.
It would take a second net, one for each end of the fish, The two fishermen struggled to lift the fish into the boat. On their fourth try, they were able to finally wrestle it into the 22-foot-long johnboat.
Bernal had his fish weighed on certified scales, and Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist Sarah Pepper certified the catch.
“When this fish finally balanced out the scales at 130 pounds, we were in shock,” Pepper said. “I weigh 109 pounds, so that fish was 21 pounds heavier than me.”
Fisheries officials estimated the giant blue at 25 to 30 years old. Bernal tried to keep it alive, but it eventually died and now will be mounted.
The fish shattered the former state record of 103 pounds, caught in the Missouri River in Atchison County in 1991. It’s likely that it also will break the all-tackle world record of 124 pounds, caught in 2005 on the Mississippi River.
Paperwork has been submitted to the International Game Fish Association, but the record won’t be official until a routine investigation is conducted.
As if that catch wasn’t enough to renew interest in the Missouri River’s giant catfish, the 99-pound flathead caught by Davidson three days later further stoked the fever.
Before fishing that day, Davidson, his 9-year-old boy Drake and his father, Jim, dropped by a friend’s house to get a look at the 54-pound flathead he had
caught that morning.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘If you’re lucky, you’ll catch one even bigger today,’” said Davidson, 44, who lives in Mokane, Mo. “We just laughed and said, ‘Like that’s going to happen.’?”
But it did happen.
As the three Davidsons were checking the bank poles they had set out along a bank near Mokane, they caught a 47 1/2 -pou nd blue cat, at the time a noteworthy catch.
But when they got to the second-to-the-last pole they had stuck in the bank, they found something twice as big at the end of the 150-pound test line.
“When we pulled up, the pole was bent over, but the line wasn’t moving,” Davidson said. “We thought it was just hung up.
“It even crossed my mind to cut the line.”
It’s a good thing he didn’t. When Davidson grabbed the pole from the bank, the fish took off. And Davidson found himself hanging on for dear life, fighting a monstrous fish without the benefit of a reel.
After a 20-minute fight, Davidson finally worked the flathead to the surface one-half mile from the point where he hooked the fish.
Davidson gaffed the fish, then stuck his arm into the fish’s mouth so that he could flop it into the boat.
“My friends and I knew there had to be a state-record flathead in the river,” said Davidson, who works for the Missouri Department of Transportat ion. “It was just a matter of who would be lucky enough to catch it.”
The fish broke the former alternative methods state record for flathead catfish by 5 pounds. That former record was caught on the St. Francis River below Lake Wappapello in 1971.
The flathead, which was lured by the green sunfish Davidson used as bait, was far from the world record of 123 pounds, caught in 1998 at Elk City Reservoir in Kansas. But it was still the third-biggest fish ever recorded in Missouri (trailing only the 139-pound, 4-ounce state-record paddlefish and Bernal’s giant blue catfish).
For officials with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the recent catches came as a reminder that the Missouri River is again alive and well.
In 1992, the department stopped commercial harvest of catfish on the Missouri River. Since then, several catches of cats 80 to 100 pounds have been reported.
“Having two state-record catfish caught three days apart proves the wisdom o f those management decisions,” said Chris Vitello, fisheries chief for the Department of Conservation. “Given a chance to grow, blue and flathead catfish can reach sizes that make even the most experienced angler’s heart race.”