River Monsters

Tales of Arkansas’ biggest catfish

No photos are known to exist of Wesley White’s 80-pound state-record flathead catfish, but a fish that size no doubt could have eaten this 25-pound flathead for a snack.

If catching a giant catfish is your ticket to happiness, then Arkansas is the place to be. Some of the biggest cats caught in North America have been pulled from Natural State waters. Here are the stories of some of those fish.

The Wesley White flathead

On just about any day — rain or shine — you can find anglers snagging for catfish below Franklin County’s Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam on the Arkansas River. They use no bait. Their rods are extraordinarily long, sometimes more than 16 feet. They cast huge weighted treble hooks far into the roiling water, then snatch them through the water with hard jerks that jar their bones. It looks like work. And it is.

On Oct. 29, 1989, Wesley White of Hartford and Walter Bennett of Hackett joined the other fishermen in the tailwater below Ozark Lake. Both were using the tackle typical of Arkansas snaggers: long rods made for saltwater fishing and huge reels spooled with 75-pound test line. It’s fortunate their tackle was heavy, for around 10:30 p.m., White snagged an enormous fish. The piscine Gargantua reacted immediately to the sting of the hook, and as White reeled furiously, trying to subdue the monster, the catfish did its best to thwart the man’s efforts. Many minutes passed before the fish was finally landed.

“It was the biggest catfish I’ve ever seen,” said Franklin County Wildlife Officer Charles Bonner, who certified the fish’s weight. “First we weighed it on a set of deer check-station scales just to get some indication of its weight. Then we took it to a set of certified scales. It weighed 80 pounds both times.”

Almost 25 years later, White’s enormous flathead is still the Arkansas rod-and-reel record.

Charles Ashley Jr.’s world-record blue

Charles Ashley Jr. lives at Marion, just a short drive from the Mississippi River. On Aug. 3, 2001, he was doing what he often does — fishing for catfish in the Father of Waters. Two buddies were with him, and the trio were using chunks of Hormel Spam for bait, fishing near a wing dike downstream from the Interstate 55 bridge between Memphis and West Memphis.

For half an hour, Ashley and his buddies had no bites. Then suddenly, Ashley’s line started moving off. When he set the hook, he knew immediately he’d hooked a huge fish and worried that his medium-weight fishing outfit wasn’t going to hold it. The reel was spooled with 20-pound line, and Ashley was sure this fish was bigger than 20 pounds.

Ashley’s line and pole held up, though, and after 45 minutes of fighting, Ashley managed to bring the cat to the top. That’s when Ashley’s buddies got excited. The one holding the landing net just laid it back down. He knew this cat wasn’t going to fit.

Ashley finally wore the monster catfish down, pulled it alongside the boat and wrestled it in. Then he and his partners headed for shore. Several hours later, when the fish was weighed on a certified scale, Ashley knew he’d caught an exceptional fish. The humongous cat weighed 116 pounds, 12 ounces.

The next day, I certified Ashley’s cat as a new Arkansas rod-and-reel record. And a few months later, the cat was officially recognized as an all-tackle world record.

Joe Holleman’s channel cat

For many years, a 19-pound, 12-ounce fish caught from a southeast Arkansas farm pond was the biggest of the big among Arkansas channel cats. But on March 28, 1985, Maxine Bryant of Chidester landed one bigger in the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s White Oak Lake.

Bryant wasn’t fishing specifically for catfish. Rather, as she explained it, she was fishing for “just whatever was biting.” She was dunking a red wiggler threaded on a No. 4 hook when she hooked a hawg that managed to break loose. But not to be outdone, she continued fishing, and an hour later, she managed to hook and land a whopping 22-pound, 14-ounce channel cat. (Ironically, just a few days later, Eddie Allen of Bluff City landed a 22-pound channel cat from the same area.)

Some speculated that Bryant’s record might stand for a long time, but only four years passed before Joe Holleman of Waldron landed a much larger channel cat. The year was 1989.

“My relatives were visiting from California, and they were planning to leave June 6,” Holleman related later. “It was windy on Friday night, but it was the only chance we had to go fishing. So we went.”

They fished the lake’s upper section near the Arkansas 27 landing at the mouth of Muddy Creek. Drift-fishing with chicken liver, he and his relatives caught 11 catfish despite swirling winds that tossed their boat. Most of the fish were 1 1/2 to 3 pounds, but there was one exception. About 3 a.m., Holleman hooked and landed a 38-pound channel cat. It remains to this day the top channel cat in state record books.

More to come?

Is it possible someone could land a channel cat, blue or flathead that will establish a new Arkansas record? Yes. In fact, it’s not only possible; it’s highly likely.

A flathead bigger than Wesley White’s 80-pounder will be hard to find and catch. That’s a giant for the species, but bigger flatheads have been caught in Arkansas waters, including one weighing 139 pounds caught on a snagline in the Arkansas River in the 1980s. Several Natural State rivers and lakes have the potential to produce a flathead exceeding 80 pounds, and it’s likely one will someday.

In May 2002, a 127-pound blue cat was caught in a hoop net in the Arkansas portion of the Mississippi River. It wasn’t eligible for the record book because it was taken using commercial fishing tackle, but it shows the amazing potential of this enormous river. Other big rivers and lakes in the state could produce a new record-setter as well.

Back in the 1980s, when I was state fishing-records coordinator for the AGFC, one of the agency’s biologists officially weighed a 51-pound channel cat caught in 300-acre Lake Wilhelmina. To everyone’s surprise, however, the angler who caught the fish didn’t want to submit it as a record, so it never was recorded. That channel cat was huge by all standards (the world record is 58 pounds) and proves that even small waters in The Natural State have the potential to produce monster cats.

Be ready if it happens to you. Study the rules you must follow to have a fish certified as a record. They’re published

annually in the state fishing regulations guide and are available on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s website, www.agfc.com.

May luck be with you.