It's usually an old man who tells you your first story about the Big Fish. You're a kid, throwing out a line with your grandfather, when he spins a tale about a catfish as big as he is—a crabby, carnivorous monster that generations have been trying to catch. Will you be the one who finally gets him?
Or maybe you're older when you first hear it, putting in a canoe or wading in the shallows under the watchful silence of a fisherman who finally says, "If you could see what's at the bottom of that water, you wouldn't go in."
"A lot of that is myth," says aquatic biologist Bill Dickinson of Maryville. "It still is myth." Dickinson explains that research over the last couple of decades has given scientists new insights into the life and habits of one of the South's favorite fish. He says that although there are catfish species that grow into the 6-foot range, or who seem unusually aggressive, these are generally a couple of continents away. In the waters of East Tennessee, there's not a river monster to be found. Is it time to dispel some of the beastly myths about this whiskered fish?
Myth 1: "It's the biggest…"
Leaving out the related bullhead, local fishermen go in search of the blue catfish, the channel (or spotted) catfish, and flathead (or yellow) cats. Even the very biggest blue cat is less the size of a grown man and more the size of a preteen boy before a growth spurt. Tennessee's record blue is 130 pounds, caught in the Fort Loudoun Reservoir in 1976, but because that one was caught with commercial fishing equipment, its record comes with an asterisk. The heftiest line-caught blue is 112 pounds, taken from the Cumberland River in 1998. The 20-year-old record for a flathead is 85 pounds and 15 ounces, from the Hiwassee—how would you like to go handfishing for that?
Statewide, there is no per-day limit on the number of game catfish less than 34 inches that may be caught, but only one Big Fish of the catfish variety (34 inches and over) may be taken per day.
There are bigger species swimming locally, including the alligator gar and the lake sturgeon. Since 2000, the state has stocked almost 130,000 lake sturgeon in area waters, including the French Broad and Holston rivers. These can grow to 8 feet, weigh up to 300 pounds and live up to 150 years. Look for them to become fodder for even more imaginative stories about "lake monsters."
Myth 2: "It's the ugliest …"
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but it's true that the catfish lacks the charismatic appeal of say, bass or trout. There are no silver scales glinting off of your catch, just firm flesh pulled tight across a spiny backbone, the skin packed with sensors that enhance the catfish's ability to navigate and find food. The distinctive whiskers that give the catfish its name, called barbels, also help with those tasks.
Its narrow-set jawline makes it look a little comical, but it also means that no matter how big the fish gets, he can't eat you. If you surprised him, he might bloody your hand with his tiny teeth, but you aren't about to replace small fish on his menu.
Myth 3: "It's the meanest…"
The catfish is agreed to be solitary, moody, and set in his ways. It sounds less like a monster of the deep and more like a film role for Alan Arkin. Except for meeting a sweetheart to create other catfish, it just wants to be left alone.
"Catfish are sort of private," says Dickinson. The big fish, particularly, are loners, but none of them school the way other species of fish do. While they are often caught in deep waters, they are also drawn to hiding places near the shallows, nestled under a bank or at home in a pile of old tires or rusting barrels. The fish's antisocial nature has one big pay-off: Because it has no desire to be where the action is all the time, like species that are drawn to more rapidly moving waters, it's more likely to survive to swim another day. Catfish can easily top 30, 40, 50 or more years in age, meaning that the big cat who escaped your line on your first childhood fishing trip might be the same one you are casting for today.
Myth 4: "It's the nastiest…"
"Bottom feeder" is a term of disdain that's often hurled at the catfish, but it mostly isn't true. The catfish is not a true scavenger. That said, it also isn't particularly picky about whether the fish it eats are dead or alive, and many fishermen swear by hooks baited with foul-smelling parts of decaying fish to catch this species. Just remember, "garbage in, garbage out" is a good rule of thumb, particularly if you plan on frying up the cats you catch.
Most of what you find at the seafood counter is farm-raised, but locals, especially those with swimming holes to which they are sworn to secrecy, swear by the flavor of channel cats and flatheads. Do remember, though, that our chemical-happy way of life has put cautions on eating many of the fish from local waters, including advisories for catfish from certain spots. A complete list is available in the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency's Angler's Guide to Tennessee Fish, available for download at twra.org. Happy fishing!