A Whale of a Fish Tale
Record channel catfish taken from the Mississippi.
Although the Upper Mississippi River contains more than 125 species of fish – including Minnesota’s beloved walleye – it’s the catfish that lays claim to being the river’s most iconic fish. Even the National Park Service chose a catfish for its mascot of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area: the larger-than-life Freddy the Flathead who makes public appearances to promote the river.
These whiskered wonders can live up to 20 years and have been called a “swimming tongue” because sensory buds cover a large portion of their bodies. They can be fished year-round in Minnesota and regularly feed on the bottom of a river or lake.
Anglers use many different types of bait to attract them, everything from crickets to kernels of corn, but the most ardent prefer something really smelly, such as chicken liver or Limburger cheese.
I remember the first time I fished for catfish as a youth. I purchased a stink bait lure – basically a rubber bubble surrounding a hook – and a bottle of nasty-smelling goop to squeeze into it. I don’t recall catching anything that day but I vividly remember the next time I opened my tackle box, which housed that smelly lure and had been baking in the trunk of my car in the heat of the summer. It was a hard lesson learned.
Channel catfish, also called river catfish, are the most popular of the catfish species and are stalked by approximately 8 million anglers annually. They love them for their delicacy and because they can grow to mammoth proportions.
While it’s common to pull a four-pounder from a river, channel cats often grow much larger. The world record is 58 pounds, taken July 7, 1964 from the Santee-Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina. In Minnesota, the record channel cat was caught in the Mississippi River on Jan. 10, 1975. Terrence Fussy reportedly pulled the 38-pound, 44-inch monster from the river in north Minneapolis, but there is some controversy surrounding the catch.
Mike Kurre of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources confirmed the record but said not much is known of it. The only verification in the DNR file is a report from a Field & Stream fishing contest, dated February 15, 1975. The report lists Fussy and the size of the fish, but there is no photo of it and no written statement from Fussy.
The only account I could find was on an internet forum, posted by an unidentified person who claimed to be Fussy’s friend. The writer said Fussy was in high school at the time and was fishing for carp with a friend near the Lowry Avenue Bridge, using corn as bait. He didn’t profess to have seen the fish but he did recall Fussy telling him of the awkward, bewildered looks he received from passing motorists while he walked home lugging the nearly four-foot fish.
According to the state’s historic climate data, it was 34 degrees the day Fussy landed the fish, and it snowed four inches. It would be a bit peculiar to fish in a snowstorm but the time of the snowfall is not recorded, so it’s fair to give Fussy the benefit of the doubt.
I diligently tried to track down Fussy to get the story straight from him but was unsuccessful in locating him. I found three phone numbers for a man of that name: one lived in the Twin Cities and the other two numbers were from the same small town in northern Minnesota. I reached the man in the Twin Cities immediately but it wasn’t the record-holding angler. Remarkably, I made contact with someone on my second attempt but was told nobody by that name lived there. I dialed the third number and listened to it ring. No answer. No voicemail. I called back several times, both day and night, but each time the line simply rang and rang and rang. I even called the local phone company in that town to confirm the line is active and was assured it is. I guess we’ll have to assume Terrence Fussy properly registered that trophy fish he pulled from the river more than three decades ago. The record rightfully belongs to him. After all, there’s no reason to believe a fisherman would lie about something like that, right?
Slaying the Beast
Terry spent the last half-hour of his school week watching the minute hand of the clock in his algebra classroom tick forward painstakingly slow. He tried to ignore it but found himself looking at it often, each time wondering why it hadn’t advanced further along from the glance before. He stared at the second hand and tracked it as it ticked its way from the four to the five. Time was moving forward but it didn’t feel that way to him. His thoughts were far from the theories his teacher was trying to drill into his head. They were on the weekend, and on the river.
When the school bell finally chimed his release, he nearly sprinted through the hallways and outside to his car. Once inside with the engine running, he pushed an 8-track cassette into the tape deck, turned up the volume and sped to the river, coasting through each stop sign and waiting impatiently at the traffic lights that forced him to stop.
By 4 p.m. he was where he had longed to be, at the river with his fishing pole in hand. He glanced at the sinking January sun, looking like a smudge in the slate grey sky, and knew the fish would be feeding. As he listened to the rumble of the Minneapolis commuters crossing the Lowry Avenue Bridge above him, he considered himself lucky to be able to fish open water during a time of year when the river is normally frozen solid.
He placed his transistor radio beside him and turned it on just as the Doobie Brothers were singing about jumpin’ catfish and black water on the Mississippi. He smiled and sang along softly as he opened a can of corn that he would use to attract carp, or hopefully catfish. He took off his cotton gloves, grabbed some golden kernels from the can and began stringing them on his hook. When finished, he blew on his chilled hands to warm them, pulled on his gloves and cast his line into the river.
It wasn’t long before a carp took the bait. After seeing the tip of his rod bend briskly toward the river, he set the hook and began reeling in the fish, intermittently allowing slack when the line darted to a different location on the water’s surface when the fish fought to get free.
That first catch was quickly followed by another, and then another, but then the action stopped. By now the sun had disappeared and he was getting chilled. He pulled the zipper of his coat to his chin and looked upward at the bridge. In the streetlights he could see a few glimmering flakes of snow. He knew more was coming – four to six inches were predicted – so he decided to make a few more casts and head for home. He put a few fresh kernels on his hook and cast it upstream from the bridge pier. Suddenly, the line went taut. He could feel something weighty on the other end and was sure he had snagged a rock or submerged log. He pulled against it and to his surprise it moved. Slowly, he began to reel it in. Whatever he had hooked was very heavy and he marveled that his line hadn’t snapped as he reeled against the current. When the line started to zig-zag through the water he realized he wasn’t dragging in a log, but rather a fish, a very large fish. In the dark of the night he could see the black back of the creature break the surface and the size of it alarmed him. He kept reeling slowly, expecting his line to snap at any moment. Finally, he dragged the behemoth to shore but was unsure if he could pull it from the water. Acting quickly, he lunged toward it, grabbed the slimy monster and wrestled with it briefly, splashing about in the frigid water. He found one of its massive gills, slid his hand into it and hauled the fish ashore, where it flopped and writhed as it struggled to return to the river. He pushed it farther inland using both hands and then slew the beast.
As he surveyed its long, black body and its stringy whiskers he was dumbfounded at the size of the fish. It was the largest he’d ever seen and he estimated it to be four feet long. Now he wondered if would be able to get it back to his car by himself. He packed up his tackle, grabbed his rod and tackle box with one hand, and started dragging the fish toward his car.
On the street, a passing motorist could see Terry’s hunched figure in his headlight beam. The image confused him so he slowed down to take a closer look but still couldn’t comprehend the sight. He pulled to the side of the street and got out of his car. Being an older man who had grown skeptical of the younger generation, he was sure Terry was doing something mischievous so he shouted at him. “Hey you! What do you have there?”
Terry turned his head toward him and smiled, his white teeth gleaming in the headlights. “It’s a catfish,” he yelled back, “a really big catfish.”