Sometimes it’s good to be wrong. Like that time I was wrong about catfish.
It was about 10 years ago now I was giving my trusty retriever his afternoon constitutional on the levee. That’s when I met Gerald Wilson.
I’d seen him dozens of times before but paid little attention. He was one of the handful of anglers who waded across the flooded batture to fish for cats when Ol’ Man River was at his highest. They never seemed to be catching fish; it looked more like a social club, a chance to sit in the sun away from the wives and knock down a few 12-ounce rewards while talking over the latest headlines.
But this day Wilson was moving up the levee from the river, straining as he pulled an old Western Flyer wagon loaded with an ice chest. I said hello with a wisecrack: “You got a keg in there or just a few cases?”
Wilson grinned, “Just a big cat. We really put the hurt on ’em today”
That’s when I noticed something big, gray and wide hanging out the back end of the ice chest, almost touching the ground.
As Wilson opened the lid on the chest, I had a hard time keeping my jaw from dropping. A 3-foot catfish filled the inside of the 64-quart container and spilled out of the end, its long whiskers trailing back like black ribbons, its mouth seemingly as wide as the ice chest itself. Wilson’s buddy approached, and together they held the big fish up. Wilson hoisted the front and his partner lifted the tail. It weighed 78 pounds–and there were three more that went over 50 pounds on an anchor rope down in the water.
“I never knew they got that big,” I admitted, embarrassed.
Wilson grinned again. “Then you don’t know much ’bout cats.”
LEARNING A LESSON
He was right. I was a typical angler of my time. When it came to fresh water, I searched for bass, then sac-a-lait (white crappies), then bream. Sure, I knew some people fished for cats–but where was the challenge or glamour in catfishing? There was no Catfish Unlimited, no Catfish Sportsman’s Society, no catfish pros. You didn’t see flatheads or blues mounted on the wall at the tackle store, and there were no cool flyfishing shows with prissy Eastern swells looking lovingly at a catfish before releasing it.
No, people only released cats into pans filled with grease. Catfish were best known as menu items. Who would want to fish just for a fillet?
That evening I began to find out. I learned that catfish are the big-game fish of fresh water, the tuna of the rivers. I learned that a handful of catfish species can grow to more than 100 pounds, and that they routinely shred the equipment and the confidence of anglers who come unprepared.
That education began with Wilson’s tale about the time when the fight of his life turned into a fight for his life. The butt of his rod had become tangled in the folds of his shirt, and an unseen quarry came close to dragging his 190 pounds into a watery grave. Only by giving up his rod and reel, his shirt and his pride did he survive to enjoy another day of fishing.
“Let me tell you something,” Wilson said. “You can have your redfish, your tarpon, your tuna and all that stuff. When you want to duke it out with a man-sized beast, you come and try these cats. They got some in here’ll weigh more’n me. These fish, they’ll hurt you–no lie.”
My education continued over the next few weeks, then years. I learned that catfish are the most popular gamefish in the nation–sought after more often than bass or trout–partly because they occur almost anywhere there is fresh water.
I also learned that my ignorance was not a matter of missing a secret fishery, but being blind to the biggest game in town. Traditional bass and striper fisheries were quickly becoming known–proudly–as catfish lakes. At Santee Cooper’s Lake Marion, for example, there are more calls now for catfish guides than for bass or striper experts.
Now when I walk on the levee, it isn’t always with my retriever. Sometimes I’m just up there on my own, carrying a stand-up tuna stick, some fresh shrimp or cut mullet, a stringer the size of docking line–and a life jacket.
I was wrong about catfish.
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