Reminders of Missouri’s connections to agriculture are everywhere. Drive the I-70 corridor across the heart of Missouri and the dominant vista corn and cows punctuated by an occasional billboard. To and from our field sites on the Osage River, the views are much the same. Here denuded hilltops, are grazed low by roving herds of black Angus. Yet I still somehow expect fisheries fieldwork to be an escape from the land of livestock. Sure there are the occasional small pasture creeks we work in, used by cows as personal watering trough, swimming pool, and toilet. More often though field sites are set in rugged river hills and creek draws that have been allowed to grow up in bristling stands of oak and hickory. So you can imagine my surprise when sampling for Lake Sturgeon this year, up from the watery depths we pulled a spotted cow and a hulking hog. These weren’t literal cows and hogs but rather curious specimens of one of Missouri’s largest fish, the Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus).
Let’s start with the cow. The bovine Blue Cat pictured below was produced by a genetic mutation (or mootation if you appreciate a good pun). They call this color morph piebald. At first, I probably was not appropriately appreciative of this catch. In addition to his years studying fish, my coworker Brandon, a self described river rat who grew up along the banks of the Missouri river running trotlines for catfish, was amazed. I don’t need a geneticist to tell me about incidence rates of this abnormality, when Brandon says it was the first he’d ever seen, I’ll believe him that it was special.
But that wasn’t our last encounter with curious catfish in 2017. Just this past month, a hog appeared in our nets. Struggling to catch Lake Sturgeon to tag for our research in the Gasconade River on trotlines, we decided to try different gear in the nearby Missouri River. We deployed large mesh gill nets in fishy looking spots and then returned the next morning to see what we had caught. As we began pulling in our first gill net it became clear we had caught something huge. Vince and Brandon pulled on lead line with all of their might, but it wouldn’t budge. Rather than snaring a monster Lake Sturgeon, it became clear that a giant sunken Cottonwood washed off an eroding bank had become ensnared in our net. This inauspicious start was compounded by the embarrassment of Vince’s presence who happens to be one of the chief biologists in our state agency’s research division. I was hoping the second net would produce a Lake Sturgeon to make Vince’s trip worth his while and to make us look a little more competent and worthy of his agencies research funding.
We motored down the wide muddy channel to a backwater opening behind an rock channel dike. The chilly autumn air spurred me to switch places with Brandon at the front of the boat, who having struggled pulling on the cottonwood, had sweated through his 5 layers of fleece clothing. As Vince and I began pulling in the net we found some fish. We plopped a few 10-15 lb Blue and Flathead catfish into the holding tank as we drew in the monofilament panels. About halfway through, I began feeling another weight. I was beginning to lament that we’d caught another Cottonwood, when the weight began to shake subtly as a fish thrashed around. We slowly raised the wiggling weight until it finally broke surface. “Oh my!” we collectively exclaimed, our voices elevated excitedly to pitches seldom reached by full grown men. Boat-side was the gaping maw of the largest catfish either of us had ever seen.
At first we had no idea how to even bring this fish into the boat. I quickly realized that my decision to stick my fingers in its mouth were ill advised. Its bite force was like a vice grip and its tooth patches a combination of the sticky side of a velcro strip and sand paper, quickly chafing layers of skin. We did a three-count and together, hauled the leviathan over the gunwale. In gill nets fish usually get their head stock in one of the square mesh panels, but the catfish was mainly stuck due to its pectoral spines. Dulled with age, this is one feature of catfish that is more fearsome when they are small. This fish had long outgrown the need for razor sharped barbed spines to defend itself from predators. Its proportions simply didn’t make sense. The flesh ceased to be fish-like. I imagined trying to clean such a fish, the thick meaty slabs would look more like pork loins than fillets. Like many catfish if you listened closely enough you could hear the fish grunting just like it had hooves and curly tail. When it came time for photos before the fish was released, I thought back to my trip to the gym earlier that week. How much had I curled? Not anywhere close to 92 lbs. Somehow, I conjured enough strength to hold the fish for a momentary photo before clumsily dropping it back in the tank on the boat.
Underlying this story of the giant catfish, is the Missouri River’s rapidly recovering population of big blues. The Missouri has become known as a trophy fishery that has produced multiple record catfish in recent years and regularly hosts big catfishing tournaments. Large Catfish used to be rare sight for anglers and biologists in the Missouri River. Many factors were responsible for the decline including habitat alteration and overharvest. Large sunken trees which provided fish cover, were removed to aid in steamboat travel (Hesse 1987). Additionally, dikes and training structures built to tame river channel for flood control and barge travel had eliminated important shallow habitats that supported Blue Catfish and their prey. Although many of the habitat issues remain unresolved, in 1992 several Midwestern states, including Missouri instituted a ban on the commercial harvest of Blue Catfish. This allowed catfish more time in the feedlots to fatten up for anglers. At smaller sizes, Blue Cats bulk up on whatever they can fit in their mouths. Sometimes even resorting to filling their guts with clams and vegetation. In Virginia, I once held a Blue Catfish that rattled like a maraca when shaken due to all of the the clam shells jangling inside its stomach. As they mature catfish develop a penchant for fish. Gizzard shad, Silver carp, Goldeye, Mooneye, whatever is abundant and easy to catch. Left alone to gorge, catfish can live to be 20 years or more in Missouri but not all old fish reach such large sizes. The 92 lber was an exceptional grower, and although we can’t give a precise age is probably over 15 years old (Graham 1999).
It is to early to pin all of these successes on the regulation change. The Missouri Department of Conservation and multiple graduate students at Mizzou are conducting Blue Catfish research to better understand the population dynamics. However anecdotal evidence from angler observations and a recent state record fish weighing 130lbs, a whopping 40 lbs more than our catch, was caught in the Missouri River in 2011, show that big fish still swim in the Show-Me-State. For more information on Missouri’s monster fish see the following two articles recently published in local media:
Graham, K. 1999. A review of the biology and management of Blue Catfish. Amercian Fisheries Society Symposium 24:37-49.
Hesse, L. W. 1987. The catfish. pages 18-23 in the Fish book. Nebraska Land Magazine 65(1), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Lincoln.