Out There: Catfish go mainstream

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.

I'm often asked, "Why has catfishing become so popular in recent years?"

The fact is, these whiskered wonders channel catfish, blue cats, flatheads and bullheads have always been among North America's most popular sportfish. Few fish are targeted by more anglers.

Until recent years, however, articles about catfishing appeared only occasionally. There were few books about the sport, and not many television programs either. Catfishing enthusiasts seldom fished in tournaments. Except for specialty baits, few products manufactured specifically for catching catfish were available.

During the past decade, though, the tide has begun to turn. Suddenly catfish are "in," and more and more we see products, texts, programs and competitions created especially for those who enjoy catching these hard-fighting, good-eating sportfish. State fisheries agencies have begun to listen to catfish anglers, too, establishing regulations that protect once-overharvested populations and implementing management strategies that foster the growth of trophy-class cats in many waters.

Together, these happenings have created an illusion: that catfishing has suddenly become more popular. In reality, the always-popular pastime of catfishing has just become more visible and respected. And that's a trend that's likely to continue. Today's anglers want more information and better products. And when a group this size (around 10 million anglers) starts making itself heard, folks are bound to listen sooner or later.

While catfish long have been popular with some anglers, however, they haven't always been noticed by the non-angling public. Fortunately, that, too, has begun to change. In fact, our underappreciated catfish demeaned by some prissy anglers and others who don't know better have been bringing fame, if not fortune, to the world of fish and angling. No other fish not bass, nor trout, nor any species have featured so prominently in the news in recent months as our once-ignored catfish.

Consider, for example, the story of Texas angler Cody Mullennix. On January 16, 2004, this 27-year old catfisherman beached a 121.8-pound, 5-foot-long blue catfish while fishing on the Texas side of 89,000-acre Lake Texoma. Mullennix's 20-minute battle with the whiskered leviathan produced not only a Texas state record for the species, but also an International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record.

Mullennix's blue cat wasn't the first huge specimen ever landed. In fact, just 28 months earlier, another world record a 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat was taken on Spam by Arkansas angler Charles Ashley Jr. had been caught in the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tenn. Ashley's record didn't receive a fraction of the publicity garnered by the latter world-record blue, however. News of Mullennix's fish flashed around the world via the Internet within hours of his catch, and the story was picked up and featured by newspapers, TV stations and radio stations nationwide. It is quite likely that no other record catch of any kind was ever so highly publicized.

It didn't hurt that this big-fish story had a happy ending for the fisherman and the fish. Mullennix kept the fish, which he named "Splash," alive and donated her to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Texas. The 26,000-gallon aquarium there provides the perfect venue for Splash shows, and she continues attracting big crowds. Attendance at the center is up by the thousands since the big cat made her debut just a year and a half ago, a fact that exemplifies the public's newfound interest in catfish.

Some thought Mullennix's record would never be broken. But savvy catfishing enthusiasts, aware of the blue cat's potential for reaching weights up to 150 pounds and more, speculated it wouldn't stand for long. The cat folks were right.

In May of this year, news flashed round the world that Illinois angler Tim Pruitt had caught a blue cat even bigger than Splash. This fish was enormous, measuring 58 inches long and 44 inches around, and weighing an astounding 124 pounds. Pruitt caught the cat on May 22 in the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill., and if his application is approved, the fish will become a new world record for the species.

News of Pruitt's potential record also was quick to make headlines. And this 33-year-old catfisherman found himself an overnight celebrity catapulted from the obscurity of small-town life to world renown. Radio stations as far away as the Netherlands called for interviews, and a photograph of the 5-foot, 6-inch Pruitt cradling the 4-foot, 10-inch fish in his arms like a stuffed pillow appeared in newspapers and magazines worldwide. June 1, 2005, was declared Tim Pruitt Day in Illinois, and he shared a podium in Springfield with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

"I was in the presence of greatness," the governor later said, categorizing Pruitt, the fish and the river as legendary. "His feat is inspirational to Illinois' 1.2 million anglers, to tourists and to everyone who ever told a fish story about the one that got away."

Pruitt intended to release the gigantic catfish back into the Mississippi. Then it was suggested he allow it to be displayed at an aquarium in a new Cabela's store in a Kansas City, Kan. Pruitt agreed, but after the fish was transferred for relocation, it died. That story also made headlines as the world mourned the death of this extraordinary animal.

Pruitt is reveling in his fame and hopes to parlay the excitement into a new career, making a living off fishing, product endorsements, a DVD of his catfishing tips and photos, and a new website. And most folks would have to agree that for Mr. Pruitt, today's "American Idol" of freshwater fishing, almost anything seems possible.

Pruitt's big fish isn't the only giant cat to grab the world's attention in recent weeks.

In mid-June, newswires carried the story of four endangered Mekong giant catfish that were released into the Mekong River after seven years of captivity. A century ago, fish of this species were found the entire length of the river from Vietnam to southern China. But since then, populations of the Mekong giant catfish and other giant fish in the same system have plummeted. Scientists estimate that the total number of Mekong giant catfish has decreased about 90 percent in just the past two decades due to overfishing, dam building and navigation projects.

Calling the rare fish "an omen of luck and prosperity," their owner, Ing Vannath, said he wanted to repay that good fortune "by returning them to their natural habitat to allow them the chance to swim freely,'' according to a statement from the World Wildlife Fund.

The four fish weighed between 99 pounds and 110 pounds each and measured nearly five feet long. But as we learned in news reports just two weeks later, the Mekong giant catfish, believed to be the world's largest freshwater fish, can grow much larger.

That's when stories and photographs of a grizzly-sized Mekong giant catfish first began making the rounds. That incredible fish, 646 pounds and nearly nine feet long, was netted by villagers in Chiang Khong, a remote district in northern Thailand. It is the largest catfish of any sort documented in modern times.

Local environmentalists and government officials negotiated to release the record-breaking animal so it could continue its spawning migration in the far north of Thailand, near the borders of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China. But the fish, an adult male, later died.

Once again, however, a catfish was the focus of news stories carried around the globe, and once more, we discovered that people throughout the world anglers and non-anglers alike have a strong desire to learn more about this group of fascinating fishes and about the people who pursue them.

Considering the Mekong giant catfish's status as a critically endangered species, it's unlikely a specimen bigger than the 646-pounder will ever surface. Odds are good, however, that Tim Pruitt's 124-pound blue cat isn't the biggest swimming the waters of the U.S. Blue cats over 150 pounds were reliably documented in the 19th century, and sooner or later probably sooner some angler will land one larger than Pruitt's gargantuan fish. Such a catch will undoubtedly make headlines around the planet, the angler who catches it will be known worldwide, and the sport of fishing will once again be in the limelight.

Let's hope that the angler who catches that fish does everything possible to keep or release it alive and healthy. If so, the headlines will be positive, the angler will be revered, and all of sport fishing will benefit.

Best of all in the minds of those of us who love whiskerfish, the sport of catfishing will continue to enjoy the favorable recognition it deserves from other anglers and the public at large.

It's about time.

Keith Sutton is the author of two books on catfishing: "Fishing for Catfish" and "Catfishing: Beyond the Basics." For ordering information, email Sutton at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.