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Out There: Chasin' cats on ol' Huck's river

This 102-pound Mississippi River blue catfish was caught near the turn of the 20th century, when monster cats were commonly caught in the Father of Waters. 

When I was a young 'un, Mama read me "Huckleberry Finn." Man, I loved that story! Ol' Huck and Jim runnin' 'round on the Mississip' doin' all kinds o' fun stuff. 'Specially catfishin'.

There's this one part of the book where they get ahold of a real whopper, and ever since Mama read it to me when I wadn't more'n 5 years old, I been dreamin' a catchin' a cat like that. Here's the good part, perzackly like ol' Mark Twain wrote it.

The days went along, and the river went down between its banks again; and about the first thing we done was to bait one of the big hooks with a skinned rabbit and set it and catch a catfish that was as big as a man, being six foot two inches long, and weighed over two hundred pounds. We couldn't handle him, of course; he would a flung us into Illinois. We just set there and watched him rip and tear around till he drownded

Comin' up as a kid, I thought I was Huck Finn. Fished and camped on the Mississip' ever' chance I got. But try as I might, I couldn't catch a cat big as the one Huck and Jim got. I even tried skinned rabbits for bait.

When I got growed up, I kept after it. And I ain't gave up, yet.

See, I knew there was a monster like Huck's in the Mississip'. I kep' tellin' folks, if you wanna catch a really big cat, you oughta come fish this river. And sure nuff, that ol' fat cat was laid up just downstream from the big bridge 'tween Memphis and West Memphis.

This cat wadn't no kitty, either. Big as that sucker was, he musta been there God knows how many years, and me drivin' cross that bridge 10,000 times, looking out there right at his home and thinkin' 'bout catchin' him.

Turns out I fished the zact same spot he's took in, prob'ly a hunnerd times over the years. And did I hook him? Heck, no. He uz prob'ly laying down there just laughin' at me, knowin' how bad I's wantin' to catch him.

But I'm gittin' aheada myself. You see, that ol' catfish did get catched, by a guy named Charles Ashley Jr., who lives at Marion, just up the road a piece from the river.

Maybe ol' Charley boy's mama read "Huck Finn" to him, too, 'cause he works right there on the river, and he does lots of catfishin', too. Him and a coupla buddies went fishin' over there on Aug. 3, 2001. They prob'ly couldn't find no skinned rabbits for bait, 'cause they was usin' Spam.

Now when I heard this part o' the story, that's where I figgered I'd been screwin' up all them years. 'Cause not once did I use Spam for bait. I tried skinned rabbits. I tried Vyeenee sausages, weiners, clams and skipjacks. But I never tried Spam. Why should I? Who ever heard o' usin' Spam for catfish bait?

Well, I guess ol' Charley did, 'cause when a reporter talked to him, he said that's all he ever used for bait. And that's all his pa had ever used, and his grandpappy, too.

Now you'd think them ol' boys might o' tol' the rest of us how good Spam worked. But no, they kep' it to theirselves. Course, I reckon I might o' kep' it a secret, too, if I had any idee it might o' catched a cat the size o' the one Charley landed. Oh, yeah Charley's cat.

Well, Charley and his buddies sat out there in a ol' flatbottom 'bout 30 minutes and didn't get narry a bite. Then all o' sudden, Charley's line starts movin' off.

Now this guy's been a cat man since way back, and he knew to wait a bit 'fore he set the hook. Thing was, ol' Charley had no idee what he was 'bout to set the hook in. 'Member that part in "Huck Finn" 'bout watchin' that big cat tearin' aroun', worried it might fling 'em into Illinois?

Well, when Charley set the hook, same thing happened. He knew right off he'd laid into one heck of a fish, and he didn't figure his little rod and reel was gonna hold it. It only had 20-pound line, and Charley was sure this fish was bigger'n 20 pounds.

Charley's line and his pole held up, though, and after 'bout 45 minutes o' fighting, Charley started gittin' the best o' that cat. He wore that big ol' monster down, drug it upside the boat and rassled it in.

Nex' thing he done was crank up the motor and head out ta git that cat weighed. He knew purty certain this one was big enough it might be a record of some kind. And sure nuff, it was.

Now before I tell you perzackly how big that ol' cat was, let me tell ya a story I heard from ol' Dogpaddle Patterson, who guides city slickers for Mississip' catfish.

Dogpaddle got a buddy that works on them big river boats. And one day, right close to where Charley caught that big cat, this guy was sitting in the tower o' his boat staring at the river, when, all of a sudden like, a nice catfish, 'bout 10 pounds, he said, come up and went scooting across the top of the water.

That was purty strange by itself; catfish ain't s'posed to do that. But what happened nex' was even stranger. As that guy watched that catfish run 'cross the top, another catfish come up and swallered it whole.

Now when Dogpaddle heard that tale, he blew it off as jus' that a tale. But when he heard 'bout Charley's catfish, he got to thinkin' maybe it wasn't a tale after all.

You see, when the game warden from the Fish and Game Commission finally showed up that night at Wade-n-Pop's Fish Market, and Charley's cat was 'ficially weighed, it pulled the needle on the scale to 116 pounds. Turned out it was a new world record.

So there ain't no doubt in anyone's mind that Charley's cat was big enough to eat a 10-pounder for an appetizer. Maybe the tale Dogpaddle heard wadn't just so much horse hockey after all.

Now if you been paying attention, maybe you caught on to the fact that Charley's cat might not be the biggest one swimmin' in the Mississip'. It's a hawg, all right, but Charley's catfish wadn't but a hair over 5 feet long and weighed less than 117 pounds.

Huck's catfish was 6-foot-2 and weighed more than 200 pounds. Now granted, Huck ain't nothin' but a figment of Mark Twain's 'magination. But Twain was a riverboat pilot on the Mississip' and probably saw catfish bigger'n that in his day.

Sure, he might have bent the truth a bit, but Twain claimed most o' what he wrote was based on fact. If that's so, there's a purty good chance someone's gonna catch a cat bigger'n Charley's someday. And though I may not be the guy who does it, I'm darn sure gonna keep trying.

Now if I can just figger out where to store this pallet-load of Spam.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.