How big can North American catfish get?
In large bodies of water across the U.S., I often hear the same stories about “catfish as big as Volkswagens” or my personal favorite: “commercial divers saw catfish so big, they refused to go back down”. These stories are nothing more than urban legend, and I’ve heard these same narratives from Oklahoma to Virginia.
But how big can North American catfish get? While neither blue nor flathead catfish can get as big as the monstrous Wels catfish in Europe, or the Piraiba catfish in the Amazon (both species can exceed 8 feet in length), they do grow to impressive sizes. So how big can North American catfish get?
Blue Catfish Ictalurus furcatus
While a blue catfish weighing 315 lbs was allegedly caught in the Missouri River in 1866, there is little evidence to support this claim. The Missouri River allegedly produced another blue catfish weighing 242 lbs in 1868, though again, information is limited. Blue catfish grow indeterminately and can live for over 30 years, so large sizes are possible. While these two massive specimens are uncertain, there is evidence that fish weighing around 150 lbs were routinely caught in the 1800s. Dr. J. Steedman, who was chairman of the Missouri Fish Commission, sent a 150 lb blue catfish to the US National museum in November of 1879. He purchased the fish at the St. Louis fish market. The note that accompanied these specimens suggested that fish of this size were commonplace at the time.
“Your letter requesting shipment to you of a large Mississippi catfish was received this morning. Upon visiting our market this afternoon, I luckily found two—one of 144 lbs, the other 150 lbs” (1). Both of these fish would be world records today, yet appeared to be common in the 1800s.
The largest fish in recent history was caught in Bugg’s Island Reservoir in Virginia in 2011. It weighed an impressive 143 lbs and is the current world record. Bugg’s Island also produced another absolute monster, 141.8 lbs, during a tournament in February of 2017. Virginia is the only state that has produced fish over 140 lbs in recent history. Virginia dominates the blue catfish list, and has produced three of the top five biggest blue catfish ever caught.
South Carolina, Tennessee, and Missouri have all produced blue catfish in the 130 lb class, while Illinois, Texas, and Alabama have all produced fish at or exceeding 120 lbs. Oklahoma is #10 on the list with a 118 lb brute caught in Lake Texoma, the same reservoir that produced biggest blue catfish from Texas (121.5 lbs).
Triple digit blue catfish are becoming more and more common, and this may be due to better management and more harvest restrictions. Studies have shown that very few blue catfish have the potential to grow large (2), therefore it is feasible that the harvest of large individuals can destroy the trophy potential of a given water body. Many states in the Midwest have recognized this and now restrict harvest of big cats.
Flathead Catfish Pylodictis olivaris
While flathead catfish have the reputation of being the second largest North American catfish species, they aren't much smaller than blue catfish, and flathead catfish can reach almost 6’ in length. As another long lived species, flathead catfish have the potential to grow to impressive sizes.
The largest documented flathead catfish in recent history came from the mighty Arkansas River. It was just shy of 140 lbs and was caught on a snagline near Little Rock. “Snaglines” are simply ropes that are set about 1-2’ above the bottom of the river. Several dropper lines are attached the main line, usually spaced about 1’ apart, and razor sharp treble hooks are attached to the end of each dropper. As a fish swims under the main line, the treble hooks snag the outside of the fish. As the fish swims frantically trying to escape, the barb of the hook is buried under the skin and the fish is captured. It works particularly well for catfish, since catfish often try to escape by rolling. As the catfish rolls under the snagline, they become hopelessly entangled in a web of razor sharp hooks and twine.
The Sayre brothers captured this impressive flathead catfish in 1982, and paraded it around town in the back of their pickup for several hours. It was weighed on cotton scales in front of multiple witnesses the next morning, but probably had lost a significant amount of weight since it had been out of the water for several hours. Stories about the fish appeared in local newspapers, and the fish was mounted and displayed at the Arkansas State Fair for several years. Its head was 21” wide and it was 69” long, which makes it the longest catfish on record in North America (5’ 9”). Since it was captured prior to the internet era, it was quickly forgotten and little information about it exists today.
The next largest flathead catfish was caught in Elk City Reservoir, Kansas 1998. It was caught on rod and reel by a man who was crappie fishing. It weighed 123 lbs, was 61” long and had a girth of 42 ¾”. Much doubt and controversy surrounds this catch, as it was caught on light tackle (crappie gear) and the fisherman claims that it “didn’t put up much of fight”. Regardless of how it was caught, it’s undoubtedly one of the most impressive flathead catfish ever seen. The fish was determined to be at least 22 years old, and its stomach contained a 15 lb bigmouth buffalo, which is carp-like species that is native to much of the Midwest.
The next largest flathead catfish was captured in Lake Palestine, Texas in 1986. A young man captured it via handfishing, after seeing it under a dock one evening. He paraded it around town, yet was quickly arrested since handfishing was illegal in Texas at the time. The fish was seized by Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. It was mounted and is on display in the Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, TX.
Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas are the only states that have produced flathead catfish over 120 lbs. Texas dominates the flathead catfish “top ten” list, with five listings. The only other states that have produced flathead catfish over 100 lbs are Oklahoma, Missouri, and Georgia. Interestingly, only three fish over 100 lbs have been caught in rivers, the rest were captured in reservoirs.
Flathead catfish do not appear to reach 100 lbs as often as blue catfish, yet this pattern may be obscured by the fact that flathead catfish are more challenging to capture. While blue catfish willingly consume dead bait, flathead catfish prefer live prey, which makes fishing for them more complicated. Blue catfish often inhabit main channel, open-water habitat, while flathead catfish are structure oriented and prefer dense log jams, rock piles, and undercut banks. Even with beefy tackle, hooking a 100 + lb flathead in these circumstances would result in “heartbreak” more often than not. It is quite possible that there are more big flathead catfish out there than we think.
Trophy catfishing continues to grow in popularity, and so does the “CPR” philosophy (Catch, Photograph, Release). I fully expect that records will continue to be broken, and that a blue catfish exceeding 150 lbs will be caught in the next decade, though only time will tell. Scroll to the bottom of the page to see a list of the ten largest blue catfish and flathead catfish ever caught.
1. Graham, K. 1999. A review of the biology and management of Blue Catﬁsh. Pages 37–49 in E. R. Irwin, W. A. Hubert, C. F. Rabeni, H. L. Schramm Jr., and T. Coon, editors. Catﬁsh 2000: Proceedings of the International Ictalurid Symposium. American Fisheries Society, Symposium 24, Bethesda, Maryland.
2. Boxrucker, J., and K. Kuklinski. 2006. Abundance, growth, and mortality of selected Oklahoma Blue Catfish populations: implications for management of trophy fisheries. Proceedings of the Annual Conference Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 60(2005):152–156