CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WTVC) - Matt Schulte had been in the heat of battle for about ten minutes when he looked over at me in awe and said, "This is a different class of fish."
Welcome to the Tennessee River, home of the giants. Chickamauga has become well-known across the nation as a big bass factory, attracting bass fishermen and tournaments from far and wide. That has happened in the last 20 years following an intensive management effort by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
What many anglers don't realize, however, is that the Tennessee River has also long been a "catfish factory." The fertile river naturally produces huge numbers of catfish, especially blue catfish, including some monsters. When they are skiing, swimming or otherwise frolicking in the lake, most people have absolutely no idea there are catfish weighing as much as 100 pounds swimming around beneath them.
Schulte knew such fish existed but probably never envisioned he would hook one. Schulte, from Denver, Colorado, was in Chattanooga visiting his uncle, Larry Miller. Fishing with Scenic City Fishing Charters, the pair had caught several catfish in the 10-pound class when just after 11 a.m. Schulte felt the telltale "thump" of a catfish inhaling the bluegill head on his hook. He knew it was bigger than anything he had hooked so far, but as the battle dragged on with the huge fishing stripping drag off his fishing reel time-after-time, he realized he had hooked a true river monster.
The time it takes to subdue a monster catfish is usually in direct proportion to the size of the fishing tackle. Schulte was using a medium heavy spinning rod and reel spooled with 50-pound-test braided line.
"Depending on the size of this fish, 30 or 40 minutes isn't unusual," I told Schulte. "You might as well just settle in."
Nearby bass fishermen watched in amazement as the minutes dragged by and Schulte's rod remained bent double.
There was only one bad thing about this situation. True monster blue cats have not been very common this year. For that reason, I had been carrying my smaller landing net rather than the huge, cumbersome net we like for trophy blues. I knew there was absolutely no way this catfish would fit in the net I had in the boat. To say I was nervous about landing this beast by hand would be an understatement.
"Good God almighty. Look at this thing," exclaimed Miller when his nephew finally brought the beast to the surface.
The battle, however, was far from over. Catfish are notorious for doing what is called "an alligator roll" when landing them. Grab this fish wrong and a massive roll could break a wrist. I knew I had to grab the lower jaw with two hands to try and prevent a roll and manhandle the fish into the boat. It was difficult getting the beast in position and every time I touched it, a surge of adrenaline sent the fish back down and the fight began anew.
Finally, the fish was worn down, nearly as tired as Schulte. Grabbing the massive lower jaw with both hands, I still needed a third hand from Schulte to wrestle it over the gunwale and into the boat.
The huge fish was 53 inches long and 33.5 inches around, weighing right at 75 pounds - the second largest catfish a client has ever landed in my boat in 14 years of guiding.
As large as it was, there are bigger ones out there. The Tennessee state record blue catfish caught on rod & reel weighed 112 pounds. The largest blue catfish ever caught by a commercial fisherman using a net weighed 130 lbs. It is every catfishman's dream to catch a "triple-digit fish." I've seen three of them, including a 120-pound blue caught in Chickamauga Lake by a commercial fisherman on a trot line.
In 2002 TWRA established a “Trophy Limit” on catfish. Now anglers (and commercial fishermen) are allowed to keep no more than one catfish per day more than 34-inches long. The goal is to help protect the true trophies. Like bass, however, most catfish anglers release the trophy fish.
As he placed the huge blue catfish back in the lake and watched it swim away, Schulte knew it was probably the fish of a lifetime. But if he returns from Colorado to try again, there is still a chance he could "size up."