Monsters in our rivers

National Geographic Daily News recently reported the landing of North America’s largest-ever blue catfish, weighing an incredible 143 pounds and measuring 57 inches. The fish caught in Virginia in late June broke the previous record for a blue catfish by 13 pounds.
National Geographic fellow Zeb Hogan said the blue is the largest catfish in North America, and that there is an unconfirmed report of one huge catfish weighing a whopping 315 pounds that was caught in 1866 in Portland, Missouri. 
While this province isn’t home to blue catfish, it certainly has plenty of channel catfish, typically referred to as “Manitoba monsters.” In fact, the Red River, is continually referred to as the best spot in the world to catch whooper channel “cats.”
Peter Bennet, a writer for the popular angling magazine, Field & Stream, emphasized in an article that channel catfish weighing over 30 pounds are “routinely” caught in the Red River.
Keith “Catfish” Sutton, who has travelled the world to angle for monster catfish — thus his nickname — in his book, Catfish: Beyond the Basics, makes particular mention of the Red River as being the best location for catching huge channel cats, despite the fact that the world-record for the species is from the Santee-Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina, where a cat weighing 58 pounds was landed on July 7, 1964.
In 1996, In-Fishing Magazine dubbed the Red River, the “jewel in the Catfishing World Crown.” To commemorate the merit of such a title, the town of Selkirk erected a huge statue to Chuck the Catfish.
The present Manitoba channel “cat” — the affectionate name given to the rather grotesque-looking fish by angling enthusiasts — record was caught from the Red River by Robert Antonichuk on August 16, 1992, that measured 118.11 centimetres (46.5 inches). Before fish were only measured to qualify for master angler awards, the record weight for a channel catfish was 36.53 pounds, or 16.57 kilograms. It was caught by Horst Durhack Jr. from the Winnipeg River in 1989.
In the U.S., channel cats are common in many states, and are always one of the favoured food fish. On the other hand, Manitobans invariably cringe at the mere mention of turning the slime-covered lethally-barbed beasts into a savoury meal.
“Catfish and hush puppies, the delicious duo which combines the channel catfish dipped in corn meal and deep-fried, and a flavourful corn meal hot cake, has rapidly become a hallmark of the deep south,” according to the pamphlet, Hook n’ Cook, published by Manitoba Conservation Fisheries. “River rats along the Mississippi have long sworn by the cat for easy catchin’ and good eatin’ ... Catfish are catching on so fast in North America that supply cannot keep up with demand.” The species is so popular south of the border that they’re raised on fish farms — “catfish by the acre.”
With apologies to Manitoba Conservative, and despite the recipes provided, catfish may be a delicacy  in the U.S., but they’re far from “catching on so fast” in Manitoba as an eating fish.
But that wasn’t always the case. Catfish were at one time a commercial species caught from Lake Winnipeg and the Red River for sale in Winnipeg and beyond. Fishmonger Louis Pruden in  1871 announced in an August 2 Manitoba Liberal advertisement that he had “made arrangements for supplying the inhabitants of Winnipeg with fresh Sturgeon, Jackfish, Catfish and Whitefish in their season.”
Advertisements in city newspapers from the late 1880s gave catfish the same prominence as pickerel (the name age-old Manitobans gave to what the Americans call walleye, which is, unfortunately, a name that is gaining more prominence as the province attempts to lure more anglers from the U.S. to our lakes and rivers), sauger, goldeye, jackfish (a traditional local name for northern pike), whitefish and sturgeon. They latter were over-fished to near extinction in the early 1900s, but are now making a comeback thanks to local conservationists, while the other species are thriving.
Interestingly, the Winnipeg Fish Company in 1907 had an exhibit of live fish found in Manitoba lakes and rivers, which included a sturgeon weighing 120 pounds, a size of fish that has today vanished from the province’s waterways. The Telegram of July 5, 1907, reported the huge fish, caught just north of Winnipeg in the Red River, had died, but was replaced by another sturgeon of equal size and weight for the  exhibition.  
“Yesterday,” proclaimed the May 17, 1906, Morning Telegram, “S. Sigurdson’s boat the Fern passed here (Winnipeg Beach) en route to Selkirk laden with catfish, the cargo weighing 6,800 pounds. This is one of the best catches on record and is the earliest in 30 years.” The catch was shipped from Selkirk  to the Winnipeg markets.
With flesh ranging in colour from white to pink, a Winnipeg restaurant was rumoured in the 1890s to have even tried to pass off the channel catfish fillets it served as cut from Red River salmon.
While Manitobans love pan-fired pickerel, as well as smoked goldeye or baked whitefish, the same cannot be said for cats prepared in any manner for the table, despite the assurances from our American cousins that they’re finger lickin’ good.
Yet, angling for monster channel catfish in the Red River is an extremely popular pastime, and has been for well over a century. As far back as 1895, channel cats were reported as being “exceedingly abundant” in the Red River, attracting intrepid anglers to test their mettle against the fighting fish. A brief news item in 1891 reported that even 9 1/2-year-old “Little Miss Curry” of Winnipeg landed a 20-pound catfish from the Red River. The Telegram on May 17, 1906, said: “Catfish weighing 12 to 14 pounds are being landed from the Red River at the north end of the city. Some exciting tussles are witnessed in landing these fish.”
For local anglers, “tussles” with monster cats is the main attraction. Ictalalurus punctatus rafinesque is not your typical catfish as it has a sleek body filled with muscles that allows it to jump clear of the water when hooked. 
The ugliness of the fish and the abundance of more glamourous species such as  pickerel is probably why Manitobans turn their noses up at the mere mention of a catfish meal. But, Manitoba Conservation assures us its flesh is “succulent and sweet” when cooked, and that all that is is required for preparation “is to make a cut around the head, following the contours of the gill covers. Then, holding the fish firmly by the head pull the skin off with a pair of pliers. Cut out the portions of the fins then remove the head, tail and entrails,” and cut into fillets, roll in corn meal and then fry. 
Catfish and hush puppies anyone?