The fish was so big and so strong it took two men, working knee-deep in mud and brown water, to subdue it.
Josh Hackathorn ducked and jabbed like a boxer. A mistimed grab as the fish flopped and he would risk the six-inch, razor-sharp steel hook stuck in the jaw of a fish being deep in his hand or arm, stapling him to the writhing fish. At best that would be excruciatingly painful.
At worst, well, monster catfish have dragged men to their deaths before in this section of the Kansas River.
The soft light of a lantern showed a big blue catfish with a five-gallon head and whiskers the size of licorice sticks. When 6’1” Thomas Finch, who had hooked it with a rod and reel, held the fish up, its lips were mid-chest and its tail barely touched the ground.
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Digital scales put it at 56 pounds. That’s bigger than most anglers ever see and big enough to feed 40 people.
They let it go.
“That’s a nice fish, but let’s catch one that’s 80 or 90 pounds,” Finch said. “They’re in here. The Kaw has some great fish.”
River of giants
When it comes to fish, Kansas is recognized as the land of giants.
A 123-pound flathead from Elk City Reservoir has been the world record for nearly 20 years. A 144-pound paddlefish, caught from a small lake in Atchison, has held the state and world record since 2004. The state’s record of 102.8 pounds for blue catfish is one of the highest in the nation, and many think it will be broken soon.
But no place in the state has bigger, meaner fish than the Kansas River.
The Kansas River, known as the Kaw to locals, starts at Junction City where the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers join. From there the river flows about 150 miles east to where it meets the Missouri River in Kansas City.
Big flathead and blue catfish travel up the Missouri River and hang a west at the mouth of the Kansas. Then they run into the Bowersock Dam in downtown Lawrence, which was built in the 1870s to provide power to a flour mill and the town. The dam, tall and reaching from shore to shore, has been a dead-end for giant catfish for years.
But the water below the dam also is a prime feeding area for the big fish. Small fish from upstream get washed over the dam and, rolling in the turbulence, are easily caught by large predators. As well as native fish, huge schools of invasive Asian carp are also blocked by the dam and offer big blue and flathead catfish easy meals, in one- to five-pound bites at a time.
Few places in America can match the fishing in the 50 miles of the Kansas River between the Bowersock Dam and the Missouri River.
Finch, nicknamed the Kaw River Man, has reeled in flatheads weighing 81, 87 and 88 pounds from that stretch. In one night, he and his son once caught 1,200 pounds of blue catfish, the biggest weighing 72 pounds.
A few weeks ago one of his friends, Joshua Bockover, caught an 87-pound blue cat from the Kansas.
The history of Lawrence is so intertwined with the Kansas River that there’s a museum dedicated to the men who made their living from the river.
Barbara Higgins-Dover, Lawrence’s Kansas Riverkings Museum director, said there was a time when the river was deep enough that steamships and barges were the town’s main link to the outside world. The town often had several fish shops, and restaurants that cooked and sold fresh catches.
The museum chronicles the glory days of commercial fishing on the Kansas River, from 1870-1970. Commercial fishermen, who fished mostly with huge nets, dodged game wardens the last 50 years after net fishing was outlawed.
An 1896 photo shows commercial anglers Abe Burns and Jake Washington with big blues that weighed 90 and 111 pounds.
Washington was in his 70s when he tethered a big hook to his hands and went into the river in search of big fish. A few days later his body was found washed ashore downstream, still attached to the fish that had drowned him.
There’s also a 1915 photo of fisherman Doug Smith with a blue catfish of 150 pounds. According to local legend, fish as big as 200 pounds have been caught in the river.
“We can’t find any proof of that,” Higgins-Dover said. “But who knows, I guess it could be true.”
As a small girl in 1969, she remembers her grandfather, commercial angler Richard Higgins, and father catching a flathead catfish of about 100 pounds.
Big flatheads have been a constant in the Kansas River, and blue catfish have been coming on strong since commercial fishing for them was stopped in both the Kansas and Missouri rivers. These days most serious anglers release big catfish so they can continue to grow, and keep only a few smaller ones to eat.
Not for the weak
Fishing for monster catfish in the Kansas River is not for the weak, ill-equipped or inexperienced.
In heavy current, even fish like Finch’s recent 56 pounder can strip the gears on standard-sized reels and snap a good bass rod like a twig. The mouths of catfish are lined with thousands of sandpaperish teeth that can peel skin from forearms and wrists. Fins on the backs and sides are stiff and sharp as ice picks, and can penetrate a booted human foot from top to bottom with one flop.
When the river is up, and the current strong, dangerous undertows can be a serious problem, especially below the Bowersock Dam where many gather to fish.
Even at low levels, the Kansas River is mined with huge rocks or logs just inches below the surface, waiting to destroy the bottom of a passing outboard motor. Shifting silt and sand, especially pushed by high current, can quickly form a barely submerged sandbar where deep water had been a few weeks before. Boaters heading along at a fast speed once hit such a boat-stopping sandbar, Finch said. All the boat’s occupants became airborne.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Finch and Hackathorn launched boats at a ramp in Lawrence, and carefully headed to a favored fishing spot on the river. At times their shallow-running boats, with special motors, barely skimmed by in two feet of water.
On shore, the three men gathered wood for a cooking fire, set up chairs and stretched hammocks between trees in preparation for an angling all-nighter. They cast lines with sniper-like accuracy to be on this side of some current, or this side of a rock pile. A few small fish came along in daylight. Finch predicted bigger and better things after dark, when the biggest of catfish normally prowl.
The 56-pounder hit a big chunk of raw carp meat. It took one person with a rod and reel to get it close to the shore, two people to wrestle it to land, and all three to get it up the bank, weighed and released. It was their only big fish of the night.
The next morning they learned that what had once been deep water in front of their camp had largely silted in with this spring’s heavy rains, pushing the big fish to other parts of the river.
“Things are just always changing on the Kaw,” Hackathorn said.
“We’ll probably just have to move down river a little ways next time,” Finch said. “There should be some really big fish down there.”
Finch said the fishing in the Kansas River has never been better in his 42 years.
“We have quite a few 70-pound fish being caught, and even some in the 80s, both flatheads and blues,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised that, within my lifetime, someone comes up with a blue pushing 150 pounds.”