Michael Pearce

July 21, 2012

Monster fish of Kansas: State's waters hold creatures monstrous in looks, size

Kansas holds world records on two of the biggest species in North America — paddlefish and flathead catfish. Some of the state’s best fishing is yet to come. Experts say many Kansas lakes hold blue catfish that could grow to 100 pounds or more.

Michael Pearce

The Eagle's outdoor reporter highlights the latest hunting, fishing and wildlife news.

Clinton Boldridge remembers minutes seemed like hours in his battle of man against beast, muscle against muscle and will against will.

By rod and reel he’d worked the fish into the shallows, and then had to wade in to finish the task.

In and out of the water he wrestled the fish that was more than 6 feet long, nearly 4 feet around and weighed 144 pounds.

“That fish beat me up and down the bank,” Boldridge recalls of landing the paddlefish. “I’m a professional boxer and it was all I could handle.”

The fish and the fight were worthy of an episode of “River Monsters,” a popular Animal Planet program that has host Jeremy Wade often traveling to distant jungles to catch some of the world’s biggest, and strangest, fish.

But Boldridge caught the world-record fish in a pond in Atchison, in northeast Kansas.

It’s far from the only “monster fish” to come from Kansas.

We hold world records on two of the biggest species in North America — paddlefish and flathead catfish.

Some of the state’s best fishing is yet to come. Experts say many Kansas lakes hold blue catfish that could grow to 100 pounds or more.

As well as finned giants, Kansas has a plethora of fish that are flat-out freakish and dangerous.

How big?

Pioneers to Kansas found big fish in some of our largest rivers.

In “More True Tales of Old Time Kansas,” David Dary writes about a 131½-pound catfish caught near Manhattan around 1870.

But never has it been easier for Kansas fish to grow huge than now.

“We’ve always had fertile waters for fish,” said Tom Mosher, a retired Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries research biologist. “Now (the lakes and rivers) have all that fertilizer farmers put on fields and homeowners put on their lawns, too.”

The added nutrients fuel growth throughout the food chain, starting with the microscopic plankton that feed the tiny fish, which in turn feed bigger fish.

Mosher long predicted Kansas reservoirs were fertile enough to hold 100-pound catfish. Ken Paulie proved him right on May 14, 1998.

Paulie headed to Elk City Reservoir in southeast Kansas hoping to catch some pan-sized crappie, but caught something large enough to roast over an open fire with a melon in its mouth.

The 61-inch flathead catfish that grabbed his bait weighed 123 pounds, beating the previous world record by more than 10 pounds.

Nobody predicted Boldridge’s huge paddlefish he caught on May 5, 2004.

Paddlefish are usually found in the Mississippi and Missouri river systems and the reservoirs they fill.

Nobody knows how it got into the five-acre pond in Atchison, or why the plankton-eater scooped up the dough ball Boldridge was using to fish for carp.

No matter, the fish broke a world record a Montana paddlefish had set in the early 1970s.

It’s questionable whether there are currently fish swimming in Kansas, or any place, big enough to top our two world records, but world-class fish are here.

Last summer biologists sampling El Dorado Reservoir caught, and released, a flathead they estimated weighed up to 90 pounds.

Cheney Reservoir and the Arkansas River have produced flatheads around 80 pounds within the past few years.

But it’s another catfish that has monster fish hunters smiling about Kansas’ future. Many say it’s only a matter of time before many of our lakes have 100-pound blue catfish.

Some think we already do.

Blue catfish were the giants in Dary’s book, and told about in some of Mark Twain’s tales.

Habitat changes like dams and channelization, plus commercial fishing, took their toll. Even 30 years ago, 50-pound blues were a rarity. Those days are gone.

In 1990, blues were stocked in Milford Reservoir to help control populations of gizzard shad and other fish too large for other predatory fish. They’ve done well.

“I have no doubt there’s a state-record (94-pound) blue in Milford,” said David Studebaker, director of Catfish Chasers tournaments. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s one over 100 (pounds). Those fish have such voracious appetites, and their growth rates are astronomical once they get some size.”

The Burlington angler/guide said the unofficial lake record for Milford is 83 pounds and he saw blues approaching 70 pounds several years ago.

Using chunks of dead fish the size of Big Macs for bait, anglers know their stringers of blues have to average about 35 pounds per fish to win a Milford tournament.

Blue catfish have been stocked in about a dozen other lakes, including Cheney and El Dorado reservoirs, to help eat invasive zebra mussels and white perch.

Studebaker said blues stocked in Melvern Reservoir about 10 years ago are already hitting 20 pounds.

“They’re just going to keep growing,” he said. “They just keep getting bigger and bigger in those Kansas lakes.”

It’s unknown how big Kansas blues may eventually get, but nationally the species seems to get bigger every year.

Last year a world-record 143-pounder was caught in Virginia. It beat a 130-pound Missouri blue caught in 2010.

Ancient species

Kansas has several fish that are monstrous in looks, as well as in size.

Boldridge’s brother, Bryan, was along when he caught his world record for a while.

“When the fish got shallow and its (paddle) came up, he was gone,” Boldridge said of his brother. “He thought it was some kind of dinosaur or something.”

In a way, Bryan Boldridge was right. Paddlefish have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Biologists still don’t know the purpose for the species’ namesake paddle on its snout.

Kansas is home to two kinds of sturgeon, ancient and seemingly armor-coated bottom-feeders that only a momma sturgeon could love.

While sturgeon in the rivers that feed the Pacific have reached more than 450 pounds, the Kansas record is only 5.23 pounds.

Occasionally a Kansas angler gets the shock of reeling in a writhing fish that looks more like a snake than a fish. They’re American eels, which often reach 30 or more inches long.

Mosher said dams on rivers and streams have greatly reduced Kansas eel populations because fish need to travel to the Sargasso Sea, near the West Indies, to spawn.

But when it comes to alarming looks, longnose gar are the Kansas kings of garishness.

Reported to be a species around 100 million years old, gar are blanketed with hide thick enough to have once been used to cover war shields. Their scales can cut human skin if handled wrong.

One look in their mouth is almost enough to keep people from dangling their toes in the water.

The jaws of a longnose are long, narrow and studded with needle-sharp teeth that may reach nearly an inch long in older fish.

Long and lithe, longnose gar are consistently the longest fish in Kansas.

Bill White is a Wichitan who welcomes the fish that most fear. He fishes for them with flies he ties to replicate the gizzard shad on which Arkansas River gar feast.

In his eyes, they deserve the same respect given to game fish.

White has caught several over 50 inches, and his best gar was about 5½ feet long. But he wants one bigger.

“I know there are 6-footers out there,” he said of the gar in the Arkansas River in Wichita. “I’ve seen them and hooked them but not gotten one in. I’ll get a 6-footer eventually.”

Invasive dangers

Even a 7-foot gar is probably no more dangerous to humans than a 7-inch sunfish.

But there are a pair of foreign species in Kansas waters than can inflict pain in several ways.

Zebra mussels, tiny mollusks that have infested many local lakes by the millions, live in sharp shells that can slice bare feet and hands.

Silver carp can do far worse.

Jason Goeckler, Wildlife and Parks invasive species coordinator, rates the Asian imports as the most dangerous animal in Kansas waters.

They’re currently confined to the lower Kansas and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. Goeckler fears they could become established in lakes and reservoirs.

The problem is that the fish are prone to jumping up to 8 feet in the air when a boat or other watercraft passes. That can be a real danger to anglers, pleasure boaters or water-skiers.

He said bones have been broken and people knocked from boats in other states.

Worse could happen if a fast boat encounters a particularly large silver carp.

Goeckler said they’ve reached 60 pounds in other states.

Relatively new here, there’s no knowing how large they might become in Kansas.

Our waters are obviously fertile.

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