Just another wild (cat)fish story
Scuba divers inspecting a nearby dam emerge from the water terrified. In the dark waters below, they had spotted catfish as large as a Volkswagen. They refused to go back into the water for fear they might get swallowed whole. That urban legend dates back to the 1950s. More than half-a-century later, fishery biologists in Alabama say they still hear the giant-catfish-below-a-dam story dozens of times a year. It's not just an Alabama story. A search on the Internet finds the same story told about dams all across the United States. The question, though, is could there really be a catfish in Alabama big enough to eat a human?
Just another wild (cat)fish story
You've no doubt heard the ages-old story.
Scuba divers inspecting a nearby dam emerge from the water terrified. In the dark waters below, they had spotted catfish as large as a Volkswagen. They refused to go back into the water for fear they might get swallowed whole.
That urban legend dates back to the 1950s. More than half-a-century later, fishery biologists in Alabama say they still hear the giant-catfish-below-a-dam story dozens of times a year.
It's not just an Alabama story. A search on the Internet finds the same story told about dams all across the United States.
The question, though, is could there really be a catfish in Alabama big enough to eat a human?
Fishery biologists concede a catfish might actually try to swallow a human if it were big enough. There are plenty of confirmed stories of catfish eating unusual objects and taking on a meal so large that the fish or other objects became lodged in the catfish's throat.
"Of anything predatory, you can find confirmed stories where a fish or animal attacked something too large for it to handle," said Joe Addison, a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources fisheries biologist said. "On occasion they'll even attack something so large it will become lodged in their throat and it will kill them."
Still, Addison and other fisheries biologists say the stories of giant catfish capable of eating a human just aren't true. Neither Alabama, nor anywhere else in the United States for that matter, has catfish that large, they say.
Catfish such as the 646-pound, 8-foot-long Mekong catfish caught recently in Thailand aren't found in Alabama. Neither are the giant wels catfish found in Europe.
In fact, the largest catfish ever recorded in Alabama weighed 111 pounds. The largest catfish ever recorded in the United States is the 121-pound blue catfish caught from the Texas side of Lake Texoma in 2004.
Even a 121-pound catfish isn't going to try to inhale a human being, Addison said.
"I have personally spawned 50-pound catfish at the hatchery in Marion and I can tell you that a catfish twice that size or even three times that size cannot eat a human," he said.
Big one in Walker Co.:
Sumiton's John Beal probably would have agreed with Addison prior to last Sunday. What he saw at Walker County Lake in Jasper changed his mind.
Beal was fishing at daylight Sunday when he spotted what he first thought was a log. It turned out to be an unusually large flathead catfish with a smaller blue catfish lodged in its mouth.
Beal, fishing by himself, snagged the struggling catfish with a hook as it slowly swam by. He then wrestled with the fish and dragged it ashore.
The fish was reported to the department of conservation on Monday and biologists were told that the flathead catfish likely weighed 150 pounds. A fisheries biologist was dispatched to Walker County Lake. The fish was weighed on certified scales and came in at 55 pounds. The fish taken from its mouth weighed 12 pounds.
The big catfish is still alive in a tank at Walker County Lake.
"I say definitely this fish could have gotten a child's head in its mouth and possibly a grown man's head," Beal said. "We measured, and it had the other fish 14 inches down its throat.
"It was an incredible sight."
Addison believes there is no way that even a child's head could fit inside the mouth of a fish that size.
Stories of catfish biting off more they can handle are common. Noodlers, the fishermen who run their arms up in underwater holes to feel for catfish, often report having their arms sucked into a catfish's throat up to the elbow, even on 30-pound fish.
At Sandalwood Lake in Wichita, Kan., in 2004, a flathead catfish made national news for its appetite. Lakeside residents there discovered the catfish, estimated at 50 pounds, had inhaled a child's basketball and it was stuck in the fish's mouth. The fish was alive and trying to dive to the bottom, but the basketball kept bringing it to the surface.
Lake resident Bill Driver caught the fish with a net and tried unsuccessfully to pry the basketball from the flathead catfish's mouth. The ball was finally removed after it was punctured with a knife. The fish swam away unharmed.
Phony fish tales:
A catfish getting a less-than-regulation basketball in its mouth and getting a whole human in its mouth are two different things, state fisheries biologist Jack Turner says.
"Everybody has heard the old story about the giant catfish below dams," Turner said. "There's no reason to believe there are any catfish anywhere in Alabama capable of eating even a small child.
"There are historical reports that can't be verified from the 1800s and early 1900s of catfish weighing over 200 pounds in Alabama. Those may or may not be true. Still, a 200-pound catfish would not come close to being able to eat even a small child."
The Internet has done wonders for the rebirth of stories of man-eating catfish. The investigative Web site www.snopes.com has refuted them all.
The story of the 187-pound catfish caught in Texas that has circulated around the Internet in recent years turned out to be a wels catfish caught in Italy. The monstrous catfish caught in a lake in China that reportedly had a whole human inside turned out to be a whale shark that was caught from the ocean and it had no human inside.
"There are some big catfish out there in other countries but I have never seen it documented that they have ever eaten a human," Turner said. "The Mekong catfish in Asia grow to be 500 pounds or more and the wels catfish in Europe can grow to be several hundred pounds, I believe.
"But there's nothing like that in Alabama."
© 2008 The Birmingham News © 2008 al.com All Rights Reserved.