Blue catfish just short of world record

Most people don’t consider January the best time to go fishing, but don’t tell that to the anglers who turn out for the annual IceBowl Catfish Tournament on Kerr (Buggs Island) Lake.
A record field of 150 boats from Virginia and North Carolina were out in force on Saturday to brave chilly temperatures and cold water, all for the thrill of landing a big one in the annual IceBowl Catfish Tournament.
As it happens, the IceBowl this year was the biggest on record with more boats, more anglers and more spectators than every before. On Saturday, all of that took a back seat as rumors began circulating during the afternoon that one angler that had landed a “monster” blue catfish, possibly a new world record. From that moment on, the “monster cat” was the center of attention and the focus of the crowd.
When Dale Lowe Jr., of Bedford, and his team arrived at the weigh-in, they struggled to bring a truly massive fish to the scales. The fish was easily the largest blue catfish nearly any of the anglers had ever seen.
After wrestling the mammoth fish onto the scale and the final weigh-in was done, the huge fish just missed the world record mark of 143 pounds, but only by about a pound and a quarter. Lowe’s monster topped in at 141.76 pounds, just a pound and a quarter shy of setting a new world record, before being released back into the lake.
The weight did, however, easily secure the fish a place in the record books as the second largest blue catfish ever caught, anywhere in the world.
Ironically, the first- and second-place world record fish were both caught in the waters off of Clarksville in Kerr (Buggs Island) Lake.
North Carolina angler Nick Anderson, his father and brother, were fishing not far from Goat Island on the evening of June 18, 2011. Although there was a fishing tournament going on that weekend, the family was not part of it. Anderson said later that his family usually had their own family tournament at the lake that same weekend.
Anderson snagged the fish and said he realized from the start it was a big one, even if he didn’t realize just how big it was.
It took 45 minutes of fighting, and the massive fish dove to the bottom at least four times before they were able to wrestle the fish into the boat. And, it took all three of them to do it.
Anderson quickly ran into a problem — finding a set of scales big enough to weigh the oversized fish. Calling local officials, deputies escorted Anderson to Mecklenburg Farm Supply in neighboring Chase City, the nearest place that had scales large enough to weigh the new world record fish.
When all was said and done, Anderson’s prize weighed 143 pounds, easily destroying the old world record blue catfish by 30 pounds. The new record fish was measured at 57 inches long and 43.5 inches around.
After catching the massive catfish, Anderson said that he was sure there were other, large catfish in the lake, possibly much larger. His words were given credence a few weeks later when another angler, Travis Combs, pulled a massive blue from the waters topping over 130 pounds.
Michael Lawrence, organizer of the IceBowl tournament, agreed and said he still believes there are fish as large and larger still waiting to be caught.
“I don’t know that there are many, but I’m sure there are more big ones out there,” said Lawrence on Sunday night. “I’ve been fishing out here for 20 years, and I haven’t seen one or caught one, but they have been seen and they are showing up. They’re out there.”
Not only are the fish themselves getting bigger, but according to Lawrence, interest in fishing blue catfish is also growing.
“This was the biggest year we’ve had and probably one of the biggest tournaments on the East Coast as far as catfishing goes,” said Lawrence. “The thing is this is a sport and a big one. And, it’s still growing. If you look at the spending, it’s astronomical for catfish compared to some of the others. And it’s still growing. It’s not at its peak yet.”
Lawrence agreed that the size of the fish is also growing. One reason is that the species is still, in Kerr Lake, a fairly young species. Blue catfish are said to have been introduced into Kerr back in the ’70s for sport fishing. It turned out to be a perfect habitat for them, and the species has taken hold and thrived.
Some authorities have expressed concern, fearing the new species is changing the balance of the existing ecosystem. Lawrence disagrees. While he did admit that there has been a downturn in the number of striped bass or stripers in the lake, he attributed that fact to overfishing and an outbreak of gill worm. Officials and anglers, he said, were quick to work to mitigate the situation.
“Striper are making a comeback,” said Lawrence. “Officials made the right laws. Fishers fished the right ways. We managed the water to bring them back, but there has not been a loss of aquatic life. To say the blue cat is a problem, from my experience, is not accurate.”
Meanwhile, the IceBowl Tournament on Saturday was packed, and there appeared to be many family groups and “fishing buddies.”
“It’s a family sport,” explained Lawrence. “People go out and do it together. My family does. We all love to fish, and we do it together as much as we can.”
January, one of the coldest times of the year, might not seem to be the ideal time to go fishing, but according to Lawrence, it’s really a good time.
“Well,” he said, “for one thing there isn’t a lot of recreational traffic on the lake in January. Right there that gives you 50 percent more water to fish.”
Blue cats, added Lawrence, seem to bite better in cold water as well. “They tend to bite more, and in the summer, they have a higher mortality rate.”
The mortality rate is a critical point because most of the anglers catch the fish and keep them just long enough to weigh them and then release them back into the lake. This, he said, isn’t just humanitarian, it is good sense and good for the sport.
“When you play baseball, you don’t bring the bases back home,” he laughed. “Catch and release on the larger fish is not only a trend but a common sense necessity to keep the population up. Like I said, we didn’t see 100-pound fish a few years ago. Good management is the reason why. All of us need to do our part to preserve these fish.”
Meanwhile, the waters of Southside Virginia are rapidly becoming known as the blue catfish capital of the world.