Myths From the Deep

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

"There are catfish at the base of the dam big enough to swallow a man whole! Divers inspecting the dam saw them and swore they'd never go down again."

You've probably heard that rural legend. It's told about almost every dam and every river in Missouri, and in most of the rest of the country.

In my job of taking care of the Conservation Department's Mobile Aquarium, I swap stories with thousands of Missourians every year. This story and a few others surface often enough that I've investigated to see whether they might have some truth to them.

Unfortunately, most of these big fish stories can't stand up to scientific scrutiny. An examination proves them to be myths.

For example, catfish just don't get big enough to swallow humans. We do have two species of catfish. Blue catfish and flathead catfish in Missouri have the potential to reach enormous proportions, The current Missouri record blue cat weighed 117 pounds and was caught on the Osage River in 1964. The international record blue cat wasn't much bigger. It weighed 121 pounds when it was taken from the Texas side of Lake Texoma in January 2004.

Those are modern-day records. A 150-pound blue catfish was found in a St. Louis fish market in 1879. It came from the Mississippi River.

There's even a record of one twice that size. In"Steamboating Sixty-five Years on Missouri's Rivers," Captain William L. Heckman wrote about blue cats weighing 125 to 200 pounds and mentioned one from the Missouri River in Gasconade County that weighed a staggering 315 pounds!

A life of eating and lounging results in the growth of some hefty flathead catfish, too. The current worldrecord flathead weighed 123 pounds. The Missouri record flathead catfish weighed 94 pounds and was taken from the St. Francis River in 1971. Every summer you'll read stories of flatheads caught that exceed 60 pounds.

Habitat loss, fishing pressure, pollution and detrimental alterations to our native ecosystems are likely the reasons we no longer see leviathan catfish like those reported long ago. Could they still exist today? Of course, but even fish that size couldn't swallow a human.

One reason divers might report huge fish may be that, underwater, objects appear about 25 percent larger than they actually are. This is due to the refraction of light in water through the lens of a scuba mask.

Another test of these stories is that the people telling them aren't the ones who

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