Since it arrived at the Tennessee Aquarium on Oct. 1, National Geographic’s Monster Fish exhibition has introduced guests to some of the world’s most enormous freshwater fish species, many of which are found beneath the surface of exotic waterways around the world.
Closer to home, however, angling is a way of life for many people in the Southeast, and any angler worth their tackle will have a big fish story or two to share.
Few of them, however, can compete with J.C. Garland, Bill Norman and Richard Reagan’s, which is a world-class whopper.
On Dec. 18, 1976, the three men made their way to Prater Flats, a watery cove notched into Fort Loudon Lake southwest of Knoxville, Tenn. From the deck of a 22-foot john boat, they began hauling in a net set there by Garland, who moonlighted as a part-time commercial fisherman.
According to news reports, what happened next was an angling story to beat all others. Only this time, the “big fish” wasn’t a figment of someone’s imagination.
“The trio noticed something wasn't right as they started pulling in the net,” wrote Bob Hodge in a story published by the Knoxville News Sentinel on March 30, 2008. “It wasn't unusual for the net - 100 yards long and 20 feet deep - to catch the occasional log or limb along with the fish. As they hauled they realized something big was in it.
“Expecting to find a log they found a fish as big as a log.”
The 5-foot-4-inch, 130-pound Blue Channel Catfish proved too large for the men to wrangle into the boat, so they motored to shore, where they found a hay hook in a nearby barn that proved up to the task. Once they’d dragged it into the boat, the trio took their massive catch to nearby Fort Loudon Marina.
A (REALLY) big fish
Once docked, the fish’s weight and length were measured and verified by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Officer Bob McMurray. According to TWRA records, this fish remains the largest fish of any species — let alone Blue Catfish — ever caught in Tennessee.
Because Garland, Norman and Reagan used a net instead of a rod or reel, the catch is classified as a “Class B” record. TWRA maintains separate records for fish caught using a rod and reel (or “sportsfishing methods”).
In the United States, Blue Catfish is found natively in most major river tributaries in the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, where it feeds on a diet of fish, turtles and snakes. Unlike many of the gargantuan freshwater fishes on display in the Monster Fish exhibit, the Blue Catfish is not considered a vulnerable species and is a common target for sport and commercial fishermen. Visitors to the Aquarium can see Blue Catfish swimming alongside the critically endangered Giant Pangasius Catfish in River Journey’s River Giants exhibit.
Across the plaza in Monster Fish, guests can get nose to whiskers with a replica of the colossal Southeast Asian Goonch Catfish. Access to Monster Fish is included for free with an Aquarium membership or general admission.
See Big Blue for Yourself
After Garland, Norman and Reagan’s massive catch was logged by TWRA, Garland stored the big cat’ in a freezer for two years until he found a taxidermist in Johnson City who stuffed and mounted it. In a case of mistaken aquatic identity, however, the leviathan was incorrectly painted to resemble a Yellow Bullhead, a much smaller species of catfish whose largest Tennessee-caught specimen tops out well shy of top five pounds, according to TWRA records.
Despite its improper coloring, Garland nicknamed his mighty catch “Big Blue” and hung it on the wall of Drake Auto in Maryville, Tenn. For 24 years, the titanic, improperly colored cat remained at the shop before being stowed in Garland’s son’s garage after the elder Garland’s death in 2001.
In 2008, Hodge wrote, Big Blue was rescued from obscurity by Bob Large, a long-time customer of Garland’s who convinced the angler’s widow, Joann, to donate the fish to the Blount County Historical Museum in Maryville, Tenn. Once it was donated, Big Blue’s taxidermy work refreshed, and the fish was repainted a deep blue after wearing another species’ coloring for nearly a quarter of a century.
There it remains, and that’s the honest truth of it, even if this is a big fish tale.
Learn more about Blue Catfish at http://www.tnaqua.org/our-animals/fish/blue-catfish. See what monstrous fish are in store for you during a visit to the Monster Fish exhibit at http://www.tnaqua.org/animals-exhibits/monster-fish-in-search-of-river-giants.