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Catfish Fishing Tales: Very Often Related as the Truth

Historic Arkansas Museum - Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Historic Arkansas Museum’s "History is Served: Arkansas Foodways Dinner Series" is back tonight! These dinners explore a particular cuisine, ingredient, or cultures that make up Arkansas Foodways, and tonight’s theme is none other than the 2019 Arkansas Food of the Year – the catfish. While researching this whiskered staple of the Arkansan plate, many fishing tales arose. Here are a few of our favorites!

Vance Randolph, celebrated Ozark folklorist, recounted fishing stories from many different Arkansas waters. In his book We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks, Randolph tells the ludicrous tale of using a wildcat to catch a catfish:

“They still tell the tale of the Sugar Creek catfish in Benton County, Arkansas, but the details have been built up a little. Such stories generally get bigger, as they pass from one crossroads audience to another. When I last heard this one, near the statue of the flat-bottomed angel on the old Pea Ridge battlefield, the fisherman was using a hand-forged hook that weighed twenty-seven pounds, with a forty-pound live wildcat for bait.”

Apparently alligators no longer lurk in the Buffalo River due to catty competition: “Will Rice, of St. Joe, Arkansas, always told the tourists that the Buffalo River used to be full of big alligators, but that none have been seen there in recent years. When somebody wondered about the cause of the reptiles’ disappearance, Rice declared that it ain’t safe for alligators in Searcy County waters nowadays. The catfish would eat ‘em up, he said.”

Randolph recounts another ridiculous, and frustrating, tale from the Ozarks:

“A fat man at Bella Vista, Arkansas, used to hold the tourists spellbound with his story of a huge catfish in a nearby stream. This fish had been seen many times, and our best local fishermen had tried to catch him. He had broken countless hooks, lines, rods, and trotline stagings. Spears and bullets made no impression upon his broad back, and many a gigger’s john-boat had been capsized by a contemptuous swing of his mighty tail. And once, it is said, the big cat drowned a poor drunken noodle who was so foolish as to strap the noodle-hook to his wrist. In the summer of 1928 the fat man resolved to catch this catfish or perish in the attempt. He got the blacksmith to forge a hook three feet long, and used the well-rope for a line, with two sash-weights by way of sinkers. Baiting with a full-grown groundhog, he tied the rope to the top of a stout elm and lowered the hook into the depths of Sugar Creek. “I was down to the creek afore sunup next mornin’,” he told me. “That big ellum-tree was tore plumb out of the ground, with roots ten foot long a-stickin’ up in the air.” I waited a moment. “Well, did you catch the fish?” I asked. “I clumb out on the tree an’ got hold of the rope,” the fat man went on calmly. “Then I pulled on the line, slow an’ careful. There was a heavy weight on the other end, but seemed like it was a dead weight. There wasn’t no fightin’ like I expected. So I just figgered-“ I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. “Did you get the fish?” I shouted. “Naw,” he answered deliberately, “I didn’t git the fish. But I did git about seventy-five pounds of his upper lip.”

Whether or not these are true tales, the Arkansas Gazette reported on the genuine catch by W. I. Fitzpatrick in 1922:

“At That it is a Whale of a Catfish – Pine Bluff, Oct., 25. – The “boss” blue channel catfish of the Arkansas river was landed here yesterday by W. I. Fitzpatrick, local fisherman. The fish weighed 174 3-4 pounds. This is the biggest fish that has ever been taken from the Arkansas river at this point. Some wag has intimated that the fish was probably a visitor from Little Rock and liked this section so well he decided to locate. Anyway, all who viewed the monster declared that they would not be surprised to see a whale fished out of the Arkansas river. Several months ago a large catfish was caught by a local fisherman, but it was a small affair, weighing only about 100 pounds.”

While tonight’s dinner is sold-out, we will share more from the catty dinner on the museum’s Facebook and Instagram pages, including the menu created and prepared by Chef Scott Rains, from Table 28, and a talk by Rex Nelson, a senior editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The dinner series is sponsored by the Historic Arkansas Museum’s Foundation Board, and is part of Arkansas Foodways Initiative. The remaining dinners in this year’s series include “If Reasons Were as Plenty as Blackberries: Arkansas Fruits and Berries” with Jon Arrington of the Root Café on June 6th and “The Genealogy of Food Traditions: The Summer Vegetable Plate” with Scott McGehee of Yellow Rocket Concepts on July 11th.

Three Men with Fish, Parker, photograph, ca. 1880, Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, Gift of Mrs. Mary L. Clingan Gray, 82.16.12b