Illinois man may have landed record catfish

Sunday, August 1, 2004

PEKIN, Ill. -- John Denning was about to head for home one recent Sunday evening when he made one fateful last cast.

Twenty-five minutes of arm-wearying reeling later, the Pekin resident finally got his hands on an apparent state record channel catfish.

The massive fish weighed 46.8 pounds on a certified scale at Presley's South Side Worm Ranch and measured 45 3/4 inches long. It had a girth of 29 5/8 inches.

"That was a beautiful fish," said veteran fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon, who examined it a day later. "When I first saw it I thought it was a blue catfish because of its body shape."

Upon further inspection, he realized it was a channel cat. That difference is significant, since the state record channel cat weighed 45 pounds, 4 ounces, while the record blue cat tipped the scales at 85 pounds.

A possibility still exists that the fish could be a channel cat/blue cat hybrid, so a sample of the flesh was sent to the University of Illinois for genetic testing.

Only after testing is complete can Denning's fish have a chance to supplant the current record holder: the channel cat Todd Baumayer caught on Feb. 7, 1987, while fishing with a plastic worm at Baldwin Lake in southwestern Illinois.

None of that occurred to Denning, 45, that Sunday night when line started ripping from his reel. He was fishing with a chunk of bluegill for bait in a deep strip-mine lake.

"I could tell he was a big one right off the bat because he took almost all of my line," said Denning, who was using a spinning reel and 10-pound test line. "I had him up near shore probably eight or nine times and then he'd swim back out."

With darkness closing in, Denning fought the fish to shore again, handed the rod to his son, Johnny, stepped into the water and grabbed the massive catfish by its gill plates.

"I took him home and put him in my granddaughter's little swimming pool," Denning said. "I was going to get him weighed, keep him alive and take him back and release him. But he didn't make it through the night."

The fish also lost two or three pounds overnight, according to Denning, who had weighed it on a bathroom scale.

But bathroom scales don't matter when it comes to state records. That's why Denning the next day visited the Worm Ranch and the Department of Natural Resources office in Pekin.

"The fish was in the back of this little yellow (Ford Ranger) pickup and it took up most of the bed," Herndon said. "I asked him to hold it up so I could take pictures. The poor guy. I think I made him hold it too long. You could tell it was a weighty fish."

Ironically, the potential record-breaker was the only catfish Denning caught that Sunday. Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Pekin, Denning said he fishes about once a week "for whatever is biting."

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