John Nichols and his fishing buddy, Robbie Tierce, were kicking back on Holt Reservoir near Tuscaloosa, looking for some rest and relaxation after a week of work. However, what was planned as several hours of diversion and catching enough catfish for a fish fry turned into an adrenaline-filled night that lasted until after dawn.
What the dawn revealed was a state record blue catfish that weighed 120 pounds, 5 ounces and eclipsed the 111-pounder caught at Wheeler Reservoir on July 5, 1996, by William P. McKinley of Elkmont.
“It was pretty much what we do every weekend,” Nichols said. “We go over there and kick back and take it in. That’s what me and Robbie have been doing for a long time. We work construction together and we go over there and unwind. It’s about 20 minutes from the house, so it’s close and convenient. The boat stays ready to go.”
This trip was unusual in more ways than the climax. Recent rains had swollen the Black Warrior River and the flood gates were open at Bankhead Dam, one of the spots where they catch skipjack herring for catfish bait. With the bait inaccessible, they decided to do a little bass fishing before anchoring the boat downstream in a small cove with a little eddy water. As darkness descended on the 3,296-acre impoundment, Tierce opened a pack of chicken gizzards to use for bait because both grocery stores he stopped at were sold out of chicken livers. The bait went to the bottom on spinning gear with 40-pound test line.
“I got the grill started, and we just laid back,” Nichols said. “We had never fished that area a whole lot. It’s on the main river, but it’s on the edge of a little cutout. We couldn’t have been there 30 minutes when I looked at the rod. It looked just like when a limb had floated into the line under the water. It barely had a kink it. It didn’t cut up or show out.
“I said, ‘Man, that rod sure does look funny.’” He said, ‘I think you’ve got a fish.’ I decided that before we started cooking I’d just check it. I went over and got a hold of it and tightened the line. I pulled up on it and it started coming to the boat. It was slow. I told Robbie that I could feel a fish on it, but I thought it was wrapped around some trash. I’d been reeling about a minute or two and could feel the old fish. I was laid into it pretty good to try to get it up to the top of the water.”
Then Nichols’ attitude quickly changed when he started feeling the fish start to move a little more
“I told Robbie that I could still feel the fish, and I told him, ‘Bubba, whatever it is it’s a big, big fish,’” he said. “I said, ‘It’s one of them.’ Robbie said, ‘I know, just shut up and fish.’”
Tierce went into action by clearing everything out of Nichols’ way and grabbing the landing net.
“Then that fish floated up beside the boat,” Nichols said. “He never really showed out. I don’t think that fish even knew that it was hung. You could barely see that spool on that spinning reel move. It was barely taking line out.
“It floated up right at the back of the boat. When we saw it, we about fell out. We were hoping to some day catch a 50- or 60-pounder. A 43-pound blue was the biggest I’d ever caught.”
When the record catfish rolled up behind the boat, the fishing buddies soon realized they had a big problem.
“Robbie tried to net the fish,” Nichols said. “And when he did, the fish just turned, because he couldn’t get it in the net, and it went back down. Three or four minutes later I got the fish back up, and he tried it again. He said, ‘Bubba, it won’t go in the net.’ I told him, ‘You have got to get that fish in the net.’ The fish went down again, and usually that second time, it’s over with. But about 20 yards behind the boat, he comes up again. Then the fish comes up close to the boat again. I told Robbie that he has got to get that fish in the net. He said, ‘Bubba, it won’t go. I’ve already tried it.’”
In desperation, Nichols devised a plan to ram both hands in the fish’s mouth to haul it in, but the fish changed the plan.
“That fish turned and started going toward the back of the boat,” he said. “I told Robbie, ‘When you get him in the net, take the inner part of the hoop and push down on his head. When you do, his tail is going to come up because it’s lighter.’ I saw that tail come up and about 18 inches stuck out the end of the net. I knew it was a done deal if the net held up.
“I laid the rod down and grabbed one side of the net, and we slid it over the side into the bottom of the boat. We never dreamed that fish would weigh what it did. We were guessing 80 or 90 pounds.”
Weighing a fish that size would become the next challenge for these fishing partners. But the first decision was whether to go straight to the boat landing or plop that venison tenderloin onto the now-sizzling grill. Nichols wanted to go. Tierce wanted to eat.
“We always compromise on everything we do,” Nichols said. “So we decided to cook. The fire had really gotten good with all this going on, so we were grilling that tenderloin, still in awe of that whale in the bottom of the boat.”
They decided to go ahead and idle to the boat landing with the grill hanging over the side of the boat. They pulled the boat out and spent 45 minutes in the parking lot, eating venison and reliving the catch.
After finishing the meal, they decided to go try to weigh the fish. They went to Nichols’ folks’ house and weighed it on bathroom scales at 116 pounds. Then they tried deer scales at Nichols’ house and it settled at 118 pounds.
Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Assistant Fisheries Chief Nick Nichols (no relation) said a catfish of that size is undoubtedly special.
“The basic story on a fish that large is that it has to be a very old catfish,” Nick Nichols said. “That’s the reason we restricted the harvest [one fish 34 inches or larger per day] on large catfish several years ago. It’s a very notable state record fish. The previous record had been there a while.”
John Nichols said he considered releasing the fish into a friend’s 17-acre lake, but then he flipped through the phone book and found the number for Tuscaloosa Scale Company and called about 4:45 a.m. The call was picked up by the answering service. He told the lady he had a possible state record blue catfish in a bathtub at his house and he needed it weighed on certified scales.
Within minutes, Kevin Charlton of Tuscaloosa Scale called Nichols, who was still drinking coffee, sitting in his chair at home. Charlton gave directions to the company, and Nichols headed that way with his wife in tow. The fish had died early that morning, so Nichols had iced it down and took off.
Charlton zeroed his equipment with a 120-quart cooler on the scales and weighed the monster. When the scales hit 120 pounds, 5 ounces, he started trying to figure out how to make sure it was certified as a state record. Nichols had a notary public and five witnesses signed up and the record fish application filled out. All he needed was a fisheries biologist to verify the catch. Jay Haffner, District III Biologist with Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, was called by a friend, and Haffner responded almost immediately and set up a rendezvous to verify the species.
“When we got there, he was sitting there waiting on us,” Nichols said. “When he saw that fish, he about fell out. He said, ‘I’ve been doing this about 30 years, and I’ve never laid my hands on a fish this big.’ I told him I was 36 years old and I’d never seen a fish that big either.
“It’s just unbelievable. When that fish finally floated up behind the boat and the light was shining on it, that had to be the most impressive moment of my fishing history.”
And the blue cat wasn’t the only record set recently. Next week, we’ll explore how an 8-year-old youngster went into the Alabama saltwater record books with a monster king mackerel.
Photos by Jay Haffner