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It's 'extreme' action chasing Big River blues

6/8/2005
Tim Pruitt and his 124-pound blue catfish. 

Mention outdoor extreme sports and a variety of adrenaline-charged images come to mind — perhaps surfers challenging Hawaii's Pipeline, skiers blasting through impossible chutes, kayakers battling Class V whitewater or mountaineers assaulting Denali and Everest.

The guess here is that fishing for behemoth blue catfish on the nation's biggest drain — the mighty Mississippi River — probably wouldn't make the short list of such exhilarating visions.

But perhaps it should.

Especially if the daredevil is angling for triple-digit blues the way Tim Pruitt and his catfishing buddies do on the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill.

In case you haven't heard by now, Pruitt made fishing news this week when he landed a potential world-record, 124-pound blue catfish while plying the murky depths of the Mississippi during the wee hours on Sunday.

Fishing from his customized 19-foot Roughneck, Pruitt and his wife, Carla, and longtime angling pal Tony Pfiefer were less than a half-hour from calling it a night.

"I told them one fish might have to do it; in about 20 or more minutes, we were going to leave regardless," Pruitt said.

While fishing late Saturday evening near what the angler calls the Mississippi/Missouri break line — the spot where the two big rivers collide north of St. Louis — Pruitt got that one good fish as the clock approached midnight.

"We were sitting there and the rod bounced a little bit," Pruitt said. "I didn't think much about it. I just thought it was a 10- or 15-pounder playing with the bait."

That's when more than a half-hour of chaos began on the swirling waters of the Big River.

"Several yards of line came off," Pruitt said. "About a minute later, the line on the rod just started running off and building up a little bit of speed. I had it in my hand, letting him take five to 10 yards more of line.

"Then I set the hook into him, and the battle was on."

On a cloudy, spring night, when the river's dark, foreboding current was "moving pretty good," that might be an understatement.

"It was going full blast into the current," Pruitt said. "I burnt a blister on my thumb trying to brake the line. I had the drag pretty tight, but not too tight because I didn't want to break the line."

With the spool on his reel beginning to appear, the boat's anchor was quickly raised and the fight escalated.

"We wore him out; he wore us out," said Pruitt, a 13-year veteran of big blue battles on the Mighty Mississippi.

"Fighting the river current is bad enough, but when you've got a 124-pound fish on the end of the line, it's really tough."

Finally, nearly a half-mile further down the swirling river, Pruitt edged the fish close enough to try to boat it.

"We tried to restrain him in a net, but his tail slapped it and snapped the net," said the father of two children.

"If they're over 80 pounds, you really try to get 'em in by hand, so I reached down and grabbed him by hand. He was tired; I was tired."

Finally, the big fish was wrestled into the boat.

And that's when Pruitt realized just how close he had come to losing the battle with history's biggest blue whiskerfish.

"If I had let up about a quarter-inch of pressure, he would have rolled and the hook would have (fallen) out," Pruitt said. "I got him in the boat and the hook just basically fell out."

Fortunately, Pruitt won the battle with a behemoth; he soon began to appreciate the fish for its remarkable enormity.

"I knew it was big (during the fight), but I didn't know it was that big," Pruitt said.

After waking the manager of St. Peter's Hardware Store in Alton, Pruitt would soon discover — along with others including Illinois Department of Natural Resources conservation officers William L. Wichern and Eric Manker — that the fish wasn't just big, it was heavenly monstrous.

In fact, at a certified 124 pounds, the fish is the apparent heir to the blue catfish throne, knocking off the 121½-pound standing standard known as "Splash" that Howe, Texas, angler Cody Mullennix pulled from Lake Texoma in Texas in January 2004.

While Pruitt is normally a strict catch-and-release angler when it comes to these big blue catfish, he carefully considered making an exception to his rule as he and biologists observed the specimen in a holding tank.

With the fish in apparent good health after the catch, the decision then was made to transfer the blue cat to a giant aquarium at the Cabela's Kansas City, Kan., location.

Unfortunately, the big blue cat never made it to Kansas, dying in transit, something that has greatly disturbed the conservation-minded Pruitt, he said.

"If I knew that it wouldn't have made it during transport or if it had given me any signs of being sick while I had it, I wouldn't have (donated) it," Pruitt said. "I feel like I lost my kids. I feel just terrible.

"I put a lot of time on the water, and I want my kids to be able to go out and fish for these big fish."

Speaking of his kids, Pruitt hopes that one day, his daughter, Lauren, and son, Brian, will want to do just that — do battle with a big blue.

For now, however, he's reluctant to take either out on the big water, since the endeavor can be a dangerous affair due to the combination of darkness, river-barge traffic, a swirling current and, of course, a monster fish at the end of the line.

"It could be dangerous," Pruitt said.

Or maybe even a little extreme.

Then again, that's the lure of this extreme angling sport: an epic pull from a world-class blue catfish on the risky, churning waters of the nation's biggest river — all at night, when the fishing's best.

"You can't buy a battle like that," Pruitt said.