- Keith Sutton
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The photograph here, captured one year ago today by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers AFD (Automatic Foto Drone) at a dive site on the Mississippi River, proves what many people have been saying for years: enormous catfish — some weighing hundreds of pounds — live in the deep, dark waters swirling below many of America's large dams. The incredible photo, shown here for the first time, is one of a series shot by the high-tech surveillance camera. It was taken while divers worked to repair damage to an underwater pipeline below Melvin Price Lock and Dam at East Alton, Illinois. Ironically, this is the same area in which Illinois angler Tim Pruitt landed a 124-pound world-record blue catfish on May 21, 2005.
"The AFD shoots a continuous series of photographs — one every two minutes — to document work at each site," said ACE spokesmen Sidd Finch. "This particular series, taken on the 1st of April last year, was being examined recently by engineer G.O. Welles when he noticed the huge fish behind the diver in this single frame. The diver, Theodore Hook of Cardiff, New York, said he was totally unaware he had been this close to a fish that was probably big enough to have swallowed him. But he claims he and other divers have seen gigantic fish like this before."
According to Charles Piltdown with the Regional Underseas Studies Endeavor, the fish in the photograph appears to be a flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris), but the fuzzy nature of the picture makes it impossible to determine for sure.
"Barbels, or whiskers, are clearly evident on the fish," the ichthyologist reported, "which tells us for sure it's some type of catfish. And by comparing the fish's dimensions to the size of known objects in the photograph, we were able to estimate its length at approximately 105 inches and its weigh at around 700 pounds. This is quite possibly the largest catfish ever documented, larger even than the 646-pound Mekong giant catfish captured in northern Thailand in 2005. It may be a new species, previously undescribed."
Since the early 1940s, when hydroelectric and flood-control dams started springing up around the country, divers working around these structures have reported seeing incredibly large catfish, including some so enormous the divers refused to go back underwater because they feared the consequences of encounters with these huge creatures.
"I've seen some catfish I knew were twice my size, and I've seen them while diving at 16 dam sites in six different states," said George Hull, an experienced diver who works for Freshwater Research and Underwater Development. "But telling people you've seen them is like saying you saw the Loch Ness monster or a UFO. No one believes you, so after a while, you figure you're better off if you don't discuss what you've seen.
"I'm just glad someone has finally proven the existence of these fish," he continued. "And because it was a government agency that found the evidence, it will definitely be indisputable. Maybe now people will believe what divers like me have been saying for nearly half a century — there are fish out there big enough to eat people, and the fact that someone hasn't been hurt by them already is nothing short of a miracle."
Trained biologists like myself have always dismissed encounters such as Hulls' as nothing more than figments of the divers' imaginations. But hardcore evidence like this photograph will make it difficult to dispute such sightings, which have been reported from at least 87 dam sites throughout the country. The evidence is clear: something huge is out there — lots of somethings — and it will take the concerted efforts of state and federal authorities to determine what it is.
Unless, of course, some catfisherman like me catches one of these beasts first. I'm heading for the Mississippi River to do some fishing today, and I'm gonna use something big for bait: a Pomeranian perhaps, or maybe some of the stray cats running around my neighborhood. I figure if I tie one to the winch hook on my truck, I ought to have a decent chance of landing anything that bites.
Wish me luck. And by the way, happy April Fool's Day.
For more of Keith "Catfish" Sutton's views on the world of Outdoors (and just in general), feel free to check out his blog at http://catfishgumbo.blogspot.com/ for more of his musings.
5hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy