Myths From the Deep

By Jeff Beringer | April 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2005

"There are catfish at the base of the dam big enough to swallow a man whole! Divers inspecting the dam saw them and swore they'd never go down again."

You've probably heard that rural legend. It's told about almost every dam and every river in Missouri, and in most of the rest of the country.

In my job of taking care of the Conservation Department's Mobile Aquarium, I swap stories with thousands of Missourians every year. This story and a few others surface often enough that I've investigated to see whether they might have some truth to them.

Unfortunately, most of these big fish stories can't stand up to scientific scrutiny. An examination proves them to be myths.

For example, catfish just don't get big enough to swallow humans. We do have two species of catfish. Blue catfish and flathead catfish in Missouri have the potential to reach enormous proportions, The current Missouri record blue cat weighed 117 pounds and was caught on the Osage River in 1964. The international record blue cat wasn't much bigger. It weighed 121 pounds when it was taken from the Texas side of Lake Texoma in January 2004.

Those are modern-day records. A 150-pound blue catfish was found in a St. Louis fish market in 1879. It came from the Mississippi River.

There's even a record of one twice that size. In"Steamboating Sixty-five Years on Missouri's Rivers," Captain William L. Heckman wrote about blue cats weighing 125 to 200 pounds and mentioned one from the Missouri River in Gasconade County that weighed a staggering 315 pounds!

A life of eating and lounging results in the growth of some hefty flathead catfish, too. The current worldrecord flathead weighed 123 pounds. The Missouri record flathead catfish weighed 94 pounds and was taken from the St. Francis River in 1971. Every summer you'll read stories of flatheads caught that exceed 60 pounds.

Habitat loss, fishing pressure, pollution and detrimental alterations to our native ecosystems are likely the reasons we no longer see leviathan catfish like those reported long ago. Could they still exist today? Of course, but even fish that size couldn't swallow a human.

One reason divers might report huge fish may be that, underwater, objects appear about 25 percent larger than they actually are. This is due to the refraction of light in water through the lens of a scuba mask.

Another test of these stories is that the people telling them aren't the ones who saw the catfish. It's always some anonymous person, a friend of a friend, some friend of an in-law's, or someone else of unknown identity who isn't available for verification. This is a crucial element of all myths--rural, urban or fishing.

Another myth connected to catfish has to do with their "stingers." People often avoid or warn others to avoid the whiskers, or barbels, of catfish because they believe they can inflict a painful or poisonous sting.

Barbels are as limp as cooked spaghetti and couldn't possibly hurt you. These fleshy organs help the fish smell, taste and feel their surroundings.

Catfish can inflict a painful sting through their pectoral and dorsal spines. These spines, located within the pectoral and dorsal fins, can be very sharp, especially in smaller fish.

The fish lock the spines in place when they feel threatened. The spines aren't poisonous, but they can painfully puncture your skin and transfer some of the fish's protective covering of slime into your hand. Inside a wound, the slime produces an unpleasant stinging sensation.

The best way to handle a catfish when removing it from a fish hook is to place the fish's right pectoral spine between your index and middle finger and your thumb behind the left pectoral spine. Push the dorsal spine flat beneath the heel of your palm. Smaller catfish are best grabbed from beneath, placing the index finger and middle finger beneath the pectoral spines.

It's best to handle fish as little as possible, and watch those spines!

Drum Beats

Our freshwater drum are the source of a common myth. Most people I talk with know that drum, also known as sheepshead, white perch, stone perch, rock perch, croaker, grunt or gaspergou, make a very curious noise. However, almost everyone thinks that drum make this noise by rattling together two large bones that are inside the head of a drum.

Freshwater drum do have bones in their head. They are called otoliths. Most fish have them, but those of a drum are unusually large. Otoliths were once sought by Native American Indian tribes for making jewelry and are still collected by anglers today, usually as lucky charms.

These bones are pretty but are not the source of the grunting sound emitted by the drum. Instead, the sound is created by vibrating specialized muscles associated with the fish's swim bladder.

The ocean dwelling relatives of the freshwater drum make a drumming noise as a way to communicate during spawning activities. Their abnormally large otoliths, along with their highly developed lateral line, assist them in hearing one another.

The freshwater drum's unusually large bones are used to a lesser degree for hearing. They help the fish keep its balance.

On the Bill

Otherwise fish-savvy folks have come up with plenty of stories to explain the paddlefish's big bill.

Paddlefish, or spoonbill, are only found in the Mississippi River system of North America. They are among the largest freshwater fish in the country. The Missouri state-record paddlefish, caught in 2002, weighed 139 pounds, 4 ounces. Paddlefish in other areas have reached 160 pounds.

Don't worry. This critter won't eat you, either. Paddlefish are close relatives of sharks, but they have no teeth. Paddlefish feed by sieving microscopic animals called zooplankton from the water with specialized combs located on the inner margin of their gills. These combs are called gill rakers.

Many people have told me that paddlefish use their bill, or rostrum, to dig through and stir up mud on the bottom of rivers and lakes. No evidence of this behavior is in scientific literature.

Scientists are not completely certain how the rostrum functions, but they believe it acts much like a compass and an antenna to help paddlefish navigate and feed in the muddy waters of the big rivers.

In addition, the dense meshwork of highly developed nerves on the rostrum works like an antenna to help young paddlefish locate colonies of plankton for food. In controlled conditions, when there was not enough light to see, paddlefish could detect and capture plankton approaching from below, above and to the sides of their rostrum.

Mature paddlefish rely on the rostrum less for feeding, but it may also be used to help them avoid obstacles and hazards in the water.

Pond Builders

In the course of conversations, many people have told me how wonderful it is that the Conservation Department builds ponds for people.

That's certainly not accurate, either, but you can obtain help in building a pond. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides federally funded programs that share 75 percent of the cost of building a pond in landscapes that erode easily. You may contact your local NRCS office or Conservation Department private land conservationist to help you apply.

Once the pond is built, the Conservation Department can provide fish for stocking if your pond meets certain criteria.

Many people think that if we provide fish for your pond, you have to open your pond to the general public to fish. That's inaccurate, too. It remains your pond and your private property, so you control who is allowed to fish. We only ask that you ensure that the pond is fished regularly.

Fish and fishing lend themselves to stories, and human nature being what it is, it's inevitable that those stories become more wonderful and mythic with each retelling.

Ever since I was young, I snorkeled a lot, but I never once saw a catfish big enough to eat me. On the other hand, this guy who lived down the road knew this guy whose neighbor used to be a diver who did structural repairs on dams and bridges, and he said....

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler