Chasing Missouri Monsters

By Francis Skalicky | July 1, 2020
From Missouri Conservationist: July 2020

Greg Bernal had hooked big fish before, but when the deep-water denizen that had strained his line and limbs for 30 minutes finally splashed into view, he knew July 20, 2010, was going to be an unforgettable date.

“When he broke the surface, I couldn’t believe how big he was,” the Florissant man recalled of that memorable night of fishing on the Missouri River in St. Louis County. “My heart was pounding. It was a total adrenaline rush.”

By the time he boated the blue catfish, Bernal had a hunch his huge haul was something special. A call to an MDC fisheries biologist, a trip to a certified scale, and some follow-up checking confirmed that Bernal’s 130-pound behemoth blue was, indeed, a first-of-its-kind catch — not only for Missouri, but for the entire world.

Bernal’s memorable catch is no longer a blue catfish pole-and-line world record (it was surpassed 11 months later by a 143-pound catch in Virginia), but it is still a state record — one of 68 entries that comprise MDC’s State Record Fish Program. This program acknowledges and honors anglers who have caught the largest recorded fish (by weight) from a list of recognized species found in Missouri waters. There are two categories for each species — “pole and line” is for catches made via rod-and-reel and “alternative” encompasses trotlines, throwlines, limblines, bank lines, jug lines, spearfishing, snagging, snaring, gigging, grabbing, archery, and atlatl.

“While our State Record Fish Program has its formal processes, the goal is really to recognize people that fish and build excitement for fishing,” said Andrew Branson, MDC Fisheries outreach specialist, the person who oversees the program.

A Diverse Mix

Missouri’s list of 68 is a diverse mix. Some record-holders, such as the 140-pound, 9-ounce paddlefish caught in 2015, are prodigious, while others, such as the 2-ounce red spotted sunfish, caught in 1991 that holds the alternative methods record for that species, are pint-sized. Some are well-known species, like the 21-pound, 1-ounce walleye caught in 1988. Others, like the 1-pound, 6-ounce highfin carpsucker, caught by alternative methods in 2011, are not-so-well-known. Some records, such as the 13-pound, 14-ounce largemouth bass caught in 1961 that still tops Missouri’s pole-and-line category for that species, are long-standing. Others, like the seven new records that went on the list in 2018, have a much shorter history.

Branson said the variety contained in this list is a clear indicator of something anglers have known for a long time — conservation makes Missouri a great place to fish.

“Fish do not grow large and thrive if their habitat is not right,” Branson said. “A fish reaching state-record size is evidence that conditions are good for that species. The combination of sound fishing regulations, fisheries management based on science, and the actions of conservation-minded citizens create the right conditions for fish to thrive.”

Perfect Timing

Some years of Missouri fishing have been more record-setting than others. Fifteen records were set in 2016; two years earlier only three were set.

“Good-weather conditions seem to play the biggest role in creating years where lots of records are broken,” Branson said. “For example, a wet spring when we received plenty of rain that kept our rivers and lakes full, giving fish plenty of food and numerous areas to spread out. Mild summers allow many anglers to take advantage of the comfortable conditions and fish more. So, when the weather is great and more anglers get out and on the water, that’s when we see state records broken.”

What Makes a Record Fish

Seeking and celebrating the biggest catches has long been part of fishing’s lure and Missouri is no different. There are mentions of state-record fish dating back to the 1950s, but no formalized certification process existed at the time and as a result, details of those early record catches are sketchy. Missouri’s process for determining state-record fish has evolved over the decades and today’s process involves much more than flopping a big fish on a scale and smiling for a camera. Among the criteria a fish must meet to be considered for state-record status in Missouri are:

  • It must be taken by legal methods from Missouri waters.
  • It must be a species included on Missouri’s state-record fish list.
  • It must be weighed on a certified scale in the presence of an employee of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
  • It must be examined and identified by an MDC fisheries biologist or conservation agent familiar with the species with certainty.
  • If necessary, genetic testing will be done by MDC at no cost to the applicant.

Branson said the genetic testing is an example of the level of scrutiny MDC uses to make sure the fish being submitted is truly a record. He recalls a 2018 incident in which a bow fisherman submitted what he thought was a world-record (and, consequently, a state record) shortnose gar. The large fish’s upper jaw was broken off and, thus, shortened, and the intact lower jaw appeared to be consistent with that of a shortnose gar. However, the fish showed other characteristics that were more consistent with a longnose gar. A fin clip was taken, genetic tests were done, and it was concluded that the fish was not a pure shortnose gar. It was either a hybrid (the two species can interbreed), or a longnose with a broken upper jaw and an abnormally short lower jaw.

Branson said those “sorry-but-it’s-not-a-record” calls are always hard to make. However, MDC’s fish recognition process does have a nice alternative prize.

“In those instances, after explaining the disappointing reality that they cannot apply for a state record, we inform the angler that the fish may qualify for a Master Angler Award. Missouri’s Master Angler program recognizes the accomplishments of anglers who catch memorable fish in Missouri and is for fish that meet a minimum length or weight by MDC.” This award is based on the word of the person and the fish does not need to be viewed or weighed by an MDC representative. People earning a Master Angler Award receive a printed certificate recognizing that particular catch.

Interesting Fish Tales

While overseeing the state’s record fish program, Branson has been involved in some interesting situations. He recalls the time an angler caught what he thought was a state-record fish and, later that day, his partner, who was fishing in the same boat, caught an even larger fish of the same species. When they got off the water, the anglers contacted MDC staff, who confirmed that both fish were larger than the current state record for that species. While processing the applications, it was discovered that the angler who had made the second catch did not have a fishing permit and was fishing illegally. Thus, the state-record application for the larger fish was denied. The first angler’s catch earned state-record status, but all the second angler received was a ticket for fishing without a permit.

Plan for the Unexpected

Though Branson said most records are caught by accident, he said anglers should keep in mind that the potential to reel in a record exists any time an angler casts his hook into the water. Consequently, he said it’s good for anglers to remember:

  • They can always contact their local conservation agents. Agents are available seven days a week.
  • The fish does not need to be alive. If anglers think they have a record, they should place the fish in a refrigerator or freezer in an air-tight bag to prevent drying out and weight loss and contact an MDC representative at their earliest convenience.
  • Fish must be totally thawed for weighing.
  • Potential record fish may be frozen (after they have been weighed), but they should not be consumed or mounted prior to receipt of the letter that confirms the record.

“On more than one occasion, we have received a call from a person saying that they caught a potential state-record fish,” Branson said. “They sometimes even have the weight of the fish taken with their own scale. When we tell them that we need to meet with them to see the fish and weigh it on a certified scale, the response is ‘Oh, I already ate it.’”

Catching a state-record fish is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for some anglers. However, Branson said some anglers follow the old adage that records are made to be broken.

 “Most records seem to be caught by people who never planned or expected it,” he said. “However, there are people who look at the state record list and target a particular record they think they can beat.”

Bernal said he’s targeting his own record. Though he admits his 130-pound blue catfish was memorably large, he believes something larger is still swimming beneath the water’s surface somewhere in Missouri.

“As big as the rivers are, with some of the monsters I have hooked into but could not even begin to handle, I guarantee there are many big monster blues in the river system,” Bernal said. “Who will be lucky enough to catch the next monster?”

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This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
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Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Shawn Carey
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Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
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Circulation - Laura Scheuler