Panic-inducing catfish the size of school buses make waves and good stories
Elephant Butte Reservoir can get fairly deep – around 80 feet near the dam – deep enough for sunken boats to stay sunken, for enormous fish to stay hidden and for stories of such fish to remain nearly impossible to confirm.
These stories, told by fishermen, fishing guides and locals, tell of enormous catfish – catfish ranging in size from the slightly terrifying to the utterly panic-inducing.
The stories say catfish around the base of the dam are like freshwater whales, growing as big as their massive aquarium will let them, and eating whatever the upper Rio Grande and its tributaries wash down – other fish, plants, swimming dogs, decomposing human bodies and even the occasional small deer that ventures too close to the water.
“Basically, from what I understand, just below the dam there’s just some really old catfish the size of you and I,” Young’s Water Sports owner Bo Young said. “I never witnessed it myself, but it’s certainly feasible. Catfish do get pretty big.”
Frank Vilorio, an employee at Land of Enchantment Fishing Adventures, said divers repairing a wall of the dam saw several large catfish.
“They compared one of those catfish to a Volkswagen bug with the hood open,” Vilorio said.
John Morlock, a semi-retired Elephant Butte fishing guide, said he once knew a woman who swore she knew divers who had been in the water and seen enormous whiskered catfish the size of school buses – catfish so huge and so frightening that one of the divers never re-entered the water.
The New Mexico state record for the largest catfish ever caught was set at Elephant Butte in 1979. That catfish weighed 78 pounds and was almost 4 feet long. It was huge, but it wasn’t bus-sized.
Stories of giant catfish aren’t unique to New Mexico or to the present.
Father Jacques Marquette wrote about a gigantic catfish ramming his canoe on a Midwestern river in the late-1600s. A Protestant missionary, on the Ohio River in 1780, relayed the story of a catfish pulling a man from a riverbank to drown and then eat him. Mark Twain wrote a fictional account of catching a more than 6-foot-long one in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“Others are quite current, including the persistent rumor of a large flathead (catfish) caught at the mouth of the Tradewater River on the Ohio, by Caseyville, Kentucky, which contained a human baby,” wrote Jan Harold Brunvand in American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. “This supposedly occurred during the 1970s. … Many river folk believe that very large catfish, hardly ever encountered by fishermen, live in deep holes in the river for decades. There are also legends of huge catfish living at the bases of dams, who prey on divers inspecting or performing maintenance.”
Such stories pop up all over the country in countless rivers and lakes and reservoirs, often with details startlingly similar to the ones from Elephant Butte – but this shouldn’t make us think any less of our stories.
Our stories may be unproven. They may lack physical evidence or firsthand witnesses, and they may have every hallmark of an urban legend, but they do have one thing going for them: Nowhere else in America are the fabled catfish ever so big.
Ours are bigger than all of them, even if they are probably just as fictitious. Catfish the size of cars just aren’t sufficient for New Mexico. We need them bus-sized.
And we shouldn’t stop at that, either.
“I heard there was a two-headed fish caught out there,” Young said. “A bass.”
by Mike Smith