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Legend of Monstrous Catfish in East Texas Lake Lures Veteran Angler

Folklore: Don Allen's quest may be the ultimate fish story. But some old-timers recount disquieting tales about their own hair-raising encounters.

September 15, 1996|SUE ANNE PRESSLEY | WASHINGTON POST

LIVINGSTON, Texas — The catfish is not just huge; it is monstrous. To hear Don Allen tell it--and he tells it as often as anyone will listen--it is as big as a small pickup truck, as elusive as a dream, patrolling the deep, clear waters of Lake Livingston like some mustachioed kingpin.

Stories abound about the creature, few of them confirmed, all of them part of the folklore of this fishing country--way out in east Texas, where the pine forests are thick and quiet, and alligators slither up the riverbanks. Stories about small-airplane pilots looking down to see a thousand-pound bruiser parting the waters, leaving a wake. Stories about divers who vowed never to return after a face-to-face encounter. Stories about heavy fishing hooks straightened as if they were hairpins, trotlines stripped of live bait as if they were pieces of shish kabob.

"A lot of people have no knowledge of these fish--'unless we see it, we don't believe it,' " said Allen, 47, who has made it his life's mission to capture a jumbo catfish and put it on display for all the world to see. "I'm on a crusade."

This is a story about a man and a catfish. It may or may not be that other kind of fish story. But there are plenty of people out here who think it is possible that a catfish could grow to 50 times its normal size, defy capture for 100 years, tilt fishing boats with the power of a sumo wrestler, then glide off as if laughing at its dumb pursuers. Others prefer not to dwell on the possibility that a creature as profoundly homely as the catfish, with its blubbery lips and foolish whiskers, could exist in such gigantic proportions.

"People who don't fish consider them ugly," said Allen, "but to fishermen like us, they're absolutely gorgeous."

Bass enthusiasts may beg to differ, but it could be said that catfish are the quintessential American fishing fish. When Huckleberry Finn went roaming with his cane pole, he was looking for a mess of catfish. When Southern fathers, or mothers, take their children on a first fishing expedition, it is usually with catfish in mind. Found throughout the United States, they thrive especially in the South, and the lakes and reservoirs of east Texas hold the bragging rights to some of the healthiest specimens.

Plenty of people have caught mammoth catfish of 75 pounds and upward--as photographs displayed at Penwaugh's Marina here attest. But among a small group of fishermen there has long persisted the notion that something much bigger, and more challenging, swam in wait for them.

"When he opened his mouth, two people could have crawled through it," said local catfish guide Pick Bland, 53, describing a hair-raising encounter a few years ago with a catfish he estimates weighed at least several hundred pounds. "This was a yellow cat, and their eyes are pretty small, about the size of a 50-cent piece. This one's eyes were as big around as the bottom of a Coke can. It was the first time I ever got weak in my knees."

It makes perfect sense that stories of such magnitude would spring from this area, a place of small, rustic marinas and tall trees dripping in Spanish moss about 80 miles north of Houston. Lake Livingston, a reservoir created by the Trinity River, stretches across 93,000 catfish-rich acres, and its coves and cliffs provide perfect dens for the creatures.

No one knows that better than Olen Murley, 92, who says he has hooked a giant catfish six times since 1969 and came close to proving Allen's theory once and for all that a catfish can swell to the size of a vehicle. He even has a nickname for his quarry: "Old Alec."

"The last time, me and my wife had hold of his lower jaw and tried to pull him in," said Murley, "but the boat went to sinking and we had to turn him loose." After that, Rozelle Murley, now 88, refused to accompany her husband fishing again.

"Oh, no," she said emphatically. "That was it for me."

These are stories that gladden Don Allen's crusading heart, but state wildlife officials insist that they must be cases of friendly, perhaps unwitting, exaggeration. Jeff Henson, a biologist with the Inland Fisheries division of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, has heard most of the stories, and he is not a believer.

"We don't have a fish that gets anywhere near that size in Texas," he said. "I'd give the fishermen that they probably caught a large fish and kind of blew it out of proportion. It's kind of a typical fish tale."

Henson said the average angler catches a rather shrimpy catfish, weighing less than three pounds. Even for the big-fish fisherman, he said, the average catfish haul is 40 to 50 pounds, and he pointed out that the world record for a blue catfish (which normally looms larger than the flathead version Allen is pursuing) is 188 pounds.

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