If you grew up in the South, you probably at a lot of catfish. The catfish has long been an important food fish in the Southern United States. It was especially important for African slaves, which helped determine its place in Southern cuisine.
With catfish come stories of giant catfish. Anywhere where there are fairly large or very large dams, as in the South, the Midwest, or in the Southwest, you will hear about the giant catfish lurking at the bottom of the water near the dam.
Growing up near Jackson, Mississippi, I heard stories about divers diving near the dam of the Ross Barnett Resevoir and seeing catfish at the bottom “as big as Volkswagens.”
These catfish, we heard, were so large they couldn’t even move. They just laid their at the bottom like lazy whales, waiting for something to swim into their mouths. I remember thinking this was a fairly bad strategy for growing so large.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a fairly popular urban legend, especially in rural areas. Catfish as large as Volkswagens were common, or at least as big as dogs, calves, etc. What type of Volkswagen? A Volkswagen Beatle or “Bug” of course. They had about the right shape to bring to mind a big fat catfish.
Our giant catfish, according to the version I heard, just sat there doing much of nothing. In other versions of the story, they were menacing, swimming around in recently submerged vehicles trying to get at the dead bodies inside, or even trying to take a bit out of the divers themselves.
These catfish were so frightening that some of the divers’ hair would turn instantly white “from shock” and they would vow to never dive in these waters again.
Occasionally, the stories are told about giant carp instead of catfish.
In fact, almost anywhere there are large dams there are giant catfish and diver stories. I always wondered why there would be so many submerged cars near a dam, but a more credible explanation as to why there would be divers in the water is that they are there to do maintenance work.
Is it possible for a catfish to grow as large as a vehicle? No. But, the many tales of “monster catfish” probably gave rise to this particular folklore. Catfish cannot grow to be as large as a Volkswagen bug, but some species can grow very large by fisherman standards.
Growing up, we routinely caught yellow cats (mudcats, flatheads) as large as 75 pounds, and there are stories of them being as large as 120 pounds. We caught these monsters near spillways, but they are found in all sorts of river waters. Channel cats and blue cats can grow to enormous sizes, as well. Some local stories even assign names to particular large catfish that the locals have been trying to catch for years, much like the Moby Dick like fish obsession of the movie On Golden Pond.
In Italy, a catfish was caught that weighed over 200 pounds, essentially the size of a man. Giant catfish are found in other parts of Europe, as well, including the Ebro River in Spain, a prime fishing destination.
Not all species of catfish can grow to such huge proportions, but one in particular is thought to grow to the largest size. This species, which holds the Guinness Book of World Records’ position for the world’s largest freshwater fish, is the Mekong giant catfish, or Pangasianodon gigas, which can grow to weights up to 330 to, reportedly, 650 lbs and reach lengths of almost 10 feet. It is not only the largest catfish, but the world’s largest freshwater scaleless fish.
One of the largest Mekong giant catfish caught, if not the largest of all, was netted on May 1, 2010 in the Mekong River in Northern Thailand. It was almost nine feet long and the size of a grizzly bear, weighing 646 pounds. It may not only be the largest catfish catch ever recorded, but the largest freshwater fish ever caught, period.
The Mekong giant catfish used to be found all over the river from Vietnam to Southern China. It was especially populous in the Southern half of the river, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Today its populations are in decline due to over-fishing and loss of habitat from damming of tributaries and destruction of breeding and spawning grounds. The number of Mekong giant catfish has reduced by at least 95% in the last century, and the fish is close to extinction. In the National Geographic video below, biologist Zeb Hogan goes in search of the legendary giant.
In Japan, a giant catfish called the Namazu is never eaten because the Japanese believe it is the cause of earthquakes. It could be, however, that the giant fish causes the Earth to shake because the Japanese do not appreciate it for cooking as well as other fish!
Species of catfish are found all over the world, and in all those places, legends are attached to them, including stories about catfish of gigantic proportions. They are part of the mythos of many cultures, including American Indians. For the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa, and the Potawatomi Indians of the Great Lakes region the catfish (Maanamegwug) and Bullhead catfish (Wawaazisii or Wawaazisiig) are both clan names.