Four "old dudes" pulled in quite a lunker earlier this month in Pool 14 of the Mississippi River, but the color of its skin — not its size — has kept them talking about it.
“I’ve been fishing this river for 60 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Loyal Tullius, referring to the 55-pound flathead catfish that measured 47 inches long. “It’s as yellow as can be, and it has blue eyes.”
Just hours before their rare-colored find two weeks ago along Steamboat Slough near Princeton, Iowa, the guys, who shared details about their strategy, landed a 48-pound flathead catfish in the same area.
In place of a traditional rod and reel, they stuck a 10-foot-long PVC pole into the muddy shore and fastened a thick cord to the structure. For bait, they hooked a bluegill to the end of the line, which dangled about a foot under the surface of the water and eventually lured the bottom-feeding fish.
As Tullius piloted his boat, John “Doc” Henyan of Cordova used a net to hoist the hefty creature aboard.
“It scared me at first,” said Henyan, 69, who earned the nickname, “Doc,” during his service as a combat medic in the Vietnam War. “I knew we had a good one on there, but I did not expect to see that big yellow head come out of the water.”
What makes it yellow?
Puzzled by its pigment, Tullius, 74, sent inquiries to numerous biologists in the region, including one at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque.
Meanwhile, he stored it in a 250-gallon tank on his property in Port Byron.
Speaking for his crew, Tullius, who assumed the fish was albino, wanted to know why it was yellow and whether anyone wanted to take it for research purposes.
After examining photos of the fish, Andy Allison, director of living collections at the Dubuque institution, quickly ruled out his caller's theory.
Instead, he thought it could be leucistic, which means it has less pigment than normal, but more than a true albino would possess.
Allison called it “remarkable” that the fish lived as long as it did in the dark depths of the Mississippi River, where it would be easier for predators to spot versus brown ones.
“Most species can produce unusually colored animals now and then, but most often they don’t survive for long,” he said. “At this adult size, it would have no natural predators other than humans.”
Although it was not as bright as this fish, John Perkins caught and released a 38-pound flathead catfish with yellow patches last July under the Interstate 280 bridge in Davenport. He used 50-pound test line and live shad for bait.
In response to Tullius' other question, Allison said he did not want to take in the fish because he already has two similar-sized flathead catfish. They live in the museum’s largest freshwater aquarium, which represents the main channel of the Mississippi River, and holds 35,000 gallons of water.
“They can be aggressive when defending their caves,” said Allison, who mentioned Tullius' call sticks out among the "odd" queries he receives. "People tend to call us with weird animal questions now and then, but that's the first of anything like that we've had."
What happened to the fish?
Because he couldn't find anyone to take the fish off his hands, Tullius decided to skin it and clean it himself, along with the 48-pound catfish they wrangled that same day.
"I've got about 100 pounds worth of fillets in the freezer," he said.
They plan to split about 60 pounds among their group of four fishermen and serve the remaining fillets next month during the weekend of the 20th annual Scouting Clays Classic.
The main event is held at the Bi-State Sportsman's Association's shotgun shooting club in Colona, where Tullius serves as the president.
It benefits the Illowa Council, which oversees 82 Boy Scout troops in 13 Iowa and Illinois counties.
Henyan, the Vietnam War vet, said the white meat is "absolutely delicious."
Davenport angler Samuel Brown, who recently wrestled a 65-pound flathead catfish to shore just east of the roller dam at Lock and Dam 15, also is feeding others with his big catch.
He kept the head for himself, but he filleted, packaged and delivered other portions of the 44-inch-long fish to a combination of friends and those in need.
“My catfish list is getting longer, so I guess I’ll be fishing more,” said Brown, an Oklahoma native, who retired from the U.S. Army in 1996. "I've always been a giver by nature."
Gunning for the record
The viral photo of a smiling Brown and his monstrous catch, shot by Quad-City Times' chief photographer Kevin Schmidt, has been shared more than 1,500 times on Facebook.
"We can't go to dinner without someone saying, 'There's the guy who caught the 65-pound fish,'" said Brown, who nicknamed it "Hulk." "It's everywhere."
This marks the second time in the past 14 months that his fishing success has caught fire on social media.
In May 2016, Brown lifted a 45-pound flathead catfish, which he coined "Beast," up over the seawall in the exact same spot.
At Croegaert’s Great Outdoors in Rock Island, store manager Jon Hurt said he regularly weighs in 20- to 30-pound flathead catfish.
Although he doesn't see 35- to 50-pound catfish quite as often, that doesn’t mean they’re not out there, he said.
“We’ve got some monster fish around the area,” said Hurt, who goes by “Captain Jon.” “Normally, the people who catch them either don’t know they ever had them or don’t have the equipment to handle them.
“They’re not long fighters, but when you first hook them, you’ve got your hands full."
Brown, 61, said he battled each of his fish for about 25-30 minutes. He used 60-pound test line and bluegill to attract them, and a gaff, or long stick with a hook, to pull them to land.
“I knew he had to be a beast when he first hit," Brown said, referring to his 65-pounder. "If you’re by yourself, you have to have a plan of action if you do get something like that on your line."
Looking forward, he hopes to break the record for largest flathead catfish ever registered in Iowa, which was caught in 1958 in Chariton. The fish weighed 81 pounds and measured 52 inches, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
"I’m telling everybody that I’m going to get it," Brown said. "I want to land a 90-plus pounder; I want to hold the record for awhile."
If he does lure that record-breaking fish someday, the master angler said he would follow the rules of CPR: catch, photograph and release.