Austin Hoffman is happy to be the newly crowned holder of a state fishing record, but he wonders how long his record will last.
“I don’t think it will last two years,” said Hoffman, whose 52-pound, 15-ounce blue catfish recently shattered the existing West Virginia record for the species by nearly 8 ½ pounds.
Hoffman isn’t being modest or pessimistic. He knows that at least one much larger blue cat has been caught just a few miles up the Ohio River from where he caught his record-breaker.
“A guy in here pre-fishing for a catfish tournament caught one that weighed 60-some pounds,” Hoffman said. “He didn’t have a West Virginia license, so he couldn’t turn it in to claim the record.”
The state’s official blue-cat record has been broken seven times since 2005, when fisheries officials began stocking the species into the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. But according to Chris O’Bara, fisheries research supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources, all the record-breaking fish were almost certainly present in the river before the stockings began.
“There were small numbers of wild blue cats in [the stretch downstream from the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam] before we started stocking,” O’Bara explained. “The biggest of the fish from those first stockings are only in the 15- to 20-pound range by now, so any fish bigger than that probably came from the pre-existing wild population.”
O’Bara confirmed that there have been unofficial reports of blue cats in the 60- to 70-pound range being caught, but those catches weren’t documented or confirmed.
The lure of hooking a fish of that size is what has turned Hoffman from a bass angler to a catfish enthusiast. After the 22-year-old Marshall University biology major got a taste of catching giant blue cats on Virginia’s James River, he became hooked on the pursuit of big whiskerfish.
On April 26, Hoffman and girlfriend Megan Bordman decided to test a new depth finder on Hoffman’s boat by fishing the Ohio downstream from the Byrd locks. Once on the river, Hoffman rigged up five heavy bait-casting rods and baited them with cut strips of skipjack herring.
“I put the lines in the water, lowered the baits to the depth I wanted to fish, and let the boat start to drift,” he said. “I had the rods mounted in the front and back of the boat, and I used the trolling motor to hold the boat sideways in the current and spread the ‘curtain’ of bait as widely as possible.”
Success came pretty quickly. After 30 minutes’ worth of drifting, Hoffman was getting ready to reel in his lines and head back upriver to start another drift when one of the rods dipped sharply.
“I was standing in the back, waiting for the boat to reach a certain landmark, when I looked up front and saw that one rod was completely bowed over,” he said. “The rod tip was actually down in the water.”
As soon as Hoffman grabbed the rod and started fighting the fish, he knew he was into a big one.
“At first I thought it might be in the 30- to 35-pound range, but once I got it close to the surface, I could tell that it might be bigger,” he said. “When I finally saw it, I was pretty positive it might be a new state record.”
Having caught similarly sized blue cats on the James, Hoffman guessed he might have a 50-plus-pounder on the end of his line. He knew the existing record was 44 pounds, 8 ounces, but the knowledge that he might be within minutes of breaking the record didn’t excite him all that much.
“I race dirt bikes, so I’m used to dealing with adrenaline,” he said. “I actually stayed pretty calm. The fish got me a little worried when it started rolling up on the line, but it didn’t break off and I was able to bring it alongside the boat.”
That’s when the real fun began. Hoffman hadn’t brought a landing net, so he had to grab the monstrous fish by the lower jaw and wrestle it into the boat.
“The tooth pads on this fish were like 80-grit sandpaper,” he said. “By the time I got the fish yanked into the boat, I had blood pouring out of my hand.”
Hoffman stuffed the huge blue into his boat’s live well, which wasn’t really large enough to accommodate it but would do in a pinch. After conning the boat back to the launch ramp, the excited young angler tethered the fish to the dock while he figured out how best to keep it alive long enough to weigh and release it.
A quick cell-phone call to Hoffman’s father brought part of the answer – a 50-gallon cooler that, after it was filled with water, gave the fish temporary quarters for the trip back to the family’s Milton home.
Once there, they transferred the 4-foot-long behemoth into a 125-gallon tub used to keep beer cold for large parties. The fish stayed there overnight while arrangements were made to have it weighed and measured.
“My friend and catfish mentor, Justin Conner, knew who to call,” Hoffman said. “I didn’t really have to do anything. Justin did all the calling for me. He arranged for [DNR biologist] Scott Morrison to come down from Parkersburg and certify it as a record.”
Morrison told Hoffman exactly what he was expecting to hear.
“He shook my hand and said there was no doubt it was a new state record for both weight and length,” Hoffman recalled. “He said he didn’t know yet whether it would be listed in next year’s fishing-regulations booklet because there’s still a chance someone might break the new record before the year is over. I will get a state-record fish certificate, though.”
After the catfish was weighed, Hoffman and a small entourage drove it to the St. Albans boat ramp on the Kanawha River, where he released the massive creature to fight another day.
“It was in great shape when I released it,” he said. “After it got its bearings, it took off like a torpedo.”
Hoffman said it’s a great time to be a blue-cat fisherman in West Virginia.
“There are some big fish out there to be caught, and I think as time goes on, the chances of catching a really big one are only going to get better. I don’t know if I’ll end up catching a bigger one, but I sure intend to try.”