As integral parts of my fish catching arsenal when I was growing up on the Caloosahatchee River, I had a seven foot cast net and a five-pronged gig with a ten foot aluminum handle. I never left home without these. We did lots of gigging in the river, and when all else failed, you could count on putting dinner on the table with either of them. I was a good shot with the gig because I threw it so much, and anything that swam was usually fair game.
One hot, muggy summer afternoon in 1965, three river rats, Bill, Larry and yours truly, found themselves way up the Orange River on a gigging expedition. The sun was at our backs, the water was clear, and it was perfect for gigging. I already had several mullet in the boat and was looking to stick a couple more. Larry was operating the vintage 7.5 horse Evinrude, Bill was in the center of my 12 foot Jon boat, and I was standing up on the front seat scouring the water for something to stab. We were headed upstream at an idle.
Suddenly I caught a glimpse of something swimming just about the same speed as us, just below the surface of the water and just up ahead of the boat. It was huge. At first glance, it looked to me like a Bull Shark. There were lots of them in the river, and they were fair game just like anything else. I crouched down a little and told Larry to speed up some. As Larry fumbled around with the throttle, I could see the fish starting to slowly veer off to the left, and beginning to dive deeper. I could also see that the boat was not going to catch up with him, so I decided to make my throw. I took careful aim, and gave it all I had. The gig hit home. The giant fish just stopped. The gig was sticking out of his back and the handle was sticking three or four feet almost straight up out of the water.
As the boat finally caught up to the gig handle, I reached out and grabbed it. As soon as I got a good grip on it, the fish suddenly came to life. He snatched me off the front of that boat and into the water so fast that I didn’t even have time to get a breath. I had a death grip on the gig and felt like I was at the rodeo riding a Brahma bull. The water was about twelve feet deep and as the monster went to the bottom, I could still hang on to the gig and get my head above water and catch a breath now and then. The fish threw me around like a rag doll. It eventually carried me toward the bank and into a little shallower water. I could get my head up long enough to yell for Bill to come and help me hold it down. Bill dove in and swam to where me and the monster were. With both of us holding on to the gig handle, we finally got the fish pinned down to the bottom.
We still at this point didn’t know for sure just what it was. All I knew was, it was bigger than me and that had it had come close to drowning me. As he finally settled down somewhat and as Bill sat with all his weight on the gig, I dove down to get a closer look at it. Without a mask, it was a bit blurry, but to my astonishment, I could see that it was the biggest catfish that I had ever seen or even heard of. I went back up and told Bill that I was going back to the boat to get a piece of rope to tie through his gills in case he got free from the gig.
As I turned to head back to the boat, Larry was just diving in. I yelled for him to get back in the boat and that Bill and I had everything under control. As he turned and started to climb back in, he pulled the side of the boat under and sank it right before my eyes.
Luckily it had drifted over towards the bank and the water was only about two feet deep. I made it to the back of the boat and managed to hold the motor high enough so that the power head was out of the water.
About that same time the monster catfish had gotten his second wind and there went Bill (his turn to ride the bull). I yelled for Larry to start bailing. As Larry frantically bailed water out of the boat and me struggling to keep the motor from going under, I could hear Bill’s garbled cries for help as once again the rodeo was in full swing.
The fish finally settled down again, as Larry got enough water out of the boat, so it would now float on its own. I grabbed a piece of rope and headed back to Bill and the fish. I dove down again and began to push the rope through behemoth’s gills and up inside his mouth, intending for it to come out of his mouth so that I could tie it. However, the rope was just bunching up inside the fishes massive jaws. I ran out of air and had to go back up and get a breath.
As I surfaced to get a breath, hear we go again. The fish took off once more with Bill in tow. I chased them down and again the two of us pinned him down. I dove back down to again try and secure the monster. I could see the rope still just inside his mouth, so with my pinky finger I tried to very quickly snag it and pull it through. The very second I stuck my finger in there to snag the rope he chomped down on my pinky. It was like my finger was in a vice. Luckily he turned me loose and I was able to get the rope through and tie it. I swam back up and together Bill and I wrestled the giant back across the river and to the boat. By now Larry had most all of the water bailed out and the boat was once again floating high in the water. I tied the fish to the back of the boat and collapsed.
The fingernail on my pinky was smashed, turning purple and throbbing. I think I lost all three of my chest hairs but along with some other cuts and bruises, Bill and I were none the worse for wear.
The fish was too big to try and drag into the boat, so tied to the transom, we dragged him all the way back toward the Caloosahatchee. As we passed beneath the Orange River Bridge there were a couple of old guys fishing under the bridge. We pulled into shore to show off our catch. One of the guys said “that monster has to be some kind of record”. The only problem being the gig holes in his back. Plus the fact, that the location of where we got it is considered to be fresh water (a definite no-no).
Lying threw my teeth, I told the man that we intended to sell the fish for twenty dollars to another man down the river. Without hesitation, reached in his pocket, pulled out his wallet and peeled off twenty-five dollars. That was a sizeable amount of cash back then. Destined to be invested wisely, in a sizeable amount of cold drinks, tater chips and slim jims. We couldn’t untied that fish fast enough. We handed him the rope and were on our way.
To this day, I have never seen another catfish that comes anywhere close to being as big as that one was. And as we headed off toward the Caloosahatchee, with our twenty-five dollars and this story to tell, I looked at Bill and said “what do you want to do now”? He looked back at me and said “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”. And with that, one more adventure was in the books and we headed off to find another one.