WICHITA — Charlie Henning caught an 80.4-pound flathead catfish recently at Marion Reservoir that was 51 inches long, had a 36-inch girth and a mouth “we could have fit our whole heads in with ease,” said Gary Cohn, Henning’s fishing partner.
Locals think it’s the largest fish, of any kind, reeled in during the 50-year history of the popular fishing lake an hour northeast of Wichita.
All of the gear that Henning used to catch Moby Catfish cost less than some fishing lures.
“It was an el cheapo outfit, a $19.99 catfish rod and reel combo from Walmart,” said Henning, of Sedgwick. “The line I put on it was worth more than the rest of the outfit.”
He used pieces of old duck decoy anchor for a weight and bought the hooks at a swap meet for about 10 cents each. He baited them with chunks of fish he catches at the lake.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money to catch fish,” Henning said. “The fish don’t care.”
At the lake Henning and Cohn like to throw a circular cast net to catch some shad, a small baitfish. They then put cut up chunks of shad on the two hooks on their lines.
They let the boat drift over promising areas at the reservoir and often do well.
“We caught quite a few fish that morning,” Henning said. “A lot were small but we probably had six or seven keepers around three pounds. We threw them all back, but it would have been a nice mess of fish.”
A mess is what Henning and Cohn literally had on their hands when the huge fish bit a little before noon.
As the boat bobbed along Henning noticed one of his rods began to bow. Thinking the line was snagged he grabbed the rod and line tightly in one hand to pull the hook free. That’s not what happened.
“When I grabbed the line, the fish took off and was taking line so fast it cut into my hand,” Henning said. “It really put a bend in that big ol’ rod.”
Henning had confidence in his equipment.
Low price is only one reason why Henning keeps his boat stocked with “el cheapo” fishing outfits. The rods are long and stout. Loaded with 60-pound-test braided line, Henning’s not afraid to tackle any fish in Kansas.
“It’s not like I’m a cheapskate. I can buy better tackle, but this stuff just works,” said Henning, a longtime employee at Cessna.
“We’ve caught a gazillion fish on these things, and both the rods and reels perform perfectly. Someday I might lose one, but it’s not a big deal because they’re so cheap.”
Up until that morning, Henning’s biggest catfish had been a 12-pound channel cat. The biggest in his boat was 14 pounds.
Judging by the weight at the end of his line, Henning figured he had hooked into the biggest flathead of his life. That was an easy feat to accomplish.
“I’d only caught two flatheads before, and the biggest was about a pound,” Henning said. “They normally want a live bait so we never expect to catch them on chunks of dead shad.”
The battle lasted about 15 minutes, with the combination of the heavy line, reel and rod wearing the fish quickly. Getting the fish into the boat was a memorable challenge.
“I looked down at our net we use for channel cats and kind of laughed,” Cohn said. “I don’t think we could have even gotten that fish’s head in that net.”
The anglers pondered working the fish over to the shoreline where they could wade out and team up to get the fish in the boat or on dry ground. But that would take time and increase the chances of the fish coming unhooked or breaking the line.
Cohn got a “what-the-heck” idea he later questioned.
“I finally decided I was just going to reach down, grab the fish by the lower jaw and lift it into the boat,” Cohn said.
He paid a price for his quick decision.
“As soon as I got it into the boat there was blood everywhere — mine,” said Cohn, chuckling as he spoke. “Those fish have all of those hundreds of tiny teeth and it kind of chewed up my fingers pretty good.”
A week later scratches could still be seen on both of his hands. His shoulder hurt for several days, too.
The anglers took the fish to a feed store in Hillsboro and got it weighed.
“I was thinking 60 pounds because I’ve never been around fish that big,” Henning said. “But we weighed it on their scales, and it was 80.4 pounds. That’s gotta be close to the biggest flathead to come out of (Marion Reservoir).”
Though no such records are officially kept, local experts think it’s the biggest fish, of any species, to ever come from the reservoir.
Warren Kreutziger ran a popular bait and tackle store near the lake for 17 years, and has fished the area since long before the reservoir was built. The biggest confirmed flathead he knew of was 65 pounds. Alex Case, a Marion business owner, has fished the lake since it was opened in 1967 and knows many local anglers.
“I’d think you’d be safe to say that 80-pounder is the biggest ever caught out of Marion,” said Case. “I remember hearing of one around 70 pounds, but never even saw it. I haven’t even heard of an 80-pounder until this fish. That’s pretty cool.”
At 80.4 pounds the fish is well short of the Kansas and world-record flathead of 123 pounds, caught at Elk City Reservoir in 1998. An online check shows Henning’s catch is bigger than state record fish in Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado.
Henning and Cohn are sure the huge catfish will set a record for Henning’s boat — a record that will never be broken.
“That’s fine. It took me 47 years to finally get a really big fish in the boat,” Henning said. “Some days we do fairly well fishing and some days we don’t, but we always have fun fishing. That’s what’s important to us, always having fun.”