Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia & Western North Carolina
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. -- Carl Sagan
For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible. -- Stuart Chase
Big Fish Sightings
The murky depths of Boone, South Holston and Watauga Lakes are said to hide truly monstrous fish. Folklore maintains catfish and carp in these waters can grow to tremendous size and become large enough to swallow swimmers whole.
In his book Demon in the Woods: Tall Tales and True from East Tennessee, author Charles Edwin Price presents the story of a man who was scuba diving in Boone Lake when he came face-to-face with one of these monster fish:
“I had been diving for almost 30 minutes,” he said. “My air supply was nearly exhausted and I was about to surface when I felt
something behind me – you know, like someone is watching you? I turned and came face to face with the biggest fish I had
“It was defiantly a carp – a huge carp that looked to be about 30 feet long. His eyes were as big as dinner plates. We just
stared at each other for a few seconds until my good senses returned, and I made a hasty retreat to the surface. (Price, p. 45)
Bud Shell of Elizabethton told Price that he had seen carp longer than his boat:
“These were 14-foot boats,” he said.
Shell . . . said he has also heard reports of giant catfish that hang around the floodgates [at Watauga Dam].
“I’ve talked to scuba divers who clear brush and other trash from around the floodgates,” he said. “They told me there were
catfish down there as big as the divers. They’re real sluggish and lay up there on the concrete shelves. When they get in the
way of the divers, they just push them aside.” (Price, p. 47)
Are fish mentioned in Price’s book growing larger than what biologists maintain is possible? In an article titled “Cat o’ Nine Tales”, Barbara Mikkelson, writing on http://www.snopes.com, explains giant fish stories have reached the status of urban legend and that the size of these fish seems to grow with age. She concluded the earliest giant catfish stories surfaced in the 1950s when the fish were said to be as large as Volkswagens. She says that “by the 1960s the mythical catfish had grown to the size of Ford Falcons; in the ‘70s those same fish were as large as full-sized Buicks; and more recently some were just a bit smaller than Winnebagos.” (Mikkelson)
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Fishes argues that catfish do not grow this big. Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) can grow up to five-feet-long and weigh up to 150 pounds, flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) can grow up to five-feet-long and weigh up to 123 pounds and channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) can grow up to four-feet-long and weigh up to 58 pounds. According to the TWRA’s webpage titled “Record Fish”, a 112-pound blue catfish was caught in the Cumberland River in 1998 by Robert E. Lewis and a 130-pound one was caught at Fort Loudoun Reservoir in 1976. The same webpage states that a 92-pound flathead catfish was caught in the Mississippi River in 2000.
Regardless of statistics, proponents of giant catfish tales point to an old photograph taken in 1914 in Cerro Gordo, Tennessee as proof monster catfish exist. The photograph appears to show a giant catfish estimated to be around 500 pounds lying in the bed of a wagon. According to http://www.oodora.com/life-stories/funny-finds/giant-catfish.html, the authenticity of the photo has been in dispute since it was discovered at the Hardin County, Tennessee Historical Society.
A member of the photographer’s family dismissed the incident as just a prank. “My daddy had a little wagon that looked
like a log wagon,” said Joe Brownlow Pitts of Savannah, Tennessee. “He put the fish — which weighed, I recall, about 85 lbs.
— on it. Then, my uncle Frank, who was good at photography, cut out a cardboard man that was being used in a clothing
There is also a truly terrifying species of carp. According to http://www.megafishingthailand.com, the Siamese giant carp (Catlocarpio siamensis), found in Thailand can grow to monstrous sizes:
The Siamese giant carp is the largest carp species in the world and found in Thailand's waters and along the Mekong [River]
through [Cambodia] down to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The biggest ever recorded fish was reportedly 300kg (660 lb) and
caught in Thailand, in the wild with a net. This was however in times gone by when the environment was slightly different and
the species may not have been under the same pressures as today from Dam building, loss of Habitat and over fishing.
Though Siamese giant carp and Mekong giant catfish do not exist in the eastern United States, the unnamed divers sighting of a 30-foot-long carp is hard to reconcile. According to the TWRA’s webpage titled “Record Fish”, indigenous carp grow up to a little over three-feet-long and weigh a little over 88 pounds. It can be speculated that the diver may have grossly overestimated the size of the carp while in the murky depth. ThinkQuest Team’s webpage titled "The Physics of Diving: Light and Vision" explains that vision is notoriously unreliable underwater:
In refraction, the light rays are bent as they pass from one medium to another of different density. In diving, the refraction
occurs at the interface between the air in the diver's mask and the water. The refracted image of an underwater object is
magnified, appears larger than the real image, and seems to be positioned at a point three-fourths of the actual distance
between the object and the diver's faceplate.
This displacement of the optical image might be expected to cause objects to appear closer to the diver than they actually are
and, under some conditions, objects do indeed appear to be located at a point three- fourths of their actual distance from the
diver. This distortion interferes with hand-eye coordination and accounts for the difficulty often experienced by novice divers
attempting to grasp objects under water. At greater distances, however, this phenomenon may reverse itself, with distant
objects appearing farther away than they actually are. The clarity of the water has a profound influence on judgments of depth:
the more turbid the water, the shorter the distance at which the reversal from underestimation to overestimation occurs.
It is hard to imagine, however, that an experienced diver would not be aware of these facts.
There is one fish, however, that when seen swimming near the surface of a lake, could seem to be gigantic; it is the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens). According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Fishes, they can grow up to nine-feet-long and weight around 200 pounds. They also look much different than most fish. They are covered in sharp, boney plates. According to the TWRA’s webpage on lake sturgeon restoration: “Approximately 81,500 lake sturgeon have been stocked into the French Broad, Holston, and Tennessee Rivers downstream of Douglas and Cherokee Reservoirs since 2000.” (http://www.tnfish.org/LakeSturgeonRestoration_TWRA/AcipenserFulvescensResorationTennessee_TWRA.htm)
Co-founder of the Haunt Masters Club, Justin H. Guess, contacted the TWRA and asked if these fish could have made their way into the Tri-Cities, explaining big fish sightings. Morristown agent Bart Carter responded with doubt:
"It is very unlikely that any sturgeon have made it up to the upper east TN reservoirs. We have not had any reports of sturgeon
from Douglas or Cherokee reservoirs so the likelihood of them passing through the dams on these reservoirs has not been
documented. As far as the historical occurrence of sturgeon in the upper Holston and Watauga systems, there are no records
of sturgeon ever being there. The farthest upstream record was reported in a 1946 publication that described a collection of
sturgeon from the French Broad River near Hot Springs, NC. However, this collection had not been visually verified by the
author or any other authority. We are hopeful that these released sturgeon will persist and possibly within the next 10 to 15
years start to reproduce."
There is a fresh water fish that would explain Bud Shell’s sighting of a fish longer than his 14-foot boat; it is the alligator gar. In fact, Charles Edwin Price makes reference to “some kind of bloated alligator, about 10 – 12 feet long, with green scales and sharp teeth” (p. 46) in his book Demon in the Woods: Tall Tales and True from East Tennessee.
According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Fishes, alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) can grow up to ten foot long and weigh up to 279 pounds. However, in January 1957 an alligator gar almost 13-feet-long was caught, easily reaching over 500-pounds, was caught and photographed at Caddo Lake in Texas.
Alligator gar make regular trips to the surface to breath air and unlike sturgeon, these fish are a danger to fishermen and swimmers.
Alligator gars have two rows of teeth. The inner row of teeth is palatine and is longer than the outer row of teeth. The teeth of
the alligator gar are long, slander, and fang like, enabling these fish to pierce and hold their prey.” (Goddard)
It is highly improbable, however, that alligator gar are in Tri-Cities lakes, as confirmed by the TWRA:
The Alligator gar is one of the largest North American freshwater fishes and is extremely rare in Tennessee . . . TWRA and the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have begun to restore this species into suitable habitat within their historical range. There was
an initial stocking of 200 fingerlings into the South Fork of the Obion River, 25 fingerlings into the Middle Fork of the Forked
Deer River, and 50 fingerlings into both Clear Creek and Crooked Creek in 1999. A total of 3,685 have been stocked into
Tennessee waters. The most recent stocking of Cold Creek and the Hatchie River occurred in 2006.” (TWRA)
Regardless of the size of fish in area lakes, they do not seem to pose any threat to swimmers. There have been no reports of death caused by being gobbled up by giant fish in the Tri-Cities.