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The Big One That Didn't Get Away
(Mystery Fish Stirs Interest)
by Steve McCadams

 Here's a fish story about the big one that didn't get away. Yet the lunker's identity had some local commercial fishermen mystified.

 What was it? Where did it come from? Have you ever seen one before? Is it good to eat? Bad for the lake? What's the scoop?

 These questions and more were the basis for quite a fish tale last week when a huge piscatorial specimen was brought in to Sinclair's Fish Market.

 Seems the hefty fish had several folks buzzing, not only because of its magnitude but also because of its appearance.

 "I've seen a lot of fish come out of Kentucky Lake but this one is unique," said Richard  Sinclair, owner of Sinclair's Fish Market and Restaurant on highway 79 north. "I don't know what it is but there's been some reports lately of some fishermen catching them in nets and on trotlines."

"This one weighed 47 pounds after I gutted it and placed it in a walk in cooler," said Sinclair. "You can figure about 10 percent loss in weight for that so the fish easily weighed over 50 pounds when it was caught."

 Sporting a dark, olive color with small scales, the huge fish had a very large mouth and its eyes were located in a unusual position. The eyes looked somewhat lower than the usual position on most species. Both the dorsal and pectoral fins were short and thick with characteristics of a salt water specimen.

 No distinguishing characteristics were visible which might have   indicated it was a hybrid. Yet a cross between any carp, buffalo, drum and other common species was not clearly visible.

 Was it an overgrown minnow? Maybe a super size one that had somehow grown to a giant after years and years on the loose.

"Didn't know what it was when I caught it but I can tell you this, it  fought like crazy," said Kenny Lindsman, who caught it in his gill nets in Kentucky Lake near Paris Landing.

 Veteran commercial fisherman Frank Hart, Lindsman's uncle, has been a commercial fisherman for decades and operated Hart's Fish Market before retiring a few years ago. He has seen thousands of fish come and go both in his market and from his days logged on the water running nets and trotlines. However, he too was in awe of the identity of this mystery fish.

 My curiosity got the best of me too as a phone call on Friday night informed me of the fish story in progress. Early Saturday morning I rousted Sinclair out of bed so I could see, first hand, what all the commotion was about. Armed with a book by A. J. McLane titled: Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America, I was eager to put my rusty biology degree to work and run a key in hopes of proper classification.

 After several attempts to find a specific fish listed in the book that matched what was before me, I gave up and placed a call to TVA fisheries biologist Gary Jenkins. Unable to make contact, Sinclair and some others, including Jim Perry, contact TWRA personnel.

 As luck would have it, Henry County wildlife officer Steve Brewer made contact with a University of Tennessee Martin instructor and biologist Wilburn A. Sliger, who happened to be in the area with a class on a field trip. He was summoned to the fish market to put a label on the big fish that was now spawning some tall fish tales throughout the area.

 "Mister Sliger indicated it was a "big head carp", a somewhat rare fish that had come from the Mississippi River. It was the biggest one he had ever encountered. Scales samples taken and observed a few days later at the UTM biology department indicated the fish was approximately 9 years old. The fish was not native to this area and it apparently has somewhat of an interesting history," continued Sinclair. "It did not resemble any of the carp we normally see here as it had very small scales and no tenticles on the lower jaw and mouth as is normally observed."

 "Story has it the fish was initially released in some Missouri and Arkansas lakes by catfish farmers many years ago. It initially came from China.  Apparently, in hopes of controlling some vegetation or for other reasons unknown, the fish were released in the small lakes there but then came a flood. The fish then escaped their small impoundments and entered the river systems that drained into the mighty Mississippi."

 To make it to Kentucky Lake and the Paris Landing area the fish had to leave the Mississippi River and swim upstream into the Ohio River. Then, it had a journey from the Ohio River upstream into the Tennessee River where it was able to negotiate the dam, tailrace and locks. Somehow, it successfully traveled into Kentucky Lake where its huge size made it vulnerable to gill nets set in the main river by commercial fisherman.

"It's supposed to be a vegetarian but I've caught one or two on bait lines using cut shad and just didn't know what it was at the time," said Sinclair. "I'm wondering if they don't switch over to a different food source once they get this big.

 And so it goes that his huge fish has quite a history. It shows just how intriguing the mammoth waters of the Tennessee River and all its connecting waterways can be. Movement among the species has always been interesting. Where do they go and when do they get there?

 Sport fishermen have long sought the whereabouts of big fish in hopes of tangling with a lunker on the end of their rod and reel. With today's sonar equipment many anglers scratch their heads in question of just what appears on their screen from time to time.

 It just goes to show you never know what lurks in the deep, dark waters of Kentucky Lake. Even with modern technology available, there's still a few mystery fish swimming around out there.

 Stories will always be told about the big one that got away. In this case, the big one got caught but the stories of its origin may continue for quite some time too.

Steve McCadams
 is a professional hunting and fishing guide here in the Paris Landing area and host of The Outdoor Channel's television series  IN-PURSUIT.