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