Roy Groves was one of the greatest catfishermen in history. His fishing prowess made him famous among fellow river rats in the Great Plains, and grainy photos of him with enormous catfish spread across two decades show why.
At one point, Groves held both world and state records for blue catfish and channel catfish. He claimed each in 1949 with a 94-pound blue cat and 55-pound channel cat from the James River in South Dakota. The blue cat world and state record held for 10 years until it was broken by a fellow South Dakotan with a 97-pound catch. The channel cat world record held until 1964 when a 58-pounder was caught in South Carolina. Within 15 years, Groves saw three of his four records fall. All that was left was his state record channel catfish.
The Groves state record channel cat was never bested, making it the oldest record in state history. For 70 years, South Dakota anglers failed to ever catch a bigger channel cat, even though the blue catfish and flathead catfish records continued to change names over that time.
In a 2017 article in the Outdoor Forum, I called the record “unbreakable,” but not because the glory days of catfishing in South Dakota are behind us.
“Although the James River still churns out big catfish to this day, it never has and never will produce channel cats of this size,” I wrote. “I believe this record is a farce, because the fish is actually a blue catfish that was misidentified as a channel cat. Unless the GFP revokes this 68-year record, it’ll never be dethroned.”
In North America, there are about a half dozen species of catfish that are distributed across most of the continent. Bullheads and madtoms don’t garner much attention from anglers, but blue cats, flathead cats and channel cats do.
Flatheads are the easiest of the species to identify. Their smeared coloration often has shades of black, brown, tan and yellow. They also have a paddle-shaped tailfin and protruding lower jaw, which are unique to flatheads. Their weights can exceed 100 pounds.
Unlike the flathead, blue cats and channel cats have a lot of similarities. Both species share a solid color that falls somewhere on the gradient of light gray to slate blue. They each have tailfins with deep forks, and dorsal fins and adipose fins with identical placement. The biggest difference is that blue cats can weigh over 100 pounds, but channel cats rarely hit the 30-pound mark. This regularly trips up anglers who think they caught a giant channel cat, when in reality it’s just a blue.
It even happened to Ed Elliot, the fisherman that beat Groves’s world record blue catfish in 1959. Elliot claimed that his near 100-pound catch was a “silver channel catfish.” In a letter published by Field & Stream in 1964, Mike Bell, who ran the magazine’s annual fishing contest, wrote, “The angler thought the fish was a silver channel catfish. Mr. Elliot accepted that decision, although I think he still was not completely convinced the fish was a blue catfish.”
The only foolproof way to tell the difference is by looking at the anal fin. On a channel catfish, the anal fin will be curved and have 24-29 rays. On a blue catfish, the anal fin will be straight and have 30-36 rays.
“If you look closely at the picture of the record fish,” I wrote in the 2017 article, “you can see it has a long, flat anal fin. This distinction actually belongs to the blue catfish, while channel catfish have a shorter, rounded anal fin.”
I’m not the only one who thought the Groves record was a case of mistaken identity. Keen-eyed anglers have been pestering the state to reevaluate the record for a while. Geno Adams, fisheries program administrator for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, has been on the receiving end of those emails and phone calls for the last 10 years.
“Since day one there’s been questions,” Adams said in an interview with the Argus Leader. “There’s just a lot of information that doesn’t line up to make that a channel catfish. And in the last few years it just became overwhelming.”
Adams decided to take action and reached out to a group of fish biologists and professors to get their thoughts. The verdict was unanimous: It was a blue catfish. With a sense of validation, Adams moved to have the record abolished. “We feel that, while this is a great fish and a great story, it is time to open the channel catfish category and start fresh,” Adams said.
In a press release, the department announced that the end of the record marked the beginning of Catrush 2019. The program is designed to make anglers aware of state record and master angler platforms, and promote an abundant and underutilized species of fish.
“Currently the state record channel catfish doesn’t exist,” Adams said. “Our hope is that people target channel catfish and we have the state record broken multiple times in the next few weeks.”
Adams was right. Within just a couple days of the announcement, the first record was set with an 8-pounder. Since then, it’s been broken three more times, including twice in one day on May 30. The record currently sits at 15 pounds and 4 ounces, but it likely won’t stand for long.
“The weather is getting warmer and the catfishing is just starting to heat up,” the GFP said in a Facebook post.
The removal of the Groves record has received praise from South Dakotans. Chris Hull, communications specialist for the GFP, said that this has generated a lot of buzz among anglers.
“Channel cats are found in three-fourths of the state, so a bunch of people are paying attention and participating,” Hull said. “We’ve had many parents tell us it’s been a great motivator for getting kids out fishing. We hope to use this campaign to build some excitement around catfish and show people that they can be fun to catch and great to eat.”
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about Catrush, though. The family of Groves thinks the department’s action was unwarranted.
“The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is taking away my great grandfather’s state record because they don’t think by looking at a picture it is a channel catfish. I would think he would know the difference!” James Labesky posted on Facebook.
The Argus Leader reported that another grandchild, Geri Rasmussen, was equally disappointed. She said she couldn’t understand why the state would make a different decision about the fish’s identity 70 years later.
“I just think it was handled very poorly,” she said. “He was always so proud of how many hours he spent pulling all those fish in.”
In the end, the very thing that created Groves’s legacy caused it to be rewritten: his photographs. The black and white images of him standing next to man-sized catfish created a legend that only visual evidence could verify. Without them, his 55-pound blue cat could have been a legitimate record that no one could deny. Instead, his catch is just another fisherman’s tale.
Feature image via Argus Leader.