Jody Harris (in picture above at left) is a marked man.
Not by law enforcement officials, but by a group of anglers who covet the biggest and ugliest whiskered fish in Illinois lakes and rivers - the flathead catfish.
The bigger the flathead the better, and Harris lays claim to the biggest one ever caught in Illinois. During a balmy evening on Carlyle Lake on Aug. 11, 1995, Harris and his buddy, Chuck Frerker, were fishing for white bass when Harris accidentally hooked a 78-pound flathead.
After a 40-minute battle on durable 14-pound test Stren line, the big cat—measuring four feet, three inches in length—was hauled into the boat. The fish surpassed the existing state record by 12 pounds. The previous Illinois record flathead was taken in the Carlyle tailwaters of the Kaskaskia River in 1994.
Thirteen years later, Harris’ record still stands. Many have tried to dethrone him, yet Harris’ name remains at the top of the list.
“I’m surprised,” Harris said recently. “I figured it would have been broken by now. As many people that fish for flatheads, I thought it would be broken.
“You hear stories all the time about people at lakes that catch them bigger than mine, and for some reason or another, they lose the fish or don’t get it weighed.”
Harris, 39, is a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Carlyle Lake, specializing in resource management. He sees anglers every day who specifically come to the lake to catch monster flatheads.
Harris’ name was in the news in April when a central Illinois angler nearly broke his record. Mark Blough, of Rochester, caught and released a 76.5-pound flathead he landed in Sangchris Lake on April 19.
Harris knows he’s a marked man.
“I understand that,” Harris said. “Hey, I give those guys a lot of credit. They’re out there fishing all the time for flatheads. I was just white bass fishing.”
A 1986 graduate of Mater Dei High School in Breese, Harris said there was nothing particularly eventful about the night he landed his record fish.
He and Frerker, as they were apt to do most nights after work, were fishing for white bass near Coles Creek. Idling in an area with a depth of 6 feet over some humps, the pair were quickly filling their stringer.
“We were catching a lot of white bass,” Harris recalled. “We were casting out and letting the bait sink to the bottom. It would sit there for a second and I would pick it up. That one time, he got on there.”
“He” was a monster flathead. Harris was using a baitcaster with 14-pound test line baited with a white twister tail on top and a jigging spoon on the bottom. The flathead bit on the twister tail, and the fight was on.
Harris’ strategy was to let the behemoth wear itself out, so he turned off the trolling motor and let the flathead pull the boat around the lake for the better part of 40 minutes.
“Basically, it was taking us wherever it wanted to go,” said Harris, who estimated the fish pulled their boat 100 yards in all four directions. “It just wore itself out and ended up underneath the boat.”
Harris and Frerker grabbed the exhausted flathead and hauled it into the boat. Both had no clue how big it was, guessing maybe 40 pounds. T hey sought out Billy Ross, a veteran net fisherman from Carlyle who has logged more hours fishing the lake and spillway than perhaps anyone.
“He said he’s been netting fish all of his life and he’s never seen anything that big,” Harris said. “He thought it was 80 pounds. We didn’t know anything about the state record. I figured he would know and he was right.”
Harris and Frerker immediately took the flathead to the Carlyle IGA grocery store, where Jeff Taylor weighed it on a certified scale. The weight—exactly 78 pounds—established a state record.