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Colstrip angler's 35.18-pound channel catfish new Montana record

From the The Billings Gazette's best from Labor Day weekend series
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Record cat

Colstrip angler John Smith reeled in this record channel catfish from Castle Rock Lake on July 7. The fish has been authorized as a new state record, weighing in at 35.18 pounds.

A 35.18-pound channel catfish that Colstrip angler John Smith reeled in on July 7 has been certified as a new Montana record.

“I was kind of shocked,” he said of the moment when he got the fish next to his boat. “It looked even bigger in the water.”

Smith, 40, was trolling on his home waters of Castle Rock Lake with his 16-year-old son Brandon when he hooked into the beastly fish. At the time he was using a light panfish/trout rod baited with a Beetle Spin and a one-eighth ounce Mister Twister jig in an attempt to catch walleye.

Castle Rock Lake

Castle Rock Lake is located next to the Eastern Montana community of Colstrip.

Big bite

On the last cruise around the lake before pulling the boat out, Smith’s rod arced downward as if he’d snagged the lake bottom. But then the rod started pumping and the catfish began peeling line off the reel.

“He got on and took off in the other direction,” Smith said.

His reel only holds about 100 yards of 15-pound test line. By the time Smith got the boat turned around, the fish had taken out about three-quarters of the line.

“It was quite the run.”

Net work

Unwilling to give up without a fight, the catfish made two more big runs. Each time Smith was concerned that the fat fish would shake loose the small hook, so he kept his reel’s drag set fairly loose.

“I told my kid I just wanted to get it close to the boat so I could see it,” he said, thinking it was a big northern pike or walleye.

When Smith finally got the fish up close to the boat, netting it proved difficult. The fish was so heavy that with only half of it in the net the handle started to bend. So the two anglers reached down and grabbed onto the net itself to hoist the beastly catfish into the boat.

It's official

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks honors trophy fish with a certificate like this one given to John Smith for his fat channel cat.

Hefty cat

With a 28-pound scale in the boat Smith found that the fish buried that device before he even got the fish lifted all the way up. Excited, he called friends who told him to get it weighed on a registered scale in case it was a record. Not knowing where to go, he phoned the Forsyth Fish, Wildlife & Parks warden who drove out to personally oversee the weigh-in. In the meantime, Smith kept the fish alive in a cooler.

The local hardware store had a certified scale that proved the fish was a new record. Smith later drove the cat to Miles City so fisheries manager Mike Backes could verify the species. Backes told Smith the last time Castle Rock Lake had been stocked with catfish was in 1982 and 2001, so the fish could be between 18 and 37 years old.

"It seems a little fast to get that big in 18 years," Backes said.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, the oldest known channel catfish was dated to 24 years. The heaviest was 57.9 pounds. Backes wants to eventually retrieve the fish’s otolith bones which have growth rings that can be counted to show its exact age.

"It's a messy process," Backes said. "We have to destroy the head more or less to get them out."

The older the fish the harder the rings are to count, since they get very close together, he added. 

The old record for channel catfish in Montana was a 34.8-pounder that Dan Davenport pulled out of Fort Peck Reservoir in July 2013.

Big fish

Channel catfish are a species native to Montana, living in the Yellowstone and Missouri river drainages. The fish thrive in the lower portions of the rivers which are known for turbid water. They can also tolerate warm waters over 70 degrees. The reason the fish are known to grow so big is that they will eat just about anything, alive or dead, according to the Montana Field Guide.

Although Smith has been fishing Castle Rock Lake for the 20 years he has lived there, the new state record was the first channel catfish he has ever caught since he began fishing when he was old enough to hold a pole.

Channel cats rank as one of the largest native fish species available to anglers in Montana. The two biggest fish, which are also natives, are the paddlefish (142.5 pounds) and white sturgeon (96 pounds).

Other beefy native fish include the pallid sturgeon (60 pounds), bigmouth buffalo (57.75 pounds) and smallmouth buffalo (38 pounds). Among nonnative fish some of the biggies are: lake trout (42.69 pounds), common carp (40.2 pounds), tiger muskie (38.75 pounds) and northern pike (37.5 pounds).


Right now the record Montana catfish is resting in Smith’s freezer as he tries to find someone interested in it for an educational mount. Using a photograph and measurements a Billings taxidermist will create a replica to mount on Smith’s wall in Colstrip, where he works as a control room operator in the power plant. The fish measured 38 ¼-inches long and 27-inches in circumference. A standard basketball is 29.5 inches around.

Smith’s friend pointed out that his one fish was enough to win most catfish tournaments held in the state, where five fish limits are used to make up the total.

“It was the last thing in the world I expected,” Smith said, and the perfect end to a fun Sunday morning spent fishing with his son.

“It was an awesome experience.”


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