Something's fishy in Hardin County
The debate in Tennessee over authenticity of the largest
catfish in the 'Catfish Capitol of the World' still rages on
By Taylor Wilson
Fact or fiction? You be the judge.
I'll never forget stumbling upon the wrinkled old photo that looked like something out of an old monster movie. The picture could have been titled, "The Catfish That Could Have Eaten Hardin County, Tennessee."
It was in the mid-1990s, and I was working on a story about the National Catfish Derby, an annual catfishing derby and festival held on the Tennessee River. The derby president was the first to show me the black and white photo.
"What do you think?" said the derby prez, Jay Barker.
I looked at the photo and then at Barker, who was grinning mischievously like the Cheshire cat.
"Interesting," I said. "Very interesting."
Whether the photo and the talk it has generated are fact or fishy fiction doesn't matter. The mystery is part of the tale itself a tale that has more twists and turns than a hooked catfish.
And, true or not, Barker has long known the stories would get plenty of news play and help promote the event.
Many people don't believe the photo is real, and that is all right. But my mother told me it was, and she had no reason to lie. Faye Callens
Barker told me he first learned of the photo from Betty Coleman, a fellow resident of Savannah, Tenn. She found it while gathering old photos for the Hardin County Historical Society.
Since then, people have told Barker the photo was taken in the Hardin County community of Cerro Gordo in 1914.
Barker also has been told the man standing alongside the catfish was Warren McConnell and that a copy of the picture hung for many years in Pitts General Store.
The catfish has been estimated, by those who believe in the photo's authenticity, to weigh from 500 to 800 pounds.
I interviewed the late Faye Callens, also of Savannah, who said his mother, Rilla Callens, handed down the photo to him. He said his mother had worked as a bookkeeper at Pitts General Store, and she told him the photo was genuine; a man named Green Bailey caught the fish on a trotline.
Indeed Bailey's name is inscribed on the photo along with the date and place where the photo was taken, "Cerro Gordo 1914." Callens also said he visited Bailey's sister several years ago, and she told him her brother did catch the big fish.
"Many people don't believe the photo is real, and that is all right," Callens said. "But my mother told me it was, and she had no reason to lie."
There is the rub. To call a fisherman a liar is one thing. But to say so about his mother is enough to get filleted, and fast.
Some people say it's fake, but others firmly believe the catfish was actually caught.
Jay Barker, president of Tennessee's National Catfish Derby
As I continued to investigate, though, I found many other stories attached to the old photo.
One was that the late Joe B. Pitts, proprietor of Pitts General Store, actually caught the fish. Another story claimed that the fish was caught during a dry summer after it became landlocked in shallow water (before dams regulated water levels on the Tennessee River).
Then, too, there is the fishy side of the story.
Barker said some Savannah residents have told him the photo was a fake. Many believe the catfish actually weighed 50-80 pounds and was placed on a child's wagon to be photographed as an optical illusion. To make the gag complete, a cardboard cutout of a man from a cigarette ad was placed on the wagon.
Perhaps this is the real truth behind this fish tale, because Barker also has a copy of another photo of the same man and fish taken from a different angle.
The man is posed exactly the same as he is in the other photo â€” one hand on his thigh and the other on his hip, as he stoops to admire the fish. The only difference is this photo was taken from the front of the wagon rather than from the side.
"Some people say it's fake, but others firmly believe the catfish was actually caught," Barker said.
What does Barker believe? He'd never admit the old photo is too fishy. After all, can you get too fishy in a place that bills itself as the "Catfish Capitol of the World"?
"Personally, I believe it is authentic, and it shows without a doubt why we're (Hardin County) the Catfish Capitol of the World," Barker proclaimed. (Perhaps it is no coincidence this promotions man has the last name "Barker".)
Besides, he pointed out that there definitely are some big catfish swimming in the Hardin County waters of the Tennessee River, especially below Pickwick Dam.
"Probably are some catfish out there that are this big, but anglers just aren't rigged with tackle strong enough to land them," he said.
What would happen if a cat as big as the one depicted in the old photo was caught during the county's annual National Catfish Derby?
"I'd try to find a swimming pool big enough to put it in," Barker laughed. "A fish that big would be a tourist attraction all by itself."
At one time the famed photo had been made into a postcard used to promote the National Catfish Derby.