MECKLENBURG COUNTY, Va. — Talk to fishermen here, and you will hear the legend of Buggs Island Lake: A Navy diver sent to recover the wreckage of a small plane encounters a fish the size of a man on the lake’s bottom. He bolts to the surface and refuses to dip a toe in the waters again.
The yarn seemed as dubious as any other fish tale — until two weeks ago. An angler hooked a 143-pound blue catfish in this reservoir along the Virginia-North Carolina border; it smashed the state record by more than 30 pounds and could be a world record.
It is likely not the only one lurking out there. A monster fish that can easily top 100 pounds and stretch nearly five feet has come of age in the region’s waterways.
It has a distended beer gut of a belly, a chin studded with whiskers tipped with taste-bud-like sensors and a grunt like a pig’s. Like a creature from a Hollywood B-movie, it has grown fat from conditions created by pollution.
Blue catfish have exploded in numbers and size in many local river systems, biologists say, spawning the type of giant fish more commonly found in the species’ native Mississippi River — or in the pages of Mark Twain. And no one is sure how big they’ll get here.
The rise of “blue cats” has spurred a response as strange as any fish story. Nearly everyone agrees it is a monster of sorts, but whether that is necessarily a bad thing depends on whom you talk to.
Many biologists are increasingly alarmed at the spread of the species, which they fear may be muscling out native catfish and gobbling up other local fish. The top predator has been described as the Bengal tiger of local rivers.
It is that size and fierceness that has made the blue cat a hit with anglers, who have flocked to southern Virginia waterways, generating tourism dollars for struggling rural areas.
“A lot of people love it. A lot of people hate it. It’s kind of like the snakehead,” said John Odenkirk, a Virginia state biologist, referring to another invasive species of fish that has captured the public’s imagination.
Buggs Island Lake, at 50,000 acres and with depths of up to 100 feet, is a good place for a monster to lurk. Nick Anderson was fishing there with his brother and father June 18 when he got the hit on his line.
“I got real nervous,” said Anderson, after he saw the lumbering gray mass. “It took about 50 feet of line and went straight down to the bottom.”
Over the next 45 minutes, Anderson, 29, a high school football coach from North Carolina, battled the blue cat until he was exhausted. Four times he reeled it to the surface, and four times it dove back into the depths of the lake.
Finally, he got it to the side of the boat. His father netted the fish, but the net was only big enough to cover the beast’s head, so Anderson grabbed the fish’s torso and his brother got hold of the tail. They wrenched it on board.
The blue catfish is, in part, a monster of our own creation. Virginia first stocked the fish in the James and Rappahannock rivers in the 1970s for sport fishing. By the late ’90s, the fish was showing up in large numbers in the Potomac River. Today, populations of various sizes are in Chesapeake tributaries around the region.
In the Potomac, blue catfish are increasing in size each year and could soon match those seen in southern Virginia.
“In a decade or less, the Potomac will top that record fish at Buggs,” Odenkirk said.
The population has grown so rapidly and so large because it has found ideal habitats here, biologists said. The James, Potomac and other bodies are fertile systems that create smorgasbords for the fish. In some cases, this natural fecundity has been juiced by fertilizer, sewage runoff and other pollution, which creates blooms of phytoplankton, the first link of the food chain leading to blue cats, biologists said.
The mature fish are voracious predators, sucking up gizzard shad, white perch, freshwater mussels — even rocks — into a mouth that looks like a vacuum-cleaner attachment. The fish can live more than two decades.
Data on the blue cat’s impact on other species are incomplete, but some fear the fish could harm already decimated populations of American shad, river herring and other species.
“The blue catfish can utilize nearly any habitat and will eat anything,” said Tom O’Connell, director of the Fisheries Service for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “When you look at their size, they could reduce or eliminate some native species.”
Biologists say one thing is clear: Eradicating blue cats is virtually impossible. Anglers can’t catch enough, and the commercial market remains small. States have recommended limiting consumption because they can contain toxins such as PCBs.
A team of fisheries managers from around the region is considering suggesting that states come up with plans to control blue cats, O’Connell said. The specifics are being worked out, but they could include stronger penalties for stocking the fish in new rivers and streams, a government subsidy for harvesting blue catfish, or attempts to increase the commercial market.
Back on shore, Anderson quickly encountered a problem: No tackle store had a scale big enough to weigh the fish, and there was no one to call for help. The Andersons decided they only had one choice — call 911.
“I said, ‘It’s no emergency, but it is, sort of,’ ” Richard Anderson, Nick’s father, recalled telling the operator.
Two officers from the Mecklenberg County Sheriff’s Office arrived and speedily escorted the trio to a supply store with a bigger scale. The fish was 57 inches long and 43.5 inches around.
The International Game Fish Association could certify the fish as a world record in the next couple of months. Despite efforts to keep the fish alive and return it to the lake, it died the next day.
Anderson’s catch is what any catfish angler dreams of — and so do a number of towns in southern Virginia. A multimillion dollar tourism industry has grown around the blue catfish on the James, according to a report by state wildlife officials.
Some officials hope to replicate that success in Mecklenburg, which abuts Buggs Island Lake and has one of the higher unemployment rates in Virginia. In 2002, the county lost its biggest employer, a Burlington Industries textile factory. That, combined with the decline of tobacco farming, has left the county looking to pump up tourism.
“People talk about the great recession, but we’ve been there for 12 to 15 years,” said Dallas Weston, editor of the Mecklenburg News-Progress.
Meanwhile, many think an even larger monster is lurking in a local river.
Twain wrote about seeing a “Mississippi catfish” more than six feet long. There are unverified reports of blue cats of up to 315 pounds being caught on the Missouri River before 1915.
“I heard the rumors of a man-size fish, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it eye to eye,” Nick Anderson said. “Who am I to say there isn’t something bigger out there?”