Big-Time catch: Pending state record flathead hauled in by hand

By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer

When Toby Lawrence and Justin McCord entered the First Annual North Mississippi Grabbling Tournament in Oxford last week, they expected to do well, but hauling in a new state record wasn’t on their radar.
Their biggest fish of the day turned out to be one for the books, however.
Weighed in by conservation officer Bruce Jenkins on certified scales at 81.2 pounds, Lawrence’s flathead eclipses the current trophy-category record by roughly three pounds. That record of 78 pounds, 5 ounces, was set by Carey Beckham and Mike Jones, of Carthage, while fishing on the Yazoo River in 2002. Lawrence’s fish came from the Coldwater River and was part of the fishing haul that netted first place in the tournament for Lawrence and McCord, both from Oxford.
Freshwater fishing records recognized by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks are broken into three categories: rod and reel, fly, and trophy. The first two are for fish caught on traditional rods and reels and on fly fishing gear respectively, and the trophy category is for all other legal methods excluding commercial gear.
“That includes bowfishing, trotlines, limb lines, jugs, hand fishing and so on,” said Tom Holman, fisheries coordinator with the MDWFP.
The rod and reel record for flathead catfish, set by Joey Pounders, of Caledonia, in 2009 with a 77-pound specimen caught on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, is therefore separate and will still stand. There is currently no flathead on the record books in the fly fishing gear category.
Last Saturday’s tournament, organized by Brion Whitten and Tony Vaughn, both of Oxford, drew 20 entries, each of which consisted of a two-man team that was allowed to weigh up to three flatheads each.
It kicked off with a 6 a.m. registration in Oxford and ended with a 6 p.m. weigh-in at Engineer Point at Sardis Lake. In the 12-hour interim, entrants could fish anywhere they chose as long as they presented their fish alive. Of the 20 teams entered, 17 weighed in fish and amassed a total weight in catfish of more than 1,400 pounds.
lifelong obsession
Lawrence, 37, has been grabbling since he was 10 and says he’s caught a few fish in the general size range of Saturday’s monster, but he’d never had one officially weighed until last week. He did so then at the suggestion of Jenkins.
“I weighed it on certified scales at Crossroads Grocery and at Handy Andy (both in Oxford),” Jenkins said, “just to be sure we had it right.”
The fish weighed the same on both scales. The paperwork that will make the new record official is under way, Jenkins added.
good things early
Lawrence and McCord checked about 40 underwater boxes in the course of the tournament, man-made structures built to simulate sunken hollow logs in habitat preferred by flathead catfish. The big fish turned up in the third or fourth such log of the day.
“The big fish was in about 8 feet of water,” Lawrence said. “The log he was in has two holes in it, and when we check it, my partner and I always dive down and sack up both holes at the same time, stuffing the holes up with burlap sacks. Then we feel around and see if there’s anything in there …
“It took about seven or eight dives to get the big fish caught.”
The big fish and two others netted first place for him and McCord, but he wanted to offer a further thank you to friend Mike Pritchard, of Oxford, and to his son Cole Lawrence, 10.
“The four of us all put our boxes out together,” he said. “We put our boxes out early in the year and we all fish together. This tournament was in two-man teams, so we had to break into two teams to enter. One team won first place and the other won third place.”
“It was a success and we look forward to doing it again next year,” Whitten said. “We’re hoping to get more teams involved.”
Hundreds of people stopped by to see the weigh-in, Whitten said, and he believes the potential for the tournament to grow is definitely out there, one big flathead at a time.