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Mississippi gives up yellow catfish

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John "Doc" Henyan of Cordova shows off a 55-pound yellow catfish he caught in the Mississippi River.

Four "old dudes" pulled in quite a lunker earlier this month in Pool 14 of the Mississippi River, but the color of its skin — not its size — has kept them talking about it.

“I’ve been fishing this river for 60 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Loyal Tullius, referring to the 55-pound flathead catfish that measured 47 inches long. “It’s as yellow as can be, and it has blue eyes.”

Just hours before their rare-colored find about a month ago along Steamboat Slough near Princeton, Iowa, the guys, who shared details about their strategy, landed a 48-pound flathead catfish in the same area.

In place of a traditional rod and reel, they stuck a 10-foot-long PVC pole into the muddy shore and fastened a thick cord to the structure. For bait, they hooked a bluegill to the end of the line, which dangled about a foot under the surface of the water and eventually lured the bottom-feeding fish.

As Tullius piloted his boat, John “Doc” Henyan of Cordova used a net to hoist the hefty creature aboard.

“It scared me at first,” said Henyan, 69, who earned the nickname, “Doc,” during his service as a combat medic in the Vietnam War. “I knew we had a good one on there, but I did not expect to see that big yellow head come out of the water.”

What makes it yellow?

Puzzled by its pigment, Tullius, 74, sent inquiries to numerous biologists in the region, including one at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque.

Meanwhile, he stored it in a 250-gallon tank on his property in Port Byron.

Speaking for his crew, Tullius, who assumed the fish was albino, wanted to know why it was yellow and whether anyone wanted to take it for research purposes.

After examining photos of the fish, Andy Allison, director of living collections at the Dubuque institution, quickly ruled out his caller's theory.

Instead, he thought it could be leucistic, which means it has less pigment than normal, but more than a true albino would possess.

Allison called it “remarkable” that the fish lived as long as it did in the dark depths of the Mississippi River, where it would be easier for predators to spot versus brown ones.

“Most species can produce unusually colored animals now and then, but most often they don’t survive for long,” he said. “At this adult size, it would have no natural predators other than humans.”

Although it was not as bright as this fish, John Perkins caught and released a 38-pound flathead catfish with yellow patches last July under the Interstate 280 bridge in Davenport. He used 50-pound test line and live shad for bait.

In response to Tullius' other question, Allison said he did not want to take in the fish because he already has two similar-sized flathead catfish. They live in the museum’s largest freshwater aquarium, which represents the main channel of the Mississippi River, and holds 35,000 gallons of water.

“They can be aggressive when defending their caves,” said Allison, who mentioned Tullius' call sticks out among the "odd" queries he receives. "People tend to call us with weird animal questions now and then, but that's the first of anything like that we've had."

'It’s as yellow as can be, and it has blue eyes.'

Loyal Tullius

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