On Thursday evening, Jerry Dillard, co-owner of Pechal Cabinets in Temple, took a family fishing trip out on Belton Lake with his wife, Gabbey, and his daughter, 6-year-old Tatum Dillard.
Although the family’s target species was hybrid striped bass, that species had become more difficult to catch ever since the Corps of Engineers began to lower the lake slightly by running water at a rate of approximately 1,600 cubic feet per second through the dam this past Monday.
Toward sunset, as the Dillards fished from their Gator Trax custom aluminum fishing boat specifically intended for catfish, Dillard and crew set out a number of baited rods using live shad to attract hybrid stripers.
After hovering over the same area for some time using the anchor feature on his MotorGuide trolling motor, the Lowrance Gen 2 HDS 9 sonar indicated fish were moving in beneath.
Dillard and his wife, a public school science teacher, were instrumental in forming the Central Texas Catfish Trail just over four years ago after seeing a demand for competitive catfishing locally. Each year the couple orchestrates a six-tournament series taking place between January and November, each on a body of water within 100 miles of Central Texas.
When Dillard closely observed what his Lowrance sonar was showing, he felt strongly that the fish showing up on the screen were not hybrid, but instead were sizeable blue catfish.
Dillard had lively baits in his Xtreme Bait Tank which he purchased last year through National Athletic Supply in Belton and was using these for bait.
Toward sunset, the family began to get bites and bring in blue catfish and hybrid striped bass. Before long, the rod Tatum was guarding bowed deeply and a fight ensued.
It was a blue catfish that had moved in on Tatum’s bait, and the youngster now had one outsized specimen of that species on the end of her line.
When the fish was brought to net, Tatum’s parents knew right away there was record potential.
Dillard’s non-certified scale showed the fish at approximately 11 pounds.
Dillard had seen me on the water earlier in the evening and therefore gave me a call checking to see if I had my certified scales with me, which I did.
Since I was in the middle of a guided trip with clients, we agreed to meet shortly after that trip wrapped up at the launch site I was using.
One of my clients, Jim Downing, agreed to hang around in order to serve as a non-related witness to the weighing of the fish.
Dillard pulled the fish from the livewell using my certified BogaGrip scale; I took the fish, hustled up onto the land for a true weight, had Downing verify the 10.25-pound measurement, and we then returned the fish to the livewell less than 30 seconds after it was removed.
Dillard is an advocate of catch-and-release and sustainable harvest and therefore returns to the water the vast majority of blue catfish 10 pounds and over, including this one landed by his daughter.
Tatum had landed a Junior Angler category record, a set of records maintained just for those anglers under the age of 17 who are not yet required to possess a fishing license.
The news of a new record was bittersweet to me. Of course, we were all excited for Tatum, however, the existing record she eclipsed was landed by a young client of mine, Madison Chappell, back in July of 2011. That 23.38-inch fish weighed exactly five pounds.
Some Belton anglers speculate that both blue catfish and freshwater drum are growing larger than ever in Belton Lake thanks to their use of zebra mussels as a plentiful, new food source.
Dillard personally believes that although the zebra mussels have contributed to greater numbers of blue catfish in Belton, it is due to recent, regular flooding that we have seen an increased average size of this species.
This catch comes on the heels of Caleb Fowler’s Junior Angler category blue catfish record taken from Stillhouse in March. That 17-plus-pound fish regurgitated zebra mussels as it was being measured.
With an official weight, a photograph of the fish on a measuring board and a photograph of Tatum holding her trophy, the Dillards had collected all of the necessary components to submit Tatum’s record fish to the Angler Recognition Program managed by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Soon, a yellow envelope addressed to her will arrive by mail containing her certificate, complete with a raised, golden State of Texas Seal affixed upon it.