Outdoor Guide

Catman of the Cumberland

Jim Moyer is Tennessee's living legend among die-hard catfishermen.

Bookmark and Share Catman of the Cumberland

by Don Wirth

It's a brutally cold February afternoon, the kind of day that makes you wish you were inside a nice, toasty office cubicle instead of hunkered down in an anchored boat on Tennessee's Cumberland River. The air temp hasn't bumped past 28 all day, it's spitting snow and the rain-swollen river is 39 degrees and the color of old brake fluid. Perfect conditions for catching a big blue catfish, my guide, Jim Moyer, keeps telling me. So I pull the drawstring of my hooded sweatshirt tighter, empty the dregs from my coffee Thermos into my cup and wait for something to happen.

Moyer keeps his steely eyes riveted on the four rods locked in holders at the rear of his boat. "Here, kitty," he whispers. "Come to daddy. We don't want to fry you up for dinner, we just want to take your picture."

As if on command, the center rod begins to bow steadily, the way it would if you'd hooked the back bumper of a Volkswagen that was rolling downhill. Moyer waits until it bends nearly double, then wrestles it from the holder and sets the hook repeatedly. The huge fish surges across the bottom, ripping line from Jim's baitcasting reel in short, angry spurts. I check my watch. It's 3:47 p.m.

At 4:12 p.m., Moyer, a big, raw-boned guy, is still struggling to control this fish. After some serious winching, he manages to work it directly under the boat, where it sticks to the bottom 42 feet down like a giant suction cup. I ask him how big he thinks it is.

"Real big," he grunts.

By 4:38 p.m., it's dark, and Moyer is still fighting the fish.

"At least I got it moving again," he says. "Now if I can just keep it out of a sunken tree…"

It's now 4:41 p.m. Moyer's line parts with a sharp pop. He reels in and runs the tag end of the monofiliment leader through his fingers; it's been chewed ragged by the monster catfishes' sandpapery teeth. Amazingly, he doesn't sound all that discouraged after losing what most anglers would consider to be the fish of a lifetime.

"Well, that one beat me," he says matter-of-factly, "but tomorrow's another day!"

A Modern Legend

Another day, indeed. Clarksville, Tennessee's Jim Moyer has spent more days on the Cumberland River in pursuit of giant blue catfish than he can count. In the process he's boated blues approaching 90 pounds and has become intimately familiar with the haunts and habits of this much-misunderstood species. His prowess at catching these behemoths has made him a living legend among North America's catfishermen.

Moyer, 61, was born in Minnesota but spent most of his youth in Wyoming.

"I caught the fishing bug from my dad, who loved to fish for trout," he recalls. As a teen, Jim worked on a ranch, became an expert horseman and considered a career in rodeo.

"By 1965 the Vietnam War was getting into high gear," he recalled. "Our family doctor was patching me up after I fell off a horse and said I'd be safer in the Army than in rodeo, so I enlisted."

Jim served 53 months in Vietnam as a Green Beret. Later in his military career, while assigned to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky., he began catfishing on weekends.

"There weren't any trout streams close to the base, but the Cumberland River was nearby, so I started fishing it from the bank. Later I bought a small boat and eventually caught my first big catfish, a 30-pound blue. I was hooked! I thought I'd caught the biggest fish in the river!" Moyer fished hard at every opportunity and eventually began catching more big cats: "I couldn't believe how hard these fish fought. They were bigger and badder than any other fish I'd ever encountered, and totally captivated me."

Moyer, intent on learning everything he could about big cats, spent all his free time on the river. "I discovered that it takes a great deal of patience and stealth to catch these fish. I had a 50-pound anchor cut from a section of steel rail, and this helped me learn to sit on a potentially good spot for hours and wait for the fish to bite – you don't want to hoist an anchor that heavy up and down too many times in one day!"

Learning the Hard Way

After retiring from the military in 1985, Moyer devoted himself to unlocking the mysteries of these river giants.

"I was on the river virtually every day, sometimes guiding local anglers, more often by myself," he says. "It was an intensive learning process, like getting a Ph.D. in catfishing." Jim found that the biggest blues bit best in the dead of winter: "I consistently scored my biggest fish when the water temp dipped below 40 degrees."

Another thing Moyer learned about big blues: they love deep ledges.

"I didn't start catching blues over 20 pounds consistently until I focused on channel drops that sloped quickly from 20 to 40 or 50 feet deep. Big blues will station themselves on these ledges close to scattered stumps and submerged trees. The 30 to 40 foot zone usually holds the biggest fish."

Moyer began guiding full-time in 1993. His prowess at putting his clients on trophy blues quickly caught the attention of major outdoor publications and TV fishing shows,making him a nationwide-angling celebrity and opening the eyes of thousands of anglers to the excitement of trophy catfishing. Moyer used his celebrity status to promote the conservation of big catfish.

"Catfishing has traditionally been all about ‘batter and fry' instead of catch and release, but I've been gratified to see the trend shift to releasing these big fish," he says.

Jim quit guiding a couple years ago "when it became too much like work" but continues to frequent the Cumberland, especially during the winter months. His dream: a world record blue.

"This river has the right kind of habitat to produce catfish over 100 pounds, and the blue cat gene pool is certainly up to the task," he speculates. "Who knows, maybe one of the 50- or 60-pounders we released will grow up to be the mother of all catfish some day!"

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