The stories take place in the southwestern part of New Mexico—in the watery, sand-sifting darkness of Elephant Butte Reservoir—along the concrete base of Elephant Butte Dam.
The reservoir is large—sprawling up forty miles of the Rio Grande, shining blue among low brown hills and one elephant-shaped island. Its waters lap along more than two-hundred miles of desert shoreline, and are visited by more people than any other lake or reservoir in the state. It can also get fairly deep…around eighty feet deep, near the dam…deep enough for sunken boats to stay sunken, for enormous fish to stay hidden, and for stories of such fish to remain nearly impossible to confirm.
Such stories, told by fishermen and fishing guides and locals, tell of enormous catfish, catfish ranging in size from the terrifying to the panic-inducing. These catfish, the stories say, lurk around the base of the dam like freshwater whales, grow as big as their massive aquarium will let them, and eat whatever the upper Rio Grande and its tributaries carry down to them—other fish, plants, swimming dogs, decomposing human bodies, and even the occasional deer.
“Basically, from what I understand, just below the dam there’s just some really old catfish the size of you and I,” said Bo Young, owner of Young’s Water Sports, in Albuquerque. “I never witnessed it myself, but it’s certainly feasible. Catfish do get pretty big.”
“Divers repairing a wall of the dam saw several of them down there,” said Frank Vilorio, of Land of Enchantment Fishing Adventures. “They compared one of those catfish to a Volkswagen bug with the hood open.”
And John Morlock, a semi-retired Elephant Butte fishing guide, once knew a woman who swore to him that she had known divers who had been in the water and seen enormous whiskered catfish the size of school buses—catfish so huge and so frightening that one of the divers never again re-entered the water.
“I am a professional fisherman,” said Morlock. “I’ve been around the world a few times. But I have never seen a catfish the size of a school bus! There are some really big fish in this lake, but only as big as your leg.”
The New Mexico state record for the largest catfish ever caught was set at Elephant Butte Reservoir in 1979. That catfish weighed seventy-eight pounds, and was just barely under four feet long. It was huge—but it wasn’t bus-sized.
Stories of giant catfish aren’t unique to New Mexico, though, or to the present.
Father Jacques Marquette wrote about a gigantic catfish ramming his canoe on a Midwestern river, in the late-1600s. A protestant missionary, on the Ohio River in 1780, relayed the story of a catfish pulling a man from a riverbank to drown and then eat him. And Mark Twain wrote a fictional account of catching an over six-foot-long one, in 1885, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“Others are quite current, including the persistent rumor of a large flathead [catfish] caught at the mouth of the Tradewater River on the Ohio, by Caseyville, Kentucky, which contained a human baby,” wrote Jan Harold Brunvand in American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. “This supposedly occurred during the 1970s. …Many river folk believe that very large catfish, hardly ever encountered by fishermen, live in deep holes in the river for decades. There are also legends of huge catfish living at the bases of dams, who prey on divers inspecting or performing maintenance.”
Such stories pop up in countless rivers and lakes and reservoirs all across the country—all throughout the West, and even inside New Mexico. Aside from Elephant Butte, Quemado Lake and Conchas Lake feature similar rumors of enormous catfish as well.
Details from all of these other areas are often very similar to details from the stories of Elephant Butte, as evidenced by a summary of such accounts in Brunvald’s Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.
“Divers who do maintenance work at the base of dams supposedly report giant catfish—as big as dogs, calves, even Volkswagens—lurking there,” Brunvald wrote. “The huge fish may threaten the divers themselves (chewing on arms or legs), or they may be circling a sunken vehicle, lured by the decomposed bodies of accident victims trapped inside. In the murky water at these depths the catfish loom in and out of the shadows like ghostly blimps. The sight of these monsters, and their activities, are so horrible that some divers’ hair turns white from the shock, and many vow never again to engage in that line of work.”
Elephant Butte Reservoir possesses literally dozens of stories about its alleged giant catfish. These stories may be unproven, they may lack any physical evidence or almost any firsthand witnesses, and they may have every hallmark of an urban legend, but they do have one thing: size. New Mexico’s giant catfish are by far the biggest of any American account, even if they are most likely just as fictitious.
Catfish the size of cars just aren’t sufficient for us, no. We need them bus-sized!
And we shouldn’t stop at that, either.
“There is a legend that when the Elephant Butte Dam was done, a mating couple of either alligators or crocodiles were released in the soon-to-be lake, and they bred and began a race of predators in the lake,” said J Hopkins, a southern New Mexico writer.