What started out as a slow day turned into a fishing trip that the father and son duo of Jon and Zakk Royce of Murfreesboro will never forget. Lake Gaston has spit out its share of big blue catfish, but this past Monday, it almost produced a state record, falling short by 3 pounds when Jon Royce landed an 86-pound behemoth.

“We started out marking a lot of fish in the main channel near the dam – the same place we have been catching good fish all winter – in about 60 feet of water,” said Jon Royce, who owns Captain Catfish Sauces. “But we couldn’t get them to eat, and we weren’t marking any shad.

“So we started looking in the backs of the creeks, thinking that maybe they were eating shad after the shad-kill that we just had,” he said. “We found plenty of shad but no catfish.”

Jon Royce gave Zakk, who is a marine technology student at Cape Fear Community College with plans to guide on Lake Gaston after he graduateds, credit for turning the trip around.   

“It was his idea to start looking further up the lake for fish, thinking that they were staging up current, waiting for the shad to migrate,” Jon Royce said. “We cruised the main channel almost to the Eaton’s Ferry Bridge, (and) before we got to it, we found a ledge that dropped from 20 to about 45 feet, and it was loaded with large arches.”

Royce said the water was 3 degrees warmer than it had been near the dam, and he put out Carolina rigs with 3-ounce egg sinkers and 7/0 Kahle-style hooks baited with chunks of gizzard shad.

“We anchored up, cast lines onto the ledge, and started getting bites,” said Royce, who missed several hooksets, then let a fish run for at least 30 seconds before setting the hook.

“I immediately knew it was the biggest fish of my life and that I needed to calm down so we could land it,” Royce said.

After a series of blistering runs, the fish sought salvation by wrapping the line around the anchor rope. After the Royces got things untangled, the fish did a nosedive.  

“It went straight for the bottom, and it took several minutes of continuous pumping to move it,” said Royce. “It came to the surface on its own, and I gained on it, but when it saw the boat, it tried to take off again. That’s when we knew what we had.

“When we got it to the boat, we only managed to get the tail in the net first. So I set the rod down and helped get the head in. Then we counted to three, pulled it in and celebrated.”

The Royces returned to Washburn’s Marina well after dark and couldn’t find any stores open to get an official weight on the fish, which they knew was close to the existing North Carolina record blue catfish, an 89-pounder caught out of Badin Lake in 2006 by Eric Finsher.

“Zakk’s digital scale read 86 pounds, but being that close to the record, we wanted to make sure it was accurate,” Jon Royce said.

So they tied the fish up in the water and waited for morning.

“We found a certified scale that they use for propane tanks at Ace Hardware,” Jon Royce said. “The fish weighed 85 pounds, but part of the tail was hanging off. At this point, we didn’t feel like we could break the record, and we wanted to release the fish alive, so we took it back to the lake and let it go.”

The big catfish measured 51 inches long and was 36.5 inches in girth.