Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice? You can bet guide Zakk Royce of Murfreesboro won’t be making that wager any time soon. After catching a 91-pound blue catfish at Lake Gaston on Sunday, Dec. 20 — a fish that stood to break the state record by 2 pounds — he bested himself by shattering that record the next day with another blue that weighed 105 pounds and measured 55 ¾ inches.
Royce, who runs Blues Brothers Catfish Guide Service, caught the first fish on the afternoon of Dec. 20, needed help lifting it into the boat once he had it in the net, and wound up having to “babysit” the fish all night before he could get it weighed on certified scales.
Then, while he and his father, Jon, were working their way back across the lake to release the fish in the same area where it was caught — the fish was in a huge livewell the entire time — they started fishing again because they still had good, fresh bait. After he landed a 20-pound blue, Zakk Royce got a bite, and that fish wound up being the 105-pounder.
“This rod doubled over,” said Royce (252-398-7192). “I couldn’t hardly get it out of the rod holder. I actually thought I was hung up, so I gave it a couple good yanks. When I gave it the second yank, the fish took off and started ripping drag. It was taking out 50 yards of line at a time, running straight out, not to the bottom. It came up to the top, tail slapped, and rolled, and we both thought we had a fish over a hundred pounds.”
After a long, tedious battle, Royce had a problem he had never faced before.
“The fish just would not fit in my landing net,” he said. “We had to reach in and put our arms under the fish and lift it in. It was a really nervous moment because of all the things that could go wrong. But we got him in and gave each other high fives. There were even some people on their dock cheering for us.”
The Royces carried the huge catfish to Lake Gaston Ace Hardware, where he had weighed the first fish earlier in the day, got a certified weight of 105 pounds, then took it back and released it in the same place it was caught.
Both fish easily exceeded the existing state-record blue catfish, an 89-pounder caught by Eric Fincher from Badin Lake in 2006.
The amazing back-to-back feats started innocently enough, on Sunday afternoon.
“I was fishing by myself, using white perch that I had caught over the weekend for cut bait,” Royce said. “I started drifting down by the dam at about a half-mile an hour. All my rigs were on the bottom in 50 to 60 feet of water. I was using Santee Rigs with 1 ½-ounce homemade slinky weights on 30-pound monofilament line.”
After fishing for an hour and boating several fish in the 20- to 30-pound class, Royce (252-398-7192) saw one rod bouncing, like the nibbling of a small fish. When the rod bent all the way down, he grabbed it from the rod holder.
“It pulled a little drag, then it felt like I was pulling against the bottom,” Royce said. “It was immovable. Finally, the fish ran forward, and I reeled in the slack. He got to the boat and started fighting hard again. It was an up-and-down vertical battle for about 10 to 15 minutes.”
Once he managed to bring the fish to the surface and wrangle its head into the net, Royce, who was fishing by himself, realized he had a major problem.
“I couldn’t lift the fish into the boat,” he said. “A friend of mine was fishing in his kayak about a mile away, so I called him and he started paddling towards me. I used the trolling motor to move slowly towards him. He got in the boat and helped me get it over the side.”
Royce weighed the fish at between 90 and 91 pounds. Believing he had a state-record fish — with nowhere nearby open on Sunday to get a weight on certified scales, he obtained a special livewell designed for monster cats from his tournament and guiding partner, Zac Zajac.
“I had to babysit the fish all night long with the help of my dad,” Royce said.“We took turns every hour pumping freshwater in the livewell. In the morning, we took it to the Lake Gaston Ace Hardware and had it weighed and certified by a (N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission) biologist.”
A great story would end there, but Royce’s got better.
“I was thrilled already, but we had bait and I wanted to release the fish exactly where I caught it,” he said. “So we decided to put out some rods and start trolling again.”
Royce’s father caught a 20-pound blue as the two zigzagged across the main river channel, when another rod went down, and Zakk Royce’s good fortune doubled.