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In this photo taken July 27, 2009, Tina Willis (left), West Fargo, and Toby Mougey, Fargo, display the catfish Willis caught on Moon Lake, on July 25. The fish was 40 inches long and weighed 42 pounds, 1 ounce. It now sits as the North Dakota state record channel catish. David Samson/The Forum

When it comes to '09 highlights, record catfish steals the spotlight

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Looking back on 2009, you have to sift through a lot of outdoors stories to find the best one.

For example, the big-game baiting debate grabbed early attention, with lawmakers eventually voting to keep the practice legal, but only on private land. Then there was the uproar over controlling the elk population in Theodore Roosevelt National Park: do we hire sharpshooters or let hunters thin the herd?

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Winter and spring precipitation caused flooding, but also filled dry wetlands, which ultimately increased habitat for waterfowl and other aquatically dependent species.

Pheasants were down, ducks were up, bucks were ever wary and the fishing on Devils Lake was the best it's been.

Overall, it was a darn good year to be outside.

But if I were to pick one story that stuck out - a true crem de la crem whopper of a tale - it would be that of the record channel catfish caught in July. The story has several layers of intrigue: the person who caught it, the size of the catfish and the place of the catch.

Let's set the scene. When sandbagging was finally complete from spring flooding and the mighty Red River slowly settled below its banks, anglers took to the water with a vengeance.

Those who made the trek onto the Red's nutrient-rich waters were rewarded with some of the best catfishing in recent memory. Channels averaging in the low teens were common and those topping 20 pounds were more ordinary than extraordinary.

It even was whispered among fishing circles that if there was any time for the state's 18-year-old channel catfish record of 33 pounds, 4 ounces to finally fall, this was the year.

So it was without much surprise when news got around that a behemoth was landed July 25, easily topping the record. But when the location of the catch was announced, jaws collectively dropped across the state - Moon Lake, a small 106-acre body of water southwest of Valley City and well away from the Red River.

It was a local gal, 31-year-old Tina Willis of West Fargo, who caught the 42 pound, 1 ounce hog while fishing with her boyfriend, Toby Mougey. The two specifically were targeting large catfish, and Willis had a frog on her line.

The big fish taped out at 40 inches and topped the record long held by Minnesotan Bruce Pannkuk, of Minneapolis. Thanks to Willis, the record finally returns to a North Dakotan's hands.

Willis' fish also tops the Minnesota state record of 38 pounds set in 1975 on the Mississippi River. The national and world channel catfish record is 58 pounds, set in 1964 in South Carolina.

At the time of the catch, Willis said she was going to donate the fish to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and would get a replica made.

Now, as 2009 comes to a close, isn't it fitting to look back and relive a true big-fish story?

Here's to many more fish tales in 2010!

Tyler Shoberg is Sports Editor of the Pioneer as well as an avid hunter and fisherman. He can be reached at 701-451-5717 or tshoberg@westfargopioneer.com.

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