McConkey has fished with Coke and Kendal since they were all toddlers, and it was McConkey’s father, Gabe Peters (above), who schooled them on the finer points of trotlining for the Missouri River’s big catfish. For years, the three friends have held Peters’s personal records as marks to aim for—and the granddaddy of them all was an 82-pound flathead Peters caught a few years back.
Using techniques his father taught him, McConkey uses an 800-pound braided mainline, and he rigs each drop-line with three or four No. 10 Eagle Claw saltwater hooks baited with goldfish. He customizes the setup by using bungee cords to absorb shock and prevent break-offs. The rig is tailor-made for catching monster cats. “I can set these trotlines and come back in the morning, and eight times out of ten I’ve caught a big fish,” McConkey says. “It’s just about guaranteed.” In August, he caught this 76-pound blue cat that eclipsed Peters’s long-standing personal best of 72 pounds.
While checking his trotlines with Coke and Kendal on September 19, McConkey knew right away that he had something special on the line. “We catch 50-, 60-, and 70-pounders pretty frequently,” he says. “But as soon as I grabbed the line I could tell this one was even bigger. It didn’t want to come to the top of the water. I told the guys, ‘It’s big.’ Then it took off and started pulling the boat around like it was nothing. Then I said, ‘OK, it’s really big.’”
Catching trophy fish on a trotline is different than catching them with a rod and reel. There’s no dramatic strike to recount—but the challenge of hauling hooked cats into the boat is very real. Without a rod to absorb some of the fight, the trotliner must play the fish correctly. “You can’t just strong-arm them,” McConkey says. “You’ve got to let them pull back. We’ve had lines break, hooks straightened. Eight-hundred-pound line sounds tough, but when you get one of these bigguns fighting back, it will break. We lose fish all the time.”
The possibility of losing the fish raced through McConkey’s mind as he struggled with it during what he calls “the longest five minutes of [his] life.” When he worked the fish to the surface, it whipped its tail and splashed the three fishermen. Two of the men hauled line while a third grabbed McConkey’s homemade gaffe and hooked the fish’s lip. “At that point, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, help me get him in the boat,’” says McConkey. “There’s no way one guy could lift him. It took all three of us to haul him over the side, and as soon as he hit the bottom of the boat, I knew it was the biggest catfish I’d seen in my life. I knew we had my dad beat again.”
The men kept the flathead covered and wet in the bottom of the boat while running the rest of their lines. At home, they rejuvenated the fish in an aerated tank made out of an old chest freezer, then they weighed it with a bathroom scale. “The scale said 98.6 pounds, which was close enough to the state record that we needed to get an official weight,” McConkey says. After two hours of phone calls, they finally located a certified scale at the post office in Liberty, Missouri.
The official weight of 100 pounds topped the existing alternative methods record—caught in 2010 in the Missouri—by a pound, and it outweighs the pole-and-line record by more than 20. So-called “alternative methods” include bowfishing, spearfishing, snagging, snaring, gigging, grabbing, atlatl and throw lines, limb lines, bank lines, and jug lines. Interestingly, the fish had spider wire tangled in its throat. “Someone had him hooked but couldn’t get it done,” McConkey says.
After taking measurements for a replica, McConkey processed his big cat for one of the fish fries he hosts each year. The guest of honor at the next one will be his father, Gabe Peters. “The old man taught us well, and now it has come back to bite him in the butt,” McConkey says with a chuckle. “We finally beat all his records—and he’s tickled to death.”
McConkey’s next goal is the world record, and his latest catch suggests it’s doable. The current world-record flathead—a 126-pounder caught in Elk City, Kansas, in 1998—measured 42 ¾ inches around and 61 inches long. McConkey’s flathead, in comparison, boasted a 41-inch girth and was the same length. “I know there’s a bigger one out there,” he says. “I just gotta figure out how to catch it.”
Setting a state record is nice. Just ask Matthew McConkey (center), of Kansas City. In September, McConkey set a new “alternative methods” record for flathead catfish in Missouri when he hauled in a 100-pound giant on a trotline. But even nicer than setting a record, says McConkey, is finally topping the personal best of your old man—especially if he taught you and your lifelong buddies (Wes Coke (left) and Bud Kendal (right)) everything you know about trotlining.