Trey McDowell and Hadlie Rittgers graduated as high school sweethearts from Eads High School—he in 2018 and she in 2019. They then attended Adams State University together graduating last May, he with a Bachelors’ degree in Wildlife Biology and alternative teaching certification and she in Business and education. Right away they both landed their first teaching assignments that begin this fall at Sangre de Cristo School District where McDowell will be the middle school science teacher and Rittgers is the new secondary business teacher.
Before starting their new employment at Sangre de Cristo they decided to come back to the area to visit with family and friends as they savored the last few days of summer. After playing a round of golf on Wednesday afternoon they decided to do some night fishing at John Martin Reservoir.
Trey said, “I have recently become very interested, and maybe borderline obsessed, with the idea of landing a big flathead catfish.” McDowell went on to explain, “Colorado doesn’t have many Flathead Catfish as they are more common east of the Mississippi. To my knowledge, they are only stocked and found in the Arkansas River basin, in Pueblo Reservoir and in John Martin Reservoir. Wednesday night my goal was to catch any flathead. I would have been ecstatic with a small flathead under 1 pound.”
They were fishing in the area of the spillway of John Martin Reservoir, and it was a slow evening for the couple. As time passed it became a slow night. Earlier in the evening they had caught and kept some perfectly-sized blue gills and a small panfish that McDowell says is the preferred prey of channel, blue and especially, flathead catfish. The boring night all of a sudden got very exciting when the pole McDowell had specifically set up for the flathead catfish, as they had used the large blue gill Hadlie had caught earlier in the evening, bent over dramatically. McDowell said, “I knew I might have a nice flathead on the other end.”
McDowell immediately reeled tight and hooked the fish and it was at that point he knew the fish was a big one. McDowell says, “The fight was intense. The fish was extremely heavy and moved me more than I moved it.” McDowell says he is a modestly experienced angler so he knew not to over fight the fish but still keep him out of the rocks where the fish could potentially break his 50 lb. line.
According to the couple the fish bit at about 10:50 pm and took nearly a half hour to land him at 11:15 pm. McDowell recalls, “That was a tremendous fight that left me shaking when I handed Hadlie the rod and lifted the giant out of the water. I knew this fish was big—the biggest I had ever landed without a doubt.”
McDowell also knows a little bit about the process one has to go through to prove up the size of a catch like the one he had just made. He is also knowledgeable about Colorado’s Master Angler program. With every intention to register the catch, McDowell says, “We weighed it, measured it, took the appropriate pictures, we hope, and then—released the fish!”
Yep, you heard it right, despite the fact that the young couple wasn’t sure if they had actually caught the state record or not, they did the best they could in the middle of the night to document their success, but in the end returned the monster to the depths of John Martin in order to live another day, hopefully spawn hundreds more flathead catfish, and maybe, just maybe grow so much he’ll someday be not only a Colorado record, but a national record.
McDowell said it clearly, “A fish of this caliber, in my opinion, deserves to be released to grow and reproduce for many more years.”
Because the couple struggled to find an acceptable and standard enough scale, they can’t say for sure how much the fish they caught weighed, but just primitive scales and an eyeball estimation made them think it was probably just under the current state record that was caught in Pueblo Reservoir of 30.6 lbs. and 38 inches in length.
It didn’t break the state record, officially, but the McDowell/Rittgers Flathead Catfish came in at 24 lbs. and was 35.5 inches in length—big enough to register it in a handful of fishing record organizations.
The last record-breaking catch of a flathead catfish at John Martin was made by Tony Chavez from La Junta on January 19, 2015 weighing in officially at 27 lbs. 3.68 oz. and was 39 9/16 inches in length. That fish was actually caught in the stilling basin below the reservoir which means the fish escaped from the main reservoir during water releases. That fish was kept and officially measured by Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
At any rate, the young couple’s catch is the biggest recorded in nearly a decade at John Martin Reservoir and their decision to let it go creates the possibility that the state record is still swimming around—and growing—in the depths of the massive water formation.
The Colorado Parks & Wildlife website gives some information about flathead catfish, “[They] were stocked at John Martin Reservoir sporadically from 1994–2009. These fish were acquired from the state of Arkansas through special trades. Although no flathead catfish have been stocked since 2009, populations of these fish continue to be evident and appear to be self-sustaining.”
According to Colorado Parks & Wildlife Aquatic Biologist Jim Ramsay, “Flatheads have tremendous growth potential.”
Some of the biggest flathead catfish have been found in the southern and midwestern states with some weighing well over 50 pounds. The angling world record for a flathead catfish is more than 120 pounds.
Thanks to Trey and Hadlie and their memorable late summer night fishing expedition we know that flathead catfish in southeastern Colorado are thriving—and growing. Who knows—the one they so humanely released just might one day become the ONE. As for McDowell, time will tell whether his admitted obsession with catching a big flathead catfish has been satisfied, but if not, it truly may be a matter of time before the two meet again.
- SPECIES: Flathead Catfish
- WEIGHT: 24 lbs. (6 lbs. short of state record)
- LENGTH: 35 ½ inches (2.5 inches shy of state record)
- LOCATION: John Martin Reservoir