AppLit Home Appalachian Tall Tales / Animal Tales Tina L. Hanlon
 
"The Walking Catfish" and Other Fish Tales
 

Note: This is the type of tall tale that is not about a hero of superhuman size or strength, but describes a highly exaggerated incident about objects and animals, told in a deadpan way as if it really happened in the daily lives of ordinary people. Folklorist Alan Lomax says that exaggerated fishing and hunting tales reflect the "delight of hungry pioneers at the game-rich woods" they found in America (Appalachian Journey, see below). There is a species of catfish from southeast Asia that can wriggle across land when food is scarce. It is an invasive species found in Florida. (See photos and details at Florida Museum of Natural History or put "walking catfish" in a search engine to see many photos and videos.) Leonard Roberts identified the walking fish tale as type 1970, Unnatural Natural History and "Motif: X946*, Lie: Fish trained to live on land falls into water and drowns" (South From Hell-fer-Sartin', p. 264).


"The Walkin' Catfish." Told by Doc McConnell. In Jimmy Neil Smith, Why the Possum's Tail is Bare and Other Classic Southern Stories. New York: Avon, 1993. 73-74. McConnell opens by saying he was born on Stony Point, near Tucker's Knob (TN), where he did a lot of fishing as a boy. One day after fishing, one of his catfish stayed alive. It became a fine pet he named Homer, and followed him everywhere. When school started, Homer tried to follow him to school but fell through a hole in a bridge and drowned in the water. Smith notes that this tale is from McConnell's family tradition and is one of many variants. Also published in Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Press and Little Rock: August House, 1991. pp. 21-22. McConnell calls this "a traditional Southern Appalachian tale I heard from my brother, Steamer."

"A Land-Loving Catfish." Told by Doc McConnell, Tucker's Knob, TN, 1986. In a section of tall tales in American Folktales: From the Collections of the Library of Congress. Ed. Carl Lindahl. Vol. 2. Armonk NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2004, pp. 475-78. The introduction discusses McConnell and others at the National Storytelling Festival.  The tales is similar to the one above, except that McConnell names the catfish Old Homer and includes a joke about teaching the catfish to do in two weeks what took two million years of evolution.

"The Walkin' Catfish." Told by Doc McConnell. In Tales of Humor and Wit. Cassette tape. Jonesborough, TN: National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, National Storytelling Press, and August House Publishers, 1991. c. 50 min. Also includes Obedient Jack / Elizabeth Ellis and Gayle Ross -- How the Rhinosaurus Got his Skin / Carol Birch -- The Hog-o-phone / David Holt -- Cinderella / Ed Stivender -- The $50,000 Racehorse / Hannah McConnell Gillenwater -- Sketches of Nostalgia / Gamble Rogers (Worldcat).

"When Doc McConnell's Old Time Medicine Show hits the hollows of Eastern Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, Doc himself usually regales the small-town crowd with his Tale of the Walking Catfish, a finny renegade who traveled by land until he accidentally fell into a creek and drowned." This is the opening of an article by Bill Richards: "Walking Catfish & Other Whoppers: The Walking Catfish and Other Whoppers From Tennessee." The Washington Post 10 Oct. 1977, Final Edition: Style C1. Full text accessed through Lexis-Nexis 5/7/07. About the fifth Annual National Storytelling Festival at Jonesborough, TN and storytellers Doc McConnell, Kathryn Windham, Jackie Torrence, and 73-year-old Richard Chase. Includes comments on Jack Tales and African American tales.

"The Pet Catfish." Told by Stanley Hicks, 6 July 1981, on field tapes in Cheryl Oxford Collection, Manuscripts Department, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the 1981 typed transcript (1 min., 35 seconds), Stanley tells that he and his wife got acquainted walking several miles to school, and other hardships such as cutting their own wood and lighting their own fires made life difficult. When the pipes in the school-house fell down and there was soot inside, he slipped off and went fishing although Dad seldom let them go. He caught a catfish and threw it on the bank. It lived and went "Kook-ca-kook-ca-kook-ca-kook-ca." At home he put it in water and took it out until it would stay out and ramble around. He tied a string around its neck and would take it to school every day, and tie it outside. One frosty morning there was a hole in the bridge where the wagons stop, and when he found his string was "kindly loose," he went back. "And hit had fell down through this hole and got drowneded." (The audience laughs.) Next Stanley told "The Lighted Lantern," about fishing at Watauga Lake, when another fisherman at Smithy's store in Boone bragged about what a huge fish he had caught, 40 or 50 pounds. So Stanley told him about catching "an old lan-tren" that was still burning underwater since 1849. The man called him a liar. Stanley said, "You cut your fish tale down a little bit, and I'll blow my lan-tren out." That made the man laugh and give up telling his tale. Other listings in this collection include "Pet Catfish," 16 Nov. 1985 (FS-6159). See Inventory of Cheryl Oxford Collection, 1981-1988. ("Other hunting and fishing tales" are listed as FS-6153 Stanley Hicks, Vilas, N.C., 6 July 1981, Tape 1 of 2).

Appalachian Journey. Film by Alan Lomax. Association for Cultural Equity, 1991. 58 min. Available at Folkstreams.net with background materials. Lomax presents video clips and discussion of Appalachian history in relation to storytellers, musicians, dancers, and makers of toys and instruments. He talks with members of the Hicks family: Stanley Hicks tells a tall tale of a catfish that lives on land for a while as his pet, until it falls back in the creek and drowns, and Ray Hicks tells a tall tale about hunting with Jack. Lomax says that such tales reflect the "delight of hungry pioneers at the game-rich woods" they found in America. He calls this growing storytelling tradition a "main source of American imagination." They sing songs and talk about toys and courting traditions in their youth, as well as the creation of recreation areas that shut them off of land they were used to traveling on. Frank Proffitt, Jr. sings on the film and Lomax tells the history of the song about Tom Dula (Dooley), which begins with Proffitt's father singing it. He discusses John Henry and other influences of African Americans on Appalachian music and dancing. People "played their misery out" in ballads related to poverty, making moonshine, mining and black lung and unions, floods, etc.

"My Pet Charlie." In Leonard Roberts. South From Hell-fer-Sartin': Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. Lexington: U Press of Kentucky, 1955. Rpt. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1964. No. 75, p. 154. The brief tale was written down by Ronald Dunn, age 17, Magoffin County, who had heard it from a teacher who had lived in Minnesota and Maine. The narrator was fishing with his uncle, who caught a large fish. They put it in a tub but found it "chasing the cat and dog around the house" in the morning. After a month they named it Charlie and the fish followed them everywhere. "You ought to have seen him wiggling along behind." When they crossed a creek on a log, Charlie fell off and drowned before they could save him.

McConnell, John Ed. (Frankfort, KY). "Truthful's Tragic Fish Tale." In Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler. More Laughter in Appalachia: Southern Mountain Humor. Little Rock: August House, 1995, pp. 110-11. Truthful Dawkins hung out at a blacksmith shop at the Forks of Elkhorn, KY. He told the other tale-tellers there that he rescued a bass from a snake and then it kept trying to jump out of the water when it saw him, until he carried it home, where it learned to spend time out of its tub of water, eat with the dogs, and follow him everywhere. One day it fell through a slat in the same swinging bridge where he found it, and it drowned.

See also these Appalachian tales and resources:

"Lantern" is another tall tale about two girls fishing told by Connie Regan-Blake on Dive-Into Stories: A Telling Performance. CD. Asheville, NC: Storywindow Productions, 2006.  The narrator claims she caught fish with no hook, line or bait by giving them chewing tobacco and hitting them over the head when they came up to spit. (See tales by Stanley Hicks, above, for another version.) 

"I Bought Me a Dog." Roberts, Leonard. I Bought Me a Dog: A Dozen Authentic Folktales from the Southern Mountains. Berea, KY:  The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1954. This is a tall tale about the incredible feats of a coon dog and the speaker and his brother, as they have underwater adventures and catch impossible numbers of fish. This tale is called "Tall Hunting Tale" in Roberts' South From Hell-fer-Sartin': Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. Lexington: U Press of Kentucky, 1955. Rpt. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1964. No. 70, pp. 145-47.

"The Old Woman and the Talking Catfish." Reader's theater script by Kentucky author-illustrator Paul Brett Johnson. This tale is similar to the old fairy tale about a fisherman, his greedy wife, and a magic flounder, except that in Johnson's tale the husband is the greedy one who wants more and more wishes granted by the catfish, such as making him mayor. Available at PBJ Scripts for Kids, 2009.

Appalachian Picture Books: Tall Tales

"Twelve Tall Tales from Wilkes County." by Jerry D. Joines. Commentary on Being A Joines: A Life in the Brushy Mountains. Study Guides for the Film. Reprinted from North Carolina Folklore Journal, vol. 20, no. 1 (Feb. 1972): 3-10. The son of NC storyteller John E. Joines (b. 1914) records twelve tales his father told in 1971. In tale no. 3, a hunting dog points to a catfish because, the tale-teller discovers, there are seven partridges inside that the catfish has eaten. Variants of the tale from an 1852 Northern newspaper and from Indiana are mentioned. The film is available at Folkstreams.net.

AppLit's Tall Tales and Jack Tales: Literature and Writing Activities

Compare these Appalachian tales with:

"Fishing." In Alvin Schwartz. Whoppers, Tall Tales and Other Lies Collected from American Folklore. Illus. Glen Rounds. New York: Harper Trophy, 1975. pp. 34-35. A man in Maine catches a trout that he trains as a pet out of water, but it slips in a brook and drowns while following him around one day.  Schwartz cites sources in Farquhar, Samuel T. "The Tame Trout." California Folklore Quarterly 3 (1944): 177-84; and Goodspeed, Charles E. Angling in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939, pp. 315-16.

"The Sad Tale of Tom the Catfish." Retold by M. A. Jagendorf. In Cohn, Amy L., ed. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. New York: Scholastic,1993. In the section "No-Sense Nonsense," illustrated by Donald Crews. An Indiana version of this tall tale, in which Obediah from Grant County catches such a pretty catfish that he makes it a pet, but it later falls off a log and drowns. Reprinted from Jagendorf's Sand in the Bag and Other Folk Stories of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, 1952.

"The Legend of Ol' Blue." By Margot McMillen. Illus. Mark Raithel. From Outside In Dec. 1997 (magazine for children). Missouri Dept. of Conservation Online. "A tall tale about winter coming to Lake Ozark." "Tall tales about Old Blue were first written down by Earl A. Collins, a teacher and writer from Cape Girardeau [MO]. His stories were published in the Kansas City Times in the 1930s. Like all tall tales, this version has parts from other reports, many heard years ago. Some of the details are true. We think you can tell which parts are true and what parts turn this into a tall tale!" Ol' Blue is a huge, mysterious legendary catfish suspected of stealing pumpkins.

Day, David. The Walking Catfish. Illus. Mark Entwisle. New York: Macmillan; Don Mills, Ont.: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1991. 31 pp. "A tall tale [by a Canadian author] about a Big Lie Contest at which a tale about a giant catfish becomes true and swallows its teller.  The walking catfish is so big it swallows a man."

Tabloid Tales is a language arts lesson about exaggeration, for grades 3 and up, that explores tabloid stories as modern tall tales. One of the writing suggestions is "Walking Catfish Eats Farmer." By Gary Hopkins. 2002-2006. Education World web site.

Graham, Jack. Pennsylvania Jack. "The Trained Trout." No date. This storyteller's web site gives his version of several Appalachian tales, with no specific details on sources. "Jack Gets a Herd of Cattle" is identified as an Appalachian tale. "The Longest Story" is identified as a Jack Tale brought to America. "The Snakebit Hoe Handle" is identified as a classic American tall tale. Other "Old Time Stories" include "Davy Crockett's Grin," "Old One Eye," and "Two Old Women Make a Bet."


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