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Pursuit of comical cat can pay off this weekend

Charter-boat captains have to learn to accommodate all types of anglers _ fly-casters, bottom fishermen, live-baiters _ but Charlie Walker said he never had heard such a strange request.

"You mean to tell me you really want to catch catfish?" the captain asked.

"Yeah," I said. "Catfish those slimy creatures you always end up hooking when you're trying to catch something else."

Gafftopsail catfish, to be precise, I informed him _ genus Bagre, species marinus, the scourge of anybody who's ever hunted tarpon in Tampa Bay.

Considered by many a "trash fish," the sailcat, as it often is called, will be the prey of choice for hundreds of anglers participating in the annual Father's Day Weekend Fishing Tournament.

"Catfish ," Walker said again. "You're sure you wouldn't rather catch some nice grouper, maybe a mangrove snapper or two."

Nope. Not interested. Sailcats. Big, fat, nasty beasts with needle-sharp spines.

The tournament, a Tampa institution for more than a decade, was the only fishing contest I could ever hope to win, I explained.

You see, it doesn't take a great deal of angling skill to fool a sailcat. Just toss out a piece of foul-smelling bait and let it sink to the bottom. Before your root beer gets warm, you got a fish.

And somewhere in Tampa Bay, there was a catfish swimming around with a $10,000 tag dangling from its scum-covered body.

"That fish is mine," I said.

While busy winning all that money, I might even try to break the International Game Fish Association world record set when Jack Leadbeater caught an 8-pound, 12-ounce monster in the Indian River in March '91.

"Hmmmmmmm," Walker said, clearly enthralled by my trophy quest. "Catfish?"

Of course, if by some bad stroke of luck I failed to hook that $10,000 catfish, there were 25 others with tags of their own, each worth 50 smackeroos.

"You know, $50 will buy a lot of soda pop," I said.

Then again, if by some unfortunate roll of the dice I failed to land one of those tagged catfish, I still could come out $1,000 richer by weighing in the heaviest saltwater catfish.

Picture it a stinking, garbage-sucking bottom-dweller worth 1,000 doneros, or 333 six-packs of root beer.

But I would not be disappointed if a huge sheepshead or gargantuan ladyfish consumed my bait because those fish also would earn me a trip to the winners' circle.

"One-hundred-one dollars for the greatest variety award," I said. Translate that to root beer on your own if you like.

"Hmmmmmmm," Walker said. "Ladyfish. Sheepshead."

I could see dollar signs registering in his eyes.

"So that's why I need all the practice I can get ," I told Walker. "'cause I want to be the Catfish King of Tampa Bay."

So Walker and angling companion Larry Thornhill _ both members of the Tampa Bay Wildlife Federation, the main organization behind the annual Father's Day Weekend Fishing Tournament _ humored me. We motored out to the Egmont Shipping Channel, where I awaited a big, fat, putrid cat.

On the way out, they explained that the tournament, which costs $10 for adults and $5 for youths, helps show people that every species, even one as offensive as the dreaded Gafftopsail catfish, play a role in the marine environment.

"That's our motto," Walker explained. "Conservation through education."

We anchored up, baited our lines with some pretty little pinfish, then tossed them over the side. In a matter of seconds, my fishing rod bent toward the sea.

"Here it is," I yelled. "World record, here I come."

Through the murky water, I saw the dark shape approach. Each time the fish got close to the surface and saw the boat, it stripped line from the reel and dove for the bottom. Finally, after an exhausting battle of two or three minutes, the fish was beaten, along with my mad dash to the record book.

"Sorry," Walker said. "Looks like you caught yourself a grouper."

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