Think it's just a fish tale? Read what happened.
By LEW FREEDMAN
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Fishermen stood a few feet apart along the shore of the Big Sioux River, slipping either nightcrawlers or deer steak onto their hooks, then casting into the flowing water.
It was a pleasant September day, the sun bright, the temperature 75 degrees.
Anglers clambered down an embankment through thick grass, nearly tapping toes on water's edge. The object was to entice channel catfish to the surface.
Local adviser (because he's not a true guide) Steve Wilkison said the Big Sioux provides crappie, Northern pike and carp, and he had discovered only recently the action of catfish pursuit. A few days earlier he had fished with three relatives.
"We caught between 60 and 80 in about two hours," Wilkison said. "Then I was hooked."
It was a chance to try something new in a different part of the country, and the out-of-towners in the group were psyched.
Ted Takasaki, a transplanted Illinois guy who fishes the FLW Walleye Tour professionally and is an ice-fishing specialist in winter out of Brainerd, Minn., said, "I don't fish for these things with whiskers."
It took some time, but Takasaki got a hit. Laughing, he raised a tiny creek chub from the light current.
"It takes real talent to catch something like this," he said. "That's walleye bait."
Bob Musil, a Brooklyn Park, Minn., tourism official, said, "That's what has been robbing our bait."
Maybe the chub was responsible for bait theft, but initially the catfish seemed bored. A change of location, less than a 100 yards away, helped.
Buddy Seiner, a South Dakota tourism official, was showing off. Just about every time he cast, he reeled in a catfish. Most of them were 10 to 12 inches long, and he advised not getting hopes up about setting any world records.
"You can't expect to get them too big out here," Seiner said.
Clearly the deer steak was the most mouthwatering offering, but that was by human standards, and catfish are notorious for coveting bait that stinks to high heaven. They only seem to enjoy grabbing for bait that smells like a remnant from a three-weeklong garbage collector's strike.
The remedy for our neutral smelling bait was to lather on a thick red concoction that had the consistency of peanut butter, but could raise a damsel in distress from a dead faint.
The prevailing wisdom was, "Don't get it on your hands or clothes!" Right. That was an impossible assignment. Takasaki caught his first catfish, a small one, and announced, "It's a monster!"
A ring and a hook
Then the law of the wild kicked in. Bank on it that any time the average outdoorsman on a lake, on a river or in the woods, slips into inattention rivaling a sleep coma, he will get a hit or miss a shooting opportunity. Takasaki's cell phone rang, distracting him. Sure enough, a catfish bit.
"I got one on!" he shouted as he attempted to cradle the phone under his chin.
"It's a big one! It's all of 10 inches."
He spoke to his friend: "They're all jealous of this monster."
A few minutes later, Takasaki's phone rang again. Bingo, another catfish. These tournament guys, they don't know so much about fishing secrets, after all.
Next time, if he is smart enough to leave his cell on during competition, maybe it will be the walleye calling, telling him where they are hiding.
Some people don't believe in luck or signs. Seiner insisted that repetitive casting, almost to the other bank, about 40 feet away, would produce fish. You know, like work.
"It's all about patience," he said. "They swim up and down the channel."
Fisherman fanned out around the bend, upstream, downstream, staked out positions on rocks. One tried fly-fishing and darned if he didn't catch the two biggest catfish, close to 11/2 feet long.
Filling 'em up
Another group stuck with Wilkison and filled buckets with catfish between 12 and 14 inches long. They had about 75 keepers. Wilkison measured the longest at 153/4 inches. A couple of anglers thought outside the box and captured some crappie.
The pace of catfish catching was steady, with Wilkison estimating pauses of 10 to 15 minutes during the three hours on the river.
"If that," said Mike Ratter of Calumet City, Ill. "I did good. Everybody caught at least a dozen apiece."
Takasaki collected his share of fish with whiskers. What were the chances he would forsake walleye fishing for catfish?
"Pretty slim," he said.
Probably because he didn't want to spend four days at a time washing off the stink of catfish bait.