FORT MADISON — A train was passing across the Fort Madison Toll Bridge when our first casts of the morning landed in the Mississippi River with a splash.
It rolled overhead as the two men sitting before me focused their attention solely on the water below. I stood at the front of a boat that was entirely rigged for catfishing. The men, Joe Ludtke and Joe Coventry, were sitting in chairs at the boat's rear with four rods fanned out under the bridge. The rising sun cast a pinkish glow on their backs.
Ludtke and Coventry met at a catfishing tournament, became friends and now compete together. They were in town this weekend for a Cabela's King Kat tournament. The team whose five biggest catfish weighed the most would walk away $4,000 richer. I tagged along while the two fishermen, being only somewhat familiar with this part of the river, scouted for big fish somewhere they could return to during the competition.
They steer a conspicuous boat in these sorts of tournaments, and they say other fishers always seem to be crowding around where they fish. Everywhere I look, I see a brandname printed. I asked the men what gear they use and they had another dozen or so sponsor names to recite. Here's the basics: they sit on a Tracker boat, casting out Tangling with Catfish's Whisker Whip series rods and snag their prizes with Mustad circle hooks.
There's beauty in how complicated they make something so simple. These men motor their way around the river, electronically scanning its depths for underwater cliffs and staring at its waves for any sign of structure. They pick their spot with small debates. They chop up bait fish — sometimes shad or bluegill, this time mooneye — and carefully feed it onto hooks.
And then they cast out and wait. The rod goes in a holder. It sometimes takes 15 minutes before anything else happens.
With their circle hooks, the men don't even need to jerk the rod. They get a bite, they reel and the fish is caught. I know it's easy, because I did it just fine.
We started off fishing shallow waters. To me, the fishing was great. We caught 5-pound channel cats every few minutes at one spot. But, being tournament fishermen, the two Joes were not pleased.
"What do we call those ones?" Ludtke asked, pointing at a rod tip that was just barely bouncing.
"Decoys," Coventry answered.
In a tournament, every ounce counts. Ludtke recalls once losing first place by a 10th of an ounce.
The catfish seemed to spawn late this year. We caught several identical-looking male fish, all with similar scabs and bloody scratches on their bellies and tails. The spawn timing is tough for a fisherman looking for a fatty, or a "cheese puff" as Coventry called them.
So we turned to deeper waters.
I have catfished before, and I did it either much more patiently or stupidly than these two professionals do. I, and many like me, will throw a chicken liver on a treble hook, cast it out and let it sit for an hour.
In shallows, they leave most spots after 15 minutes. In deeper water, their technique resembles my own at first.
But when their rod tips start to twitch, our strategies depart each other. I would reach for the rod and desperately yank it.
Ludtke, however, doesn't touch the rod. He sits forward, staring at the tip. His outstretched fingers touch the boat beside the rod holder, but he doesn't grab it yet.
Finally, sometimes several moments later, the rod would bend in earnest. His hands would spring onto the reel, cranking down hard just a few times in order to set the hook firmly through the fish's lip. Then, he would stand up, pulling the rod from his holder and anchoring it on his waist. He would reel as it lowered, then slowly pull it back up, and then repeat.
Competitive catfishing is a growing sport. Its rise during the age of the internet has given it a different-feeling community, as compared to other big fishing styles.
As these tournaments have gotten bigger, YouTube has become filled with instructional videos detailing fishing techniques that previously were safeguarded secrets only learned through word of mouth.
Ludtke and Coventry rejoice in this modern scene, they say. The pure fishing know-how is no longer the puzzle to solve with something as simple as catfishing.
Rather, "the river is a puzzle," Ludtke said. "And you feel so accomplished when you put it all together."
We eventually found big enough cats for the Joes. The biggest of the day at 7.8 pounds was thrown back with a prayer it would be caught again the next day. They hoped they could manage 40 pounds with their five kept fish in the tournament.
"That there's a tournament fish," Coventry said, before throwing that cat back.
We left their new spot soon after, so as not to spoil it.
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