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Big Fish Provide Big Surprises

By DAVID RAINER

One thing that’s great about fishing in Alabama – among the many – is that you never know what you’re going to catch. And that holds true from one end of the state to the other.

And another thing, you don’t have to be in a boat to catch big fish.

Take Bruce Kelly and his 8-year-old son, Brian, and 13-year-old stepson, Ben Yockers, for example. The trio doesn’t have a boat, so they make the rounds around Mobile Bay, often ending up at the mouth of Weeks Bay at the spot known by several names - Big Mouth, Pelican Point and Viewpoint.

“We’re landlocked, so we have to fish off the docks and other places,” the elder Kelly said. “We got to Big Mouth and we were catching lots of sting rays and some big hardhead catfish. They’re still fun to catch, and you never know for sure what you’re going to get.

“We were at the end of the day. It was time to go home. It was the last cast. And then Brian said, ‘I’ve got one, Dad.’ I could see the rod bowing over. I told him to bring him in, but by this time he was really struggling with it. I told him, ‘Buddy, you’ve got something big this time.’ I’m still thinking sting ray. The guys (regulars at Big Mouth) were saying it might be a manta ray because they had caught some before.”

Brian’s rig, a Zebco 33, gave all the anglers watching the fight concern about the tackle surviving the fight. When the diminutive 8-year-old asked for help, Bruce grabbed the rod and took up the battle.

“I ran out to the end of the dock, and by that time, everybody out there had stopped fishing and was watching what was going on,” Bruce said. “Everybody out there is always real helpful and they were giving me advice. Luckily, the fish didn’t run for the bay. About 25 minutes later we caught sight of him. A couple of the guys had their nets out to try to help me land him. He made a couple of more runs and then we got him beside the docks and somehow the fish got the line wrapped around his tail.”

Suddenly, the line went slack and Bruce thought surely the 12-pound test line had finally succumbed to fight.

“I just knew he was gone, but it was just the line coming off when he flopped his tail,” Bruce said. “Thankfully, he was still hooked. Then I just kind of led the fish up the loading ramp and we grabbed him.”

Turns out this was no sting ray. It was a 39-inch black drum that weighed in at 26.5 pounds. After a considerable amount of effort, according to Bruce, the fish was cleaned and a neighborhood fish fry ensued.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the state, a tale of a monster freshwater fish unfolded earlier this spring.

Veteran pro bass angler Stephen Browning was probing a creek off Wheeler Lake for bass that might be moving in and out of the area on spawning runs.

“I was throwing a Rapala DT10 in Hot Mustard,” Browning said. “I was going down the edge of the creek. The creek ledge dropped from 9 feet down to 17 feet. I was just trying the find some fish that might be going into the back end of the creek to spawn, or those that had spawned that were coming back out.”

Browning hadn’t caught a single bass and then he thought he had snagged his crankbait.

“Honestly, I thought it was a rock,” he said. “I’ve caught rocks in the past. Every time you’d quit leaning back and reeling, it’d go back down a little bit. I just figured I had a rock. It was one of those deals when I don’t think the fish knew it was hooked until it got beside the boat and then it all broke loose from there.

“When I finally saw it, I thought it might be a sturgeon. I didn’t know if there are any sturgeon in Wheeler or not, but it had that pale yellow look to it and it was as long as my rod box. And that was after 20 minutes of fighting it before I even got a look at it. Then after I got a look at it, I just wanted to get my hands on it. Then I just really played him down like you’re supposed to.”

The reality of the 12-pound test line spooled on his reel then hit Browning.

huge flathead catfish caught in Wheeler Lake“I backed off the drag and I would push the release button on the reel when he would make a big hard run,” he said. “I followed him around with the trolling motor the best I could. I was just trying to keep a tight line on him.”

Browning didn’t realize how precariously he had the big fish hooked.

“I thought he had it in the mouth,” he said. “I’ve caught catfish with a crankbait before, so I figured he was hooked in the mouth. After I tired it down and got it to the side of the boat, I saw it was hooked in the gill plate.”

After the protracted fight, Browning realized there was no way he could get the fish in the boat by himself. He called fellow pro angler and fishing buddy Jeremy Starks for help.

“Jeremy came up and just got on my boat and let him boat drift off,” Browning said. “After three or four times of getting him up beside the boat, Jeremy tried to put Boga Grips (device that safely grips the lower jaw of a fish) on him, but this fish’s lips were so big that he couldn’t get the Bogas on him. I finally talked him into putting his hand in the fish’s mouth. When he did, the fish kinda bit down him, and he said, ‘I’m not doing that.’ About the fourth or fifth time, Jeremy finally reached under and got the gill on the opposite side of where he was hooked. And he didn’t just pick him up over the side of the boat. He drug him over the side of the boat.”

Browning is also friends with Steve Bowman with ESPN Outdoors. After Bowman found out about the catch, he called me wanting to know what the state record is for flatheads.

“Eighty pounds on the nose,” I responded.

Bowman said, “Browning has caught one about that big on Wheeler. Where can he get it weighed?”

I told him a potential state record fish must be weighed on certified scales. When Browning started searching for place that had certified scales, he came up empty.

“This happened on a Monday, and I guess every marina in the area is closed on Monday,” Browning said. “I had the fish on a rope for 45 minutes to an hour, trying to find a place to weigh it. I didn’t want to take it out of the water to go looking for a place. So I just decided to take measurements (51 inches long with a 31-inch girth) and release it. Besides it was cutting into my pre-fishing time.

“It might have been a state record, might not. I know it was the biggest catfish I’ve ever seen.”

PHOTOS: Brian Kelly, left, and Ben Yockers show off the day's catch at the mouth of Weeks Bay - two puppy drums, a ground mullet and a 26.5-pound black drum

Pro bass angler Stephen Browning struggles to hold up the monster flathead catfish he snagged with a crankbait on Wheeler Lake on the Tennessee River.

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