Wayne County Catfish Tournament Draws 120
The world is a different place in those hours between midnight and daylight. While most of the surrounding region is blanketed in silence and sleep, Ronnie Kent and his wife Melissa are fully aware of activity abounding as they sit in their pontoon boat atop the mighty Altamaha River. They’re awaiting “the bite.” When, or if, it will come is known only to the big river’s ugliest inhabitants: the catfish. And long before the first gray streaks of dawn begin to illuminate the river’s swirling mists, the wait will pay off—in a big way.
The Kents, of Jesup, were two of the 279 paid fishermen among 120 boats competing in the 2019 Nesmith Chevrolet-Wayne County Catfish Tournament on June 1-2 hosted by the Wayne County Board of Tourism.
Among them were anglers from all over Georgia, as well as Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana and Arizona, all looking to take home a share of $14,000 in total payouts, including $7,500 for the top overall weight and $1,000 for the big fish of the tournament.
Wayne County Director of Tourism Heather Altman was on hand for the initial event in 2006, and all those since that time, including the largest, when 136 boats signed up in 2012. She says the effect on the region are tremendous.
“Nature-based tourism is the biggest thing we have going for us in Wayne County. We’re hoping the total impact of that tourism will be in the $500,000 range. The Altamaha is a big part of that,” said Heather.
Aside from the catfish tournament, the board also puts on a deer hunting contest, the Big Buck Jamboree, spanning an eight-county area every October.
The whole shebang started, according to Jesup City Manager Mike Deal, because the catfish brought it upon themselves.
“We kept hearing that the flathead cats in the river were eating up all the redbreast,” Deal said, “so we thought we’d make the bream fishermen happy by helping take out the catfish, make the catfish fishermen happy by giving them a tournament incentive, while bringing in revenue to Wayne County and Jesup at the same time.
“Fishermen from five states were on hand for the first tournament, and as soon as it was over, we were giving away fish to local shelters, yet another benefit from the event. Later on, it hit Facebook that it was a kill tournament—and it was, because we were taking the cats out for a reason. So with DNR’s help, we decided to allow the fishermen to decide if they wanted to keep their catch or return it to the river. The folks at DNR have been great helping out, setting up an aerated live tank to show off the fish before returning them to the Altamaha. We try to cater to what our fishermen want, so keep or release is up to them after the weigh-in.”
Event rules in the rod-and-reel only affair allow fishermen to try their luck anywhere along the 137-mile length of the Altamaha, weighing in at Jaycee Landing in Jesup. Live bream is the preferred choice of bait for most anglers, with several also using goldfish. Flatheads and channel cats aren’t particularly picky, but redbreast are at the top of their menu list.
The hours of Saturday night and into the final day of competition on Sunday morning were long ones for many out on the river, but several fishermen mentioned a pair of peak bites: around 4:30 and 6:30 a.m. At least one competitor related that he and his partner slept right through both of them!
Ronnie Kent is an old hand on the Altamaha, with a ton of local knowledge to boot. So when the heavy rod began bending in predawn darkness, there was no big adrenaline rush.
At least not at first.
“When I set the hook and felt him, I thought this was a pretty decent fish,” Kent said. “Then as he shook a little bit, I thought it might even be a 20-pounder. Then he got serious and felt like he may go 30 or 40. When he rolled up on top out in the river, I couldn’t see him, but I could sure hear him and feel him. That’s when I thought it might be 70 or 80!”
Turns out Kent was reeling in a thousand bucks, a flathead that topped the scales as the tournament’s big fish at 53.5 pounds. It also helped push the total poundage of his catch to 119.2, best overall, and garnering the top prize of $7,500. Not a bad payday for a night on the Altamaha.
That big cat was put back into the river, and Ronnie is already making plans to catch him again next year.
Children younger than 16 years of age fish free in the tournament, and a pair of youngsters made the best of their opportunity by taking home $100 each with big fish of their own. Twelve-year old Chandler Highnote, of Americus, landed a 42.45-lb. cat, while Eastman’s Ben Adams scored big with one at 38.70.
Overall, a total of 1,534 pounds of catfish was weighed in during the tournament.
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