It's safe to say that Bassmaster Elite Series angler Stephen Browning is on the big bite this week.
Practicing for the Evan Williams Dixie Duel on Lake Wheeler in northwest Alabama, the Hot Springs, Ark., bass pro on Monday caught a whopper flathead catfish on 12-pound test line, throwing a crankbait in a creek.
After fighting the beast for 40 minutes, and getting input from other giddy pro anglers on the river — and needing help from one of them, Jeremy Starks, just to boat the beast — Browning's best guesstimate on the fish's weight was 80 pounds.
Upon hooking the fish, "I didn't know what it was," Browning said by cell phone from the deck of his boat, minutes after landing the huge fish. "Starks thought it was a sturgeon."
But how big was the fish exactly? The tape measure said 50 inches in length, 31in girth. When ESPNOutdoors.com spoke with Browning, he was awaiting the arrival of an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist to weigh and certify the catch.
If the catfish did go 80, Browning would be flirting with a state record, and be in the suburbs of world record territory.
The Alabama state record flathead is 80 pounds, caught from the Alabama River at Selma in 1986. The International Game Fish Association 12-pound test line class world record for flathead catfish is 91 pounds, 4 ounces caught from Texas' Lake Lewisville in 1982 by Mike Rogers.
As Browning battled the big fish, he phoned Starks, who was practicing about six miles away. After Browning wore the fish down, Starks, whom Browning describes as "a big ol' boy," jumped in Browning's boat and tried to fit a Boga Grip — a special fish-holding clamp — over the fish's bottom lip, unsuccessfully. Then he tried lifting it out barehanded "and it just about bit his hand off," Browning said.
After about the fifth time the big fish neared the boat, Starks "got it by the gills and bear-wrassled it over the side," Browning said.
As he relayed the story of the catch, other pros — Jason Quinn, Mike McClelland and Dave Smith — pulled up.
Quinn claimed to be able to eyeball a catfish weight dead-on.
"How big is that?" Browning was heard to yell.
Someone in the background muttered, "Holy ..."
Then Quinn piped up: "That sumbitch is 70, 80 pounds all day."
The consensus from the anglers was that the fish would make a proper battered, breaded feast back at camp that night. Until then, Browning said, as he waited for the biologist he intended to keep practicing for the Dixie Duel and its $100,000 top prize.
"It's a circus show out here," Browning said. Then he was heard yelling at the anglers around him: "Hey, man, will you all get out of my catfish hole? I'm trying to catch supper!"
Alas, at day's end, the fish didn't even become a meal. After waiting until day's end for the biologist to show, Browning decided to pack up for the night, and with no good way to weigh the beast, he released the big fish back into the river. State records are one thing; Browning, who after two tournaments sits in third place in the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year standings, has even bigger fish to fry.