Olen Lehman rediscovered fishing during the coronavirus last summer and learned how to catch big catfish on the Missouri River.
Quarantined in a Fishing Boat
by Brent Frazee
Some anglers escaped COVID-19 by reconnecting with catfishing.
Many catfish anglers viewed 2020, the year of COVID-19, as one giant snag.
Bare shelves at tackle shops, canceled tournaments and sports shows, postponed guide trips, crowded boat ramps, closed restaurants, limited lodging—it was one of the oddest fishing seasons many can remember.
The highly contagious disease that put thousands across the country in hospitals definitely touched all ways of life, including fishing.
But it wasn’t all bad. Talk to Olen Lehman of Kansas City, Missouri.
He started the year in a hopeless depression. Olen was married to his job, as he put it, with little time to fish or hunt. His weight ballooned to 365 pounds, he had little social interaction with others and he had little hope in sight.
But all of that changed when he rediscovered the outdoor lifestyle that he left behind 12 years earlier. He took his fiancée Kira, now his wife, fishing on a spring day last year as a way to get out of the house. They caught a stringer full of crappies, took them home, and ate them, and he was hooked.
Later, husband and wife started fishing the Missouri River in search of big catfish. Their quest started as bank fishing, and Lehman landed a 78-pound blue cat behind a wing dike in the Kansas City area.
With many other activities shut down because of COVID-19, they made those night-fishing trips a weekly occurrence and continued to figure out things as they went, catching big blues and flatheads along the way.
Olen bought his first boat and continued to learn more about river catfish. After finding success in taking friends out fishing, he decided to open his own guide service, KC RodBender Fishing Adventures, with his wife.
Lehman, a nurse, found a new job in the dialysis field, but he plans to spend plenty of time on the water in 2021.
“In the course of a year, I found a new life,” said Lehman, 40. “I got married, bought a house, bought a boat, had bariatric surgery and lost 100 pounds, and just have a new outlook.”
“People who know me say, ‘It’s good to see you smiling again.’ Just being outdoors–fishing, hiking, exercising–has made a huge difference.”
“I don’t think that would have happened if it weren’t for COVID.”
Lehman certainly wasn’t alone in his renewed interest in catfishing.
Many states reported sharp increases in the number of fishing licenses sold. During COVID-19, many events such as sports, concerts, movies, and restaurants were closed or postponed. Fishing remained open.
With more time on their hands, many turned to fishing either for the first time or after a long lapse.
“We’re seeing a beautiful silver lining to this coronavirus we’re going through,” said Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “When all else has been taken away, a lot of nontraditional users have turned to outdoor activities such as fishing.”
“We would like to think we will retain some of those people who had good experiences.”
Brian Lawson of Emporia, Kansas, is an example. He was brought up as a fisherman, but hadn’t been much in the past 10 years. He was too busy with work and raising a family.
When COVID-19 provided a pause, he returned to catfishing. And he picked up a fishing partner.
His 6-year-old son Kasen had been glued to television and the computer, watching children’s videos. When dad got him a beginner rod and reel for Easter, that screen time changed.
Kasen spent much of his spare time practicing casting, and began watching fishing videos instead of children’s programs.
“My favorite is River Monsters,” Kasen said. “It’s more serious.”
Kasen was ready when his dad took him to the Neosho and Cottonwood rivers to fish for catfish.
On one of his first trips, the youngster caught a 12-pound flathead. He caught other cats in subsequent trips, though none as big as that one.
“I think I’ve gained myself a fishing partner,” Brian Lawson said.
When the school district Aaron Landes worked for as a janitor went to virtual schooling, Instead of staying at home, he decided to quarantine at the lake. He was gone from late March into April last year on one extended camping trip at Cheney Lake in Kansas.
“I was living off the grid,” said Landes, 43, who lives in Derby, Kansas. “I had no electricity or running water and my dinners were the fish I caught.”
Using shrimp for bait, Landes waded out off a swimming beach near where he had his tent pitched and caught a variety of fish, including lots of channel cats and a few blues and flatheads.
“I had some canned vegetables, but I mostly ate fish,” he said. “I used 10 different recipes, and all of them turned out well.”
Logan Zabel of Manhattan, Kansas, also benefited from a change in plans. He and some of his friends were supposed to be in California for a summer vacation, but they canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, they went fishing at Milford Lake in northeast Kansas.
On one of those trips, Zabel caught his biggest fish ever, a 30-pound blue catfish.
“The way it turned out, I’m glad we stayed home,” he said.
With the new interest in fishing, equipment was flying off the shelves in tackle shops and big box stores.
Not only were rod and reel combos in high demand, terminal tackle such as sinkers, swivels, snaps, and hooks were in low supply at one point.
Manufacturers dealt with plant shutdowns in some cases at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak and they scrambled to meet demand once they returned.
“We had a massive year,” said Jeff Williams, one of the owners of Team Catfish, and a top supplier of catfish equipment and baits. “We surpassed our year sales forecast for Walmart by the first of May.”
“Everyone wanted to go fishing.”
Manufacturers and distributors have caught up with demand by now, but they’re hoping the interest in fishing will continue.
“This was a healthy reset for a lot of people,” said Williams, who lives in Grove, Oklahoma. “COVID drove them back to their roots. Instead of taking exotic trips, people stayed close to home and went outdoors.”