by Ron Presley
Sharing a lifetime of experience
Phil King knows catfish. If you don’t believe that, just ask any knowledgably catfish angler. He was chasing big blue catfish before most anglers even thought about having a catfish tournament. King developed his passion for the whiskered fish as he fished his way through anything that bit, in his early years, to focusing on catfish later.
“There were four stages of development for me,” reported King. “I identify them as childhood to 18 years; crappie and catfishing for eighteen years; beginning to tournament fish for catfish in 1994; and starting the guide service in 1999.”
King lost his dad to a massive heart attack when he was only two-years-old. He credits his grandmother and grandfather for filling the void in his life and for the passion he carries today for fishing, catfishing in particular.
Hoy Jobe, Kings grandfather, was the fishing mentor in King’s life. “As a young man, I recall trying to go to sleep the night before without much success, I was so excited about getting to go fishing. I remember trailing behind my grandfather with a cane pole and worms. We would fish every dark hole in the creek as we waded along. I fondly remember watching my bobber go under,” recalled King.”
“We fished all summer while we were out of school on summer break,” recalled King. “My grandfather was quite an outdoorsman. He loved fox hunting and fishing. He left us in his prime at 58 years young. I would often tell my grandmother, Mildred Jobe, just how much I wish I could have carried Hoy catfishing on one good trip. He would have loved every minute!”
When he was old enough, he didn’t need anyone with him. “I would get off the bus after school and grab a pole, a can of worms, find a dark hole in a ditch and try to catch two-inch bluegill, if that was all I had time to do. Size didn’t matter, getting bit did.”
Focusing on Catfish
Get bit he did, as his focus turned more toward catfishing. Near the end of his crappie and catfish period, King was fishing with another catfish enthusiast, Bruce Paulk, below Pickwick Dam. “I remember tying on many sinkers and hooks that 9-hour day, trying to catch catfish. All I landed were two blue cats big enough for supper that night,” said King.
“I went home and gave my bass tackle to my brother,” recalled King. “It became obvious that I needed some different tackle.”
His brother asked him, “What’s wrong with it?” Kings response was quick and to the point. “Nothing,” he said. “I’m going to learn how to catch those catfish below Pickwick Dam.” And so the quest began.
Learning to catch trophy catfish provided challenging times for King. He witnessed plenty of changes over the years as he developed the mental and physical abilities to find and catch the big cats.
King learned by trial and error that some things worked better than others. “We had to use bigger baits of course, but not always,” said King. “We move up to 80-pound Spiderwire Ultra Cast for our mainline and 60 pound Big Game for our hook leader. We loosen the drag to keep from tearing the hooks out of the fish on the way in.”
King also had to learn how to go from 20 to 30 bites per day to 6 to15 bites per day. “Typically, when you are fishing for bigger fish the number of bites drop,” explained King. “In one two-day national championship, we had 6 bites the first day and 4 the second day, but held on to win the event. The thing is, if the bite is tough it’s usually the same for all. Many things can affect the bite, like a dropping river, weather fronts, water temperature, flood waters and debris under the water like weeds/grass that fish don’t like to sit in to feed.”
Sometimes it was the little things that mattered. “Learning how to increase the catch rate for the big fish was difficult, but through trial and error we discovered things that worked,” explained King. “Once we started using the snell knot and Daiichi wide gap bleeding bait circle hooks, we raised our catch rate to 98 to 100 percent. If they bit, they were usually in the boat. I learned to be patient and let the fish eat the bait.”
Another major change in catfishing related to livewells. “As a result of the changing tournament scene, we went from 100 quart coolers for livewells to 100 gallon tubs,” said King. “Then, SeaArk Boats started listening to the needs of catfish anglers and installed a 74 X 20 X15 inch livewell so anglers could keep the big fish alive and release them after weigh-in.”
One particular year King attended a goal setting class at Kimberly Clark where he was working. It prompted him to set some catfishing goals. “We were challenged to set work and personal goals,” explained King. “My first catfishing goal was to win the National Catfish Derby out of Pickwick,” declared King. “My second was to win a national championship.”
“I was nervous before those tournaments in the early days,” admitted King. “I couldn’t sit down and eat my normal breakfast without getting nauseated. I would lie awake at night trying to figure out Plan A, B, and C. My brain just continued to grind, even if I went to sleep, I would be visualizing what I would say if I won.”
“Those first tournaments were 10 fish limits,” recalled King. “We were in the infant stage of tournaments then and reading about Jim Moyer catching big winter blues on the Cumberland River. Most people back then focused on catching 10 fish. It wasn’t until 1999 when we weighed in our first 50-pound fish in a tournament. That year I would go out and fish all day, focusing on catching the biggest fish possible. Keep in mind the 34-inch limit law was not imposed then and lots of big fish were being harvested and removed from the TN river. They have recovered in the past few years, Now, you would need two 40- or 50-pound fish to win the derby.”
King’s first goal took him from 1994 to 2000 when he won the long running National Catfish Derby on Pickwick. Three short years later he was fishing with Stacey Thompson to claim his first National Championship by taking the crown at Cabela’s, first ever, King Kat Classic in 2003.
“I remember that day clearly,” recalled King. “We held those first King Kat Classic trophies high over our heads with pride. I have seen that pride and raising of the trophies from every championship team since.”
King’s catfish adventures had taught him to appreciate that winning feeling associated with tournament fishing. His catfishing came full circle, from learning the sport himself to sharing his expertise with others. Now he is equally happy targeting eating size catfish or big trophy cats for his clients on guided trips (www.h2ow.com/catfish).
King puts personal traits above winning. “Integrity and respect is something you earn and keep all your life,” suggested King. “There is nothing worth winning if not in the correct manner. You do it right, or you hurt your family, friends, media, sponsors and potential sponsors. Last but not least, you damage your fishing career with all your peers. So, I encourage everyone to win as often as they can, but always the right way and be professional and humble when you do win.”
King recalled a personal example from the past. “After we won the derby two consecutive years, some team in the back of the crowd stated, ‘I wonder how long they had those tied out?’ James (Snuffy) Smith spoke up and said of Tim Haynie and I – ‘You don’t have to worry about them two young men, they are squeaky clean. If they weigh them they caught them legally.’ A couple years later when I heard that Snuffy stood up for us in the crowd, I was more proud of what he said than winning the Derby. I will remember his kind words the rest of my life.”
Tournament fishing will play an important role in the growth of catfishing as a sport, according to King. “The catfishing community needs get behind a credible tournament series or trail and support it and the sponsors that support that trail.”
Fishing partners Stacy Thompson, Tim Haynie and Lealon Harris have been with him along the way. “Catfishing has been good for me, all my life,” reflected King. “We have achieved many firsts that no team can ever achieve again.”
Catfishing was more than recreation for King. Guiding was a way to earn some money and also receive the joy of sharing the sport with others. That joy was income of another kind.
“When I was out of work I fished for a living to pay bills,” said King. “I will never forget the smiles and the comments of my clients. I would hear, ‘I caught the biggest catfish in my life’ or ‘I learned more today than any other time out on the water.’ You can’t purchase those experiences at your local retail store. You have to be on the water with other people to receive the experience.”
King also recalls the many friendships he developed on the tournament trail. “I will never forget the people I met and the new friends I made on the tournament trail. I travelled to Kansas, Iowa, South Carolina, Alabama and more. I travelled all over the US, Canada and Spain in search of catfish. In the process I have made friendships that will last forever.”
King loves catfishing for the mystery of it. “You never know what is going to happen on any given day,” concluded King. “Some days you can’t keep them off the hook and other days they will humble you. They will leave you trying to figure out why the bite was so poor. Most of the reasons are out of our control, but we still keep going and trying to figure it out through our lifetime of fishing.”
“I don’t plan to quit going unless I become physically unable. Then I’m planning to set on the porch, look at all the photos, and say, ‘Ah, we used to get em.’”