by Ron Presley
Tournament catfishing is where it’s at
Some people say fishing is fishing and that’s all there is to it. Not Lyle Stokes. The popular host of the Catfish Weekly Online TV show sees a lot more to catfishing than just the fishing. He is also proprietor and crafter of Blackhorse Custom Rods and founder of the Catfish Weekly National Championship Tournament.
Catfish Weekly (www.catfishweekly.com) allows him to stay connected with the catfish community every Monday night as he and his co-host, Doc Lange, talk catfishing with anyone that will listen. The show touches on everything from current events, techniques and methods, to hot topics in catfish conservation.
Stokes credits his brother Mark for the passion he has for catfishing. Mark was there for him at a formative time in his life.
Missourian Scott Sanders was an avid cat man and supporter of catfish conservation. He was killed in a freak accident in the summer of 2017. He was memorialized, along with Paul Strouth, who passed in 2016, as partners in Boat #1 at the recent Winter Blues on Wheeler catfish tournament.
His passion for catfishing was great. Scott’s motto was “No Give.” It is used by various cat men and women today to represent a behavior of never giving in to adversity. This is what Lyle Stokes was referring to in the story when he talked about the importance of catfish conservation.
“I guess my passion for catfishing came from my brother Mark,” offered Stokes. “When I was very young, my dad was very sick for several years. That is where Mark came in. Being the brother that he is, he took me racing with him, taught me to shoot a gun, helped me build model cars and all the stuff kids do. He also took me fishing. He took me fishing a lot!”
“When Mark took me fishing he made sure I learned to fish the correct way,” said Stokes. “He taught me anything worth doing was worth doing right and that fishing was no different. He taught me that If you wanted to catch fish, get the best equipment you could afford, and use the best bait you could get.”
“My buddies and I used to ride bicycles and take rods and tackle to farm ponds when we were 8- or 10-years-old,” recalled Stokes. “I remember fishing the Mississippi River with my brother in a small Elgen V-bottom boat with a 25-horse motor on it. We would go out below Clarksville dam with Mark’s father-in-law.”
“We lived 11 miles from the greatest fishery in the world,” said Stokes. “The Mighty Mississippi River is where I cut my teeth. In those days there wasn’t any depth finders. You learned to read the river and figured out how to fish it by spending time on the water.”
“One of my fondest memories was pond fishing with my dad right before he passed. I was only 15. His health was so bad, we would drive up to the ponds so he could be close and fish. You cannot forget memory’s like that.”
Stokes spent some time fishing bass and crappie tournaments, but always went back to catfishing. Now, tournament catfishing in the Stokes clan is a family affair. When you see Lyle, you are likely to see his wife, Cindy, too.
“Although I love fun fishing at the lake, tournament catfishing is what I love to do,” declared Stokes. “I’m not sure, but it may be seeing everyone, or just the competition that drives me, but I love it!”
“As I grew older and graduated to the tournament scene, Jeff Dodd soon became my hero,” recalled Stokes. “Jeff is an outstanding fisherman and super great guy to be around. You just can’t beat being in a boat with Big Daddy.”
Stokes also named Jason Mathenia, Harold Dodd, Jason Jackson, Justin Wolfe, Daryl and Jason Masingale, as cat men that he holds in high respect.
“And of course, Bill Dance,” added Stokes. “I consider these fishermen the cream of the sport. “Not that there aren’t others, but these guys touch my heart and conduct themselves in a way that makes me proud to call them my friends.”
“I started fishing tournaments more than 25 years ago,” offered Stokes. “We would go to small throw together tournaments and fish for channel cats. We also fished the US Cats series when we could find them. Before the internet, information for big tournaments was somewhat hard to come by and a lot of times when you found about them, they were already over.”
Blackhorse Custom Rods/Catfish Weekly
Catfish rod building started out as a hobby for Lyle Stokes. As a catfish angler he couldn’t buy a rod that did what he wanted it to do. So, as a solution oriented catfish angler, he reached out to a local rod builder.
“I found the premier rod builder in our area and had him build a rod for me,” recalled Stokes. “I liked it and ask him to build me another one. He was too busy, so he ordered in all the stuff and guided me thru my first build.”
Stokes discovered that he had a natural talent for building rods. What started as a hobby turned into a business.
“I started making my own rods,” stated Stokes. “Then I started making them for friends and relatives. The next thing I knew I was working all day and building rods till’ the wee hours of the morning on the kitchen table.”
In 2017 Stokes found his orders for custom rods hovering around 100. In an effort to balance his time, and spend more time with Catfish Weekly, he stopped posting photos and advertising.
“I wanted to spend more time doing Catfish Weekly,” said Stokes. “Catfish Weekly is the most fun thing, next to catfishing, I know of. The show started out taking about a half a day a week to do everything. Now it is a 5 day a week job and we have big things in the works for it. As long as people like what we do I will continue doing the show. Same with rods, but at some point, this old man is going to have to slow down on something.”
“There is nothing like catching a big ole flathead or blue in heavy current,” continued Stokes. “You can’t match that thrill with little fish. I enjoy catfishing because it is what I know how to do and I have had some success. My biggest channel cat was a 29.9-pound specimen that I consider one the best catches ever. But a 67-pound plus flathead, out of the Mississippi, is a memory I share with Cindy, along with a 60-pound plus blue cat. I guess that has a lot to do with why I catfish. I get to be net boy for her, and she nets mine. We are a team, and fishing together is what we do.”
“At 60 years old I am hoping for 5 to 10 more years in the tournament world,” said Stokes. “I would like to see one of our sons be able to fish tournaments with us as their family obligations allow. If they could fish with us it would make us able to fish tournaments longer, along with doing the other stuff we do, for an extended amount of time.”
“We have a great bunch of younger guys coming up that I would feel comfortable fishing with,” said Stokes. “Jason Burgus is one for sure. We have fished with Jason and he is not only a great fisherman, he is a blast to fish with. There are others also. You cannot replace youth, damn shame!”
Stokes expects he and Cindy will be fishing tournaments as long as they feel they can compete or can’t operate a boat safely.
“When I can’t get to, or find a bank, to fish from, then and only then will I even consider stopping,” joked Stokes. “When you have been catfishing for 50+ years it is no longer a hobby, it is a way of life. I am very lucky to share my passion for catfishing with Cindy. She is the force that keeps us going. The lady can fish, operate a boat, read a depth finder, and back a trailer in the water. It doesn’t get a lot better than that.”
Remembering the Good Times and the Bad
Stokes identifies his best day on the water as a tournament a couple years ago. He and Cindy had prefished, in North Missouri, on the Mississippi River. They found three spots along a bank that was holding fish. On tournament morning they got outrun by two boats heading for the same bank.
“We took the middle spot,” recalled Stokes. “It was the only one that was left. We cast our baits to set up. Jason Burgus, Amy Smith and Troy Hansen came by us pulling baits and BOOM, Cindy Stuck a pig. We all had a blast while she landed the fish with their boat right beside us. All five of us was hootin’ and a hollerin’. Our limit, and that fish, won us 1st place and big fish in the tournament.”
“Another great time was last year at Mississippi River Monsters while we were prefishing. Doc Lange, Cindy and I was doing some drifting. Just like in Missouri, Cindy stuck another pig. As she was reeling it in, alongside our boat pulled up Jeff Dodd, Bill Dance, and Jon Warden. It don’t get much better than that. The lesson from these experiences is that you don’t always have to be the one catching the fish, sometimes being there is just as good.”
Any catfish angler knows that all the trips can’t be great, and some are worse than others. Stokes remembers one particularly tough trip to Alabama and Winter Blues on Wheeler.
“I guess the worse day I can remember was at the first Winter Blues on Wheeler, recalled Stokes. “As we launched the boat I hit the key and broke it off in the switch. There I was, floating away with no way to start the engine. A friendly fisherman helped me get to the bank and another guy loaned me a multitool that had a blade just thin enough to slide in beside the key so I could operate the switch.”
“After launching the boat a monsoon set in and I didn’t get the makeshift key shut all the way off. It was raining so hard we didn’t move for a few hours and the starting battery drained. So, there I was, in the pouring rain, switching batteries from front to back and back to front. Things went downhill from there. Everywhere we went, the fish we had found earlier in the week had moved.”
“We didn’t weigh any fish. And, I am not putting anyone on when I say, not weighing any fish at one of the biggest tournaments of the year is one of the worst feelings there is. Definitely something I hope never happens again.”
No one will be surprised by Stokes’ philosophy on conservation because he has espoused it for years ─ anytime he had a chance. It includes education and collaboration.
“My outlook on catfish conservation is simple,” stated Stokes. “We as fishermen, and fisherwomen, need to pull together and work with each other to get useful regulations put into effect. I know how hard that is to do, but we can do it.”
“We need an organization that will pull us all together and fight for common ground that helps each other, in every state in the union. Bickering amongst ourselves is part of the problem. If we can’t come together and work together we will fail. And, failure is something I do not understand. We must preserve our resource so that our children, grandchildren and their grandchildren can enjoy the sport we all love so much.”
“If we can get people working together to preserve the large breeding fish, catfish can have a huge comeback,” continued Stokes. “We have the knowledge, but we need to stick together and make it happen. We need to keep pounding the conservation agencies in every state with letters and emails, attending meetings, and voicing our opinions. In the words of Scott Sanders it’s ‘NO GIVE’ when it comes to conservation.”
Living the Dream
With a long history of tournament catfishing, including directing them, Stokes has a true love for the sport. He has revealed that love by creating Catfish Weekly, building custom catfish rods, and sharing information any way he can.
“Fishing is what Cindy and I do,” declared Stokes. “We are either out fun fishing, on the road to a tournament somewhere, or shooting videos. We so enjoy fishing the tournament trails; seeing people we only see a couple of time a year; standing outside the motel room, showing people rigs we use; showing them rods; and explaining why we use certain things and do things a certain way.”
“We also love to promote our sponsors,” continued Stokes. “We are very lucky to have some of the greatest sponsors in the business.”
Anyone that knows Stokes would agree that he would go out of his way to help someone learn about catfishing. They also agree that once you know him you have a friend for life.
“I would like to be remembered as a friend to all,” said Stokes. “As fair and honest, someone that people aren’t ashamed to be around and are proud to call me their friend.”
“Since I have been building rods for over 40 years now, I would hope somewhere along the line someone would say, ‘Look what I have here. My buddy Lyle built this for me. It’s as good a rod as he was friend.’ But most of all, I hope I am thought of as someone that helped people learn to fish while promoting the conservation aspect of the sport. And if just one person ever said, ‘It was guys like this guy that made our sport what it is today,’ I would know my fishing career would be complete.”
“My passion for the sport is helping others catch more fish,” concluded Stokes. “I believe if you help someone now, they will share their knowledge with someone in the future. Isn’t that the way life is supposed to work?”