Team Bell Wins The CatMasters Championship in Alabama
Tornado warnings followed by big catfish alerts characterize The CatMasters Classic on Wheeler Lake.
After seeing day one canceled due to stormy weather, anglers fishing The CatMasters Classic enjoyed nice weather and good bites for the remainder of the tourney. Many personal bests were caught as the Tennessee River demonstrated why catfish anglers visit.
What was created as a three-day tournament was re-invented to adapt to the inclement weather. Friday became the only qualifying day. Seventy-six teams were given the choice of fishing either Wilson or Guntersville Lakes on the first day of competition. The top 34 of those teams, plus 8 Fast Pass boats would advance to the championship day on Wheeler Lake the next day.
The 76 teams that fished Friday weighed a total of 4,750 pounds of catfish from Wilson and Guntersville. The 42 teams that qualified for Championship Saturday added 2,271 pounds from Wheeler for a total of 7,021 pounds of Tennessee River catfish caught and weighted during the event.
The playing field was leveled for Championship Saturday with all teams starting at zero pounds. What they caught on Saturday, March 27, 2021, would determine The CatMasters Classic Champs.
The day began with an early morning livewell check at Ingalls Harbor in Decatur, AL. Then the boats were lined up by assigned numbers from 1 thru 42. An opening prayer by Stacey Gaston was followed by the National Anthem. Then the anglers were allowed to leave Ingalls Harbor in an orderly and safe manner as the championship shootout began.
While the anglers fished, The CatMasters crew prepared the pavilion at Ingalls Harbor for an indoor weigh-in and live steam for the fans that couldn’t make it to the event.
The temperatures remained fair but the winds kicked up considerably on the final day. Many anglers commented on the challenge of controlling the boat and keeping their baits where they wanted them. Nevertheless, Wheeler Lake demonstrated why anglers come to Decatur, Alabama from all over the county to fish the popular lake.
First Place and Top Finishing Female
When all the weights were tabulated it was the Fast Pass team of Joe Bell, David Burts, and Andi McKnelly that would take home the first-place hardware. They teamed up to bring a championship weight of 140.03 pounds to the scales for the win. The big fish in their bag weighed 51.60 pounds.
“We had a Fast Pass from winning the championship on the Twisted Cat Outdoors trail,” reported Bell. “We spent 3 days prefishing on Wheeler and all 3 days produce decent bags of fish.”
Each prefishing day produced 130 to 150 pounds of fish in their best 5. With that experience, they expected to be in the money on the final day. They felt confident that they had the right spot to place but were not so sure about winning.
“We were fishing channel bends with wood structure,” explained Bell. “The first fish of the day on Saturday was a 43-pound blue. We were anchor fishing, but as the day went on the wind started blowing us off our spots.”
The team’s overall big fish on tournament day was caught by Andi McKnelly. She flew in the day before to fish the tournament. Her 51-pound blue was the team’s biggest and her personal best. Andi also won the Top Finishing Female award.
“It became an under game after the two overs were in the boat,” offered Bell. “We kept upgrading our unders as long as we could. Dave caught his personal best flathead and we had to throw it back. We finished with 2 flatheads and 3 blues that made up our total weight of just over 140 pounds.”
“We want to thank CIS Ag & Hauling, Morton Buildings, Flowmaster Construction, and Mad Katz Rods,” concluded Bell. “And also a big thanks to the CatMasters crew for putting on the best tournaments we have ever fished.”
The runner-up spot went to Mickey Casey and Kelly Lowman. The Texas team put an Alabama strategy together and brought 123.87 pounds to the scales at Ingalls Harbor in Decatur, AL.
They were fresh off a win at The Catmasters on Tawakoni where they took the top spot with a two-day weight of 399.5 on 9 fish. That win gave them a Fast Pass to the Classic in Alabama. It was their first time to compete on a river and their confidence level was not high.
“During prefishing, we decided to just fish Wheeler,” offered Lowman. “We had a Fast Pass for the final day on Wheeler. Having never fished a river system like this before, it was way out of our comfort zone.”
“We weren’t looking to do very well,” admitted Casey. “The river is really different than what we are used to. We struggled to catch skipjack on the first day and that carried on into half of the next day.”
“Figuring out how to catch skipjack was a challenge in itself,” joked Lowman. “But with a little help from some of the other anglers, we figured that part out. Then we had to find the fish. We caught all our fish on anchor, using fresh skipjack as bait.”
The team prefished some spots on Wheeler that Casey picked off of a map he bought on Amazon. It led them 7 miles up the Elk River where they caught a couple of flatheads but didn’t see it as promising for the final day.
“On our third day of prefishing we found a spot that held a bunch of spawning gar,” recalled Casey. “There were a lot of cats mixed in. We caught a 50 and 20 real quick so we left that spot alone for the rest of the week. We came back every day to check to make sure they were holding there.”
They also found a few 50 pounders in other spots off of the river, but not the giants they were looking for as tournament fish.
“It was a lot of current and we just weren’t finding fish,” continued Casey. “After the big rain, we thought maybe that would help us on our one spot that held fish all week. Come tourney day the Fast Pass position helped get us out and on to our spot quickly.”
“We covered the entire lake in two days of prefishing,” confirmed Lowman. One spot especially looked good and that’s where we started on Saturday.”
They did not expect any other boats to be there, but soon they came. Five boats showed up targeting the same general area.
“We set up and pretty quickly had a takedown,” reported Casey. “It was a flathead. While I waited to net it, our big fish smashed a rod on the other side and we had a rodeo going. So we had a good start with a 56 pounder and an under flathead.”
Lowman cast out a huge skipjack on a double hook rig. About 20 minutes later a nice blue ate the whole thing. Then the bite shut off. As they were picking up to move, Lowman brought a small channel cat to the boat.
“All I was thinking was that we won’t finish last,” recalled Casey.
After the rodeo, they moved around and just couldn’t get any bites. They kept moving and finally caught a small under but no more good fish. They decided to run to their last spot. They had fished it 3 times that week and every time it produced 1 good fish.
“That last spot was a long drive and we expected someone to be on it,” Casey said. “Sure enough they were. We set up about 200 yards away in heavy current. After 45 minutes we caught a really good under. We had 5 fish which I figured would put us in the top 15 at best.”
“The CatMasters produce an incredible tournament series,” concluded Casey. “They are always well run and promote the growth of the sport. I think we were about the only ones that didn’t look like a NASCAR team. All the companies represented by all the anglers are so cool. In the end, we couldn’t believe that 2 guides that had never fished the lake would squeak out a second-place finish over the very best cat fishermen in the country!”
“As always, The CatMasters folks were super nice,” concluded Lowman. “The CatMasters is an awesome event to be a part of. I would like to give thanks to Kevin Parks for taking care of us on some boards and clips and all the other anglers who would give us a little tidbit of info here and there on techniques they use. Thanks, Catmasters again for a great event!!”
Both Casey and Lowman guide on lake Tawakoni, where they won The CatMasters tournament earlier in the year. Casey’s Guide Service (972-365-2404). Kelly’s Guide Service (903-274-0047).
The third spot went to Scott Cress and Carl Crone. The B’n’M team showed good consistency on their two days of fishing. They finished second on day one with 129.11 pounds on Guntersville to qualify them for Championship Saturday. Then they brought 120.58 pounds to the scales to win third place on the final day.
“Friday was only our second time on Guntersville,” reported Cress. “We found the fish deep there so we assumed Wheeler would be the same.”
The team said they had to battle grass on both lakes. Once the wind picked up in the afternoon on Wheeler the mid-lake section became unfishable for them.
“Our plan was to anchor fish with skipjack given the windy conditions that developed,” continued Cress. “We moved around on deep structure for the first part of the day with nothing to show for it. We decided to throw a Hail Mary and try shallow water. The move to shallow water was the right decision and we caught 15 fish during the last two hours of fishing.”
“We want to thank B’n’M Poles, Driftmaster Rod Holders, and Fins Fishing for supporting us,” concluded Cress. “We also want to thank our wives for putting up with a lot to let us do what we love to do.”
Fourth Place and Big Fish
The Big Fish on Championship Saturday went to Team Cat’ N Around. The 62.28-pound blue was boated by Donnie Dean Fountain, Ray Ferguson, and Melissa Goldston. They also won fourth place with a total weight of 119.24 pounds.
“We used our electronics to find the fish and then set up on them,” reported Donnie Fountain. “We had three fish by about 8 o’clock and then never could get the unders we needed to go with them. We had to release 38 and a 32 pound flatheads.”
Remaining Top Ten
Fifth Place Stephen Shughart and Vinnie Southeire – 113.72 pounds
Sixth Place Josh Smith and Brandon Kennedy – 106.62
Seventh Casey Tutorow and Andrew Han – 99.81
Eighth Place Jason and Daryl Masingale – 81.55
Ninth Place Trey Franklin and Asa May – 80.05
Tenth Place Chad Bailey and Dylan Eady – 79.28
Top Finishing Youth
Young Cowen Whittman took the Top Finishing Youth award. Cowen was fishing with his uncle Josh Smith and Brandon Kennedy. The team finished 6th on Championship Saturday with 106.62 pounds and also captured the Biggest Fish in a SeaArk Boat bonus.
Top Veteran Angler (Big Fish)
Team Heroes Outdoor Therapy (H.O.T) stepped up to the plate and won the Top Veteran Angler (Big Fish) award with a 37.46-pound blue. Spud Barton, Aaron Churchwell, Daniel Mata & Danielle Barton teamed up to win the award which itself is sponsored by H.O.T. They also finished the season claiming second place in The CatMasters Points Race for the 2020-21 season.
The Catmasters continue to focus on producing catfish tournaments that are fun for everyone attending. Anglers are their primary focus but lots of work goes into every aspect of their tournaments including the fans and the sponsors. The CatMasters emphasis on fish care is recognized throughout the catfish community as they offer a model for others to follow.
Catfish fans can check out all the statistics from the Classic at American Catfishing Association (ACA) website by clicking here. For the latest from The CatMasters follow them on Facebook or visit their website.