They Don’t Call it Winter Blues for Nothin’
by Ron Presley
The challenge of cold water catfishing
The idea of Winter Blues on Wheeler was originally conceived by Chuck Davidson who was a cohost on Catfish Weekly at the time. The idea was to put together a catfish tournament where folks could come together and fish in a winter timeframe as a way to beat those winter blues.
“I just ask people if they would like something this time of year when no tournaments are going on,” recalled Davidson. “There were a lot of anglers already hitting Wheeler during the holidays.”
The consensus was that people wanted to do it, so Chuck started planning. He determined that because of insurance and other factors he could not make it happen. He shared his idea with Daniel Parsons who already had insurance through the Alabama Catfish Trail which he directed.
Parsons pulled it off and Winter Blues was born. The new tournament drew about 30 boats to Rogersville, AL. Davidson’s idea, and Parson’s directorship, began a winter tradition in the catfish community.
The next year, 2015, Parson’s solicited the help of Jody Harrison, a well-known service provider to the bass fishing industry.
“I had never even heard of a catfish tournament being done on a large scale,” said Harrison. “It interested me and we geared up to provide the stage and master of ceremonies duties at the 2015 event.”
Seventy some boats competed in the year-two event, more than doubling the first year’s boat count.
When year three rolled around Parson’s was covered up with family and work obligations and Winter Blues on Wheeler was cancelled for 2016. When Harrison heard of the cancellation he contacted Parsons and asked him to partner up for the event.
Parsons agreed and made the announcement that the 3rd annual Winter Blues was back on. Harrison’s help was just what was needed to pull it off. It was another success for Winter Blues, for Parsons, and for Harrison. There were 78 boats and more than twice as many anglers participating in year three. That success set the stage for Wheeler Blues on Wheeler presented by Bottom Dwellers Tackle on January 6, 2018,
Prefishing Winter Blues 2018
The Alabama temperatures turned frigid. Prefishing anglers were battling freezing temperatures that froze boats to trailers and trolling motors to decks. The unyielding temperatures threatened to shut down the ramps. Anglers were asked to drain trailers and boats at the bottom of the ramp as much as possible to avoid a sheet of ice on the ramps. Bags of thawing salt were stationed at the ramps in case it was needed, and it was.
Anglers like Paul Blackwell didn’t let the cold temperatures keep them off the water. In fact, Paul reported some pretty good prefishing.
“We rode Lake Wheeler all day looking at areas I’d found on the Navionics App,” reported Blackwell. “We never wetted a hook Thursday. We marked a few good fish and several decent unders.”
“Friday, we looked at the same areas where we marked fish. We were just babysitting them and making sure they were still there. Friday afternoon we put a couple rods in the water to see if they were active and caught a couple, so we knew we had a plan.”
Then, reality set in. The cold weather had been taking a toll all day long as splashing water froze to ice and covered rod holders, trolling motors and anything else it could reach.
“It was brutal,” said Blackwell. “The whole boat was iced over. The live well pump froze and my Ultera trolling motor broke. It froze and broke the worm gear housing when it deployed. The water just splashed up and froze on whatever it hit.”
The evening and night before tournament day it was angler helping angler. Electric blankets, light bulbs for heat, and commercial heaters aided anglers in thawing out their fishing machines.
“I happened to be staying with Mr. John Stephens,” said Blackwell. “He had a torpedo heater in his garage and it just took a minute to thaw everything out.”
Lisa Hill was one of many lady anglers competing in the cold temperatures. She, and her partner James Prince are frequent tournament anglers. Their competitiveness, endurance, and passion for the sport are typical among catfish anglers. They tend to do whatever it takes.
“James and I both have a intense desire to compete,” said Hill. “We’re in competition mode as soon we start prefishing. We usually go full force from sunup to sundown.”
With a home base in Texas, Lisa and James don’t normally face frigid temperatures in their fishing endeavors, but they adapted well to what they faced at Winter Blues.
“Though I didn’t realize it at the time, what I ate and drank, the amount of rest that I got, in addition to what I wore, all played an important role in my cold weather preparedness,” said Lisa.
“I found, for me personally, in the very cold temperatures, I was not as hungry or thirsty. My skin was noticeably dry from lack of hydration and being in the windy cold. As I settled in for the evening, I was exhausted, crashing quickly with no energy.”
“All that said, I can honestly say I enjoyed fishing in the brutal teen and 20-degree temperatures,” concluded Hill. “I Wanted to be out in the cold trying to catch my PB on Wheeler Lake. If I were given the opportunity to fish the same circumstances again, I would do it in a heartbeat!”
Congrats to the Winners
There were 190 teams, from as far away as California, competing for a guaranteed $10,000 first place payoff and the possibility of a $50,000 payday if they broke the Alabama state record for blue catfish.
Top honors and bragging rights for the 2018 Winter Blues on Wheeler went to Danny Ray Chappell and Bobby Chappell. The South Carolina team weighed in a total weight of 164.64 pounds, including the big fish of the tournament at 78.85 pounds. Their win earned them a check for $10,000 dollars for best weight and the Bottom Dwellers Tackle Big Fish Award of $500.
Coming Next for Winter Blues
Winter Blues on Wheeler presented by Bottom Dwellers Tackle made huge strides in 2018, but 2019 is likely to be better. Surveys taken this year will be studied thoroughly to determine what the catfish angers want. Tournament director, Daniel Parsons, and weighmaster, Jody Harrison, are determined to deliver a bigger and better than ever event in 2019.
With an eye towards educating the public on what catfishing is all about, a new camera angle will be established for the live feed from the weigh-in. Solutions to the poor WiFi signals will also be investigated.
“The wow factor of the big fish is huge,” declared Harrison. “People that have no interest in fishing will watch catfishing because of their size. The media drives all this stuff. We will try to get more sponsors and more money coming in so more money can go into the tournament.”
“We need to work on the live stream,” said Harrison. “Southern Stream Live has always done a great job for me. He has some digital equipment that can probably help with the signal.”
“Next year the camera will be up on a platform or a man-lift to get a good shot down on everything,” offered Harrison. “We were able to get it this year, but it can always be better. I would love to have multiple cameras too.”
Whisker Wear Apparel supported a special prize for top finishing woman in the 2018 event and an increased emphasis on cat women will be pursued in 2019. More emphasis on kids and veterans can also be expected.
Leslie VanDerau runs an organizer called Heroes Outdoor Therapy (HOT). The 501c3 organization raises money to pay travel expenses for veterans to attend events like Winter Blues on Wheeler. A joint partnership is being established with HOT and Leslie has committed a $500 prize to the top finishing boat with a veteran.
The Winter Blues organizers also want to push kids more in 2019. They are recognized as the future of the sport.
“They are our future,” said Harrison. “If we can keep them fishing it keeps them out of trouble. It keeps them off the streets, keeps them off dope, alcohol, drugs, and more. We simply need to do a better job of drawing children into the sport.”
The $50,000 bonus for catching a state record blue cat may be increased and additional social opportunities are being considered.
As the tournament surveys are evaluated more changes are bound to surface. In fact, Harrison and Parsons welcome ideas that will improve Winter Blues on Wheeler. They suggest messages on Facebook as the best way to communicate with them.
“Winter Blues has completely outgrown expectations,” concluded Parsons. “We are grateful for the amazing support from the city, the anglers, and all our supporters.”
“Daniel and I just weigh fish,” said Harrison. “It is all the anglers that make it happen. I want 250 boats next year.”
Epilogue: Eye of the Beholder
When catfish anglers think and dream about Wilson and Wheeler Lakes, they see big catfish. It is easy to understand why. Many, many personal best catfish (other species too) have come to anglers fishing in the Northern Alabama lakes.
For angler’s friends and families, what they see is different. They see shopping opportunities; other recreational opportunities; and excellent lodging and restaurant opportunities. They can definitely find plenty of things to do while the anglers are angling.
Florence, AL, for example, makes an excellent home base for the angler/non-angler group visitors. The anglers can be on the water in minutes and the non-anglers can be off following their own interests in Florence and the surrounding area.
A good place to start is the Florence Tourism Visitors Center. Just a few miles from Wilson Dam, this state of the art facility, and its friendly staff, operates every day but Sunday to aid visitors with advice and recommendations on the area.
The facility is located in McFarland Park just yards from Pickwick Lake. It includes displays and exhibits related to area attractions and history. One of my favorites is the large aquarium filled with local fish. The music history of the area is well documented too. Catfish Weekly used the facility for a remote broadcast preceding the Winter Blues on Wheeler catfish tournament in 2018.
The big catfish of Wilson and Wheeler are huge magnets that draw people to the area, but the abundant attractions and the friendly, welcoming people of the area are reason enough to visit.