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A Reel Big Catch | The $100,000 Hot Springs Fishing Challenge | Hot Springs National Park Arkansas

A Reel Big Catch | The $100,000 Hot Springs Fishing Challenge

Hot Springs' Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine host the highly anticipated $100,000 Hot Springs Fishing Challenge, now through July 31. The challenge offers a total of $100,000 in cash prizes between the 66 fish tagged and released in the two lakes, with the grand prize of $20,000 going to the angler who may be lucky enough to catch the tagged fish named Big Al. 

Pete Clark, 2017 Big Al Winner

In the nine-year history of the challenge, only one angler has managed to catch Big Al: Pete Clark, of Malvern, Arkansas. On June 22, 2017, Clark and his brother reeled Big Al in by happenstance while fishing in an unrelated tournament on Lake Hamilton.

The angler, who has fished both Lakes Hamilton and Catherine for over four decades, shared his experience in catching Big Al. Listen closely, as this information comes straight from the successor himself.

When Clark caught Big Al, he was in a boat in Hot Springs Creek on Lake Hamilton, using a spinnerbait.

“I knew about him, but I wasn’t necessarily trying,” he said. “I wasn’t out there with the intentions of catching Big Al. …I was fishing a tournament with my brother, and whenever he netted him and picked him up, he seen the tag in him and he said, ‘That might be Big Al.’ … And turns out it was.”

Without knowing what kind of fish Big Al is, it’s hard to fish for him specifically.

“You might catch him on a cricket or you might catch him on a chicken liver or you might catch him on a crank bait,” Clark said. “There’s no telling. I caught him on a spinnerbait the year I caught him, but he was a bass that year and that’s what I was fishing for was bass.

“It’s really hard to go fish for all the species with one piece of equipment. … My best advice would be just go fishing. The more time you spend out there the better chance you got to catch him.”

Clark notes it does not matter what brand of pole or fishing line an angler chooses, but suggests looking to Stik5, a Hot Springs-based company, when shopping for a pole. Those are the bass rods he fishes with, and can be purchased from numerous Hot Springs dealers.

As for when to fish, Clarks says he will fish from morning through the daytime until the summer days begin to get exceptionally hot, then he will transition to more night fishing.

“I started fishing Lake Catherine when I was 13, and I’m 52 now,” Clark said. “So I have been fishing Hamilton and Catherine for a long time. The best advice I can give anybody is just go fishing. Even if you don’t catch Big Al, you’re still going to have fun.”

Despite catching Big Al on Hamilton, Clark said he is partial to Lake Catherine, which is the lake he grew up on. But then again, he doesn’t seem to mind any fishing experience, no matter what body of water it’s on. So long as he has a snack of beef jerky, lots of water, a Mountain Dew to drink on the way home, and a fishing partner — Clark is in for a good time.

“I have two brothers I fish with a lot (and) I’ve got a son I fish with a lot,” he said. “I’m currently fishing the Tuesday night tournaments with a cousin, but it’s a lot more fun to go fishing with somebody. You can be communicating and talking about and telling stories while you’re fishing.”

Brett Hobbs, Arkansas Game and Fish Biologist

The Hot Springs Fishing Challenge begins May 2 at 6 a.m., and concludes July 31 at 5 p.m. Any fish caught outside of the fishing period will not permit a reward. Tagged fish will include largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, and channel catfish. Forty-six fish will be placed in Lake Hamilton and 22 in Lake Catherine.

Arkansas Game and Fish Biologist Brett Hobbs said the contest “spurs a lot of interest in fishing for folks,” and notes that to win a prize in this challenge, it doesn’t take a lot of equipment. Even a novice angler casting off a dock has a good chance of getting a lucky catch.

Hobbs also said to be respectful of and safe in the waters. Kids 12 and under are required to wear a lifejacket in a boat, and one life jacket for every passenger must be aboard a boat.

The Fish Phone

“The Hot Springs Fishing Challenge is always fun for us at Visit Hot Springs,” VHS Director of Marketing Bill Solleder said. “We take turns holding the ‘Fish Phone.’ When someone catches a tagged fish, they will notice a yellow-colored tag on the fish. Look closely! The tag has the number of the Fish Phone on it. Catch a prize fish, call the number, and someone at Visit Hot Springs will answer, ‘Fish Phone, did you catch a tagged fish?’ The anticipation of waiting for the Fish Phone to ring is almost as fun as waiting for a fish to bite the hook.”

The Rules

The Hot Springs Fishing Challenge is open to anyone with a valid Arkansas fishing license. Employees of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at the Andrew H. Hulsey Fish Hatchery, and their immediate family members, and/or those living in the same household of each are ineligible to win a cash prize.

If one of the 66 tagged fish in Lakes Hamilton and Catherine is caught, the angler must call the number and present the fish with the tag attached.

All tagged fish must be caught in accordance with all state and local laws, codes, rules and regulations. Rules and regulations are provided by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Prize winners shall be solely responsible for all federal, state and/or local taxes associated with their prize.

Hobbs said fishing licenses are required for anyone 16+. They can be purchased by both Arkansas residents and nonresidents online.

The Prizes

The tagged fish will each be assigned a number. Twenty fish will be worth $500, 40 fish will be worth $1,000, four fish will be worth $5,000, one fish will be worth $10,000 and the one and only Big Al will be worth a whopping $20,000. The total possible prize money if all fish are caught during the contest period is $100,000.

The weekend of June 9 – 11 will be designated as Free Fishing Weekend, and any of the 20 $500 fish that are caught and reported that weekend will be worth $1,000 each to the person who catches them. The weekend begins at noon Friday, June 9, and ends at midnight Sunday, June 11. The requirement that participants have a valid Arkansas fishing license is waived during this weekend.


When the challenge was last held in 2019, only 24 of the 71 released fish were caught. A total of $24,500 was won. Will the elusive Big Al go another year without being caught, or will one lucky angler walk away with $20,000 in their pocket this summer? Pull together your best fishing gear and good luck charms and, in the words of Pete Clark, “just go fishing.” But watch out, because Clark will be fishing these waters once again.

“I haven’t been told I can’t, so I’ll be out there trying,” Clark said.

Cassidy is a Hot Springs-based freelance journalist. In her free time, she enjoys playing games, skating, walking her dog Murphey and spending time with her nieces and nephews. Cassidy aspires to create a positive impact with her writing, be it fun or informative (or both!).

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