HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, Arkansas — Prize fish are being caught at a record pace in the 2019 $101,000 Hot Springs Fishing Challenge, and fish experts at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission think they know why.
As of Wednesday, 14 prize fish worth $16,500 had been caught in the first 15 days of the 2019 Challenge, a pace that could easily outstrip the record 16 prize fish caught during the entire three-month duration of the 2014 event.
“We’ve never seen this pace of prize fish being caught,” said Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, which sponsors the annual Fishing Challenge with the G&FC. “As of Wednesday 19.7 percent of the 71 prize fish we placed in Lakes Hamilton and Catherine had been caught by participants. We wondered why this year has been so productive, so we asked our friends at the Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery, who tag and release the prize fish, why fishing has been so hot this spring.”
“They took a look and offered some explanations, some obvious and some not so obvious,” Arrison said.
Thomas Hobbs, Colton Dennis and Jeff Newman with the G&FC offered seven factors that they believe could explain why so many fish are being caught this spring:
1) What they called a “streamlined stocking protocol” used in selecting and tagging the 71 prize fish. This results “in less stress to the fish, thus enhancing the survival of released tagged fish.”
2) No crappie or walleye were among the species tagged for the 2019 Challenge. “These species are more sensitive to the rigors of handling versus the fish used this year: largemouth bass, channel catfish, and bluegill, which were tagged in higher numbers,” the fish experts said. White bass and redear sunfish also were included in the five species tagged for the Challenge.
3) “Increased attention to the Fishing Challenge by the public this year, resulting in busy boat ramps even during weekdays,” the experts said. They said the increased activity was “readily evident” at access points at the Fish Hatchery.
4) “Lots of largemouth bass are being caught this year.” The Hatchery experts said surveys of area anglers consistently show that two-thirds of total fishing hours are directed to black bass fishing.
5) The experts said people who have been catching prize fish and winning cash prizes are bringing other anglers to Lakes Hamilton and Catherine “seeking a chance at their slice of the cash prize pie.”
6) Cooler water temperatures extended late into the spring this year, extending bass spawn and keeping the fish in shallow water longer and accessible to being caught.
7) “Some good fishing conditions this year.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Arrison said. “Fishing is so hot on Lakes Hamilton and Catherine this spring that if you stick your hand in the lake to test the water temperature you’re liable to pull your hand out with a $1,000 prize fish hanging on your pinky finger.”
Seventy-one prize fish — all wearing 2019 orange tags — were released into Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine April 30, according to Arrison. The Fishing Challenge ends July 31.
“One of the prize fish, known as Big Al — which could be any of the five species of fish in the Challenge — is worth $15,000 to anyone who catches him,” Arrison said. “The Challenge is a free family-oriented event to emphasize the great fishing we have in the lakes around Hot Springs.”
The Challenge participation is free for anyone with a valid Arkansas fishing license.
In addition to Big Al, there remain three fish worth $5,000 each, and 36 worth $1,000 each. Seventeen remaining fish will bring $500 each for the lucky anglers who catch them during the Challenge dates.