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Barbie dream catch

8/22/2008

All David Hayes meant to do was cast for his granddaughter. Instead he wound up landing a 21-pound channel catfish — a North Carolina state record — on her Barbie fishing pole.

His 3-year-old granddaughter, Alyssa, was the one actually fishing at Hayes' one-acre pond behind his house in Wilkes County, N.C., on Aug. 5. Hayes was just baiting her pink rod and reel with crickets, casting, and handing the rig to the little girl, who was making a fine day's work of catching bluegill.

He threw a cricket out. "She said, 'Papa, hold my fishing rod. I've got to go potty,'" Hayes said in a phone interview.

As the girl walked the few feet back to the house with her grandmother, Hayes dutifully held the rod. Then — boom.

"The fish hit the cricket, and the fight was on, pretty much," he said. "I didn't think I could hold that fish with a 2-foot rod."

The fish made a run, and Hayes managed to turn it. A second time, the fish made a break for it, and Hayes again steered it back toward the bank. He didn't know at the time the fish was more than 21 pounds — handily more than the 18-pound, 5-ounce previous state record set a year ago.

He just knew the fish was big. When Alyssa returned, he told her, "Wait 'til you see what I have on the other end of this thing."

He managed finally to maneuver the fish back to the dock. All was in hand until the little girl saw the monster fish.

"She started dancing and squealing like a 3-year-old will," Hayes said. The fish freaked. It made a 30-yard run — Hayes thought surely the rod would snap — and swam for a few minutes before simply giving up. "I tired him out, I reckon," Hayes said.

The Hayes family has a cookout behind the house every year at which family and friends will catch some nice catfish — solid 15-pounders — out of the 15-foot-deep pond. But nothing like this behemoth.

Hayes looked up the state record and gave a call to a fisheries biologist neighbor of his who told him to get the fish to a certified scale. When the fish registered 21 pounds, 1 ounce on a scale at nearby Thurmond Grocery, Hayes knew he had a record fish.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission sent fisheries biologist Kin Hodges to verify that the fish was a channel cat rather than, say, a blue catfish.

Hodges' professional opinion of the fish: "It was just a pig." At 32 inches long and 22½ inches around, it was longer and nearly bigger around than the length of the rod that caught it.

"He thought it was funny more than anything," Hodges said. "He was just amazed at the size of the fish he caught on that little kiddie rod. If you would have told anybody that you could catch a fish like that on this rod, they'd have laughed at you."

Hayes, a 33-year employee of a textile company where he dyes yarn, isn't confident his record will last. The wildlife commission only recently vacated a state channel catfish record set in 1971 when a magazine turned up photos showing that it was actually a flathead.

So it's a young record he broke. Hayes himself caught a 23-pounder a few years back that, at the time, wouldn't have been close to the official record. Now, though, that fish would top this one.

Hodges was more optimistic.

"Twenty-one pounds, that could stick around awhile," the biologist said. "That's a good-sized channel catfish. We'll just have to see."

In any event, Hayes and his grandkids are enjoying their 15 minutes. When the wildlife commission announced the official record this week, the media came calling. On Thursday, when a news crew came to interview the family, Alyssa's 2-year-old sister, Samantha, caught a bluegill. And Alyssa, ignoring the pressure of rolling news cameras, landed herself a trophy 1-pound bass.