John Willaby lives, breathes, catches, fries, dreams-and promotes-catfish. And, thanks to attempts at prosecution by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, this good ol’ boy from Mesquite is riding a ground-swell of publicity (in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere) that he hopes will push his Big Brothers Golden Formula cat-fish bait into big-time production.
Willaby yanks huge "opps" (oppelousas catfish) out of area lakes with as much ease as other people pull beers out of the refrigerator-and he delights in showing off his skills. During most of the year, Willaby fishes pretty much like every other angler-though with far more success, he claims, because of his secret formula bait. But come June, and flathead spawning season, he modifies his methods considerably. During the winter low-water periods, Willaby scopes out likely nesting spots- under ledges, logs, small caves in the shoreline-and marks the spots. In June he returns, wades out, and then dives like a 250-pound otter straight to the nesting sites. He uses his rod to push his Big Brothers-baited hook down into the hole, and, as he swims to the surface, reels out the line. A lot of times the fish bite before he can get to the top.
Nothing offends like success, and that’s what got this one-man catfishtastrophe into hot water. "I’ve been accused of poisoning catfish, robbing them from trotlines, noodling, shocking them with an electric generator, every illegal method you can name," he says. Several years back, TPW wardens arrested him on Lake Tawakoni on a charge of illegal fishing for using a short pole with a length of trotline cord running through it. He fought it all the way to district court, and he still claims that he was not notified of a hearing. His absence resulted in a default conviction on a charge of "using an underwater device to snag fish," or, in the vernacular, "noodling." He paid $118 in fines and $4,000 in lawyer fees.
This spring, while he was fishing on Lake Livingston, TPW wardens arrested his son, his half brother, and a family friend who were standing near Willaby’s catch on shore. They were charged with snagging and each had to pay a $350 fine.
Fed up to the gills with TPW surveillance, Willaby invited TPW Major David Palmer to join him on Cedar Creek Lake. Chief ranger Palmer said after the fishing trip that he wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it-but he added that Willaby’s fishing methods were "nearly illegal." Willaby retorted, "Yeah, and sixty-four miles an hour is almost speeding."
If Big Brothers really works and gets marketed, the catfish are in for some trouble. On the other hand, if it doesn’t and Willaby and others using his technique keep on hauling up forty-pound spawning catfish, they may still be in for some trouble: TPW’s fisheries division plans to study whether widespread use of Willaby’s method could harm the flathead population.