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June 29, 2023 Comments Off on Fish stories: Bella Vistan wins Readers’ Choice with tale of the trotline Featured, Fishing, Latest

Fish stories: Bella Vistan wins Readers’ Choice with tale of the trotline

Flip Putthoff
NWA Democrat-Gazette

Editor’s note: James Fisher of Bella Vista and Randolph Stainer of Tulsa, Okla., are the two winners of the 2023 Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette fish story contest. Fisher is winner of the Readers’ Choice category, and Stainer took first place in the Judges’ Category. Here are their stories. Visit nwaonline.com/fishstory2023 to read all the stories that were entered.


Bella Vista

John Coburn talked with his older brother about setting a trotline on the Saline River. His brother helped John prepare and rig the trotline. That included seining a pond for minnows to bait the hooks. An aluminum john boat was used with two wooden paddles.

John and Coy Coburn set the trotline out at Lyle Dale Park along the Saline River, before Gerald Barnes and I joined John. We were prepared to camp all night and check the trotline periodically.

We were excited to check the trotline after dark. The first time we ran the trotline we caught a 20-pound mud cat and dropped it in the boat. We returned to the bank feeling proud of our fishing success. Before returning we checked all of the hooks and baited the ones that were absent minnows.

The next time we checked the trotline resulted in catching a large soft-shelled turtle and a 10-pound blue channel catfish. We returned to the bank after baiting the hooks. We were even more excited and looking forward to returning to check our trotline. This occurred around midnight, and the Saline River had dropped to a low level.

We were positioned one at each end of the john Boat and one in the middle. As we began checking the trotline a large logger-headed turtle was lifted up and dropped in the boat. The snapping turtle began crawling toward the middle of the boat as we all three needed up on the end of the boat. We held the snapping turtle off with one paddle and maneuvered our boat back to the shore with the other paddling. The snapping turtle was holding onto the other paddle. We successfully returned to shore without turning over the boat and removed the snapping turtle.

We tried setting out a trotline several weeks later without success. The trotline was set out and baited, and we were waiting for dark. We built a fire and prepared to camp out that night. John had his old Ford pick-up to haul the john boat and camping gear. When the lights on the truck were turned on after dark, they were focused on the Saline River. All we saw were snake eyes all over the river. We did not check the trotline that night. Additionally, we slept in the bed of the Ford pick-up until the rain came when we found ourselves in the cab of the truck.

We waited until morning to retrieve the trotline and other fishing and camping gear. What a great adventure!

Like in the movie “Stand by Me,” we went our separate ways and were never as close again.


Randolph Stainer of Tulsa wins the judge’s category division of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 2023 fish story contest. (Courtesy photo)



I love to fish topwater baits, and beyond argument, the Zara Spook is my favorite.

Bass don’t bite them. They explode on them, crush them, or create sudden, trash can sized whirlpools to suck them under. You can never predict or anticipate a hit. You must have icy nerve control not to set the hook too soon.

I spend hours custom painting ‘Spooks, changing the standard hooks for expensive, black steel, oversize, acid sharpened trebles and tying on white and red feathers. As with all obsessions, there are occasional consequences. Late last May we had a fierce, but brief, afternoon thundershower just as my school let out. As I drove home the storm cleared. Nancy, my wife, was not due home for some time. She had to attend graduation at the high school where she taught. I decided to go fishing.

I’ve often had luck following showers. I was right. The fish were shallow and active. Almost immediately I hooked a good largemouth bass on one of my ‘Spooks. In the next three hours I caught six more keepers. The best five would have weighed more than 18 pounds. It was my best day in many trips.

Better yet, one of my custom ‘Spooks accounted for them all. When I landed the seventh fish, it was nearly as large as the first, almost 5 pounds. Naturally the bait tangled in the net. As I worked to free the fish and lure from the mesh, the bass flopped hard and buried the hook deeply into the first joint of my right index finger. Shucks. Darn. Golly.

I bent close to the fish and net to get a better look at the damage. Before I could react, the fish flopped harder still and hooked the other treble in my life jacket. Faster than I can explain it, the fish, the net, the life jacket and me were now all hooked on the same Zara Spook.

By the time I settled my nerves enough to begin solving the problems, my finger was truly hurting. I remarked my displeasure another time and began to sort things out. I disconnected the rod and reel by biting the line. My dentist will just have to understand. Then I snaked my left hand into my right pants pocket for my knife. My left hand has zero coordination, but I somehow got the knife out and opened with one hand.

Sawing the bait from the life jacket was next. In the mean time, the fish flopped and wanted loose. Between expressions of discomfort, I tried to explain to her that she was not helping. I was tempted to use the knife on the net as well, but the good nets with long handles and rubberized netting cost more than I wanted to spend twice. I didn’t want to cut it up just to get loose. After several minutes of fumbling, left hand work, the lure came free from the net.

Now we were free from the net, but the fish and I shared the same treble hook. To free fish you normally just jerk the hook backwards. In this case that meant I would be jerking a honking large hook buried in my hand. I had to find a better way. I decided I needed my needle nose pliers. Where were they? They weren’t in the holder I had specifically installed on the boat to hold them.

Oh, they were on the front boat deck where I used them on the previous fish. Upset, flopping fish and I went forward to retrieve them. More discussion. Pliers in hand, I tried several approaches. All seemed to drive the hook more firmly into my finger joint. The only solution was to hold the Zara Spook in my right hand and jerk the hook in the fish at the same time and in the same direction as I moved the ‘Spook. At first, the fish refused to lie still enough. Yet more discussion.

Eventually, after several painful attempts, I got the fish, the pliers, and hand jerk coordinated and yanked the bait from the fish. I put her back in the lake. Good riddance. Now free of everything else, I looked more closely at my finger. The point was embedded straight down into the joint. The push-through method wasn’t going to work without professional help. There was more daylight and the fish were biting, but my day was ending — and I wasn’t happy.

At the hospital emergency room, a teenager in scrubs came into the exam room. Turns out he was the doctor. He looked at my hand and asked if I had caught a big one. Then he wanted to know how I managed to set the hook so well. Next he wanted to know why I was all wet. Every time I answered him, he burst into laughter.

He shot my finger full of Lidocaine, backed the hook up and pushed the point through. When finished, he wrapped the wound with gauze.

I took my precious, customized ‘Spook, now short a hook, with me when I left. Driving home was much more comfortable, but it was nearly 10:30 p.m. before I walked in my door. My wife, without looking up, asked, “Did you enjoy the fishing?”