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Anglers reaping dollars catching prized fish in Hot Springs lakes

HOT SPRINGS – A local bass tournament on Lake Hamilton became even more profitable than expected for four lucky tourney anglers, who each hauled $1,000 prize-winning bass Saturday, May 4, the fourth day of the 2019 $101,000 Hot Springs Fishing Challenge.

“This is just incredible,” said Bill Solleder, marketing director of Visit Hot Springs, the city’s advertising and promotions office, which sponsors the annual Fishing Challenge in cooperation with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “Four fish, fourth day of the Challenge, May the Fourth! May the Fourth be with you!”

Solleder said he received a Saturday morning call notifying him of a prize-winning fish being caught by Brian Kunkel of Hot Springs, but the calls kept coming while he was meeting Kunkel at the AGFC’s Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery to verify that catch.

Along with Kunkel, who caught his bass near Dr. Mike McFarland’s home on a Lake Hamilton peninsula using a watermelon orange worm, the other $1,000 catches were by Kevin Hopkins of Poyen, who was about 200 yards from the U.S. Highway 70 bridge and was using an Alabama rig; Hal Bridges of Sheridan, who was tossing a Carolina-rigged lizard around Scully Bay; and Ben Jackson of Pearcy, who was fishing Little Marzarn Creek just off Hamilton with a structure bug.

That followed up Friday’s first catch in the Challenge, which came on Lake Catherine. Jared Martin of Hot Springs was fishing Catherine with his son at Jacks Landing above Remmel Dam when his Heddon Zara Spook hooked a 3-pound tagged bass worth $500. Martin also received a swag bag filled with prizes from Challenge sponsors Mr. Crappie, Luck E Strike, FLW and the AGFC, Solleder said.

But then came Sunday. Michael Metcalf of New Edinburg in Cleveland County, who gave up on a slow morning fishing DeGray Lake State Park to move up to Lake Catherine, was $5,000 richer within 45 minutes of arriving there. His shiner lure and cork helped him haul in a bass with a $5,000 tag. Metcalf was fishing with his daughter and her friend. That was followed later Sunday by Ricky Corder of Benton, who was fishing off a friend’s dock on Hamilton, pulling in a 2-pound catfish wearing a $500 tag.

“The weekend was simply phenomenal for fishing on our lakes,” Solleder said. “We’ve never had such a weekend in the eight years we’ve been holding the Challenge. Fishing Hot Springs’ lakes has seldom been hotter.”

The money flowed again Tuesday when Billy Ray Smith of Malvern and his stepbrother, Eldon Van Ohlen, who was visiting from Colorado, caught 37 bluegills on Lake Hamilton, and one happened to be tagged, Solleder reported. It was worth $1,000. Smith was fishing with crickets.

This still means 63 orange-tagged fish remain of the 71 total tagged by the AGFC at various prize-money levels and dispersed by a third party into the two lakes. The remaining tags include the $15,000 grand prize for “Big Al” for some lucky angler.

The contest began May 1 and will end at 5 p.m. July 31. Five species of fish – largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish, white bass and redear sunfish – have been tagged with “2019” orange tags and the telephone number to reach Solleder to report the catch. Each tag is numbered corresponding to the prize amount.

Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison said, “The Challenge is a free family-oriented event to emphasize the great fishing we have in the lakes around Hot Springs.” It’s open to anyone with a valid Arkansas fishing license. In addition to “Big Al,” four fish remain— two in each lake — worth $5,000 each, while another 42 are worth $1,000 each. Nineteen remaining fish will bring $500 each.

Also, new this year are merchandise prizes from Challenge’s co-sponsors: Mister Crappie, FLW, Luck E Strike and the AGFC. And again this year, the Challenge will feature a free-fishing weekend, June 7-9, with no fishing license required. The AGFC’s Jeff Newman, manager of the Hulsey Hatchery, said, “Any $500 fish caught during Free Fishing Weekend … will have that amount doubled to $1,000.” As for “Big Al,” if he isn’t caught by June 1, Visit Hot Springs will start offering clues to his whereabouts (clues given on June 1, July 1 and July 26), Arrison said.

For more information on the event, visit www.hotsprings.org/events/event/3497.