Sunday’s column about setting lines for big catfish on the Cottonwood River netted me several e-mails and phone calls from anglers who knew and appreciated the river. The one I appreciated the most was from Bob Hoch, a retired Wichita Eagle employee of many, many years.
It turns out Bob had spent some of the best summers of his childhood with his grandparents, who owned and farmed the stretch of the Cottonwood I’d written about. Bob had even had the great fortune of fishing with legendary angler Ned Noll, his uncle.
Not only did Bob confirm what I’d written about Noll, but also about the probable presence and size of Noll’s version of a great white whale…a huge flathead he’d named “Ol’ George.”
Read on, and enjoy what Bob has agreed to let me reproduce.
I enjoyed your Sunday Outdoor feature story about fishing on the Cottonwood River. Alex "Casey" Case is my cousin and Ned Noll was my uncle. I spent lots of my youth on the Claude Noll farm where this story takes place.
I used to live with my grandparents there during the summer harvest time. Back in the 1930's, Grandpa hired someone with a bulldozer to cut wide paths from the farm down to the river and back up the bank to the field on the other side. That saved him from having to drive his old John Deer tractor and various implements out on the highway to get to that field. He also had that guy shove some rocks to make a short "dam" — just below where that campfire ring is. Now he had a "deep end" and the "riffles" below.
A couple times after spending the day plowing the field across the river, Grandpa would stop the tractor in the riffles and we'd strip down to our underwear and cool off in the river before going back up to the farm house for supper. We would often sein for bait and float some crawdads down the riffles and slowly reel back in. Caught some nice fish that way. And the quietness of those surroundings were, indeed, relaxing.
Uncle Ned became a doctor after he came back from World War II. Several years later, he came down with Lupus which was fairly unknown at that time. He spent a couple weeks in the Mayo Clinic for testing and treatment. He actually was the one to diagnose his illness.
He taught me lots of tips to catching the big catfish. Yes, we used what he called #12 hooks — giant beasts that would barely fit in the palm of your hand. He was very scientific about this, too. Before using those hooks, he would soak them in a mild acid solution to take the shine off them. He also taught me not to bother setting lines during the days around a full moon — too much moonlight and the turtles and gar would steal the bait.
We used large carp or goldfish for bait, hooking them under the backbone. To place limb lines most effectively, we would row up and down the river — me rowing and him probing the bottom of the river with a long stick looking for places the big catfish wallowed-out "nests" in the mud. When we found those, we'd look for the nearest limb from which to hang a line. Bait placement was key, too — about one foot off the bottom.
One Sunday afternoon, Ned and I were doing some limb line maintenance when we spotted what might have been "Old George". A huge catfish was nosing the surface of the water. While I slowly rowed/drifted up to that fish, Ned put his arm down under the water and I watched in astonishment as he slowly ran his hand up the back of that fish. When he got to the back of its head, he "walked" his outstretched palm twice across its head. (Now hold out your hands away from you, stretch your fingers out and touch thumbs. That's about how wide across the back of its head that fish was.) Then he spooked and took a dive. I know that sounds like a "fish tale", but it's the honest-to-God's truth.
The summer of 1962 was our most prolific fishing summer. We caught flatheads ranging from 51 lbs, 48, 43, several in the 30 lb range and many other "smaller" ones. We had a trotline stretched from bank-to-bank below the riffles where the water was about thigh-deep. We were actually throwing back fish weighing 3-5 lbs because we had too many bigger ones. Simply amazing! (I have a picture of me with the 51-lb flathead, but I can't get my scanner to work.)
In 1963, we got skunked. Couldn't catch a cold on that river that year. Then, Ned passed away in 1964.
Ned and Dale Snelling who was the Marion County Lake Superintendent for many years, used to trap beaver on the Cottonwood. For many years, I had a beaver skin rug that measured a little more than 3 feet in diameter that Ned made for me.
Thanks for the ride down memory lane.”