The two guys pulling a pontoon boat held together with plywood hit the water at dawn Saturday for the big fishing tournament at Lake Wylie. They had Walmart poles and bait they caught themselves and two cans of Chef Boy-R-Dee raviolis.
Many of their foes had fancy uniforms, fancier poles, the fanciest electronics. And boats that should be called yachts.
“We look around and all these other guys have electronics on their big boats that cost more than our raggedy old boat,” said Preston Starkey, 27, of Rock Hill, an electric repairman by trade who decided that fishing after work was easier than dirt track racing.
Jason Knight, 30, of Lancaster, had a cheap fishing card and a boat that cost $3,000 and looked it. The boat looked like it had fought Hurricane Matthew days earlier, and Matthew won.
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“We was just hoping our boat would stay afloat,” said Knight, who makes a living in an electric supply house but dreams of some day being a paid fishing guide. “We got a good reason, too. Preston can’t swim.”
These guys fish a lot for recreation, for fun, and even want to do it in tournaments. But Saturday, they arrived looking like two guys from the lawn crew at Donald Trump’s golf courses, while the other anglers looked more like Trump.
“We’re just workin’ guys,” Starkey said, “who like to fish.”
The sponsored fishermen had fish finders and gear. These two guys had no spoon for the ravioli, so they fashioned a spoon out of a plastic Dr. Pepper bottle.
They hit the water for the Carolina Cat catfish qualifier and headed for the North Carolina side of Lake Wylie while all the big shots except one headed for the South Carolina side.
“We joked we were lost,” Starkey said.
“Those others probably saw us go the other direction and laughed,” Knight said.
In a half-hour, they had the maximum 10 poles in the water at a spot Knight found on his fish card.
“Then one of the poles, it bent down to the water and Jason yelled out there was something big down there,” Starkey said.
Knight said what blue-collar guys say: “Good fish.”
They reeled and reeled and Knight said: “Real good fish.”
They tussled in a blue catfish half the size of Knight and then realized one problem: They had no scale to weigh it on the jalopy of a boat.
They put the fish in the live well and caught two more – the limit was three – then went in for the weigh-in.
Starkey and Knight chugged up to the dock looking like Germans had hit them with a torpedo.
But what matters in fishing is when burly men officially weigh the fish on the dock.
The biggest fish caught that day, on a pole from Walmart, weighed 44 and a half pounds. And Starkey and Knight caught it.
For total weight of three fish, they came in second overall. They posed for pictures as all fishermen must do.
Starkey, as burly as a beer keg, smiling, in his orange T-shirt, looked like the sunset. Knight beamed with the big fish in his arms like a baby boy.
The contest cost $130 to enter. They had to pay for gasoline for the truck and the boat and the rods and the ravioli and the Dr. Peppers. Even with the prize of $405 for the biggest fish, the tournament probably didn’t make them 20 dollars.
But none of that matters. These two guys plan to enter more big tournaments. They hope to get sponsors.
Until then, Starkey has to enter with his new nickname, given to him by the other mechanics at Armor Electric in Rock Hill. The name is shouted and laughed with pride from men with callused hands who dip Copenhagen and still smoke Winstons.
Starkey loves his new nickname: “They all are now calling me ‘Catfish.’ ”