It started when Aaron Wheatley put down his softball bat and started catfishing. Soon it became the kind of passion and dedication you wouldn’t just call a “hobby;” sometimes fishing six, seven times a week. Almost everyday after work, if it wasn’t raining, he’d be out on the river. Then all day long on Saturdays and Sundays. He learned every nest, discovered where the best spots to drift were, and got used to watching five poles at a time. He started taking pictures of his big catches, keeping a well documented “top ten” list of 40, 50, and 60-lb monster catfish.
He soon found out he wasn’t alone. There are lots of others out there who love the peace of floating on the river, the thrill of watching that pole slam toward the water, and the challenge of wrestling and landing a “monster.” And that’s what got Aaron to thinking “Maybe I should start a catfishing tournament.”
By day Wheatley is a maintenance man, which gives him several hours every week on a riding lawnmower; hours that he put to good use thinking over all the details it takes to run a successful fishing tournament. “Monsters on the Ohio” was born.
[tw-divider]In the Beginning [/tw-divider]
First order of business: inviting fishermen. That was the easy part. By then, Aaron had lots of catfishing buddies. And those friends had friends who fished too. Word spread.
Next order of business was creating a logo, starting a website, and getting sponsors so he could print banners, t-shirts, and stickers. Monster Rod Holder founder Steve Douglas was one of the first sponsors on board, and has been a major supporter ever since. Several others joined his lead.
A couple meetings downtown got the city of Owensboro and the Visitor’s Bureau to recognize that bringing in fisherman from out of town was a very good thing. The teams had to eat while they were here, and they spent lots of money on gas and hotel rooms too. More pieces started falling into place.
That first year, Wheatley recruited a handful of friends to help keep things running smoothly the day of the tournament. One thing the fishermen picked up on right away was the attention to detail. “We try to think of the little things,” Wheatley said. “We assigned volunteers to help with the live well checks. We do a prayer before we launch. Everyone got a shirt with their name on it. Little things like that go a long way.”
28 boats fished the inaugural Monsters on the Ohio catfishing tournament, and enough spectators showed up to give the fishermen a good crowd for the weigh-in. Everybody was happy and the bar had been set pretty high. Shortly after, Owensboro began a major renovation to the downtown riverfront.
[tw-divider]Second and Third Years [/tw-divider]
Riding the success of the inaugural event, Wheatley went back to work getting more sponsors. A new ESPN sports radio station in town, “102.7 The Game” became a major supporter when local anchor Steve Baker tracked Aaron down one day for an interview. The two have been inseparable ever since. Lots of positive word of mouth, especially among the catfish community on Facebook and in fishing forums helped registrations increase to 46 boats the second year. By the day of the second tournament, a team of 15 volunteers were debriefed and ready to make things run even better.
More food vendors and attractions were added in hopes of drawing a larger crowd for the weigh-in as well, including door prizes and inflatable bounce houses for the kids.
With more boats and more sponsors, the payout was definitely nicer for that year’s winners.
Registrations were already coming in for the third year as soon as the fishermen could get back home and send another check. A lot of the die-hards had already made Monsters one of their annual events, scheduling work vacations and family weekend trips around it. More press began to cover Monsters too, including coverage in Kentucky Outdoor Magazine. 102.7’s Steve Baker started airing a segment called “Monster Mondays” with Aaron a few months prior to the tournament.
As icing on the cake, the new Smother’s Park opened just a month before Monsters 2012. Now the fisherman could bring their whole families and make it a long weekend mini-vacation. For Monsters 2012, 67 boats launched into the Ohio that morning. The twenty-member volunteer force had this tournament thing down to an art. An added feature that year was live music on the main stage to entertain the crowd gathering for the weigh-in.
As 2013 Monsters approached, boats again registered early. Again, Owensboro city government did all they could to support Aaron’s efforts to bring more out of town fishermen to the tourney. Again, the volunteer force doubled; this time to 40 members. Again, more and more sponsors came on board. In fact, Wheatley eventually signed on with a sports marketing agent to help handle all the sponsorships. Before it was all said and done, forty five sponsors stepped up to underwrite the tournament. Sea Ark signed on as the title sponsor and gave away a brand new boat!
As the registrations topped the 100 mark, Team Monster got their heads together and came up with an even more detailed parking plan and traffic flow chart to handle the congestion at the boat ramp.
The final tally: 123 boats, totaling 265 catfishermen and women from 21 different states. All of which were live well checked and in the water in less than an hour. It was a beautiful start to an amazing day of fishing that officially made Monsters on the Ohio the largest single-day catfishing tournament in America. (Second only to Bass Pro’s 200-300 boats, but theirs is an hourly tournament.)
[tw-divider]The Tide is Changing [/tw-divider]
With talk of a new marina being constructed near downtown Owensboro, the future looks incredibly bright for Monsters on the Ohio. Owensboro city officials have Aaron on speed dial, seeking his advice on the new marina project and hoping he’ll be a liaison and consultant when other tournaments come to town. They know if Aaron’s involved the hotels are full and the gas stations are lined up with trucks pulling trailers. Catfishing is now an economic goldmine for Owensboro. Riding the success of Monsters and the Sea Ark Invitational, Bass Pro decided to bring there “Big Cat Quest” to Owensboro as well.
Fishermen have nothing but rave reviews. “They come here and they feel like rock stars,” Wheatley said. “They know there’s gonna be big crowds. They love the new riverfront and Smother’s Park. Owensboro rolls out the red carpet for these guys and they love it!”
Jared Bratcher, Sports Marketing Director for the Owensboro Visitor Bureau, says “Owensboro is known as the BBQ and bluegrass capitol of the world. Now we would like to be known as the catfish capitol of the world too.” All because one man chased his dream.
But even after all that hype, you’re still gonna find Wheatley out on the water almost everyday, just like he was before Monsters on the Ohio began. And you better believe if it all went away today, you’d still find him back out on the water tomorrow, chasing that record cat.
These days Wheatley doesn’t fish alone much anymore. By now he’s made fishing buddies all over the country who love to show him their hometowns and favorite fishing spots. And his phone rings off the hook with people wanting to ride along with him out on the Ohio or Green River after work. Everyone knows Aaron can put you on some fish! Just last week a senator asked Wheatley to take him fishing for one of those “big cats.”
Just another day in the life of Aaron Wheatley; more plans to make, more grass to mow, and more fish to catch.
Monsters on the Ohio is Saturday, October 11th. Weigh-in is at 3pm at English Park. Live entertainment, inflatables, and food preceding.