A total of 24 prize fish worth a total pay out of $24,500 rounded out the 2019 $101,000 Hot Springs Fishing Challenge, which ended at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The $15,000 grand prize fish, "Big Al," eluded anglers for another year. Visit Hot Springs, which sponsors the event in partnership with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, previously hinted that the prize fish was a bluegill released into Lake Hamilton on April 30.
"We just put the fish phone away until next year," Bill Solleder, director of marketing for Visit Hot Springs, said Thursday. "It got so quiet so fast, but this year's challenge started out so busy."
Solleder recalled that on the first weekend of the challenge, four $1,000 fish were caught in one day. While speaking with the first winner out at the Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery, two more calls came in with the anglers saying they were also at the fish hatchery.
"By that point a little crowd had started forming because we were filming for social media and another fisherman walked up asking what we were doing," Solleder said. "When we told him, he said 'Oh, I've got one of those fish.' So we had four $1,000 fish in one day and at that time we honestly thought that Arkansas was coming to collect all the prize money this year.
"Then around the first part of July, it all just stopped."
The final fish caught in the 2019 challenge was on June 24, a news release said.
Solleder said carrying around the fish phone is a suspenseful task as "every minute it doesn't ring, the chance of someone reeling in a prize fish goes up even more."
The winners have been locals and visitors alike, and their stories are what makes the event interesting and fun, he said.
"One of the neatest stories was a father and son, and the son's girlfriend, who were all from out of town and they had been fishing all morning on Lake DeGray with no luck," Solleder said. "They decided to pack up and head to Lake Catherine and reeled in a prize fish.
"One of the first things I ask people when they call is what color the tag is and then the number. At that point I know exactly how much they won, but I don't usually tell them until they've filled out the paperwork. When I told him he had won $5,000 he was genuinely excited about it. Those are the kind of stories we love -- someone from out of town came here to fish and left with $5,000."
Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison said VHS would meet with the Challenge co-sponsors at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in the fall to discuss whether the 2020 Challenge would need some tweaking.
"It's been shown over the course of the eight years we've been doing the Fishing Challenge that it's a great tool for promoting the wonderful fishing opportunities we have in the three lakes that surround Hot Springs," Arrison said in the release. "When the Challenge began May 1, it looked like fishermen were going to catch all the prize fish in the first two weeks. Heck, we had four prize fish caught in a single day."
Seventy-one prize fish -- all wearing 2019 orange tags -- were released into lakes Catherine and Hamilton April 30. Thirty-four percent of the 71 fish were caught.
The annual challenge participation is free for anyone with a valid Arkansas fishing license.
Local on 08/02/2019