By Josh Gowan
Chris Stephens was not only the best catfisherman I knew personally, but an extremely positive, nice, genuine guy, which is increasingly hard to find. I’ve leaned on him heavily over the past few years for catfishing reports for my weekly column, and he would openly share every detail of his last trip, regardless of an upcoming tournament or fear of giving away his spots. Chris “guided” tons of fishermen, but rarely collected more than gas money for his efforts, often putting people on their biggest fish ever. Chris was also a fellow Grizzly Jig Co. Pro Staffer for the past seven years, and many people know his big, camouflage river boat with our decal down the side, and I can think of no one person who represented it better. I’m not sure how many tournaments Chris won or placed in (a lot), but I’m positive the number of people he introduced to catfishing was much higher. Chris was a regular figure at Grizzly, and we’re going to miss him dearly.
Chris and his wife Heather spent the last 16 years together, and were extremely happy, still holding hands when they were out. Heather, a big-city girl from Detroit, felt initially that she was dating Grizzly Adams, and would often find rabbit hair or dove feathers in his sink. Regardless of his backwoods ways, she fell in love with his upbeat personality and generosity. She could tell story after story about his random acts of kindness, from helping an elderly man take a battery out of his van in a Walmart parking lot, to just last week when he pulled over on the side of the road to help change a stranger’s flat tire. He was just that kind of person, always helping, and asking nothing in return, a true gentleman.
Chris’s most recent fishing partner was Jason Aycock from East Prairie, Mo. Jason recalled the first time he met Chris, back in 2005 at a Cabela’s King Kat Classic. Jason was just beginning his career as a tournament fisherman, and felt very out of place at the weigh-in. “All these guys were weighing in big stringers and I came in with a very small weight. After I weighed in, Chris came up to me and made me feel like I had just won the darn thing.” This was the beginning of a long friendship, and Jason hopes to repay the kindness and motivation that Chris showed him that day. He added, “Chris also took me under his wing and showed me what catfishing was all about. If it wasn’t for guys like Chris and Jerry Whitehead, I wouldn’t be the fisherman I am today.”
The most memorable catfishing trip in our area happened on January 9th, a few years ago. Chris Stephens and Jerry Whitehead were out on the Mississippi River near Caruthersville, Mo., fishing near the bottom in a deep hole, and one of the poles slammed down. Jerry reeled in the goliath blue catfish, and Chris called me at Grizzly and told me to get the camera and the scales ready! The catfish weighed 110.2 pounds, and it was an awesome sight to behold! After taking a few pictures, they went back down to the river and Chris, in sandals, waded out in the mid-winter water and worked for over 15 minutes reviving and releasing the fish. Jerry said Chris was just fun to be around, and one of the best “big fish” fisherman he’d ever met. Chris and Jerry vowed to fish every Jan. 9, and Jerry said he would keep the tradition alive. Through Jerry’s work, next year’s Bass Pro Shop’s Big Cat Quest at New Madrid, Mo (which Chris won last year with Jeff Kirkpatrick) will be called the Chris Stephens Memorial Catfish Tournament.
Chris began his tournament catfishing career in 2002 fishing with John Trout. The duo travelled down to Greenville, Miss., and won their first tournament, and they were hooked. John and Chris rode thousands of miles together, fishing from Iowa to Texas and everywhere in between. John called Chris the best “anchor fisherman” he’s ever met, and his ability to fish an eddy was unmatched. The team stayed in the top five in the country for a long time. Both John and Jerry, nearly 30 years Chris’s senior, had the same reason for not fishing tournaments with him in the last few years, “we just got too old to keep up with him, running 50 miles upriver wide open is not for 70-year- olds!”
While too short, Chris’s life was still full and meaningful, leaving a positive mark on everyone he touched. By practicing much and preaching little, his friendliness and generosity set an example every man should follow. I’m quite sure there are big, blue catfish in heaven, and Chris is probably already holding a clinic.
Josh M. Gowan, Outdoors Writer, Crappie Angler Magazine, www.joshgowanoutdoors.com