It's just before dusk at Miami Whitewater Forest Lake, and the splash from Lars Menefee's cast breaks the reflection of the crystal-blue sky on the water's surface. Satisfied with the cast, Menefee leans back, opens a soft drink and begins humming the theme from Jaws.
This is appropriate, for somewhere in this small loch in the rolling hills west of Cincinnati lurks a monster: Big Bud the catfish. "If you saw Bud swimming toward you, you'd think he was an alligator," says Menefee, 30, who has been catfishing since he was 10. "This is one huge fish."
At 70 pounds, Bud is certainly no guppy. He weighs as much as the average 10-year-old child, his midsection is as big around as a basketball, and he could swallow a duck without chewing. About the only thing bigger than Bud is his reputation.
This fish tale began two years ago as a publicity stunt for a local fishing festival. Bud, then only 55 pounds, was brought to Miami Whitewater from his home in a Kentucky lake. It took three men to transport and tag Bud, who looked like a harbor seal flopping around the dock. Bud, a flathead, or shovelhead, catfish, is about halfway to his life expectancy of 70 years and is expected to put on between four and eight pounds each year for the next 35 years. He is already near Ohio-record size. The world record for a flathead—91 pounds, four ounces—was for a catfish caught by an angler in Texas 12 years ago.
In warm weather, fish grow year-round. But in a cold-weather state like Ohio, fish have less than five months in which to bulk up. This is what makes Bud such a rarity. No world-record catfish has ever been taken from a cold-weather state, and it has been 15 years since a catfish of even Bud's size has been hooked in the region. Furthermore, at Miami Whitewater, Bud has only 85 acres of water in which to swim, which offers fishermen a better-than-average chance to make the catch of a lifetime. This is what draws nearly 10,000 people annually to the lake. "The guy who catches Bud will instantly become a legend around here," says Neal Ramsey of the Hamilton County Park District, which manages the lake.
At any given moment there are several would-be legends fishing the greenish-black waters of Miami Whitewater and hoping to hook Bud, whom locals now refer to as the Budmeister. Each angler keeps his methods a secret, but you can spot the serious fishermen right away: They hold 11-foot surf rods that are as thick as baseball bats and could land a marlin. These anglers use steel hooks the size of a man's thumb and nets big enough to hold a Volkswagen. They usually have blisters on both hands.
Bait is another issue. All kinds are used here: Limburger cheese, marshmallows, rotten chicken livers, even goldfish. Some anglers prefer creek chubs big enough to fillet. "You gotta use big bait to catch Big Bud," quips one local. "Like the family Chihuahua."
The bad jokes are part of the lore. As are the call-in radio discussions, the soon-to-be-printed Big Bud T-shirts, the old-timers sitting around yakking about a fish with a mouth the size of a toilet bowl, and the kids who ride their bikes up and down the dock yelling, "Anybody caught 'im yet?" The answer is always no because although Bud has been hooked a few times, nobody has gotten him in a boat.
Menefee, a carpenter from Cleves, Ohio, is the only angler who has hooked Bud more than once. The last time was early last summer when Menefee was casting toward some shallow flats near the lake's flood-control gate. The water boiled, Menefee's float went under, and the clicker on his reel started screaming. "It felt like I'd hooked a whale," he says. Sadly, Menefee's line went dead just as quickly as it pulled him to the edge of the boat. When he reeled in the line, the 10-inch bait was gone, and the hook was bent flat.
On this evening Menefee is staring at the water with a sonar gaze while he invokes Roy Scheider's final challenge to the great white shark in Jaws: "Come on. Come on and get it, you son of a bitch."
Time passes, night falls. Slowly, several lantern-lit boats head back to the dock. Menefee shakes his head. "We gotta catch this fish before he drowns some people," he says.
Big Bud has won again. The fish, like his legend, will continue to grow.