A FISH STORY: City Park champ has tips for weekend’s rodeo anglers

City Park is reeling in anglers from all over the Greater New Orleans community for its 66th annual Big Bass Rodeo and Fishtival on Saturday.

Everyone from novices to professionals will be trying to hook a 9-pound bass to top the one Kevin Schilling caught on Mardi Gras.

“The chances of catching another 9-pounder are pretty darn decent,” said Schilling, who has been fishing in the park since he was 10. “Over the past three years, friends and I have walked around here and caught loads of bass in the 5- to 7-pound category. But that was the biggest I have ever caught in my entire life.”

Schilling, who fishes in City Park with his 2-year-old son Garrison, has competed in the Big Bass Rodeo since he was 14. He and his crew, Team Camo, will be back at the rodeo again this year to defend their 12-year championship in the cichlid division.

“I haven’t fished bass division since 1996,” he said. “Now, I fish in the Bream Buster, or what is now known as the Cichlids Division.”

The division is aimed at winnowing the numbers of invasive nuisance cichlids from the park’s lagoons.

“In 2008, we caught 961, so I fished one fish to every 30 to 40 seconds.”

Although Schilling and his friends in Team Camo err on the side of professional fishing, the rodeo is designed for all people, from those who have never wet a line to professionals.

Kaye Florane, co-chairwoman of City Park Big Bass Rodeo and Fishtival, said the rodeo averages about 600 registrants each year, 150 of which are 12 and younger.

“Most bass rodeos are professional and competitive. This is a family-oriented rodeo and it is the oldest freshwater fish rodeo in the United States,” Florane said.

“Although we have serious categories, there are no big prizes. We are here for bragging rights and trophies.”

In 1946, Paul Kalman, an avid fisherman and reporter for the New Orleans Item, persuaded his bosses to sponsor a fishing contest in City Park.

Armed with a borrowed meat scale, Kalman kicked off the event. It has evolved to include extra features such as the catch-and-release, a festival atmosphere and introductions of new categories.

“The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has become an important partner of this event.

“They provide all the equipment for the weigh master station: the scales, the tubs and the proper handling of the fish,” Florane said.

“They have a trailer with a big aquarium for the fish and a pellet gun shooting trailer that the kids love.”

More recently, a festival, or what the rodeo calls a “Fishtival,” has been added, which includes exhibitors that are relevant to fishing, ecology and wildlife.

Anyone can come and enjoy the festival while contestants compete around the approximate seven miles of City Park that are open to fishing, including Bayou St. John but with the exception of the Besthoff Sculpture Garden and the North Golf Course.

Schilling offered novice fisherman some friendly advice on how to be competitive.

“You have to scout the park; don’t just show up on the day of the rodeo,” he said. “Buy a cheap pair of polarized sunglasses, that way you can see under water.

“Also, there is a reason why I wear camo. Don’t wear bright colors. Blend into trees, blend into the background.”

At 11 a.m., contestants will bring their winning fish to the Popp Bandstand to be weighed before they are released back into the water by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

City Park will always have a special lure for those who seek out the monster fish that swim in its waterways. Schilling will be there again this year, ensuring his reign continues, as he enjoys a great day with the family.

“The whole atmosphere is a party, and for kids, you can’t beat it,” Schilling said.