John Duarte, who represented Coastal Carolina University in the recent Bassmaster College Classic fishing tournament, was rewarded last weekend for turning down a chance to head for Florida for spring break. Instead of baking in the sun, he landed an 8.6-pound largemouth bass and a flathead catfish that weighed around 63 pounds on back-to-back trips on the Cooper River.

Duarte, whose home waters are the Maryland’s upper Chesapeake Bay, caught the big largemouth last Friday and the big catfish the next day – both on a Chatterbait.

“I put in at the Cypress Gardens boat landing (Friday) morning,” he said. “It was the first really cold day after the two back to back 80 degree days. The cold never bothered me while bass fishing, but I was hoping that the wind would die down soon.” 

Duarte was targeting the mouths of rice-field ditches where the sun had warmed the shallow waters enough for the bass to move up.   

“I was pitching a black and blue Chatterbait and was not having much luck until the tide went out,” said Duarte, who made a cast near a shallow ditch and had a fish slam his lure.

The next thing he knew, his rod had doubled over with the drag screaming.

“I thought it was a carp at first until it flashed near the surface,” said Duarte. “I became really excited and yelled out for my fishing partner to grab the fish.” 

After the fish was safely in the boat, Duarte snapped a quick picture and weighed the fish before releasing it.

“It was my largest bass ever,” Duarte said. “It had a flat stomach and a large head. If it had been filled with eggs, it would have been over 10 pounds.”

The next day, Duarte debated whether or not he should fish or drive home to Maryland. He decided to fish by himself, and he picked up a few bass here and there throughout the day. But about a half-hour before dark, his day changed completely.

“I was checking one of my spots before heading back to the ramp, and I decided to make a couple of casts,” said Duarte. “On my third cast to the bank with my Chatterbait, I hooked into something massive. Since it was in less than a foot of water, I figured it was another big bass.”

It didn’t take Duarte long to realize it was no bass. Fishing with a 7-foot, medium-action Okuma Helios baitcasting rod with a Helios baitcasting reel spooled with 15-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon, he had to keep disengaging the drag to keep his line from breaking.

“I let the fish pull me around for 25 minutes,” Duarte said. “Eventually, he became tired, and I cranked the fish up to the surface. I freaked out when I saw the size of the flathead catfish. I grabbed my towel, and after the third try, (I) hoisted the beast into the boat with my hands in its mouth.”

Duarte laid the fish on the deck of his boat and made a lightning-fast run to the dock for someone to help take a picture and some measurements. 

“I pulled up to the Cypress Gardens landing, and luckily, there was a guy fishing,” said Duarte. “He helped me move the fish to the dock and snapped a quick picture.”

Duarte measured the fish and came up with 46 ½ inches in length and 31 inches in girth. Using an equation to determine weight from the measurements, he came up with 63 pounds for the flathead’s estimated weight.

Duarte put the catfish back in the water and revived it in a couple of seconds. He had to pry his hand from the fish’s mouth before it would swim away.

“I’m not much of a catfish angler,” he said, “but that was one heck of a fight.”