Tyler Barnes of Pikeville, NC and his fiance Emily Howell boated a 68-pound blue catfish on July 30, which put them in first place in the annual EZ Bait and Tackle Store’s two-month long catch-and-release catfish tournament.

The Goldsboro store’s tournament ended on July 31, so even though Barnes and Howell moved from fourth place to first with the 68-pounder, they had to sweat things out for 24 hours before being notified that no other anglers weighed in a bigger fish on the final day.

“We fish this tournament every year, and Emily is always right there with me. She doesn’t just come along for the ride. She fishes and helps me, and I fish and help her. We work during the week, so most every weekend during that two-month period, we fish all night on Friday nights and Saturday nights,” said Barnes.

Barnes and Howell were holding onto fourth place with a 48-pound flathead when they put their boat in the Neuse River on the 30th, and since the tournament pays the top 5 finishers, they were happy to be in the running for some cash. But with two days left and a lot of good anglers fishing the Wayne, Johnston, and Lenoir County areas where the tournament takes place, they wanted to improve their odds.

And did they ever. The 68-pound blue is Barnes’ personal best catfish, beating numerous 50+ pound flatheads he has caught over the years. And it bested what had been leading the tournament by over 15 pounds.

Barnes and Howell were fishing with eight rods out, and targeting flatheads that night, using a live bream as bait on a 10/0 circle hook tied to an 80-pound monofilament leader attached to the mainline 100-pound Daiwa J-braid.

“Usually, we catch flatheads on live bream, but a blue catfish will certainly eat bream too. And this one just came by and crushed it. He was pulling drag, and I cranked down on the drag to keep him from running into a bunch of debris. He made a few strong runs each time I got him in close enough for him to see the boat, then he finally came right in,” said Barnes.

A total of 71 flatheads, 34 blues, and three channel cats were caught during the tournament, for a total weight of 1946.40 pounds. All fish were weighed and photographed at EZ Bait and Tackle, then released alive.

Jimmy Teachey took second place with a 51.2-pound flathead, followed by Jordan Tatum’s 49.7 in third place. Max McConnel took fourth with 48.8, and Jeff Teachey rounded out the top five with a 48 pounder.