Paul Kalman, a local who spent many hours of his childhood fishing the tree-framed waters of City Park, founded the Big Bass Rodeo in 1946. For Kalman and many others, it was an angler’s urban heaven. The only requirements were a hook, line, length of cane and a lazy summer afternoon.
After being injured in service in World War II, Kalman conceived the idea of an annual fishing competition, planting the seeds of what would become City Park’s Big Bass Rodeo. A reporter for the New Orleans Item at the time, Kalman persuaded his bosses to sponsor the inaugural event. Armed with a meat scale borrowed from John Schwegmann’s original grocery store, the first rodeo was launched in 1946. Under his guidance, the rodeo grew to draw as many as 1,000 participants. Although Kalman passed away in 1986, shortly after the rodeo’s 40th anniversary, his legacy lives on today with the Paul Kalman award. His son Paul Jr. and grandson present this award to the angler 12 years or under that lands the largest bass.
In the 1980’s Joe Courcelle introduced catch-and-release to the rodeo. He built a 400-gallon tank and asked fishermen to turn in their live catch, which he returned to the lagoons. Joe served as Weigh Master for more than 30 years until 2010 when he stepped down for health reasons. Joe passed away shortly after that and the Joe Courcelle award was created to honor his years of service to the Big Bass Rodeo. This award is given for the largest bass landed by anyone 13 years or older.
When the city’s levees failed during Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, parts of the Park flooded up to eight feet of water. The fishing environment was devastated and the Big Bass Rodeo could not be held in 2006 and 2007. Thanks to efforts from many organizations including LSU AgCenter/Sea Grand, University of New Orleans, La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries and others, the lagoons and fish habitat were restored.
In 2008, the rodeo returned and reclaimed its rightful spot as the country’s oldest freshwater fishing tournament with more than 600 registrants vying to win a trophy and bragging rights in five fishing categories.
In recent years, the “Fishtival” was added to the rodeo, bringing music, fishing gear and charter boat raffles and educational exhibits for wildlife, ecology, conservation, boating, and a casting contest for children.
The Boats on the Bayou division for kayaks, canoes and other non-motorized vessels on Bayou St. John was added in 2014. Fishing categories include largemouth bass, trout, redfish and other species for trophies. A “Red Tag Special” bonus offers prizes for the heaviest cumulative weight of tagged redfish!
The La. Dept .of Wildlife and Fisheries whose goal is to protect and manage the abundant natural resources in the state has done a wonderful job of maintaining the fish stock in the Park’s lagoons and in Bayou St. John. They also play a big role at the Big Bass Rodeo by providing the scales to weigh the lunker bass, the aerated tubs to hold the stock, and the employees to safely re-release the fish after the tournament. Their various educational exhibits attract anglers of all ages and are a big draw to the Fishtival.
The largest fish ever caught in City Park was a 52-pound buffalo fish hauled in on July 21, 1976 by 12-year-old Tommy Descant of Chalmette. In February 2005, Ross Reboul, a junior at Jesuit High School, landed a giant 44-pound Blue Catfish. This giant catfish measured 42-inches long and 26-inches in circumference. Biologists believe this giant catfish was approximately 21 years old! In 1968, City Park boatman Cecil Doiron caught a bass weighing 8 lbs. 1 oz. which held the Park record until February 12, 2013 (Mardi Gras day) when Kevin Schilling landed a 9-lb. 0 oz. lunker bass to break Cecil’s record. On August 14, 2013, Tim Zissis set the new record catching a 9-lb. 0.05 oz. bass. 2013 was the year for big bass in City Park!
Each year brings the opportunity for some lucky or skilled angler to land the monster bass that breaks Tim’s record! Good luck and good fishing to all!
By Kaye Florane (2015)
Cecil Doiron with 8 lb. 1 oz. bass.
Tommy Descant with 52 lb. Buffalo fish.
Kevin Schilling with 9 lb. 0 oz. bass-second largest bass caught in City Park.
Tim Zissis with 9 lb. 0.05 oz. bass setting the new/standing Park record.