The first time that I attended the National Stearman fly-in in Galesburg in the mid 90’s, the central activity was at the HoJo, later called the Regency. When things were over at the airport for the day, there was still a lot to look forward to at the HoJo bar.
One night, a group of us gathered around one of the tables was treated to a great story by Bob Tumlin out of Greewood, Mississippi.
In 1987, on his farm, he had fourteen ponds totally 200 acres that he used for raising catfish for the commercial market. The usual way of feeding the catfish was with a wheeled feeder and blower which would be towed along the levees .
The problem in the wet season was that the tractor and feeder combination would start to leave deep ruts in the levee (sometimes as much as three feet deep) that were tough to navigate and had to be repaired from time to time.
Bob had a couple of Stearmans and a landing strip on the farm. One he was restoring and another which was flyable, that he bought for a second project. One day his wife told him that she wanted some fertilizer on a pasture that she had plans for. Bob decided that he could load up the flying Stearman with fertilizer and spread it over the pasture. He did and it worked just fine.
Not long after that, they were having wet weather problems in getting the catfish feeding rig around the levees.
Remembering the success with the fertilizer, Bob couldn’t think of any reason why the same thing wouldn’t work with catfish food.
He loaded up the Stearman hopper with 750 pounds of catfish food and made a pass over one of the ponds. It again worked as planned and a new career for the Stearman was born. The catfish food is made up of grain, fish meal, molasses and other stuff which really makes it a “Fat Pill” for the fish. It ends up 33% protein. There is floating food and sinking food and you have to know which to use when.
The Stearman had a tired 450 which burned about 1 ½ to 2 gallons of oil per hour, but it hauled that 750 pounds of feed just good enough. The Covering was 22 year old cotton, with lots of coats of dope. Passing a punch test required turning your head at the right time and concluding, “that sounds about right! You couldn’t say it was rigged to spec., and with all those coats of paint, the stick shook and the controls required an assertive touch,
Now the size of the 14 ponds and the number of catfish being raised in each one, required 1500 pounds of food in each pond –every day. With the Stearman carrying 750 #s of food per pass, that meant two flights per pond per day for 14 ponds. Yeah that’s 28 flights per day.
Bob was the only Stearman driver around, so once he started feeding for the day, he never shut the 450 down The loading helper filled the hopper and serviced the Stearman like a pit stop at Indy.
Since the Stearman solved the “wet weather” feeding problem, the dirt strip was also wet and muddy. During takeoff and landing, the Stearman would slip and slide sideways and throw lots of mud, but it never gave up.
With the help of the Stearman, Bob produced a million pounds of catfish a year. At harvest time he would seine each pond, keep the big fish, throw back the little ones, add some more little ones and start all over.
About every five years, the ponds would have to be completely cleaned out. There would always be some very large catfish that had avoided the seine and they would be eating the small catfish.
The catfish soon got to know the sound of an approaching 450, and they would start roiling at the top of the water, knowing that food was coming. Passing over one pond and dropping the food, Bob could see the fish in the adjacent ponds coming to the surface in anticipation of being next.
As he pulled up after a food drop and looked back, Bob said that the pond look like it was filled with feeding pirranahs.
It would be great to have a picture of that Stearman feeding the fish, but unfortunately Bob doesn’t think that there are any left around.
When time came to retire the Stearman from feeding the catfish, Bob removed the hopper, changed it back to a two place, covered the wings and sold his Stearmans. Somewhere in North Carolina there is a 450 Stearman flying with an amazing and unique history.
Bob now rents his ponds out to another catfish farming organization, and the ponds are in use today.
Hearing Bob’s story was one of the highlights of the week at Galesburg. I don’t know how they feed the catfish today, but it won’t hold a candle to doing it with a 450 Stearman.