Stories of the “big fish that got away” are classics.
Immense fish escape to murky depths, leaving behind tales that seemed to grow with each embellished retelling.
In the case of Twila Legg of Marion, an unknown wheelchair-bound fisherman adds to the intrigue of her story.
“I can’t remember his real name but he was a regular at the heated dock,” Legg said. “Everyone always just called him ‘Wheels’ because he was in a wheelchair.”
Legg sounded authentic and jovial as she related her 17-year-old tale.
Wheels was in his usual spot next to the fish feeder at 2 a.m. on a September night. He and Legg and another man Legg couldn’t recollect the name of were ready to call it quits.
The fish weren’t biting.
“All of a sudden something started playing with his line,” Legg said. “It played with it, and played with it, and played, and then...”
The monster fish chomped down, causing a heavy-duty pole to arch dramatically as Wheels fought it.
“When you see a pole like that bend like that you just know you got something special on the other end,” Legg said.
Wheels had the brakes on his wheelchair engaged, but in a matter of seconds, the monster fish dragged him forward, chair and all, until his shins bumped against a guardrail.
“I heard his rubber wheels squeak on the wood,” Legg said. “Then all of a sudden his dragline started screaming.”
The fish was running.
Wheels shouted, “I can’t get any leverage,” Legg recalled.
He began to tip over the rail toward the water. The fish would have yanked him right out of the chair and into the water if Wheels hadn’t have had a homemade seatbelt, Legg said.
The wheelchair was lifting off the ground so Legg and the other angler hustled over and struggled to pull Wheels down.
“He fought the fish for a good half hour,” Legg said. “But eventually there was this adrenaline rush moment where we saw the shadow of the fish under the water. It was just like ‘Oh my God this is the fish of a lifetime.’”
When the fish finally breached, Legg saw it was an enormous flathead.
“It was just madder than all hell,” she said. “It was jerking around, grunting, and trying as hard as it could to shake its hook.”
“Try and get my net around it,” Wheels yelled.
But the net was too small, so Wheels made one last great effort to pull it out of the water and onto the dock.
His pole snapped.
“It broke in three pieces,” Legg said. “The last break was right above his reel. Then his line snapped.”
The fish was gone, leaving nothing but bubbles and ripples in the water, and an elaborate string of curse words spewing from Wheels’s mouth.
After things calmed down, Legg said, everybody estimated the fish to be about between four to five feet long and approximately 75 to 85 pounds.
Who held the pole?
Some years later, Legg lost track of Wheels but she heard that he moved to Newton where he allegedly died.
Former lake superintendent Dale Snelling said, he remembered a story about a man known as “Wheels” who caught a 25-pound fish, but didn’t recall anyone tussling with an 80-pounder.
“There are some big fish out there,” Snelling said. “But that was 17 years ago, and I sure don’t remember them all.
“The only ‘Wheels’ I ever knew was Bob Moore and he’s still alive. He lives in Florence.”
Moore, Wheels to some of his friends, said he’s caught a 20-pound catfish and several 10-pounders at the lake.
“I never seen a fish that big,” he said. “They must of exaggerated, but I heard somebody else talking about that sometime.
“You know how a fish story can grow. One day a fish is 25 pounds, two days later it’s a 50 pounder.”
However, Moore had heard of another man in a wheelchair who used to fish at the lake.
“I never met him,” Moore said. “I heard he was dead and gone, been gone a long time now, I guess. Someone said he used to work at KFDI.”
Justin Case, operations manager at the Wichita radio station, confirmed a former on-air personality did use a wheelchair.
“Yes, ‘Willie Wheelchair,’ his real name was William Heatwole,” Case said Friday. “He passed away in 2001. He was a KFDI AM-1070 Ranch Hand.”
A picture of a clean-shaven Heatwole provided by Case was shown to Legg.
“Honestly, that could easily be Wheels,” Legg said. “His hair was longer, not hippie long, but shaggy, and his face was gaunter, hollowed out like when somebody’s been sick, and he always had scruff, but that sure looks like him.”
When Legg was asked if she knew who “Willie Wheelchair was she replied, “Is that the guy from KFDI? I guess ‘Wheels’ wasn’t too far off.”
Was Willie Wheelchair the Wheels of Legg’s story? It’s possible, but still elusive to confirmation.
Truth is as slippery as fish, and a fish is still a fish even when more than one person sees it, but in this case, the same might be said about the fisherman.