July 24, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
Baseball great Yogi Berra once famously said that it's déjà vu all over again. And while the former New York Yankee and Hall-of-Fame legend was likely referencing his penchant for collecting All-Star Game appearances (18) and World Series championship rings (10), Yogi’s unique ability to turn a phrase—Yogism’s, as some say—could well describe the recent run of paddlefish records coming out of Oklahoma.
To be totally honest, at this point, we’re starting to run out of well-known clichés to describe the paddlefish record book rewrite that Oklahoma has been conducting in 2020.
As you might have guessed already, the Sooner State has done it again, coughing up yet another world-record-size paddlefish from Keystone Lake, this one a 151.9-pounder caught, weighed, and released by Bartlesville, Okla., angler Cory Watters.
Watters, whose 9-year-old son Stetson was with him when he caught the giant spoonbill on Thursday, July 23, 2020, was fishing with red-hot fishing guide Jeremiah Mefford.
The big catch aboard the guide’s boat earlier this week forced the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation news crew to go into overdrive mode again, issuing the following statement on Facebook:
"This morning, Northeast Region fisheries staff received a call from fishing guide Jeremiah Mefford," stated the ODWC social media post. "He said his client, Cory Watters, had just broken the recent world and state record for a paddlefish.
“Well, that's exactly what happened! ODWC fisheries staff met the angler at Keystone Lake and took measurements of the fish. It weighed 151.9 pounds and was just shy of 6 feet in total length."
As exciting as that news was for the Sooner State and those who love big fish stories, the plot thickened from there.
"Fisheries staff noticed the fish was banded on its lower jaw, but the band wasn't from ODWC," stated the Facebook post. "After a phone call, staff learned the fish was banded by Oklahoma State University researchers (on) Jan. 4, 1997, in the Salt Creek area of Keystone Lake. Back when it was banded, the fish was about 2 years old, weighed about 7 pounds and was just over 2 feet long."
After all the excitement, Watters and the ODWC biologists who had weighed and measured the fish watched the released giant swim away strongly as everyone aboard Mefford’s boat watched the departure on a Garmin Livescope sonar unit.
How did the historic paddlefish catch go down? After snagging the record fish, a stout fight back to the boat apparently ensued. Various media reports indicate that as Watters was reeling the behemoth in, Mefford got an idea of just how big the spoonbill was and told the angler what was possible. After all, Mefford has had plenty of experience this year in seeing record-size spoonbills up close and personal.
When the fish was landed at the side of the boat, it was kept in the water and a tail rope was placed on it to hold it in place. An initial weight of 150 pounds showed on Mefford’s scale, prompting a speed dial phone call as ODWC biologists were summoned to Keystone again.
The guess here is that they’ve got the travel route to the Sooner State lake memorized pretty well by now, as well as the process of weighing and measuring these big fish. When all that effort was complete, Watters’ fish tipped the scale to 151.9 pounds, setting probable state and world records…for now.
Watters indicated he was excited and in a bit of a daze after the big catch at the 23,600-acre reservoir on the Arkansas River system near Tulsa, Okla.
"I'm beyond excited," he said in a recorded interview on BartlesvilleRadio.com. "Like, it's surreal (and) it's unbelievable, I guess you could say. Tomorrow is a different day and somebody could beat the record I just set today. I'll be fine with that.
"My main goal today was to learn a little bit more about spoonbill fishing, different techniques, and also a chance at landing at least a three-digit (paddlefish), which is at least 100 pounds and up," Watters continued in the radio interview. "I was able to do all of that and then some with a bonus fish."
A Record Year … So Far
So far in 2020, Oklahoma’s Keystone Lake has been full of those so-called bonus fish. This whole paddlefish record book rewrite started on Valentine’s Day earlier this year when Justin Hamlin caught what would have been a world record paddlefish while on a guided trip with Mefford at Keystone.
"What an incredible fish," said ODWC in a Valentine’s Day Facebook post. "During a guided trip on Keystone last Friday, Justin Hamlin caught the fish of a lifetime. The estimated 157-pound behemoth paddlefish would eclipse the current world record by more than an estimated 10 pounds and would have smashed our state record of 132 pounds!"
But due to an Oklahoma management strategy regulation that mandates all paddlefish must be released on certain days of the week, Hamlin could only dream about what might have been as the big spoonbill swam away.
Then on May 23, Mefford got into the record book act by catching his own 143-pound paddlefish at Keystone, a big spoonbill that briefly became Oklahoma’s new state record. It also just missed the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame world record by a single pound.
For the moment, pending certification of all of these record-book spoonbills, the current official NFWFHF paddlefish world record is a 144-pound specimen caught in a 10-acre Kansas pond by Clinton Boldridge back in 2004.
That world record mark fell by the wayside on June 28, 2020 when Edmond, Okla., resident James Lukehart and his wife Caitlin took a guided trip on Keystone with Mefford. Not too long into the trip, Lukehart snagged, weighed, and released a 146.7-pound paddlefish, setting both a Sooner State record and an apparent new world record mark in one cast.
But that all changed again this week—notice a pattern, yet? —when Watters caught, weighed, and released his 151.9-pound fish, a behemoth paddlefish that created a new wave of fishing headlines going viral on social media.
Don’t be surprised if we’re doing this again soon, since Oklahoma's paddlefish program is second to none, anywhere in the world. For starters, Mefford has become adept at catching and releasing these huge paddlefish, including a 125.8-pounder caught on Feb. 2 by 12-year-old angler Case Rowland. And also keep in mind that Lukehart and his wife both caught multiple big paddlefish on his world-record trip last month.
Keystone Lake is obviously ground zero for record-size paddlefish at the moment, but in reality, the entire northeastern portion of the state is actually superb for the big fish. So much so that ODWC has a Paddlefish Research Center in Miami, Okla., a facility that was opened in February 2008.
Operating in March and April each year, ODWC biologists at the PRC conduct paddlefish research in the Red, Arkansas, and Grand River systems that flow through the state. As they work, biologists collect data, salvage paddlefish eggs, and even process paddlefish fillets for anglers who cooperate with the research and management program.
That work is obviously paying off with a surplus of the big fish in Sooner State waters.
Oklahoma’s previous rod-and-reel paddlefish record before the current streak started was a 132-pound, 8-ounce fish snagged, weighed, and released back into the Arkansas River (above Keystone Lake) on April 29, 2018, by angler Larry Morphew.
Morphew's record in 2018 beat the previous state record mark from the Arkansas River, a 125-pound, 7-ounce giant snagged by Aaron Stone in April 2011. And then there’s the state’s largest unrestricted division state record paddlefish, a 134-pounder snagged on a trotline in Grand Lake by angler Charles Ham back in August 1992.
How much higher can the world-record mark go? Obviously, as noted above, there’s at least one 157-pound paddlefish swimming in Keystone. And since the species is thought to reach up to 200 pounds—Thomas W. Gengerke reported in a 1986 biological status report that a 198-pounder was speared in Iowa back in 1916—who knows how much higher the Sooner State can push the spoonbill record?
What is known is this—there’s no better place right now than Oklahoma and Keystone Lake if you want to break the world record. If recent headlines are any indication, this Oklahoma "wash, rinse, repeat" record book run may very well just be getting started.
After all, as the great baseball catcher Yogi once said, it’s déjà vu all over again. And no where is that apparently truer than in the world of paddlefish fishing in the state of Oklahoma!
To contact Mefford, see the guide service’s Facebook page or call 918-695-0296.