For years, Oklahoma has been known as one of the epicenters of college football. Now, thanks to recent trends in hunting and fishing action, the Sooner State is near the center of the outdoors world, too.
Last fall, headlines trumpeted the state's continuing run of huge whitetail bucks like Troy Bryant's top 5 rifle kill and Oklahoma State University student Guner Womack's state record archery buck.
But this spring and summer, the headlines in Oklahoma have been about giant paddlefish, including a would-be world-record catch that wasn't and a state-record catch that was.
That last catch came only weeks ago when guide Jeremiah Mefford etched his name in the record books with a giant paddlefish of his own. His Oklahoma state record would last only a few weeks thanks to a guide trip on Sunday, June 28, 2020, when he took James Lukehart and his wife Caitlin on a guided fishing trip to Keystone Lake near Tulsa.
In short order, Lukehart, a 34-year-old Caterpillar heavy equipment salesman from Edmond, was about to become a viral sensation after snagging a potential world-record paddlefish from the 23,600-acre reservoir on the Arkansas River system.
After a lengthy battle and ordeal to get the huge fish weighed and released, an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation scale registered an amazing weight of 146.7 pounds, enough to apparently set a new benchmark for a world record.
"It happened pretty quickly this morning about 9:30 a.m.," said Lukehart, hours after his catch. "Jeremiah is the current [state] record holder and he's the one that took us out and helped us get the record."
Lukehart said the guided trip was something of a spur-of-the-moment decision as he looked into his yawningly empty freezer last week.
"Hang on," he said as the details of the story began to spill out. "I'm actually out [in the shop] with Sportsman Channel blaring on the TV. I've been watching North American Whitetail this evening."
After turning down the sound, he continued: "I've never been paddlefish fishing before. I'm mostly a bowhunter, chasing deer, turkey, and stuff like that. Even though [Jeremiah has] been at the center of the paddlefish fishing craze we've had here the last few months, I had no thoughts of a world record. I just wanted to go catch some smaller ones and get enough meat for a fish fry."
Growing up in Apache, Okla., Lukehart became an enthusiastic hunter and angler thanks to the influence of mentors like rancher Paul Jackson and friend Charles Reece.
In Jackson’s case, whom Lukehart went to church with in the rural town he grew up in, it was providing access to some treasured local fishing holes. And in Reece’s case, it was being taught how to be successful with a rod and reel in hand.
"I grew up farm-pond hopping, riding my bike around town, balancing my tackle box and rod and reels on the upturned handlebars," chuckled Lukehart.
In recent years after his graduation from the University of Central Oklahoma, he's been chasing game and fish to the point that it’s all that fills up the freezer in the home that he shares with his wife and young son.
"I've tried to be self-sufficient, long before this pandemic hit," said Lukehart. "In fact, we've been 100-percent self-sufficient the last three years, eating wild meat like elk, axis deer, fallow deer, blackbuck antelope, aoudad, and of course, whitetails, since I usually tag two or three a year. There's also been plenty of pheasants and doves too. Basically, if you can hunt it in Oklahoma, that's what I'm putting into the freezer instead of store-bought meat."
As the usual summer freezer cleanout has been occurring—spurred on, perhaps, by the events of the current coronavirus crisis—Lukehart decided last week that maybe the empty freezer was crying out for some fresh fish.
That spurred thoughts of booking a paddlefish trip with Mefford, who owns and operates the Reel Good Time Guide Service, a trip that Caitlin Lukehart was eager to take according to her husband.
"My wife is passionate about the outdoors, too," said Lukehart. "She's originally from California and didn't hunt and fish when we met. But she has watched me and wanted to give it all a try. So, she started shooting a bow several years ago and now outshoots me.
"She also goes with me on pheasant hunts, dove hunts, etc.," James added. "In fact, one of her passions is fishing and she recently out-fished everyone on the boat during a trip to Lake Tahoe. She's a real fisherwoman and when I mentioned the trip to her, she was fired up and wanted to go give it a try."
While Mefford—a Tulsa area fireman who guides on the side—is basically booked solid into early fall, he did have an opening on Sunday, which the Lukeharts eagerly took.
Fast forward to the summertime trip on Keystone and the couple was only minutes into the day aboard Mefford's boat when the snagging action (paddlefish are filter feeders and don't bite traditional lures with regular hooks) started with a big fish.
"My wife was first up on the casting deck, and it didn't take long at all and she was hooked up with an 88-pound giant," said Lukehart. "It took about 10 minutes for her to land it. We weighed that fish and let it go."
Then it was James' initial turn, an opportunity that he turned into a catch-and-release landing of a 42-pound paddlefish.
Still weary from her first catch, Caitlin told her husband to stay on the casting deck and try and catch another spoonbill. Minutes later, he was hooked up with a huge paddlefish that could rewrite the record books.
"We were honestly only about 45 minutes into the trip at that point," said Lukehart. "I think it was about 9:30 a.m. when I hooked into that fish."
Lukehart, who at 215 pounds is a fit man who works out frequently, admits the fight was more than he expected.
"I think it took 10 to 15 minutes, although to be honest, I don't really remember being cognizant of the time that it took," he said. "I know that it felt like an eternity and wore me out since every time I would get it close, it would make another run back out."
On one of those passes near the boat, the fish didn't look as long as Caitlin's earlier paddlefish. But on another pass where the giant fish rolled a bit and exposed its enormous girth, it became apparent that this was a special fish.
"When we saw it that second time, Jeremiah said that we needed to do everything right because it was definitely over 100 pounds and he thought we might have a record here," said Lukehart.
Eventually, the battle was won, and the fish was boat-side. But that's where the second part of the adventure began, since Lukehart was determined to keep the fish alive and release it.
"When we got it aboard the boat, the initial weight on the scale read 150.9 pounds because we were having trouble getting the fish clear of the boat's deck," said Lukehart. "We tried again and got a weight over 140 and we knew that it was a potential world record."
Keeping the fish in the water boat-side, the crew began a long, slow trip towards shore. Once they got into shallow water, Lukehart went overboard and kept the fish in check as he held it gently by its rostrum (spoonbill) and walked it back and forth in the water.
"While I hoped to get the record, I was determined to do everything I could to release that fish healthy," he said. "That was our top priority the whole time."
Meanwhile, Mefford had summoned the help of ODWC senior fisheries biologist Jason Schooley and fisheries technician Eric Brennan. The pair were in the area and were able to get to Keystone quickly to help weigh and certify the big paddlefish's weight.
Once the ODWC biologists showed up, the fish was measured at 70 ½ inches in length, 45 ½ inches in girth, and officially weighed in at 146.7 pounds.
While the International Game Fish Association does not recognize snagged fish in its record book, the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame does.
As noted in previous stories, various media reports indicate that a 144-pound specimen caught in a 10-acre Kansas pond by Clinton Boldridge back in 2004 is the NFWFHOF’s world record for the species. (Editor’s Note: There's also the belief that a paddlefish speared in Iowa back in 1916 is perhaps the biggest specimen ever recorded. It was indicated to weigh in excess of 198 pounds according to a 1986 paddlefish status report by Thomas W. Gengerke.)
Once the certified weight and official measurements were obtained, Schooley and Lukehart worked with the paddlefish to get it recuperated and ready for release. Once the big fish started resisting and trying to swim away, they took it slowly back out into 40 feet of water where the world-record specimen swam away strongly.
"When we finally let her go, she took off and quickly swam down," said Lukehart. "We watched her head towards the bottom on the electronics, which we used to follow her for about 15 minutes. She eventually joined up with two other paddlefish below and swam off for good."
After getting back to shore and celebrating a bit, Lukehart and his wife decided to finish out their guide trip looking for a couple of smaller fish to eat. In the final 1 ½ hours of their trip, they boated and tagged a 55-pounder and another 50-pounder for the table.
"In fact, as we speak, I've got that meat brining and am getting ready to smoke tomorrow on my Yoder smoker and pellet grill," said Lukehart. "After we talk, my wife and I are then going to watch Yellowstone. That's her favorite show now and it's been a long day.”
In the 12 hours that followed Lukehart's historic catch, he said he had been bombarded by phone calls and social media attention. Taking it all in stride, he said that he'd likely have trouble sleeping, trying to soak in the fact that he had caught a potential world-record fish.
When I asked what Lukehart planned to do for an encore, he said he was simply a blessed man in the right place at the right time and he wasn't sure. But he did note he's ready to start bowhunting again, on an exotic nilgai hunt next week and this fall during Oklahoma's upcoming deer season.
"Maybe I can get one of our state’s big whitetails with my Hoyt bow this fall and break a record there," he laughed. "Seriously, I'm glad I was able to help get the world record back here to Oklahoma. The paddlefish action is really good here and my record might be broken next weekend. And if it is, I'll be stoked about that, too, since the record will stay here."
In Oklahoma, a place where the college football is good, but to be honest, as recent headlines prove, a state where the hunting and fishing action is even better.
(Editor’s Note: To contact Mefford, see the guide service’s Facebook page or call 918-695-0296.)