For Tulsa angler Justin Hamlin, Valentine's Day 2020 brought joy and heartbreak within a few moments.
Fishing with Jeremiah Mefford and the Reel Good Time Guide Service on Oklahoma’s Keystone Lake, Hamlin reeled in a fish that would have set a state record and potentially a world record.
It would have been a record if the fish had been caught on another day, that is.
Thanks to a unique Sooner State regulation that helps conserve big paddlefish, Hamlin's fish—caught on a Friday—had to be released back into the water.
"What an incredible fish,” said the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation in a 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!"
The Wrong Day for a Fishing Record
But as stated above, Hamlin's potential record-smashing fish—known officially as an American paddlefish, or Polyodon spathula—won't be acknowledged as a state record. The humongous fish was weighed on hand-held scales in the boat and released back into Keystone Lake as required by a unique Oklahoma law.
ODWC noted in its Facebook post that "… regulations for more than a decade have required all paddlefish snagged on Mondays and Fridays be released immediately to help protect these unique fish from over-harvest. The fish was not eligible to be recorded as a state and world record. But the good news is that Justin released the fish and it is still out there for someone to catch again."
"We shattered the state record but we couldn't keep it to take it for an official weight because Fridays and Mondays are catch-and-release-only days." Mefford told the Tulsa World newspaper. "It was a monster, so that was a heart-breaker."
On Valentine’s Day, no less.
What's the World Record for Paddlefish?
As noted by ODWC, the Hamlin paddlefish could have held even loftier claims if it had been officially weighed in. While there is no official world record in the International Game Fish Association records—the IGFA does not recognize snagged fish—it’s possible that Hamlin’s fish could have been the largest paddlefish landed in the world.
But while the IGFA doesn’t recognize snagged paddlefish, the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame does. 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.
And 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.
Will We See It Again?
There's the hope that Hamlin’s giant paddlefish might someday be caught again.
That seems entirely possible since Mefford has reportedly become quite adept at guiding clients to the big fish on Keystone. In recent weeks, he's had several clients land 100-plus pound paddlefish, a streak that includes the new official lake record, a 125.8-pounder caught on Feb. 2 by 12-year-old angler Case Rowland.
Given Mefford’s developing prowess in catching big paddles on Keystone, it would seem that the chances of Hamlin’s fish being caught again are somewhat greater than they might normally be.
A large, primitive species that excels in the Red, Arkansas, and Grand River systems, paddlefish are a popular Sooner State target. ODWC is known far and wide for having one of the top paddlefish management programs in the nation. That management annually produces huge fish and lures anglers from around the nation who want to catch one of the prehistoric-looking fish.
Sooner State Paddlefish Reputation
That reputation is well-deserved. In addition to Hamlin's big catch a few days ago, the current official Oklahoma rod-and-reel paddlefish record is 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 beat the previous state record mark from the Arkansas River, a 125-pound, 7-ounce giant snagged by Aaron Stone in April 2011.
Incidentally, the Sooner State's largest unrestricted division state record paddlefish is a 134-pounder snagged on a trotline in Grand Lake by angler Charles Ham in August 1992.
While Hamlin won't know the satisfaction of an official record, he will know he caught what is almost certainly the largest paddlefish ever snagged in Oklahoma or elsewhere.
With any sort of luck, it's only a matter of time before an angler lands such a record-breaking fish on a day that the brute can be officially weighed and recorded as a benchmark catch for Oklahoma.
Why is that? Because Oklahoma continues to champion the unique species. In fact, ODWC notes in a separate news release that back in 1992, Oklahoma fisheries biologists began an effort to re-introduce paddlefish using hatchery-raised fish to help re-establish them in waters where they had been eradicated.
The Future for Paddlefish
This ODWC effort enabled self-sustaining populations of paddlefish to become established in a number of places across the Sooner State, fish that anglers have been reeling in with increasing frequency over the last few years.
That trend should continue for the foreseeable future thanks to the ODWC Paddlefish Research Center opened in Miami, Okla., in February 2008. Operating in March and April each year, ODWC biologists at the PRC conduct research, collect biological data, salvage paddlefish eggs, and even process paddlefish fillets for anglers who cooperate with the program.
According to the agency, each paddlefish brought into the PRC is examined by biologists who are seeking to gather information concerning the health of the paddlefish population. Eggs harvested from females are processed into caviar that is sold in worldwide markets. Proceeds from those sales fund ongoing research for the species, gains additional angler access to Oklahoma waters, and supports other ODWC conservation efforts.
ODWC reports that information gleaned from the state’s paddlefish research continues to guide management decisions, creates an important revenue stream necessary for management, and gives cooperating anglers some great tasting paddlefish meat. All in all, it's a win-win scenario for Oklahoma, its paddlefish population, and the anglers who eagerly participate.
As long as you catch your giant paddlefish on the right day, that is!
Editor’s Note: To contact Mefford, see the guide service’s Facebook page or call 918-695-0296