By Becca Fanning, Video by Austin Keating and Becca Fanning, Aug. 23, 2017 –
Randy Stockham turned the throttle, his left arm braced as he dodged an airborne fish and steered around a fallen tree to catch the lead boat. With 10 minutes left in the first heat of this year’s Redneck Fishing Tournament, his team was on track to bring home the gold.
In the boat, Stockham’s crew worked in sync, knees bent and nets in the air as hundreds of Asian carp leapt from the river, hitting trees, the sides of boats and occasionally landing with a thud on the floor next to him.
“We call the first heat the blood heat. That’s when you put your ‘A’ team in,” Stockman said.
“And 90 percent of the time, the first heat is going to be the overall winning heat. The fish haven’t been upset yet. So they’re surprised when all of these boats come at them.”
Stockham’s crew won the first heat with a catch of 124 fish, far ahead of the second place team.
Every August since 2005, hundreds of fishermen, boaters and spectators descend on the tiny village of Bath – population 333 – for a weekend of costume contests, live music and carp-catching. What began as a way to eradicate invasive Asian carp from the Illinois River has become a much-anticipated yearly reunion for fishing-lovers and carp-haters from around the country and even beyond.
This year, boats came from across the United States and Canada to vie for the carp. Their mission: tackle the carp at the river to reduce the risk that the fish will ever invade the Great Lakes.
The rules are simple: Catch as many Asian carp as you can in the two-hour heats, using anything but a fishing pole. Hunting Asian carp is easier but trickier than it sounds. The silver carp, the species of Asian carp that fishermen catch at the Redneck competition, often grow to 20 pounds. They jump from the water when they’re startled by vibrations from boat engines, often landing in boats or smacking the faces of fishermen, occasionally causing real injuries.
Bath stretches along a seven-mile branch of the Illinois River. On either side of the water, low-hanging trees give way to muddy banks and the occasional grassy backyard. Small houses back up against the river, the yards barely sitting above water level.
In spring, the basements of these houses often fill with water, the river overflows its banks, covering the grassy yards. That’s when residents like Tara Stephens just use their boats to get around, she said.
For residents of Bath, the river is central to recreation, property values and small-town identity. When invasive Asian carp started moving up the Mississippi and taking over the waterways, destroying habitat and scaring fishermen, Betty DeFord decided to organize the tournament.
“The river brings a lot to Bath. It brings the good and it brings the bad,” said Stephens.
Stockham, a lifelong resident of neighboring Havana, first came to the tournament in 2006 with his teenage children and his nephew, Doug Smith. In the past 11 years, they have added friends, racked up four wins and caught thousands of Asian carp. In 2012, they caught 1,081 fish in two days, he said.
The Redneck Fishing Tournament has attracted participants from as far away as New York, Germany and Canada. This year, participants caught and removed 2,729 Asian carp from the river, 579 from Stockham’s boat.
As Stockham’s team hauled their buckets full of Asian carp to the judges table, he stayed behind, stepping over dead carp and gathering broken nets to prepare for the next heat.
“As long as I’m physically able and Betty holds the tournament, then I’ll be here,” he said.
PHOTO AT TOP: Randy Stockman’s crew in action: Emilio Quinones nets an Asian carp as Henry McClure (far left) and Robert Stockham get out of the way. (Becca Fanning/Medill)