GROVE — After a chaotic drill with two guides and an angler rushing to the back of a bobbing boat, buzzing reels and the landing of a giant fish, all went quiet as Yoji Nabata sat down with a 43-pound Grand Lake paddlefish in his lap. He stroked it, looked over its odd characteristics and spoke quietly in Japanese in front of his GoPro camera.
The Japanese angler had come 6,300 miles, and at 11:30 a.m. Sunday he was 15 hours behind his time zone (it was 2:30 a.m. the next day in Tokyo) and this 43-pound prehistoric fish known for its long, flat rostrum was what he had come to see, hold, admire and experience.
The 48-year-old director of a clothing company in Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, has traveled the world on trips the past 10 years to catch “monster fish.” He said his quest has taken him from his home seas to “Thailand, India, Indonesia, so many countries.” He’s landed a stingray that was 13 feet across and weighed 440 pounds, a giant octopus, a variety of huge catfish, sharks, tarpon, wolf eel and other big and often prehistoric species.
Paddlefish, of course, were on his to-do list. Why he does these trips, he couldn’t say, or didn’t understand the question. Language was a bit of a barrier. He smiled wide, “I don’t know,” he said in plain English.
The booking for Grand Lake may mark a growing trend with the help of social media. Facebook led him to the paddlefish of Grand Lake o’ The Cherokees and Pritchard’s Guide Service. On a six-day trip he is fishing two days with Rusty and Molly Pritchard and two days fishing for sturgeon in Canada, he said.
“It was funny, he called, and the same day a group from Russia called,” Rusty Pritchard said.
The Russian group was connected to someone who had been on a Route 66 trip previously and happened upon the opportunity. Nabata found Pritchard through Facebook, where both the guide and the angler actively post photos and videos of big fish. Presence of the paddlefish on international Facebook pages raises tourism possibilities that could add a boost to tourism that typically falls off around Oklahoma lakes in the winter.
That suits Pritchard just fine. “It’s definitely something fun people can do in the winter,” he said.
He was the first to guide on the lake for paddlefish in the winter, starting out in an open-top lake boat like most used for fishing blue catfish in the winter, with anglers in often ice-covered insulated coveralls or rain gear. On Sunday, he skimmed across the lake at speeds up to 55 mph in a 24-foot G3 Boats custom fishing boat with his own custom-made Lexan cabin cover. The sun was enough to keep the greenhouse-like structure toasty on that fall day, but it has a heater and stereo and all the comforts for the nastiest of conditions, he said.
Sunday was a little earlier start to the season than usual for Pritchard. He likes to wait for December, when the fish begin to concentrate in tighter groups and the action is a little more consistent for the anglers. But advanced electronics, fishing techniques and a lot more guides on the lake have pushed the season earlier into the fall and later through the spring.
It’s a boost for business and for the community, but Pritchard said he worries that if too many private anglers and guides get into the groove at Grove, more fishing regulations or a season with set dates might be on the horizon.
Oklahoma already has a limited take, however, and the winter catch on Grand still can’t compare to the numbers caught by boaters and bankside anglers during the spring spawning run. Paddlefish are plankton feeders and the only way to catch them is by snagging with a bare, barbless treble hook. State studies have shown the big fish are highly tolerant of catch-and-release fishing. Anglers are required to have a special paddlefish permit, and must immediately e-check any fish they intend to keep. The daily limit is one fish; the annual limit is two. Fridays and Mondays are catch-and-release.