Many anglers were happy to say goodbye to 2020, but not Jeremiah Mefford, a guide on Keystone Lake in Northeast Oklahoma.
Mefford experienced the wildest year of guiding customers to giant paddlefish ever known.
In his first full year of business, he led fishermen to two world records and a saga that will likely never be matched.
• His unlikely voyage started in February, when he guided a customer to a paddlefish that unofficially weighed 157 pounds — big enough to rank as a word record but not certified because it wasn’t weighed on a certified scale.
• On June 28, Mefford guided James Lukehart of Edmond, Oklahoma, to an official world-record fish, which weighed 146.7 pounds.
• Less than a month later, that mark was broken when Cory Watters of Ochelata, Oklahoma, snagged and released a 151.9-pound paddlefish.
• Fishing with his son Brody, Mefford got in on the fun himself, snagging a 143-pound paddlefish May 23 on a day off from guiding. That fish was an Oklahoma state record at the time.
All of this from a young guide who has hooked into a revolutionary approach to paddlefish snagging that is commanding attention in the fishing world.
“I’m not a tech-savvy guy,” said Mefford, 34, who lives in Kiefer, Oklahoma, and is a firefighter in Tulsa. “I’m not good on computers or anything like that, but for whatever the reason, the good Lord gave me the ability to read these graphs. With these electronics, I target big spoonbills, and I can chase them down. The majority of the time, we’ll catch them if I can see them on the screen.”
Mefford, who operates the Reel Good Time guide service, has perfected the use of Garmin’s LiveScope, which shows real-time movement of fish. The images of paddlefish are distinctive on the screen because of their big paddlelike noses. When he marks a big fish, he is like a bulldog, chasing it down until his customer has a shot at snagging it.
Because paddlefish feed primarily on zooplankton, there are no lures or bait involved. Instead, fishermen use large treble hooks and heavy weights to snag the trophy fish.
Modern electronics are changing the game, allowing fishermen to at least locate holes where the paddlefish lurk. But Mefford has taken it a step further, using the LiveScope real-time tracking that many crappie fishermen use.
With LiveScope, Mefford can pick out a specific large fish he wants to catch and can even see where that fish is headed.
“Spoonbill never stop moving, so it’s not necessarily sitting over a fish and snagging vertically,” he said. “But LiveScope gives me the ability to chase that fish down.”
There are no magic spots or depths on Keystone, a 23,600-acre reservoir about 23 miles outside Tulsa, the only place Mefford guides.
“They’re never in the same place from day to day,” he said. “One day, I’ll find them in 10 to 15 feet of water. Then I’ll go back and they might be 50 to 60 feet of water.
“I guided one customer to a 105-pounder in 62 feet of water, right on the bottom.”
Mefford uses heavy-duty rods, saltwater reels, 80-pound test braided line and big weights and hooks.
Part of his success can be traced to the reservoir he fishes. Keystone has a self-sustaining population of paddlefish, with excellent spawning rivers such as the Arkansas and the Cimarron and their tributaries.
Jason Schooley, a senior fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, also credits good genetics, an abundance of the type of zooplankton the paddlefish thrive on and lower fishing pressure than some reservoirs as playing a part in Keystone’s success.
“The paddlefish thrive in this environment,” Schooley said. “The fish in Keystone have twice as much fat content as the ones in some of our other reservoirs.”
They’re also long-lived. The current world-record paddlefish that Watters caught and released had a tag in its jaw. It was banded on Jan. 4, 1997, as part of a research study by an Oklahoma State University graduate student. The fish was 2 years old at the time and weighed 7.7 pounds.
It grew into a world-record fish that is probably still out there. Watters released the fish, and LiveScope indicated that it swam off in good health.
“I have a rule on my boat that anything over 60 pounds has to be released,” Mefford said. “It takes a long time for these fish to grow to 100 pounds and bigger. If everyone kept these big fish, it would definitely hurt the population.”