February 21, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead, OSG Senior Digital Editor
What started out as a Valentine’s Day fishing trip between Justin and Jill Hamlin turned out to be one of the sweetest—and most heartbreaking—catches in Oklahoma angling history.
By the time the husband-and-wife fishing trip was over on Feb. 14, 2020, there was no need for chocolates, roses, and a card since Justin had delivered one of the best fishing stories that you’ll ever hear, catching a paddlefish for the ages while on a guided trip at Keystone Lake on the Sooner State’s Arkansas River system.
But as sweet as catching the estimated 157-pound spoonbill was, a unique angling law on the books in Oklahoma mandated that the fish be released since it was caught on the wrong day!
Here’s how one of the most incredible fishing stories in recent times went down:
“It was our Valentine’s Day trip together,” said the 41-year old Justin, who has been fishing since he was a youngster. “My wife Jill, she likes to fish, and I do too. I’ve caught some decent stripers before and she’s reeled in a few of those, but she had never reeled in anything that big. So, when she saw how big these paddlefish were, she was ready to go.”
While Justin is an enthusiastic angler for stripers, crappie, and farm pond bass and catfish, he typically fishes in warmer weather. In fact, when he woke up and saw how cold the temperature was, the thought crossed his mind that the trip might need to be rescheduled.
“It was extremely cold that day,” he said. “I was kind of like ‘I don’t know about this, me and my wife going out on the water on such a cold morning. I guess people up north might think we’re sissies, but 19 is pretty cold in Oklahoma.”
Guide Jeremiah Medford, a Tulsa firefighter and owner of the Reel Good Time Guide Service, was eager to go out and show the couple how good the paddlefish angling can be on the Oklahoma reservoir. With plenty of big spoonbill success in his short time as a guide, Medford was certain that the group would warm up in short order.
(Editor’s Note: To contact Medford, see the guide service’s Facebook page or call (918) 695-0296).
“We set off for our first fishing spot not too far from the dock,” said Medford. “Within five minutes, my fish finder had shown a promising spoonbill and we were reeling in the first fish!”
As the morning progressed, the action was sporadically good.
“It wasn’t long before we were both enjoying some catches,” said Medford. “Justin would reel in his own and I would hand my catch off for Jill to reel in.”
The only drawback to the day was the sub-freezing weather.
“The weather didn’t cooperate much and we soon found our lines and rod eyelets freezing up and our hands starting to burn,” said Medford, noting that he was reluctant to subject the Hamlins to a frigid boat ride up the lake.
“We caught a few more good fish and finally decided to bite the bullet and travel to another spot on the lake that had shown some promise in the previous days,” he said.
A cold, eight-minute boat ride later, the group was at the next likely spot, ready to resume the search for a giant spoonbill, the kind that Oklahoma has become increasingly famous for in recent years.
After getting into position and seeing some fish on the sonar, Justin cast his rig out. Within a few moments, there was a big collision of angler, fish, and hook and it was game on.
“I knew it was a big fish because of what we’d caught already,” said Hamlin. “And I knew it was big by the way it was pulling, but I was still oblivious to what it was ultimately going to be. I kind of figured that it would be close to a 100-pound fish.”
But the battle with the big spoonbill was tougher than the others that morning had been, a seesaw affair that saw several good runs, lots of rod bending action, and both the angler and fish wearing down.
Eventually, the fish came to the surface, was reeled towards the boat, and was landed.
“When we pulled it up there on the boat, Jeremiah was probably more excited than I was,” said Hamlin, whose previous paddlefish experience had been in the Arkansas River itself. “He’s seen a lot more big ones than I have, and he immediately said, ‘That’s an absolute monster!’ He added that it was probably a 140+ pound fish, and if that was the case, that it would be a new lake record and a new state record.”
While a fish of that size is exceedingly difficult to weigh, the anglers watched in disbelief as the scale teetered between 154-pounds and 161-pounds and then finally settled on the 157-pound mark.
“It looked big in the water, but it wasn’t until we pulled him in the boat that we realized how big!” said Medford.
“I immediately said ‘That’s the biggest fish I’ve had in my boat, you might have a record.’” “(Then) I heard Justin say, ‘It’s Friday, they won’t let us keep it.’
Why is that? Because for more than a decade, Oklahoma state regulations have required the release of all paddlefish snagged on Mondays and Fridays so that the prehistoric looking piscatorial species will be protected from overharvest.
At that point, the trio aboard Medford’s boat wondered if the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, who is arguably the nation’s leader in paddlefish research and management efforts, might want to at least come out, weigh the fish and examine it before its release.
“After we weighed it and confirmed its record potential, we contacted the biologist who told us the bad news,” said Medford. “We were going to have to release it without a certified weight (being) taken. He asked us to take some measurements before we released it. (So) after a few pictures, we released the fish and watched it swim away.”
As they did so, they were watching a ginormous sized freshwater fish swim away that few if any other anglers have ever seen. For starters, the Hamlin paddlefish would have easily eclipsed the current Oklahoma state rod-and-reel record for the species, a 132-pound, 8-ounce specimen snagged, weighed, and released back into the Arkansas River (above Keystone Lake) on April 29, 2018 by angler Larry Morphew.
And the fish was also a likely world record too. While the International Game Fish Association doesn’t recognize snagged fish as records, the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame does.
And since 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, it stands to reason that Hamlin’s fish would have been capable of claiming that benchmark too.
As staggering as the size of Hamlin’s paddlefish was, it’s possible that it was even bigger.
“My wife told me later that she wasn’t sure if the fish’s weight was high enough since she wasn’t sure if it ever fully cleared the deck as we tried to weigh it,” said Hamlin. “So, I suppose it’s possible that it weighed even more.”
After the huge paddlefish swam away, the group kept fishing, albeit a little halfheartedly.
“We did catch another fish at 70+ pounds, but when you’ve just seen a 157-pound fish, it was hard to be excited about one half its size,” said Medford. “In the end, we had an awesome time, minus the freezing temps. Justin told me that he was fully aware of the regulations and understood why an exception couldn’t be made. It’s all about the love of fishing for Justin ...record or not.”
Raised in a family that loved fishing—Justin’s two grandfathers and his dad both helped fuel his own passion for fishing—the angler took his sweet-and-sour experience in stride.
“I guess the only real disappointment was that I would like to have known what it actually weighed on a certified set of scales,” said Hamlin. “But I certainly wanted that fish to go back into the water and live to see another day. When you know what it is, how long it’s lived there, and how special these fish are, you certainly want it to survive.
The bottom line for Hamlin is that the whole experience was a Valentine’s Day that he won’t soon forget.
“It was (certainly) the fishing experience of a lifetime,” he said. Even if it took place on the wrong day.