Mike O’Donnell looked into the night, straining his eyes against the darkness. In one hand he held his fishing rod, bent under the strain of its load. And with the other he turned his reel handle in a seemingly fruitless effort to gain some control of the battle in which he found himself engaged.
Somewhere in the darkness a fish pulled hard in the opposite direction, taking line from the reel spool as it went. It was no doubt a good fish, but O’Donnell had no way of knowing just how good — not unless he could turn it back toward the boat.
This battle was going to take a while. O’Donnell knew it and so did his partner, Robert Smithurst, who laid back down and reassumed his sleeping position. “If you want a net, man, get me up,” he said.
This fish-catching duo, both members of the Nevada Striper Club, were competing in the organization’s monthly fishing tournament at Lake Mead. As is customary, the event got underway at 5 p.m. Friday, and that is where this fish story has its beginning.
Though it was a bit of a challenge, O’Donnell and Smithurst managed to net some gizzard shad to use for bait and then set out in search of hungry striped bass. What they found instead was a very slow striper bite. So too did other members of the club. “Fishing was slow. It was really hard to do anything,” O’Donnell said. “It was hard to get bait.”
As the sun was setting behind the River Mountains, O’Donnell and Smithurst dropped anchor in a small cove and settled in for a night of fishing. At about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, the pair grew tired and opted to grab some sleep. But not wanting to miss an opportunity, O’Donnell baited up with an 8-inch gizzard shad and let it drop off the back of the boat in 60 feet of water. After his bait hit bottom, O’Donnell cranked the reel handle a few times to get his bait off the bottom and to keep his rig from hanging up in the rocks. Then he put the reel in free spool, turned its clicker on and headed off to dreamland.
About 3 a.m. O’Donnell was awakened from a dead sleep when the clicker sounded. Something had picked up his bait and was now peeling line from the spool.
“I jumped up and grabbed the rod. I didn’t have my headlamp — I didn’t have it on. I didn’t have my glasses on. I was sleeping!” O’Donnell said, reliving the moment as he told his story. “I was fighting it in the dark!
“I could tell it was heavy. I told Robert, ‘This fish is big!’ It was big. I couldn’t turn it. It just kept running, and running and running. I was just about to tell him, ‘We got to untie the anchor and go get this fish.’ ”
That’s when the fish tired and O’Donnell was finally able to turn it back toward the boat. “I was hoping it was a big striper. It could have been a big catfish. I’ve caught big catfish on gizzard shad before, but it wasn’t fighting like a catfish. It was fighting like a striper,” he said.
By the time he got the fish close to the boat, O’Donnell was wearing his headlamp. In its beam the pair saw the fish for the first time. “When we seen that first flash we go, ‘Oh, wow!’ ” said O’Donnell. And “oh, wow” was right.
When the battle between fish and man was over, O’Donnell had to work to fit the fish into his cooler. Then he kept his fish story on the down-low until it was time for the tournament weigh-in. “I wanted the element of surprise,” he said. In keeping with that desire, O’Donnell waited to weigh his fish until he was one of the last. When the time came, “I got a lot of oohs and aahs,” he said, and I could almost feel his smile through the telephone.
O’Donnell’s fish was indeed the big striper he was looking for. According to Toby Chandler, the Striper Club’s tournament director, the fish measured 42 7/8 inches long, had a girth of 24½ inches and weighed in at 30 pounds, 13 ounces. Chandler said the fish “is the big fish of the year and possibly the big fish for the history of the club.” It also enabled O’Donnell to win the tournament.
For O’Donnell the 30-pound striper is a personal best. He also has a 24-pound striper to his credit along with several in the 10- to 15-pound range.
“It’s always good to see a big fish, you know, because it’s just kind of exciting. Even if it’s not yours, you’re, ‘Wow, that’s impressive!’ ” O’Donnell said.
And O’Donnell’s fish is just that. Impressive.
Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.