Part of what draws us to fishing is the idea that each time we feel a tug, we never know if the fish of a lifetime might be on the other end of our line. This past Monday, May 22, full-time Muskogee fireman and fishing guide Ryan Davison landed what may just be his fish of a lifetime.
Davison runs Oklahoma Paddlefish Guide Service with his business partner and fellow firefighter Cameron Foster. After a long day of guiding, he went out looking for a fish of his own. The area in which their guide service operates is known for world record paddlefish (one of the bodies of water they guide on has produced several world records), and that’s exactly what Davison was after.
After catching and releasing a 100-pound paddlefish earlier in the evening, Davison saw another good fish on his Livescope and snagged it with a specialized, barbless hook that paddlefish anglers in the region are required to use. Paddlefish are filter feeders, and snagging is the only way they can be targeted by recreational anglers.
“They all fight good, but right away I knew it wasn’t a giant,” Davison told MeatEater.
He fought the fish for several minutes before finally getting a good look at it, and that’s when he knew he had something unexpected and truly special.
“I pulled it up to the side of the boat thinking I was just gonna shake it off, and that’s when I saw it was solid black,” Davison said. “The whole thing from nose to tail was just jet, jet black.”
The fish has a form of melanism, an excess of melanin resulting in a far darker than normal, even black, appearance. This genetic mutation, although extremely rare in paddlefish, occurs throughout the animal kingdom, including deer, big cats, and wild turkeys.
Once Davison realized he was dealing with the fish of a lifetime, he set up his phone to record the moment. But that moment didn’t go quite the way Davison anticipated.
“So I go to the back of the boat. Normally I have someone else in the boat with me, but I’m trying to land this fish by myself. I have 100-pound braid in my one hand and this fish in the other, and I thought I could just lift it over the stern when all the sudden it starts thrashing and breaks my grip,” Davison said.
As the fish ran back for the depths, Davison could feel the braid starting to slice into his hand, forcing him to let it go.
“The next thing I know, the rod is skipping across the stern and into the water,” Davison said. “At that point I just grab for it, knowing full well that I’m going in.”
And go in he did. Davison slid over the stern but emerged a few seconds later, rod in hand, and climbed back on board via a swim ladder. Amazingly, he not only caught the rod but managed to continue the fight, swim back to the boat, and land the fish. And lucky for us, he did it all on camera.
“The second time I tried to land it, I thought I’d better just do it the right way and use the tail rope,” Davison said.
While only weighing an estimated 60 or 70 pounds (relatively small by Davison’s standards), the paddlefish was undoubtedly one of a kind. In all his years paddlefishing, Davison says he’s never seen nor heard of another one like it.
“I’ve been fishing for these things since I was fifteen. We catch hundreds every season. Sometimes you see a darker one, sometimes you see some really white ones, but never have I seen anything like this. Its eyes, inside its mouth—everything was jet black,” he said. “It looked like freakin’ Batman.”
Davison showed the fish off to the camera, took in the special moment, and then simply let the fish go. When asked if he was tempted at all to keep the fish, Davison said he never even considered it.
“No, it never really crossed my mind. I was just happy to have that interaction and get my hands on it. That was good enough for me.”
Images and video via Ryan Davison.