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Last weekend, Stephen Banaszak, a 30-year-old Plano native, and some friends went bow fishing in Lake Kentucky, along the Tennessee River in Kentucky and Tennessee. Suddenly, several silver and bighead carp launched out of the water. Some hit Banaszak in the head. One grazed another fisherman’s face with its fin, slicing open his eyelid.
“They can be dangerous,” Banaszak said, “especially if you’re out boating and you’re driving across the lake, and you get hit in the face by a 20-pound fish while you’re driving 20 miles an hour. That’s real dangerous. I know some people have died in the past around the country from these fish.”
The silver and bighead carp aren’t from around here. They’re native to Asia and can be devastating to U.S. fish populations. In a press release, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials said these carp are causing problems in several states, especially those in the Mississippi River Basin. When they’re small, they can look like baitfish. If fishermen mistakenly use them for bait, though, they can more easily spread across bodies of water.
To prevent the spread of these invasive species, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission recently passed regulations that ban transporting any live nongame fish from Northeast Texas waters where they’ve been spotted, including the Sulphur River downstream of Lake Wright Patman and Big Cypress Bayou downstream of Lake O’ the Pines.
Last month, Banaszak set out to find these carp in Texas waters. And he did. In fact, he’s now the first person on record to catch a silver carp in the state.
He says he’s got a couple of individual lake fishing records, but a state record is something he’s always been after. “When I knew these fish were around, I realized there’s no record for them, so if I get one, that’s automatically the record,” he said. For Banaszak, the catch is about more than the record. It’s about the survival of native wildlife.
Banaszak said he’s been fishing for about as long as he can remember. “It’s just something I’ve always done,” he said. “I really can’t even tell you when I started doing it.”
These days, fishing is more than a hobby for him. It’s how he makes his living. He heads out onto the water about four or five times a week and also conducts fishing tours with his company Tightlines Guide Service.
Banaszak usually heads out after dark. “I’m out all night long a lot of times,” he said.
He mostly bow fishes. He uses either a compact or a recurve bow that has a reel attached. The reel is connected to his arrow. He has an airboat with lights so he can see in the water. Often, he’s floating around Lake Texoma, waiting to take his shot. “When you go bow fishing, you’re looking for invasive species or other fish species that may be overpopulated,” he said. “You’ve really got to know each particular fish, what they like and how to get them.”
He’d never seen one of these carp before, but he knew they like deeper water outside of the current, so that’s where he started his search.
He floated down to Choctaw Creek, a Texas tributary of the Red River approximately 15 miles downstream from Lake Texoma. This area is considered to be in Texas.
Boats and lights often scare the carp, so he roamed and waited to see fish flying through the air. When he did, he slowly made his approach, pulled back on his bow and took the shot. Bullseye. One silver carp was down and being reeled in. He spotted a bighead carp and took another shot. Another bullseye.
Silver carp aren’t small fish. They sometimes reach approximately 3 feet in length and can weigh nearly 60 pounds. Bighead carp can be up to four and a half feet long and weigh nearly 90 pounds. But they’re also filter feeders, like so many other native fish, and it’s interrupting the food chain.
For example, there’s not enough algae to go around, and by the time carp have their feed, there’s barely any left for the paddlefish, which have been in Texas waters for millions of years.
The same thing goes for shad, or baitfish, which also eat algae. Many fish rely on shad, and when there’s not enough algae for the shad, there’s not enough shad for the other fish.
“So, like, Lake Texoma is a big striper [fish] lake. That’s a big worry,” Banaszak said. “The silver carp hitting Lake Texoma, it’s going to cut the shad population down, so it won’t be able to sustain the striper population that it has and that’s big business gone right there.”
Several fish in the larval state also eat algae, so the carp’s presence really affects all fish species, Banaszak said.
While he’s after a state record for his catch, Banaszak said the records are about more than prestige. Records give fishermen and hunters an incentive to go after these invasive species. If there’s no record for catching the species, they’ll decimate native wildlife.
He said he hopes Texas wildlife officials see the importance of establishing one.
“If you don’t want these fish in there, you need people that are going to go fish for them, particularly bow fishermen,” he said. “You want to give them a reason to go spend their time and hard-earned money just to go after these fish and you do that with a record system. If you don’t give them a record, fishermen are not going to be out looking for them.”
He’s still waiting on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to make a decision on the record. “It is their decision to make,” he said. “But hopefully they’ll understand the importance of this for this particular fish species just because we’ve got to do everything we can to keep them from here for safety and for the other wildlife.”
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