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One-Of-A-Kind Mason County Asian Carp Tournament Returns, Highlighting A Tiny Town And An Invasive Fish

thumbnail_Redneck fishing photo (credit-Rob Hart Photo).jpg
Rob Hart
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The one-of-a-kind Redneck Fishing Tournament is coming back to Central Illinois after a hiatus.

Each summer, a couple thousand eager fishers temporarily bring a bustle to the sleepy Mason County town of Bath, population 300.

The fishers from across the state and U.S. are in pursuit of the invasive Asian carp on the Illinois River.

But for the last two years, the carp haven't been stirred by the annual tournament.

"There are been so many people calling me last two years 'When are we going to have this again? When are we going to have this again?' and you know, I've actually missed it. I have met so many wonderful people from all over every state imaginable and all over the world really, from this. And we all meet every year, and I've made so many good friends. I missed them all," said organizer Betty DeFord, who started the tournament 16 years ago.

"Plus, the fun of catching those carp there. It is a ball. It's hilarious to watch them. It really is," said DeFord.

The COVID-19 pandemic force the cancellation last year. The year before, historic flooding on the river made it unsafe to take boats out on the river for the tournament. But conditions were right to bring it back this year, DeFord said.

Unlike many fishing tournaments, don't bother bringing a fishing rod to this event.

"You are allowed one handheld net per participant. It doesn't matter how big your boat is," said DeFord.

Some participants end up catching some of their haul more directly, as the flying fish leap past the nets, directly into passing watercraft.

But that's not to say it's easy to net a carp.

"They are totally crazy fish. You never know which way they're going. I guess one of their friends jumps up and the other friend tries to protect him or something because when you're looking at one, the other one will get you," said DeFord. "We've had people with black eyes and broke noses and I don't know what all in this event."

Protective gear has morphed into a costume contest, with prizes for the best.

"Once you're out there, these carp are vicious little critters," said DeFord. "They don't want to be caught, but they don't want to stirring up their water either. So they're jumping and going like crazy."

The invasive Asian carp were first brought to the U.S. in the 1970s. Their numbers have exploded in recent decades. That's wreaked havoc of the biodiversity of the Illinois River as native species are pushed out by the carp, which lack for natural predators in the Midwest.

"That is the reason we started this event years ago. It's the bring the awareness of these invasive silver Asian carp. They're the ones that jump out of the water. There's the ones that tear up the ecosystem," said DeFord.

For a small river town like Bath, they've also dampened what people can do for fun.

"If you're out there trying to enjoy your watersports, which, what else do we have around this small area? They've been attacking people on jet skis, jumping in boats. You don't dare take your little ones out by jon boat like we used to do, you know, fishing and stuff because they're terrible. They're dangerous. If they'd hit a little kid, they could almost probably kill them, if they hit them just right," she said. "And it's that's why we started this event, to bring the awareness to the people. If you don't have them in your waters, keep them out of your waters because you'll never get rid of them."

Efforts are ongoing to prevent the fish from making it upstream into Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes. In East Peoria and elsewhere, entrepreneurs are exploring commercial opportunities for Asian carp products.

But for Bath, the tournament is the local community's way to make the best of the situation.

"This thing has just taken off like crazy. The whole town gets in on the act," she said.

Beginning in 2013, the Redneck Fishing Tournament features a raffle, with 100% of the proceeds going to groups benefitting Central Illinois veterans experiencing homelessness.

Click here for more information about the tournament, which runs Aug. 6-7.

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