Redneck Fishing Tournament pulls invasive copi from Illinois River
Just after 11 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 5, a crowd gathers on the banks of the Illinois River.
The locusts droning overhead and the oppressive heat don’t take anything out of the experience for the several hundred people in Bath, Illinois for the 15th Annual Redneck Fishing Tournament.
“There’s been thousands of people here in prior years,” said tournament organizer Nikki Gregerson. “Usually you’ll get a couple of people and then they’ll come back the next year and have 12 people with them. Then you’ll see 30 people and they’re like ‘well the 12 people told us about it.’”
The tournament was canceled in 2020 due to COVID, and Gregerson says people had a hard time realizing it had started up again in 2021. But a combination of word of mouth, a passionate fanbase and features on networks like National Geographic make the competition a little more popular every year.
It draws international attention because of the invasive Copi, known as ‘Asian Carp’ until earlier this year, filling Illinois’ rivers - and the unique way that they are caught.
“You can try and catch them with a net, you can knock them into the boat with a bat,” explains Gregerson. “We don’t care. Just don’t use a fishing pole or long fishing nets.”
When disturbed by boats overhead, Copi launch themselves into the air. It makes them easy to catch but it also means most contestants wear helmets.
“Every year someone comes back with a broken nose or worse,” says volunteer John Patterson. “So I run a helmet lending program.”
It’s this exact behavior of Copi that led the tournament's founder, Betty DeFord, to start it.
“We started this event years ago because my grandkids couldn’t even get out and enjoy a boat ride without these things jumping in the boat and wreaking havoc with them,” said DeFord. “This is a small community and that’s what we do for fun. It got to the point we couldn’t do it with the carp.”
So the Redneck Fishing Tournament, a competition to pull the most invasive fish out of the river, was born. The first tournament had five boats registered, less than half of what the average year sees today. A reporter doing a piece on the invasive species mentioned the tournament in her article, and brought a few more people to Bath the following year.
“Three weeks later, we had 1,000 people show up for this tournament,” said DeFord. “It’s grown and grown and grown ever since.”
At noon, the first heat of the tournament started and boaters headed out for two hours to catch as many Copi as possible. Among those on the boats were people from Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and South Korea.
Joseph Tooker is a Florida resident who had traveled back across the country for his second year.
“I was watching the National Geographic several years ago and I saw videos on these fish that are jumping and whacking people in the head and jumping into boats,” said Tooker. “I saw that it was an issue and I was like ‘I’m going to do that before I die', put it on my bucket list.”
The camaraderie and fun is what Tooker said brought him back for a second year, reasons that are high on the list of anyone you ask at the tournament. DeFord says it’s important to remember its environmental purpose, raising awareness of the invasive species.
“I just want people to understand that there is a problem with these things,” said DeFord. “They are edible and if there’s any way we can get rid of them and keep them out of your rivers, do it. You don’t want them there.”
This year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources began a campaign to rename the Asian Carp to ‘Copi’. The name is short for ‘copious’, as the fish have no natural predators in Illinois and reproduce at an alarming rate, taking food and resources from native species.
The goal of the campaign is to convince more people to eat Copi. A booth at the tournament features a professional chef preparing the fish for people to try. Roy Sorce, owner of the Copi-processing company Sorce Freshwater, wants to clear up misconceptions about the fish.
“The biggest misconception is that they are not carp,” said Sorce. “They’re just called carp. But they’re actually a mid water and top water feeder, they are not a filter feeder. So they’re a white, very white healthy fish that is high in protein. And very good in other nutrients.”
The tournament contributes to more than the environment, since 2013, all the registration proceeds go to support homeless veterans. Gregerson says this cause is central to the tournament.
“There’s a problem and unfortunately our government isn’t stepping up to take care of our veterans,” said Gregerson. “But we decided, well, Betty decided that the township of Bath would step up."
After two hours, battered boaters came back to shore with their piles of Copi. Scales, slime and sweat fly through the air as they fling hundreds of the fish into large crates that have to be moved with a forklift into a waiting box truck. The Copi not fried up for tournament attendees is used for fertilizer and animal feed.
Carp Storm, a team of ten people out of southern Illinois and Kentucky, brought in 338 fish in the first heat. One of their team members, David Mobley, says they took some hits to get there.
“This year nobody’s got a black eye,” said Mobley. “So that’s a plus.”
Though there is the risk of injury, competitors say there’s nothing quite like the Redneck Fishing Tournament.
“My best catch of the day was when my partner in front of me caught a huge carp, but the weight of it ripped the net out of his hand,” said Nichole Jarrett, a member of a team outfitted in bright orange jumpsuits called the Department of Carp. “I was right behind him with my net. I not only caught the carp, but I caught his net too.”
By the end of the weekend, organizers say that boats brought in more than 3,000 Copi, weighing more than 20,000 pounds. It's one more dent in the millions of fish flooding Illinois rivers.