By Sam Levin
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"I put my hand up through its gills and grabbed him by the tail," Opel remembers. "I'm fighting hard. I got him pinned up against the rocks, and finally I get him out of the water — and that's when I seen how big he was. I didn't know what to do."
Holding the fish in a bear hug, his bow dragging behind him, Opel sprinted to the top of the levy's steep embankment and dropped the whale of a carp, exhausted.
"The arrow stuck in his head came out his mouth and jabbed me in the kneecap and ripped a hole in my jeans," Opel recalls.
He drove the fish to his father's house and then to a certified scale at a grocery store in his hometown of Worden, Illinois. The bighead carp weighed in at 92 pounds, 8 ounces. It had a girth of 30 inches and was more than five feet long.
Chapman says it is the largest carp ever caught by a recreational fisherman in the Western Hemisphere.
Pulling into a bar in Edwardsville, Illinois, Opel is easy to spot. He sits in his monster-truck-size Ford, its back windows plastered with stickers from a half-dozen hunting and archery associations, along with the emblem of his local heavy equipment operators' union. Wearing a blue camouflage cap, a flannel shirt and a goatee, he looks like a supersized version of Larry the Cable Guy.
Once inside, Opel describes how the giant fish changed his life. Every local television network wanted a piece of the story. Says Opel: "The first one I called was Channel 4. I asked 'em, 'Are you going to send me Virginia Kerr?'"
The Associated Press later picked up the tale and it appeared in hundreds of papers from Los Angeles to London. His phone rang off the hook for two weeks, mostly from old friends wanting him to take them bowfishing. Equipment manufacturer Cajun Archery (sponsors of Aim Low Productions) agreed to give him free gear.
The equipment, he says, is the best thing that ever happened to him.
"You got that saying: When your hunting and taxidermy bills are above your yearly income, you know you're a redneck. Well, I'm like, 'I'm there,'" Opel says, pointing two thumbs at himself. "I put a lot of money into it."
Like all the bowfishers interviewed for this story, Opel is an outdoorsman in the most extreme sense of the word. His hunting season never ends. He traps raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, and bow-hunts everything from elk and mule deer to wild hogs and bears. He particularly enjoys traveling to Florida to bow-hunt alligators, which he's done every year since the state legalized the sport in 1988.
"I try to dissuade people from [shooting alligators with rifles] because to me that just isn't any fun," Opel says. "The fun is fighting him, getting on his turf, getting the shit scared out of you. I've been hunting gators for twenty years, and they still scare the shit out of me."
As for his record carp, it's still at the taxidermist's shop. The thought of eating the mammoth catch never even crossed his mind, because Opel, ironically enough, is allergic to fish. One bite and his throat swells shut in anaphylactic shock.
"That's why I tell everyone I make the ultimate fishing buddy," Opel beams. "You get to keep and eat everything I catch."
Throughout the Midwest, there are owners of private ponds battling the onslaught of Asian carp. There are city officials fighting the same infestations in their lakes. It doesn't look good. Who are they going to call? Carpbusters.
Founded in 2004, Carpbusters is the brainchild of Robert Rice, a 46-year-old property developer from Joplin. For years Rice was an active member of the Native Fish Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the habitats of indigenous fish species.
Fed up with what he perceived as inaction by the group toward the carp problem, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He created carpbusters.com, a website that connects people with carp problems in their local waterways with teams of archers itching to slaughter thousands of them in an afternoon. Groups as far away as Minnesota now use the service.
"We've had tournaments where we removed ten tons of carp from a lake," boasts Rice. "The only reason we didn't remove more was we couldn't afford the Dumpster fees."
His vigilante plan was not well received by the Native Fish Conservancy or by animal-rights activists who loathe bowfishing. "In the conservation world, harvesting large numbers of animals is a taboo topic," says Rice, describing his group as "the wild side" of conservation. "Well, unfortunately, we've asked the carp nicely to leave and they haven't."
As for Carpbusters' effectiveness at eradicating the invasive fish, Chapman, the geological survey's carp expert, says the plan only works in the smallest bodies of water. "They do target the larger fish, which produce a larger volume of eggs," he says. "But ultimately, it's a small part of the overall answer."
Chapman maintains that the only way to put a dent in the number of Asian carp is to make the fish more lucrative for commercial fishermen. The current market price for Asian carp is about ten cents a pound, causing most commercial fishermen to empty their carp-filled nets on the banks of the river and fill their freezers with a more valuable catch, like catfish.
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