Eleven years is a long time to wait for a birthday present.
Harold Thomas knows. For 11 years, he made pilgrimages to Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland, hoping against hope that he might catch a 25-pound striped bass. Finally, just one day before his 67th birthday, he did just that.
“I love striper fishing,” said Thomas, a retiree who lives in Bancroft. “The fight they put up is worth every bit of the money it takes to fish for them.”
In Thomas’ case, that money has been anything but chicken feed. When he goes to Lake Cumberland, he fishes with a guide.
“People give me a hard time about it because it costs $300 for a six-hour trip,” he said.
Taking a friend along would help to defray some of the cost, but Thomas said it isn’t worth the hassle.
“I go by myself because something usually goes wrong when others are involved,” he said. “I save up my money and I go, sometimes two or three times a year.”
Lake Cumberland’s chief allure is that it produces bragging-sized striped bass. The 63,000-acre impoundment, managed as a trophy striper fishery, has yielded fish as large as 58 pounds.
At the West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show 11 years ago, Thomas talked with Gary Bachman of Hillbilly DeLux Guide Service, an outfitter that operates out of the lake’s Jamestown Marina. He liked what he heard and booked a trip.
What started as a simple one-time fishing trip turned into a several-times-a-year addiction to striper fishing. On those trips, Thomas caught small stripers, middle-sized stripers and big stripers, but one fish eluded him.
“I wanted to catch a 25-pounder,” he said. “Two years ago, I caught one that was 38 inches long and weighed 21 pounds.
“Right after I landed that one, I hooked an even bigger one but lost it at the boat. Gary said it would have been a 25-pounder for sure. I set a goal to get that 25-pounder.”
In June, Thomas got his chance.
“My birthday is June 12, and I usually book a trip at that time of year,” he recalled. “Gary demands that his clients show up on time, and I arrived 35 minutes early. He invited me in to have some coffee, and said we were going to wait until the other guides’ boats were gone before we left.”
Thomas said that was out of character for Bachman, who prefers to start from the dock 45 minutes before dawn to take advantage of stripers’ early morning feeding habits.
“Gary told me he had a special spot he wanted to take me to, and he didn’t want any of the other guides to see us going there,” Thomas said. “We ended up going to a bank that dropped off into really deep water. Gary rigged up the rods and we started trolling.”
Bachman usually fishes six rods off the stern of his 28-foot pontoon boat, but this time he only had two, both rigged with planer boards to push the baits away from the boat’s engine noise. It proved to be a winning approach.
“We hadn’t been trolling long when the fish hit,” Thomas said. “The rod dipped, and the tip went plumb down into the water. The fish immediately started pulling line off the reel.
“Gary said, ‘That’s a good fish,’ and he got the other planer board in so I could fight the fish, which took off for the middle of the lake. At one point, it had 150 yards of line out. It took more than 10 minutes just to get it up far enough to see the planer board.”
Thomas said it took another 10 minutes to get the fish into the boat.
“I was nervous,” he said. “I’d lost a big one right at the boat before. You never know how a fight with a striper is going to go. When you have it on top of the water, you still don’t have it whipped. The fight isn’t over until you get the fish in the net.”
Bachman netted the fish, and both men heaved sighs of relief.
“Gary laid the fish on the measuring board, and he started whooping and hollering,” Thomas said. “It turned out to be 44 inches long. Then he weighed it on digital scales, and the scales read 24.75 pounds.
“He said, ‘Harold, that’s close enough to call 25.’ I told him to write it down as 24.75 anyway.”
Despite the size of his trophy catch, Thomas chose not to have the fish mounted. “I have a nice picture hanging on the wall,” he said. “That’s good enough.”
Good enough for the time being, at least.
Now that he has a 25-pound striper to his credit, Thomas has set his sights a bit higher.
“Now I want a 35-pounder,” he said. “If I get one that size, I’ll have it mounted. I just hope it doesn’t take 11 years to get that one like it did to get this one.”