Zach Adkins didn’t mind breaking a West Virginia fishing record, even if it was an accident.
“I actually was fishing for pike,” said Adkins.
He ended up catching the longest grass carp ever landed in the Mountain State.
Grass carp are vegetarians. People stock them in lakes and ponds to help control algae and weed growth.
They don’t eat minnows, crawdads, worms or any of the other critters anglers use for bait.
Adkins knew that, long before he caught the record-breaking fish.
Widely recognized as one of the state’s most avid and diverse fishermen, Adkins had actually spent some time learning to catch grass carp on purpose.
“Back when I was in college, I caught a few of them on a fly rod, using an unweighted olive-colored Woolly Bugger,” he said. “I think that to the carp, it looked like a piece of algae drifting through the water.”
Those fish were relatively small, mostly in the 3- to 5-pound range — mere minnows compared to full-sized adults, which can grow to more than 4 feet in length and weigh in excess of 60 pounds.
Adkins wasn’t even thinking of grass carp on Jan. 3, as he paddled his fishing kayak across the smooth waters of Warden Lake. He had heard that the 44-acre Hardy County impoundment contained a few northern pike, a species he hadn’t yet added to his West Virginia “life list.”
He came armed to do battle with big fish. The 8-foot, medium-heavy action rod stored in his rod holder would give him the leverage he would need to subdue a pike, and the 30-pound braided line on his baitcasting reel would handle even a heavy fish.
He cruised the lake, casting to likely spots and looking for signs of feeding fish.
“It was cloudy and really foggy,” Adkins said. “I couldn’t really see very far. I saw a swirl on the surface and thought, ‘Surface action in January. I’d better cast to it.’ ”
The large swimbait landed near the swirl.
“I made a few cranks on the reel, and the line just stopped,” he recalled. “I set the hook. I could tell it was a good-sized fish, but something felt weird about it. I would like to say it towed me all over the lake, but it didn’t.”
The big carp swam around lazily and tired quickly. Within a few minutes, Adkins had it alongside his kayak. He could tell it was a grass carp, and he had a pretty good idea of its size.
“I’ve caught muskies in the mid-40-inch range, and I’ve seen enough tarpon in Florida to be able to tell what a 50-inch-plus fish looks like,” he said.
“I knew, vaguely, what the state records were for grass carp. The fish on the line looked too skinny to break the [71.69-pound] weight record. I was just about to ready to let it go when it dawned on me that it might break the length record.”
Adkins tied the carp to his kayak and towed it to shore. He measured the fish and, using his cell phone, looked up the state fishing records on the internet.
“I called the [Division of Natural Resources] and let them know I had a potential state record,” he said. “I was up front with them and told them the fish hadn’t actually taken the lure, but had gotten foul-hooked.”
The person on the phone reassured Adkins that snagging carp wasn’t illegal, and that the fish would qualify for a record. A fisheries biologist, Jake Whalen, drove from Romney to Warden Lake to measure it officially.
The fish taped out at 53.1 inches in length, more than 2 inches longer than the previous record grass carp, caught in 2005 at Warden Lake.
Adkins and Whalen had to take the fish to a nearby veterinarian’s office in order to weigh it on scales with adequate capacity.
“You could tell it was a really old fish, and in decline,” Adkins said. “It was getting really skinny on its back half. It probably wouldn’t have lived much longer, so it didn’t bother me to kill it.”
The scales confirmed what Adkins suspected — the fish was long, but not all that heavy. It weighed just 59 pounds, well under the 71.69-pound state record.
Even though Adkins fishes for just about anything that swims, he didn’t see the grass-carp record coming. He’d frankly rather fish for bass, trout, walleye, muskie, bluegill, crappie or catfish. He believes that if he ever does break another record, it might be for fallfish, the largest minnow species found in the eastern United States.
Fallfish are native to the upper Potomac River watershed, and Adkins often catches them when he fishes the South Branch or the North Fork of the South Branch for trout or smallmouth.
“I catch 18-to-20 inchers pretty regularly,” said Adkins, who lives near Petersburg and fishes those waters often.
“The record is only 21.25 inches. There’s got to be a bigger one out there somewhere.”