Fishing for Giants
by Gus Jarvis
03.21.08 - 09:35 am
RECORD BREAKER ­ The 34-pound Redfish caught by Kimberly Kirkendoll outside RECORD BREAKER ­ The 34-pound Redfish caught by Kimberly Kirkendoll outside
TELLURIDE – Kimberly Williams Kirkendoll has followed her husband across the globe searching for big fish in prized fly-fishing destinations like Christmas Island, Alaska and the shallow flats of the Bahamas, but when she went out on her first excursion in search of Reds in the marshes just outside New Orleans’ Ninth Ward last November, she had no idea she would hook up and walk away a world-record holder.

Kirkendoll brought her “big fish karma” to the flats of Louisiana on Nov. 13 last year and caught a 34-pound Redfish (Sciaenops Ocellatus) on six-pound test tippet – a world record, according to the International Game Fish Association. This Redfish is also the largest caught by a woman on any tackle and beat the previous women’s fly record by 16 pounds. Her husband John knew to bring Kimberly because, he said, he knew she would “inevitably” catch the biggest fish – something she has done since she began learning to fly-fish on the banks of the San Miguel and Gunnison rivers.

The Kirkendolls moved to Telluride 15 years ago and have split their time between Telluride and New Orleans over the years. Kimberly learned to fly-fish early in her Telluride residency by seizing the opportunity to follow John on trout-seeking trips on the San Miguel River and by participating in women’s fly-fishing clinics put on by local outfitters. Through her experiences here in and the around the San Juans, Kimberly learned to love not only fishing, but fly-fishing.

“I have never used hardware in my life,” Kimberly proudly stated an interview last week of spinners and lures that aren’t considered flies and don’t require the delicacy of presentation. “I definitely love the experience, the water, the wildlife, the water’s current and sighting fish.” Kimberly and John have taken their love of fly-fishing to destinations in search of a variety of sport fish (both saltwater and freshwater) including Bonefish and Permit. Kimberly not only brings her love of the sport, but brings her karma as well.

“What is funny about it is what John calls my ‘fish karma,’” she said. “I come back with big fish.”

“Some people have it and some people don’t,” John said. “She has it and inevitably she catches the biggest fish every trip. For somebody like me who fishes a lot, that can be a little disheartening.”

Nevertheless, John, who has long been a regular on the marshes of Louisiana in search for Redfish, brought Kimberly along for some flats fishing fun with guide Gregg Arnold who had taken John out previously.

“We made plans to do this and John told me, ‘I want you out there and I want to see your fish karma,’” she added.

Fly-fishing for Redfish can be no easy task, with success heavily dependent upon the surrounding elements; it’s much harder than drifting flies in a river. Sunlight, water clarity, salinity, and temperature are all natural conditions that may turn off a feeding fish in a flash. When fishing for Redfish, as with other game fish, the most exciting and heart-pounding experience comes on flats often as shallow as a foot-and-a-half deep. The guide will usually “pole” a shallow-water boat or “skiff” around in flats without using a motor because of the shallow depth and the possibility of spooking feeding fish.

When fish are sighted from the skiff it is up to the angler to cast his or her fly in the fewest number of false casts (that whipping motion sending the fly out) possible to a sighted fish. Once the fly drops into the water near or before the fish, the angler will strip the fly for movement, with the hope that the fish will not only see it but will eat it, not spooked by the fly line hitting and rippling the water above.

“When you sight a fish, it’s just like hunting,” Arnold said of the pressure put on the angler to make a perfect cast, sometimes straight into heavy winds, without spooking the fish.

For Kimberly, the start of her first-ever Redfish excursion began with an eye-opening look at the destruction Hurricane Katrina reaped on the area.

“As we drove out to the Ninth Ward, the place had been ravaged,” she said. “It was truly amazing to see the devastation. Some of the trees had no bark on them. There were houses half hanging into the marshland.”

But as the communities of New Orleans and Louisiana continue to rebuild after the destruction, the wildlife along the Mississippi River Delta has begun to flourish again. “On our way out we saw dolphins, alligators, Kingfisher birds – all kinds of wildlife. It was evident that it was being re-habitated by the wildlife after Katrina.”

According to Arnold, the fishing in the area has been great, but it has come at a cost.

“We lost about 10 percent of the marsh since Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “The hurricane changed the hydraulics of the marshes and, because we are losing marsh so rapidly, the critters [shrimp, crabs, minnows and crustaceans] that live along the marsh are having to swim around and find another place to live. That is what draws the fish in and that is why the fishing is so good.”

On that November day while Arnold drove the two anglers out to his preferred fishing flats through shallow waters and thick marshlands with thick salt air in their faces, with a temperature of 70 degrees and light winds, Kimberly said she couldn’t help notice what a “perfect day” it was for fishing.

Since it was Kimberly’s first Redfish experience, Arnold decided to get her hands wet by siccing her on a smaller (eight pound) Redfish he sighted early on in the day. Without fail, Kimberly caught it. That day, she was using an eight-weight rod (which she borrowed) with a fly Arnold called Hailey’s Comet – a purple-and-gold fly pattern mimicking a small crab – tied on with six-pound tippet.

With her first fish under her belt, the three set off to find larger fish, and soon succeeded.

“Greg spotted it about 100 feet straight off the bow,” Kimberly said.

“Then John spotted it and said, ‘This is a world record fish,’” Arnold said, remembering the excitement of spotting the huge shadow across the flat. “John got down off the casting platform and she got up. She made one cast, maybe two, and hooked it.”

“My casting is not something to behold, but I got it there,” Kimberly said. “I stripped it in a little bit, and the line went tight.”

What ensued over the next 40 minutes was what every angler lives for: A bent rod; the clicking sound of a geared reel; and the knowledge that an extremely large fish could be landed on very light-test line.

“I had never fought a fish that large, and I didn’t know what I was in for. It seemed like the fish ran 20 times. I was really nervous that I only had the six-pound tippet on,” she said of the frantic fight that bruised her abdomen while she struggled to bring the monster in.

In retrospect, she likened the fight with the fish to childbirth, with the “several states of mind” she experienced during the fight while her husband coached her along. The guide gave her all the right tips.

“I was nervous,” John said. “There is so much that can go wrong during that fight period, but she got it in.”

Knowing that Kimberly’s catch could be a world record, Arnold got out the scale and camera – taking pictures in various positions with the scale so that the IGFA would have no question that it was a world-record fish for that size tippet. And like any good sporting angler, Kimberly revived and released her fish, once the photos were taken.

For now, Kimberly is the world-record holder for her catch that November morning, and her advice to other anglers, especially those who choose not to listen to the experts of the water, is this: “A lot of men wouldn’t catch that fish. You have to trust your guide and listen to your guide.”

Kimberly’s and other world records can be viewed at www.igfa.org. For information on Redfish expeditions with Arnold, information can be found at www.fishinthelandofgiants.com.
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