When he’s not chasing birdies on the golf course, PGA Tour member Vaughn Taylor spends his free time casting for stripers.
That’s what the Evans resident was doing last Monday, when a bucktail jig he was retrieving plowed into something so solid it didn’t even move – at least, not at first.
“When I set the hook, it just felt like I had caught the bottom,” he said. “Then I felt it move. And from there, it just took off.”
On the other end of the line, it turned out, was a piscatorial hole-in-one: a 56-pound, 2-ounce striped bass that broke not only his landing net, but the Savannah River record for that species.
“My biggest previous one was 11 pounds, so this was huge for me,” said Taylor, who has two career PGA Tour titles. “I had heard of 20 pounders out there and hoped maybe I’d catch one some day.”
After an unproductive outing with friends the previous day, Taylor was fishing alone in the river just downstream from Thurmond Dam when he hooked the fish after just a few casts.
“First, it took off away from me, and then it turned and came right back toward me and I had to reel really fast,” he said.
Then it shot downstream, taking line from the reel. “It got to where there was, maybe, a quarter of the line left on the spool, so I started really trying to turn him around,” he said.
About 60 feet from the boat, the tiring fish surfaced and offered Taylor the first glimpse of its head.
“I gasped,” he said. “I almost started to panic.”
Boating the fish, it turned out, was a challenge unto itself.
“I tried to net him, holding the rod on one hand and the net in the other,” he said. “He wouldn’t fit all the way in the net and when I tried to lift it, it bent the handle.”
Eventually, the fish was pulled close to the front of the boat. Taylor lay on his side, holding the rod aloft in his left hand while reaching for the striper with his right hand.
“Once I reached under his gills, I pulled him into the boat, almost on top of me,” he said. “It wouldn’t fit in the livewell and wouldn’t even fit in the cooler. It was just huge.”
After buying a bigger cooler, Taylor took his catch to Thomson, where Georgia fisheries biologist Ed Bettross confirmed its weight, measured its length at 46.5 inches and estimated its age at about 15 years.
Taylor’s fish shattered the previous river record – a 41-pound, 14-ounce striper landed in 2007 – by more than 13 pounds, Bettross said, adding that the channel where it was caught it not a historically productive striped bass venue.
“That part of the river, between Clarks Hill and Stevens Creek Dam, is cut off from the lower river, so any fish you find there have to be stocked or have escaped from reservoirs upstream, where they are stocked,” he said.
Taylor’s striper likely arrived in the river as a tiny fish that survived a ride through the dam’s hydropower turbines.
Its stunning size, he added, is a possible indicator that water quality in that segment of the river has improved, due in part to the installation about a decade ago of oxygen-venting turbines in Thurmond Dam that significantly increased oxygen levels in river water downstream.
Water released into the river is withdrawn from the lake at depths of about 60 feet, where is is very cold. Although stripers, especially older stripers, crave cold water, they also require adequate levels of dissolved oxygen, Bettross said.
“In the past, with striped bass, even surviving in that stretch would be in question,” he said.
“Before the vented turbines, I don’t think they would find oxygen in places that were also cool. But now, we are starting to see a number of big fish from that area.”