Asian Carp became a problem in Illinois more than two decades ago, when the invasive fish began swimming north along the Mississippi River and entered the state’s waterways. They're ravenous pests—Asian Carp eat about 40 percent of their own body weight per day, which edges out native species, and pisses off fishermen.
Deford started the “Redneck Fishin' Tournament” in 2005 to help deal with the problem by wiping out as many of the suckers as possible. During the two-day fishing tournament, teams speed their boats down the Illinois River to rile up the fish, who then explode out of the water and into the air for competitors to catch in nets, garbage cans, and other containers they find lying around. (Fishing poles are strictly prohibited.)
Competitors came prepared with helmets and protective face guards (such as hockey helmets or catcher’s masks) in order to avoid black eyes or cuts as the Asian Carp fly into their boats unannounced. Asian Carp can weigh upwards of 100 pounds.
Roughly 50,000 pounds of Asian Carp are caught each year at the Redneck Fishin' Tournament (this year's haul brought in 5,883 fish!). The Illinois Department of Natural Resources calls the state’s Asian Carp problem a “high priority,” especially as the department attempts to keep the invasive fish from traveling further north and affecting the Great Lakes.
Nowadays, thanks to media attention, the tournament draws participants from all over the country and the world. The 2018 competition featured teams from Canada, Sweden, and Germany, all vying to catch thousands of fish (and a bit of a thrill) from perhaps the most American pest control solution in existence.
Patriotism was rampant at the Redneck Fishin' Tournament, but Kent and Bryan Ketter’s boat claimed the “Team America” honors. Many veterans participated in the event or watched from the shore.
Don Thomas, a participant in the tournament’s first leg, was four beers deep by 11 AM. The first leg began at noon and most boats were stocked with plenty of beer before they undocked from the river bank.
Onlookers cheered teams on as they embarked on two-hour heats from the edge of the river bank, on the ground, in lawn chairs or, in Charlie Combs’ case, from their cars.
Teams traveled in a fleet down the Illinois River in order to drum up enough noise to send fish flying through the air.
Teams, all grouped in separate boats, caught fish in nets, buckets or with their bare hands for two hours. One team tallied 308 fish on their own during the first two-hour heat Friday. The record was 481 heading into this year’s event.
One team tallied 308 fish on their own during the first two-hour heat Friday. The record was 481 heading into this year’s event.
Teams hunched over the edge of their boats, waiting for fish to pop up from the water, as their driver ripped down the river to draw the carp out. While most Asian Carp were captured with nets, many of the petrified fish merely flopped into boats on their own.
One popular tactic to drum up more noise was for the boats to stick together and occasionally double back to do a quick circle. This surrounded the fish with humming engines and cornered them with nets as they leapt from the river looking for an escape.
Team Canada, a yearly returning squad, traveled to Bath to participate in the event. The team played up its country’s stereotypes, bringing along hockey sticks to whack Asian Carp from the air as they jumped up from the water. When an onlooker yelled out to ask why they came to Illinois for the event, one team member—likely with the Asian Carp’s northern Great Lakes destination in mind—called back, “Well, we don’t want ’em!”
Kent Ketter is just one of many veterans who competed in the event.
Bryan and Kent Ketter show off their haul.
Matt and Luke Schultz, though not related, make up a team to be reckoned with. Pictured above, the friends revel in the literal boat load of fish they caught with their nets and bare hands.
Competitors traveled from across the world to Bath, Illinois (population 302) for the Redneck Fishin' Tournament. Simon Rönnlund, a member of “Team Sweden,” traveled with his group from Gothenburg to participate after seeing videos of the tournament online.
Competitors lug fish to be counted.
Many teams, such as Len Hedge’s “Carp Killers,” donned personalized uniforms made weeks and months in advance of the annual tournament.
The state has a number of plans in place to keep Asian Carp from traveling further upstream, including underwater electric fences—though the resilient fish has been found to have gotten past those barriers before.
The Redneck Fishin' Tournament has become more than just a fishing tournament over the past 13 years. At this year’s event, visitors were welcomed to drink and sing karaoke under a tented stage or get henna tattoos and card readings from Paige Price at a pop-up booth near the river.
Lines of fish are presented on ropes or in buckets to the staff members counting each team’s total.
It’s illegal to throw back an Asian Carp in Illinois, as the invasive fish’s population grows in the state. Betty Deford’s Redneck Fishin' Tournament is one local attempt at taking matters into their own hands and lessening the burden.
Eric Simmers shows off his Friday shirt.
Dead Asian Carp waiting to be tallied.
The smell of thousands of dead Asian Carp baking under a 90-plus degree sun was a putrid concoction for some staff members.
Still, they counted aloud as teams gathered and cheered while the numbers grew higher.