COLCHESTER -- Their names might not go down in the record books, but July 1 will be a day two young fishermen never forget.
10-year-olds Hazen Morse, of Essex, and Rhys Hawkins, of Williston, were fishing in Malletts Bay that day when they snagged and pulled in a bowfin later weighed by Hawkins’ family to be 16.05 pounds and measured to be 32.5 inches long.
The Vermont record for bowfins sits at 14.08 pounds -- that being caught in the Missisquoi River in 1977.
“We were there just to fish and see if we could get a big one -- but also just to check it out,” said Morse. “It was pretty lucky.”
Morse says that he’s been fishing since he was four and has been doing so with Hawkins, formally and informally, for about the last two years. Despite his young age and relatively short time casting bait, one might think he’s a seasoned sea pro who’s told the story to his buddies along the docks for decades. The only thing missing was the salty, raspy voice of a pirate.
“We were just fishing at the marina, and we decided to go for bowfin at nighttime,” his tale begins. “I read they come out at nighttime in the shallows to feed.”
Morse says it was about 8 p.m. when one of the friends’ two bobbers went under the water -- causing him and Hawkins to rush over and investigate.
“I picked up the pole, and I waited a little bit so it could eat [the bait],” Morse continued. “Because you have to get a good hook set or they’ll spit it. So I waited about 20 seconds, and then I set the hook. It felt pretty heavy. When I first got it on, it took a burst, but then it just stopped. I almost felt like it was actually a log, because it just would not move.”
The two friends had made an agreement when they first started out that credit would be shared for any big catches, and Morse stayed true to his word by handing over the pole to Hawkins. They fought for about 10 minutes trying to reel in the bowfin -- at which point Morse says he took a net and went to use that for the capture; but the fish was able to jump out of it.
Just a little bit after that, though, the kids were finally able to get the fish out of the water.
“Rhys kept fighting it for two minutes more, and then it got close to the dock again,” said Morse. “So I grabbed the net, and I scooped it up.”
But their efforts weren’t over just yet. Morse says once it was on the dock, the fish almost made its way back into the water before they could document the catch.
“When I was getting the hook out of the fish, we didn't have any gloves or anything,” said Morse. “Once I got the hook out, it flopped; so I pounced on it. I was on top of it -- holding it -- and then it shook his head and grabbed both of my hands with its sharp teeth. I was just pulling for about 10 seconds; and then they came out, and my hands were bloody.”
Morse says he’s okay now, though, and was actually okay enough to take a photo before he kept on fishing.
Morse and Hawkins released the bowfin back into the bay after taking its measurements -- which might prevent their catch from making it to the record books. In order to be entered for a state record, anglers must satisfy a number of rules including that it must be inspected by a fisheries biologist from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. Morse’s father, Dan, however, said that he’s trying to get in touch with the state’s game wardens to see what might be possible.
Still, with the way Morse has been catching bowfins lately, it might not be long before he hooks another one large enough to be on the all-time record list. Just weeks earlier, during the Lake Champlain International (LCI) Father’s Day Derby, he pulled in one that weighed 8.77 pounds and another that was 4.23. Had Morse found his July 1 catch that weekend, it easily would have won him the $3,000 top prize as the winning bowfin weighed in at 12.95 pounds.
Nevertheless, the rising fifth grader at Founders Memorial School just enjoys the thrill of the line getting a strong pull.
“It’s fun catching big fish and fighting long,” said Morse, “especially bowfin because they give a really big bite. But it’s fun reeling them in, weighing them, taking pictures, and getting new [personal bests.]”
When being told on the docks decades from now, the tale will surely mention each fisherman -- it might not being told at all had either one been there by themself.
“It was a nice thing of teamwork,” said Morse’s father. “It's a nice thing of kids just being together and having fun catching a big fish together. It was kind of a nice sense of cooperation.”
Without any other derbies or tournaments lined up for this summer, Morse and his father are looking forward to next year’s LCI. He is, however, planning to try his hands at deep-sea fishing off of Rhode Island next month.