Shields and several buddies were fishing in three boats at Hiwassee, a 22-mile-long reservoir surrounded by the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests in North Carolina’s southwestern corner. The boys (from left to right: Lucas Hayes, Caleb Davis, Logan Howard, Lucas Kilpatrick, Shields, Logan Davis and Bobby Pisciotta) are avid outdoorsmen who enjoy turkey and deer hunting in addition to fishing.
Shields hooked up an hour into the outing. “I thought I had a catfish, and I tried to fight it at first,” he says. “But after we figured out how big it was we decided to use the trolling motor to fight it. It took about 45 minutes to tire it out enough to pull it to the boat.”
Shields typically fishes for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass (the biggest fish he’d caught before were a 5-lb. largemouth and a 20-lb. catfish) and the 66-lb. striper tested the limits of his equipment: A Pfleuger Trion spinning reel, a medium heavy Bass Pro Shops Bionic Blade rod, 10-lb. Bass Pro Shops Excel line, and a Gamakatsu 4/0 Skip Gap hook rigged with a black Zoom Trick Worm.
“We knew it could break the line if it wanted to,” says Shields, here with his sister, Megan. “That was our main concern. Me and my buddies kept saying, ‘Oh, God, I hope we get this fish.'” But in the end, it was the net that almost cost him a trophy. “The fish was too big for the net and it ripped the net right in two. We managed to get it in the boat, though. I’d say somebody was looking down on us that day.”
A serious fisherman since age 12, Shields knew there were big striped bass in Hiwassee: The previous state-record freshwater striper, 54 lbs., 2 ounces, came out of the lake in 1991. “I’ve looked all those records up online, so I knew about it,” Shields says. But he didn’t make the connection between his fish and the state record until he showed his catch to Lucas Kilpatrick’s father, who was fishing with them. “His dad said it was probably close to the state record, and I should get it weighed. I didn’t really think anything about it, because I’ve never really seen too many stripers, and I never thought the first one I caught would be a state record.”
Shields contacted officials with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the search began for a certified scale big enough to handle the fish. The resulting parade was a big event in the small town of Murphy, says Tyler’s mother, Tina Shields.
“They had to run around all over Murphy with the game warden to find certified scales, and there was a big group following them everywhere they went,” Tina says. “His buddies were all tickled. They were just so excited for him. They were big outdoorsmen to start with, but now they’ve just all gone crazy for fishing.”
They aren’t the only ones. “His grandfather (Johnny Shields, right, with Tyler’s father, Michael Shields, middle) has gone ballistic over this,” Tina laughs. “He carries the picture with him all the time and stops everybody to show it off.”
Shields’ striper stretches 47 inches long and sports a 35-inch girth. It recorded an official weight of 66 lbs., 1 oz. — 11 pounds, 15 oz. heavier than the previous state freshwater record. In fact, the Hiwassee striper is less than 2 lbs. off the IGFA all-tackle record for landlocked striped bass: That mark is held by a 67-lb., 8-oz. fish (shown here) caught by Hank Ferguson in Los Banos, California, in 1992. It is the only landlocked striper on record at IGFA heavier than Shields’ catch.
Equally impressive, Shields’ landlocked lunker topped the North Carolina saltwater record of 64 lbs. That fish was caught in 2005 outside Oregon Inlet on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission fisheries biologist Powell Wheeler certified the striped bass as the new state record. Wheeler says stripers are not stocked in the lake, but instead overcome a number of obstacles to find their way to Hiwassee, which is near the Georgia border.
“The Georgia Department of Natural Resources stocks stripers upstream of Hiwassee in Nottely Reservoir,” Wheeler says. “Occasionally a striper survives passing through Nottely Dam turbine or over the spillway and swims 13 miles down the Nottely to Hiwassee Reservoir.”
These survivors find Hiwassee to their liking and tend to grow very large very fast. “The rarity coupled with the abundance of forage fishes in the reservoir are the main reasons why Hiwassee has produced the last two freshwater fishing state records for striped bass,” Wheeler says. “In the middle of Hiwassee where stripers are often found, there is simply a lot of food and few other predators to compete with.”
The big catch has only increased Shields’ enthusiasm for angling. He spent most of his spring break fishing Hiwassee with friends. And though he is still more keen on largemouth than stripers, the memory of his fight with the big one still lurks in the back of his mind with every cast. “This morning I went back to the spot where I caught the striper, and I was wondering, ‘Oh, Lord, is another one gonna hit?’ It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I guess, but it’s pretty cool to get to see what that’s like.”
The only thrill that’s come close, says Shields–who is also the top golfer on his high school team–came on the links. “I made a hole-in-one,” he says, “but I can tell you that catching this fish was a whole lot funner than hitting a hole-in-one.”
Seventeen-year-old Tyler Shields of Murphy, North Carolina, thought he was fishing for largemouth bass when he visited Hiwassee Lake on March 31. What he boated instead was a 66-pound striped bass that shattered the state’s freshwater record–and topped by 2 pounds the North Carolina saltwater striper record as well.