Bow fisherman Jeremy Fortner snipes a 3.9-pound goldfish in the Potomac River Big 5 Slam Bowfishing Tournament

Bow fisherman and Chesterfield, Va. native Jeremy Fortner broke the state record May 22 for the largest goldfish caught when he hauled in a 3-pound, 9.6-ouncer during the Big 5 Slam Bowfishing Tournament in Hunting Creek — a tributary stream of the Potomac River — which runs between the City of Alexandria and Fairfax County. 

Along with the record, Fortner won a $1,500 side pot — of the five targeted fish, goldfish was randomly selected as the species that would garner a prize for whoever hauled in the heaviest. While the end result was prize money and a state record, it wasn’t smooth sailing the whole tournament for Fortner. 

The Friday prior to the 12-hour tournament that lasted from 7 p.m. May 22 until 7 a.m. May 23, Fortner scouted the waters, which he said he likes to do for at least one day prior to tournaments. From sunup May 21 until 2 a.m. May 22, he and his partner Chris Blowe traversed the Potomac, looking for areas of clear water and where the big fish were situated. Afterward, they drove two hours back to Chesterfield, slept, then drove back to Northern Virginia for the tournament Saturday night. 

Only problem — Fortner said the water looked muddier than he’s ever seen it. 

“I think we’re just going to have to wing it,” Fortner recalled telling Blowe after scouting. “I don’t have any real comfortable places that I feel that good about.”

When tournament time arrived, Fortner said he stayed behind the pack of the “about 60” boats competing because it’s hard to fish until it gets dark — before then, he said the fishing lights don’t work well. To avoid congestion, Fortner and Blow were “sitting back and eating burgers” while everybody else was “running and gunning,” Fortner said. 

Once the two got started, Fortner said they took the boat all the way up the Potomac to the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge. Then, the tide started receding —it was a foot lower than normal, which Fortner said made it difficult to get into the creeks because they’re even shallower. He said sometimes you can only fish in them during high tide, and that if you don’t leave them in time, they can get down to six inches of water. 

However, Fortner said they were able to get into their desired creek as he said he knew the entrance wasn’t as deep as the rest of the water. Once Fortner and Blowe were in, the two were able to catch snakeheads, catfish, gar and carp — the other four invasive species that are required to be caught during the tournament to be eligible to win — but he said even though there were a lot of goldfish, he wasn’t able to hit any. Due to the low tide, Fortner said he had no choice but to keep fishing in the creek — his boat wouldn’t be able to get out unless he waited. He said he didn’t have his “eye right yet” after missing goldfish back-to-back, but Fortner was on a mission. 

“We ain’t leaving until I hit a goldfish,” Fortner said to Blowe. 

That’s when the 3.9-pounder was caught — Fortner said he didn’t know it was a record at the time, and he said was just caught up in catching a goldfish to make sure he had all five species. Even after capturing the state record, Fortner and Blowe faced more trouble: the boat got stuck in the entrance of the creek when trying to leave, so the two spent one hour pushing the boat 100 yards out of the creek. 

By then, Fortner said it was only an hour or two until weigh-in, so he and Blowe spent the remainder of time fishing in creeks close to the tournament’s hub. When weigh-ins started Sunday morning, Fortner said he sensed he might’ve nonchalantly caught a record-breaking goldfish when he overheard one of his friends that was recording on Facebook Live. 

Someone else in the tournament had caught a goldfish that was 2.8 pounds, and his friend said that was almost the state record. Fortner — who already measured his goldfish unofficially himself and said it was well over three pounds — re-measured to make sure his scale wasn’t broke. 

Sure enough, he said, it was well over three pounds again. 

To verify results, a certified biologist from Virginia must approve the fish is the right species and that there are no signs of cheating with added weights in the fish. The biologist followed Fortner back to Chesterfield, weighed the goldfish on an official scale at Greentops Sporting Goods in Ashland, finished analyzing it and Fortner got a form to sign and send to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) for certification from their board. 

From being oblivious in the moment that he had the record for largest goldfish caught, to winning $1,500 and shattering Virginia’s state record, Fortner said through it all, he isn’t in it for the notoriety. 

“I’ve never been a fisherman or a bow fisherman that shot for records,” Fortner said. “I just love doing it and going out there.”

Other notable fish were caught at the tournament — including a 58-pound catfish — but Fortner said his goldfish stole the show because people couldn’t believe a goldfish could get that big. The reaction factor combined with the spontaneity of the record, Fortner said, melded this catch into one that tops his list as one of the most memorable fishes he’s caught. 

“It was the experience and the fish that made this really cool,” Fortner said. “I kind of put it on my upper side of bow fishing and fishing experiences because of the atmosphere, the timing, the fish — everything just kind of fell into place … It was just funny how the goldfish, out of all my bow fishing stuff, is my most notable fish that I’ve shot.”

Fortner said he would also consider the Potomac River and its tributaries as his favorite place to fish because it has a plethora of species to shoot — including sting rays on the bay side — and a combination of clear and marshy water. But to keep Fortner’s favorite place pristine, it’s important to have fellow bow fisherman regulating the population of species invasive to the Potomac River like goldfish, gar, blue catfish, carp and snakeheads — the latter Fortner dubs as the “bad boy of the water” because snakeheads are able to balloon in population rapidly along with being vicious predators, he said.

All of the species that are targeted in the tournament don’t have natural predators, causing their respective populations to boom if not hunted. Some are also the culprit of potentially harmful effects to the Potomac River watershed aside from their invasive presence. Goldfish, Fortner said, have bacteria that they regurgitate into the water that’s unhealthy for the grass and shallow water or mud flat habitats they inhabit within the Potomac’s ecosystem. He said they also disrupt sediment and uproot vegetation. 

Gar and blue catfish, he said, carry high levels of mercury that can be toxic to the surrounding environment’s organisms. The two are also capable of outcompeting native fish for food as they are dominant predators, similar to the snakehead. Carps are also threats to the natural ecosystem of the Potomac because they reduce water clarity and can contribute to algae blooms, Fortner said. 

“There has to be checks and balances,” Fortner said. “When you have a type of fish where there’s nothing to control their population, there’s going to be thousands of them and every other fish is going to struggle.” 

In order to keep invasive species out of the Potomac River watershed, much of the responsibility falls on homeowners in Northern Virginia. There are ways to properly dispose of goldfish in home fish tanks, and they don’t include dumping them into a nearby creek — instead, either euthanizing the fish in a freezer, finding someone to adopt it or donating to a local aquarium club are preferred, Mike Bednarski, chief of fisheries for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, told WTOP News.

Fortner said his record still hasn’t fully sunk in yet. Since he discovered bow fishing 17 years ago on a DVD set with his friend, he said the record still means something because he’s been passionate about the sport ever since — even if he doesn’t fish with the intention of breaking records per se. This tournament specifically, Fortner said, was extra special because it was the first that he used a bowfishing arrow rest that he designed and made himself called “The Fortress.” 

Fortner said it wasn’t until his dad said, ‘This is a state record for Virginia,’ for him to fully comprehend what he accomplished in late May. 

“It was definitely kind of surreal because I’ve bow fished for so long,” Fortner said. “Usually I think regionally … It kind of took me a while to realize this is for the whole state. So it was a pretty cool experience.”

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