Tommy Quinzi’s question was innocent enough and meant to stoke some early-morning conversation last Sunday as he and his father, brother and uncle settled in for a day of fishing on Lake Erie off Buffalo, N.Y., with longtime charter captain Jim Hanley.
“Do you think the state record smallmouth is swimming in this lake,” Quinzi asked Hanley, who’s guided on Erie for nearly 40 years.
“No doubt,” Hanley replied before recounting how a client of his the week prior had hooked a fish he figured to be in the 7-pound range only to spit the hook when it jumped.
For the past eight years, the Quinzi family has gone fishing with Hanley on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
“Every year, we smoke ‘em,” said Tommy Quinzi, who’s from Rochester, N.Y.
This past weekend, though, presented a unique set of conditions with light winds, which opened up a lot more fishable water. Instead of staying close to Buffalo Harbor and sorting through scores of 3- and 4-pounders as they’ve done on previous outings, Hanley proposed a change of pace.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a spot on the main lake where we’ve been catching big ones,’” Quinzi said. “He said we wouldn’t catch as many, but it was a unique day because the wind wouldn’t be blowing us off the spot and we’d be able to make some good drifts on it.”
The Quinzi clan agreed to head out on the lake and it wasn’t long before Tommy’s question set the tone for the day.
The New York state record for smallmouth bass is 8.26 pounds, a feat shared by two anglers. Within 10 minutes of Quinzi (pictured) asking the question, he was posing for photos while holding a smallmouth that registered 8.26 pounds on Hanley’s Rapala scale.
Quinzi hooked the fish while fishing with a golden shiner on a modified three-way rig in 37 feet of water. He was using one of Hanley’s Shimano combos rigged with 20-pound PowerPro braided line tied to a 7-pound leader of Sunline fluorocarbon.
The fight wasn’t the epic struggle some would expect for such a brute – “My uncle hooked a fish about 20 seconds before mine that was fighting way harder,” Quinzi said – and he initially thought it was a garden variety Erie smallmouth. Then it jumped, or at least tried to.
“It didn’t feel like I had anything special,” Quinzi said. “I thought it was a 4-pounder. I didn’t realize how big it was until it jumped and didn’t get all the way out of the water. My dad saw it and said, ‘Woah, that’s big.’ I didn’t realize how big it was until it was in the net and in the boat.”
After weighing it and measuring it – it was 22 1/4 inches long – both Quinzi and Hanley realized the gravity of the moment. This fish tied the state record unofficially. Hanley knew, however, that in order for it to be considered for the record book, it would have to weigh at least 1 ounce more than the current record on a certified scale. Being several miles offshore on Lake Erie, Quinzi decided to release the fish immediately.
“It was a beautiful fish,” Hanley said. “We were careful with it and it swam away.”
“When I saw 8.26 on the scale, I knew it tied the record,” Quinzi added. “I fish for all kinds of stuff and the record didn’t mean a lot to me. My first thought was to get it back in the water so we could keep catching fish like that. If it were 8.5, maybe we’d have considered running in.”
That fish set the tone for the rest of the day as the group went on to catch five more smallmouth over 6 pounds, including a 7-08, and another 11 that exceeded 5 pounds.
According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website, Quinzi’s fish would have tied the state smallmouth record of 8 pounds, 4 ounces, shared by Andrew Kartesz and Patrick Hildenbrand. Kartesz caught his 8-pounder on a jig and grub at Lake Erie in June 1995 while Hildenbrand’s trophy catch occurred at the St. Lawrence River last August while fishing with Berkley PowerBait.
Shortly after releasing Quinzi’s fish, Hanley posted a photo of a smiling Quinzi holding the fish to his Facebook page. The resulting attention caught Quinzi off guard.
“I know it was a huge fish, but I guess I didn’t realize it was such a big deal,” he said. “The coolest thing is that that day and the next day I got 20 (Facebook) friend requests from people I’d never met before who are avid fisherman. It gave them a reason to reach out to me.”
As for next year’s outing with Hanley, the Quinzis are already locked in for May, but it’ll be a week earlier than normal since Quinzi is due to get married over Memorial Day weekend in 2018. After that, it’ll be back to the last Sunday of the month.
“We’ll have that Sunday booked until Jim decides he won’t take us anymore,” Quinzi joked.