If you’re local to Lake Gaston, it’s hard to tell what the most impressive part of Joey Baird’s story is.
Is it Baird’s Lake Gaston catch itself? It's a mammoth 121-pound, 9-ounce blue catfish, which Baird and others expect to be confirmed as the new North Carolina record for blues.
How about the fact that while Baird is a veteran fisherman, he was motivated to go out that Sunday night on Fourth of July weekend as a favor to folks new to the area, who ended up playing key roles in the historic haul.
What about Baird’s plan to donate a $10K prize for the record to Gasburg, Va. Volunteer Fire Department, of which he is a member, to help buy its first rescue boat?
Or maybe it’s how Baird, a Brunswick County, Va. native, has morphed into a local celebrity, most recently the subject of a WRAL-TV feature, after a couple of weeks of drawing scores of praise online that included being the star of videos that were picking up anywhere from 14-87K views.
Really, it’s probably all of those things.
By nature, Baird is quick to deflect attention, but he has balanced that by being generous with his time and willing to share a story that the fishing and sporting communities, along with the people around Lake Gaston, have been eager to learn about.
Let’s start with that fish.
Officially, the state record still currently belongs to Landon Evans, who caught a 117-pounder in 2016.
Baird said an official state biologist has confirmed the new record.
“Oh, I’m pretty confident about it,” Baird said on Wednesday. “He’s confirmed everything. I talked to him this morning. He said normally it takes a month or a little more before everything is processed.”
Baird lives near Gasburg, but caught the fish on the North Carolina side of the lake that has produced the last four state blue catfish records. Good luck getting him to tell you more than that.
“If I tell folks where I’m at, I’m gonna have 20 boats down there tomorrow,” Baird said, laughing.
He’s probably right about that.
The Virginia record for blue catfish also happens to be the world record, a 143-pounder caught in Buggs Island Lake by Nick Anderson in 2011.
Baird’s previous personal best was an 84-pounder. That should be one of your first clues that he knows what he’s doing out there.
Yes, Baird knows how to catch big fish and expects to. This isn’t a story about an unknowing angler who merely stumbled upon a record catch. Of course, there is always chance involved in fishing and even Baird was caught off guard by just how huge the fish was.
His father Edgar was a guide on Lake Gaston and Kerr Lake and taught Joey and brother Lee well. Joey and Lee operate “Bait & Wait Outdoors,” a Facebook page for hunting and fishing, and Joey is a seasoned competitor in catfish tournaments.
Fishing for cats is also what Joey, 39, knows best. That’s his personal passion, although he loves to take his kids bass fishing. He and wife Melissa have four children ranging in age from 2-12.
Still, Joey, who owns Deerfield Fence Company, hadn’t been night-fishing for cats in at least six months until the night of the record catch, when he offered to take a business client and his wife out on his boat.
The client, who has so far preferred to stay out of the limelight, helped Joey bring in the fish. But only one name can go on the record, despite Joey advocating otherwise.
Using cut bait - Joey said the freshness of bait is one of his personal keys to success - they landed the monster around 11 p.m. just before they would have given up on that particular spot of the lake since they weren't having any luck.
The fish got hung up on one of the anchor lines of Joey’s boat. The business client took the rod as Joey tried to keep it on the anchor.
“I actually pulled the fish up in the anchor up beside the boat and the fish rolled up beside the boat when I reached down to grab the line,” Joey said. “It had enough of a slack when I pulled it up; I grabbed that line and looped it from around the anchor and cleared it off the anchor.
"When I did that, I could see how big that fish was when I rolled him up with the anchor. I knew he was over a hundred pounds as soon as I did that.”
Normally, Joey is a catch-and-release fisherman when it comes to catfish. He had built his own tank out of a truck toolbox to keep fish alive for the weigh-ins at tournaments until they can be released.
Joey made a lot of calls that Sunday night immediately after the catch, but one was to buddy Shawn Evans, who had missed out on breaking a state spotted bass record earlier this year due to inadvertently not following proper protocol. Shawn came to the scene of the catch with Joey’s tank, but it wasn’t big enough to keep the fish alive.
They ended up tying the fish to the dock before finding a larger tank.
In video taken that night on the boat, Joey can be heard saying, “I don’t have a scale that goes that high.”
They needed a certified scale, which isn’t as readily available in the middle of the night. Shawn helped Joey keep the fish alive until daybreak as they waited for a biologist that arrived the following Monday morning to meet them at the scales.
Shawn later successfully swam the fish out to deep water and it swam away, but Joey said he was told the behemoth was found dead a few days later.
“I wasn’t prepared for a fish like that,” Joey said. “I wasn't prepared for the challenges that came with trying to keep that fish alive. But I made a lot of phone calls and tried to get friends of mine to bring those totes and oxygen bottles and air bubbles and everything so we could try to give the fish the best chance it could to survive...”
Paying it forward
Here’s where the tale gets a twist.
Joey caught the fish using a Big Cat Fever rod from Catch the Fever, a Roxboro-based company that offers a $10K payout for state records that meet a few stipulations, one of them being that the fish is released, although a fish does not have to be weighed alive to go down as a record catch.
Lee alerted Catch the Fever the night of the catch, so the folks there were watching closely, knew Joey did the best he could to preserve the fish’s life while seeking weigh-in certification, and awarded him the money anyway. Actually, Joey wanted to split it with his client, but both agreed to donate their earnings to the Gasburg fire department.
Joey detailed the reasons why in a video by Catch the Fever, which first reported news of the donation and the story behind it, that has since been viewed almost 90K times with more than 900 shares.
He wanted and waited for Catch the Fever to get the first interview, hence the details of the catch being a little slow to trickle out into the public sphere, but only adding to the intrigue.
Joey, who is also a police officer, explained in the video that his life and others were threatened by Hurricane Michael floodwaters in 2018 as he participated in a successful water rescue.
If Gasburg is able to purchase a rescue boat, it would be the only one of its kind in Brunswick County.
“It would be nice to have one we could actually do stuff with on our own,” said Gasburg chief Ricky Woodard. “...That says a lot to his loyalty and dedication to what he believes in.”
Also, understand that the Baird family runs deep in Gasburg. The fire department is on Baird Road after all, named for the old Baird farm where the local golf course is now.
“I think it’s nice that a local hometown guy has the record right now,” Baird said.
The next big one
So now, Joey can just sit tight and bask in the glow of what would be considered the catch of a lifetime for most.
Not so fast. Joey is mild mannered, but he’s competitive. The fire for the next big fish has already been lit. He wants to break the record again himself, maybe with some help next time from his 12-year-old son Jordan.
“It’s very unlikely, but if I could break it myself," Joey said, "I’d much rather have my son on the boat with me. That would mean the world to me to let him break the record.”
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