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Grab your net. Fuel up your boat. Leave your rod and reel at home. It’s the annual Redneck Fishing Tournament on the banks of the Illinois River. Helmets recommended. This year’s tournament, held August 4 through 6, attracted hundreds of spectators, rid the Illinois river of over 3,300 invasive “copi,” and raised nearly $7,000 for homeless veterans and breast cancer victims.

Annual Fishing Tournament Removes Thousands of Invasive Carp from the Illinois River
Silver Asian carp have been renamed “Copi” by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Kyle Russell

Tournament founder Betty DeFord conceived of the unusual event 17 years ago. She launched the tournament in 2005 by combining an unusual fishing technique and a local desire to protect native fish from a swarming invasive species. Copi, a fish recently renamed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), otherwise known as silver Asian carp, have nearly taken over the river. “They’re just a nuisance fish,” says DeFord. “They’re driving out all our other fish. They’re bottom-feeders. They eat everything there is, and they spawn four times a year.”

Annual Fishing Tournament Removes Thousands of Invasive Carp from the Illinois River
The carp sail high into the air when startled by outboard motors. Kyle Russell

The new name was given to invasive Asian carp by the IDNR to encourage more people to eat the fish. It was derived from the word “copious,” and when you’re down on the banks of the Illinois River, it’s easy to see why. When a motorized boat plies the river, the carp jump into the air by the hundreds. Instead of catching the fish with rods and reels, tournament-goers need to catch the flying fish in nets. Former tournament winner Willie Schrader says, “Don’t fall out of the boat and don’t get hit and you’ll be just fine.” It’s sage advice as participants have been known to break their noses, and one faulty thrust or lunge can land a netter in the drink with all those carp.

Annual Fishing Tournament Removes Thousands of Invasive Carp from the Illinois River
Asian carp are a prolific invasive species in the Mississippi River system with the capacity to overwhelm the Great Lakes. Kyle Russell

This year’s tournament removed over 20,000 pounds of copi from the river—but that’s just a drop in the bucket. In some parts of the Mississippi River system, Asian carp represent 70 percent of all fish in the water. In the Illinois River, IDNR estimates, 20 to 50 million copi could be harvested annually if a market demand was established. 

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The rebranding and a planned U.S. Army Corps of Engineers barrier dam are considered the best hopes to stop the carp from eventually reaching and overtaking the Great Lakes. But for now, we’ll have to don our hockey masks and head to the Redneck Fishing Tournament.