Lilly Ma is known for setting records. As the No. 1 singles player for the Darien High School varsity tennis team, she was named last spring’s FCIAC player of the year, while also maintaining a top USTA ranking.
On the court, she seems almost single-minded: When interviewed for The Darien Times last spring, Lilly was asked what she did for fun outside of tennis. Her response? “More tennis,” she said.
Yet the high school senior was holding out what is perhaps her most unique achievement to date: Lilly holds a world record for catching an alligator gar, one of the largest freshwater fish found in North America, and one of the most difficult to catch.
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” she replied when asked about the omission.
As it turns out, Lilly’s older brother, Mike, is a serious amateur fisherman who holds a world record for catching a redtail catfish while fishing in Thailand in 2010. Mike Ma, a 2005 DHS graduate, fished with Lilly when she was a young girl in Darien, where she caught mainly perch and sunfish.
Now working in real estate, Mike asked Lilly to accompany him on a business trip to Houston in July 2017, thinking they might try to fish the local waters.
“She had always liked fishing when she was young, and trying to be the responsible older brother I was like, ‘Lilly, why don’t you look at a couple of colleges and then we can have some fun’,” he said.
In addition to spending quality time with his sister, Mike was in search of the alligator gar, the second-largest freshwater fish in the United States, which is commonly found in Texas lakes and rivers. After asking around, he found a fishing guide named Captain Kirk Kirkland in Livingston, Texas, a small town outside of Houston. Kirkland specializes in catching the fish, which is known locally as the “river monster” and which attracts fishermen from around the world.
“It’s a pretty prehistoric fish — it’s fairly ancient,” Mike said of the species, which can reach a weight of over 200 pounds and eight feet in length, and is covered in hard, diamond-shaped scales. “People used to think it was dangerous, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s definitely something that I thought would be very cool if I ever happened to be in the area.”
Initially skeptical of the idea, Lilly soon warmed to the challenge, recalling her childhood love of fishing. “I like the suspense of the chase,” she said. “In fishing, you have to wait a really long time, but then it is exciting.”
According to Mike, the alligator gar can be a particularly difficult fish to catch. Like an actual alligator, the gar has a large jaw filled with razor-sharp teeth. A large fish head or other bloody piece of meat is usually placed on a hook, which the gar can then eat without actually getting the hook stuck in its mouth. As a result, the fish can easily avoid getting trapped, making it harder to secure.
“A lot of times when they bite down, they are just kind of holding the bait in their mouth,” Mike said. “So it’s a delicate operation because you want the fish in the boat ASAP, but you don’t want to force it because at any given moment if it’s not hooked — and you can’t tell it’s not — then they can just release.”
Lilly and Mike, accompanied by their mother, fished for three days on the Trinity River with Captain Kirkland in the hot Texas sun before Lilly finally caught what would turn out to be a record-size alligator gar.
Using a spin rod and a 20-pound line, Lilly fought for over 30 minutes to reel him in, standing in the heat on the flat-bottomed boat while Mike and Captain Kirkland gave her instructions.
“(The gar) was just pulling the boat around,” Lilly said, “And every time he would come back a little I would have to reel the line in more so he wouldn’t get away. Finally, he got close enough to the boat that our captain picked him up.”
According to Lilly and Mike, Captain Kirkland was surprised by the size of Lilly’s catch. While not the biggest gar ever caught — its final weight was 58 pounds — it would prove to be a record for a fish caught on a 20-pound line, which is designed for a much smaller fish. After measuring the alligator gar and posing for photographs, Lilly released the fish back into the river.
Lilly’s world record was recorded by the International Game Fish Association as “a world angling record for a catch of the heaviest fish of a species in an approved line class category.”
Despite her new status as a world record holder, Lilly has no plans to pursue a career in fishing just yet. She is currently applying to college, where she hopes to continue to play tennis, and is playing in USTA tournaments in preparation for her senior tennis season with the Wave.
Still, Lilly said, there are lessons to be learned from fishing that go beyond her other hobby of “more tennis.”
“Tennis is more ongoing,” she said. “In fishing, you just have to wait for the right moment.”