Pete Antonino, 83, of Fresno, caught a $10,000 trout last Saturday during the 30th Annual Bass Lake Fishing Derby and almost threw it back in the lake.
Antonino said when he saw how small the fish was, he told his good friend and fishing partner, Anthony Donato, 49, who netted the fish for Antonino, to throw it back in the lake. When Donato told Antonino the fish had a tag on it and was worth at least $20, Antonino agreed to keep it. A wise decision, considering fish No. 13400 was one of two specially-tagged trout in the derby worth $10,000.
Antonino was fishing from a boat with Donato between Miller's Landing Resort and the dam and the two fishermen caught five tagged fish between 7:30 and 11 a.m. Having no idea of the value of the fish they caught, the men decided to take a lunch break and then took the fish to Miller's Landing Resort, one of three derby headquarters around the lake.
It was then that Antonino was told by Miller's employee Holly Johnson, that one of his fish was worth $10,000. After the fish was verified, Antonino said he "choked up and cried like a baby."
He said some of the prize money would go to his long-time fishing partner.
Michelle Miller of Miller's Landing and chairperson of the derby sponsored by the Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce said, "Pete was an absolute joy. He and his long time fishing friend, Anthony, brought in a bundle of tagged fish not knowing they had the big one."
"It really couldn't have happened to better guy," Donato said.
The catch made up for Antonino losing $50 playing slot machines and blackjack at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino the night before the derby. The two men stopped for dinner at Chukchansi on their way to the lake.
He said it was just a couple weeks ago that he and his wife Frances were discussing how they needed new living room recliners.
"I guess we can get those recliners now," Antonino said while sitting in the shade sipping a beer at Miller's Landing.
The other four fish were worth $20 each. Antonino caught the big-prize trout using a Rainbow Apex lure.
The previous two years, Antonino did not catch a tagged fish in the Derby.
Antonino retired 25 years ago after owning and operating Fresno's Cesar's Italian Delicatessen for 25 years. He meet his fishing and hunting buddy Donato, a radio station general manager, when Donato joined the Dante Club, an Italian social organization.
"We have been fishing and hunting dove, pheasant and quail together for 25 years," Antonino said. "During the spring and fall, we have fished together at least a couple times a month for 25 years."
Antonino also enjoys golf, a sport Donato never took up.
Antonino first fished in the derby in 1985 without catching a tagged trout. In 1988, he landed three $100 fish near the boat docks in front of Ducey's on the Lake.
"That got me hooked," Antonino said with a smile.
Donato said the friends always play 40s music while fishing and "Pete knows every song."
This year's derby was one of the most lucrative for the nearly 1,000 participants in the event that started in 1984, with a total of $21,840 in prize money paid out for 351 fish (more than 200 on Saturday). Last year, the derby had 770 participants and $1,560 was paid out for just 42 tagged fish turned in. The last time the largest cash-prize fish were caught during the derby was in 1992 and 2007.
The lake was planted with 1,002 tagged trout for the derby -- two for $10,000, one for $5,000, 150 for $100 and 849 worth $20.