BAXTER, Minn. — It’s something like an old Norse fairy tale — a man, stricken and down on his luck, sets out in his boat and comes upon a giant golden fish, mysterious and ancient, that transforms his life for the better, as if by magic.
However, this isn’t a fairy tale. That man is Jason Fugate, of Baxter, and that fish is a bigmouth buffalo fish — weighing a hefty 32.8 pounds, 36 inches long and 26 inches in girth — and what may be the only known member of its gray-brown mottled species that shines with a kingly brilliance, like molten gold.
Based on expert analysis, this golden buffalo fish swam local waters for at least a century, eclipsing the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley, Mohammed Ali, Princess Diana and billions of human beings without an inkling of awareness. Only more sophisticated tests will be able to pin an accurate date on the fish’s age.
In late April, on a lake he declined to identify, Jason hopped in his boat and set out to enjoy a favorite pastime — bow fishing.
“There’s you and the water and about 15, 20 feet of light. Nobody around you. Nobody to bother you,” Jason said. “It’s really calm and peaceful. You get to see a lot of nightlife you wouldn’t normally see during the daytime, isolated from distractions.”
With the clock ticking toward 3 a.m., Jason scoured waters murky with stirred up silt, illuminated by the ghostly glow of his lamps. Nighttime fishing reveals an entirely different world beneath the water’s surface, he said, an environment at times opaque and devoid of light, populated by species that don’t venture out during the day and seldom appear before human eyes.
And then, there, looming in the depths, Jason’s lights illuminated a glowing mass, he said. A beast, it moved with smooth and gradual confidence — the first clue in his mind, Jason recalled, the fish had outlived so much of its surroundings that it was, in fact, something of a living artifact.
“It had such a glow to it,” Jason said. “It had a distinctive orange shine. When I sent a pic of it to my friend, I realized that this fish was different.”
While Jason thought briefly he might have come across an overgrown goldfish or other carp, the bigmouth buffalo’s distinctive shape and prominent bony plates quickly gave it away.
Immersed in the hunt, Jason’s thoughts become primal and hyper focused — “Big buff! Big buff!” shot through his mind, he said. While he floated up on the fish and started to draw his bowstring back, fatigue — crushing fatigue, siphoning fatigue; more than an early-morning fishing trip might explain — could be felt in every muscle and nerve of his body.
Going back to February 2018, the young father of three said he started experiencing bouts of fatigue — not just an occasional hankering for an afternoon nap, but slumping into bed everyday after work and passing out for hours at a time.
It got to a point where his wife, Kelli, said he was difficult to rouse and wouldn’t respond to anything less than intensive efforts.
“He could not get up,” Kelli said. “It would take a solid five minutes to get him up. You could call him and call him, but he wouldn’t get up. He was always tired. He never had any energy and then his stomach started acting up and it was all downhill from there.”
At the same time, eating became as difficult as remaining awake throughout the day. He’s been diagnosed with, in Jason’s words, “some kind of malabsorption syndrome” which is about as vague as it sounds. Essentially, beyond pinning it down to gastro-intestinal problems, it means doctors are almost as perplexed at Jason and Kelli. So far, there’s been no medication settled upon, and no viable options for a cure.
At first, Jason thought he had some kind of stomach virus. He couldn’t properly digest his meals. A typical dinner evolved into an agonizing ordeal. He was afflicted by debilitating cramps that could bring him to his knees and he began to throw up blood. Soon, he found himself in the emergency room. He’s visited seven or eight clinics. He’s had his gallbladder and appendix removed, but it only led to a temporary respite. He noted he can be dizzy or drowsy while driving as well.
After about a year of consistent problems, Jason’s lost just shy of 90 pounds. Jason, a technician at Sound Connection Inc. in Baxter for 10 years, was physically unable to continue working. In the meantime, Kelli’s also seen a tempestuous employment situation juggling the needs of her husband and three children with work.
“It kinda leaves a guy incapacitated throughout the day,” Jason said. “I don’t have a lot of answers for how long this is going to go on. Will it stop? Will this be how my life is going to be?”
Jason said the quality of his life has declined.
“It’s brought on so many mental health issues,” added Jason, who noted he’s spent time in emergency mental health facilities. “The burden that it’s put on my wife alone — she’s stated, ‘It’s like being a single mother of three.’ I’m here and I try to be as involved as I can and I love my kids, but it’s not the same when I can’t take them on a bike ride without having those consequences. It makes it tough to live a life and be a dad.”
Initially, the diagnosis was Crohn’s disease. While doctors have moved on from this original assessment, a medication prescribed to Jason — Pentasa — has worked relatively well to mitigate symptoms and make the situation tolerable.
But, once health care professionals threw out the Crohn’s disease diagnosis, they started looking into other options and Jason’s Pentasa prescription got axed.
“I did have some positive results. My biopsies came back negative, so they took off that medication and sent me out the door,” Jason said. “It’s been a battle. I’ve just been trying to get back on that medication. I knew how I felt. I told the doctors, I don’t care what you diagnose me with. I know how I feel. It’s about living my life.”
“It’s a lot to take on,” Kelli added. “He’s here, but he can’t help a whole lot. I kind of handle the kids. He kind of handles himself. We’re waiting for answers.”
The man, the myth, the fish
If you asked Jason, his answer came to him in the form of the golden fish.
Ignoring his aching body, he took the first shot — just to watch the arrow disappear into the lake bottom without so much as nicking a scale. By Jason’s own admission, bowfishing can be difficult. It’s not like traditional bow hunting or staring down a set of iron sights, so much as it’s an art form of muscle memory and intuition, coupled with a practiced eye, like throwing a baseball on the diamond.
He pursued the beast. With a burst of speed and strength that belied its centennial age, Jason said the golden fish tried to shake him. He took a second shot — just to watch it glance and bounce off the animal’s scales like plate armor.
As Jason corralled the fish into shallower waters, it gave another kick with its tail, another burst in the silt — but it was growing tired, he said, as if the mysterious fish was weighed down by the decades just as he was weighed down by a mysterious illness taxing his body.
The third and final shot did it in. The arrow pierced the fish’s gleaming metallic skin and Jason pulled in what he called his “fish of hope” — a symbol in his mind, he said, that things will change and turn out for the better.
“It is very, very rare and undocumented up to this point,” Jason said of the fish, echoing assessments by Alec Lackmann, a researcher from North Dakota State University. He noted the fish’s extraordinary age — as fish often gain a certain luminance with time — or a genetic mutation might account for its striking appearance.
At any rate, much like the man himself, the fish presents a host of questions without concrete answers at this time.
“Why me? Why this time in my life? Why did I find it at that time, that place? How old is it? Why is it so orange?” Jason said. “In many ways, this fish is like me and my illness, there are so many unanswered questions that need to be solved.”
Jason and Kelli said they’re hoping to receive enough attention and raise enough funds so Jason can visit a number of specialized experts — doctors in Chicago, in the Twin Cities or beyond — who maybe can shed light on his condition. Friends have set up a GoFundMe page titled “Jason Jason – Mystery fish and medical diagnosis” crafted around the symbolic imagery of the golden buffalo bigmouth, with a goal of $20,000.
Whether or not it comes to fruition remains to be seen, Jason said, or if it will, in fact, change his life for the better. That part of the fairy tale, for now, remains in the realm of fiction.
“It was this sign of hope,” Jason said. “All the good and the bad, the mental health, the physical — you don’t really know what’s going to happen the next day. Just keep trying. If I hadn’t put in the time and effort, I don’t know what would have happened. So I have to keep searching, because I’ll find the right doctor, the right diagnosis. And one time, it’s going to go right.”