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Big fish story: Tony the legend

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Sam Dick
“Tony the Legend” shows off his catch on Herrington Lake

Sam Dick goes Off the Beaten Path to meet Tony the Legend at Herrington Lake

Herrington Lake is more like a winding river than a lake. It’s 35 miles long, narrow, and very deep as it snakes through Mercer, Garrard, and Boyle Counties in Central Kentucky. In some places, the water is 250 feet deep.

In the 1920’s Kentucky Utilities created the lake when crews built a dam on Dix River to generate hydroelectricity. Around that time, a Louisville man had a small cottage built near what is now Kamp Kennedy Marina. He brought his son, Tony Gargotto, to Herrington Lake when he was seven years old. “This is one of the best lakes in Kentucky. There’s probably more fish in that lake than any of them.”

Sam Dick
Tony on Herington Lake with his catch

Gargotto has fished Herrington for the last 85 years. “I’ve had a hell of a life on this lake. Everybody knows me.” They sure do. The soon-to-be 92-year-old is called a legend on the water. “When I come up here, there wasn’t nothing around here, when I was a kid, you know.”

Sam Dick
Tony showing off his catch at his dock on Herrington lake

I visited with Gargotto in his lake cottage. The walls of his kitchen are covered in mounted fish he’s caught and family pictures. The slim, five-foot-nine Gargotto has a sun-tanned dark complexion with silver hair combed straight back. He points to an old black and white, framed photo on the wall. You can tell he’s proud of his Italian heritage. “That’s my dad right there. Smartest man I ever knew.”

Gargotto grew up in Louisville where his father ran a café and bar. His dad would bring him during the week to fish on Herrington. Gargotto later served in the U-S Air Force. He eventually ran some nightclubs in Louisville and describes himself as a former professional gambler. He never lost his love for fishing, and when his wife of 61 years passed away twelve years ago, Gargotto moved to the lake for good.

“He’s a rock star. Everybody knows him. And everybody loves him.”

Derek Gibson grew up on Herrington Lake and recently bought Kamp Kennedy Marina. It’s where Gargotto keeps his fishing boat and gear. There’s even a sign at the dock entrance proclaiming, “No parking, Tony Gargotto only.” That’s where Gargotto parks his golf cart. On most weekdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., you can find Gargotto fishing. He says he’s won ten fishing tournaments here by catching very large bass.

“I mean he’ll bring back some of the, I mean, it’s hard to believe they come from here. I mean they’re that big. I mean they’re humongous fish,” says Gibson.

Gargotto calls his fishing boat the ugliest on the water, but the 16-footer is a fish-catching machine. His personal best is a 22-and-a-half-pound bass. “I used to fish 12-hours a day. Fish in the morning. Go back and fish at night. I won ten tournaments on this damn lake. I’m talking about 40 to 50 years ago, 60 years ago. Anybody can catch a fish when they’re hittin’…the key to being a good fisherman is to catch them when they ain’t hittin’…you gotta make ‘em bite, and that’s what I do.”

Sam Dick
Tony and his girlfriend Ann navigate through the waters of Herrington Lake

I follow Gargotto and his girlfriend to his boat to see them off for another day of fishing. He unlocks a storage closet at the dock and opens the door for me to peer inside. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you’ve got dozens of fishing rods and reels, and bags and bags of lures, my goodness.”

Gargotta says Ann caught a 15-and-a-half-pound bass a few weeks ago and is still smiling from the experience. She explains how Gargotto multi-tasks on the boat. He fishes three rods at a time.

“He’ll have two rods under his legs, and he’s tying up a new line, and smoking a cigarette.”

Sam Dick
Tony and his girlfriend Ann on his boat at Herrington Lake

Gargotto is smiling. “There be people out there, come out and watch and take pictures.”

After 85 years of fishing, Gargotto still gets excited about catching large fish. “They’ll jump out of the water; they look like whales. You know a ten-pounder, they look, oh man, make you shake.”

I was eager for some tips from this legendary fisherman.

“If the sky is clear blue, not a cloud in the sky, you might as well stay home. Never wear a white shirt. When I’m fishing, I always have dark clothes on.”

On his fishing rod, he uses artificial lures of different colors.

“Say I got a yellow one on this one, a white one, and chartreuse. Say they hit the chartreuse, I go to two poles. And I put two chartreuses on, and I tear ‘em up.”

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Sam Dick
Tony holds a fish he caught at Herrington Lake

His large freezer is full of fish just from the last month. Most of them he gives away to friends.

Gibson admires his generosity. “The great thing about Tony is, he’s always wanting to teach somebody about what he knows. I don’t know if he’s like the, you know you hear about the horse whisper, maybe he’s the fish whisper.”

Gargotto says, “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, believe me. I’m well-liked. I’m blessed.”

After meeting Tony Gargatto and learning about his life, I can see why he’s a fixture in this community. And that is no fish story.

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.