Giant tarpon lives to fight another day
Captain Justin Moore, son of legendary Gulf Coast charter captain Scott Moore, has been catching big tarpon since he was 5 years old. But he never caught one anywhere near the size of the fish his anglers brought to boatside last week off the beach at Anna Maria.
The younger Moore, fishing a four-angler charter for ABC Supply out of Beloit, Wis., already had enjoyed an incredible day.
"We were worn out by lunch," said ABC Supply's Drew Denick, who arranged the charter. "We caught a fish of around 160 pounds on the first cast of the day, then a little later a 130, then three around 150 back to back, and we were all whipped, plus there was a thunderstorm brewing, so we decided to head in about 1 p.m."
Before that could happen, however, fate intervened.
"We were reeling in the threadfins when one of the guys had a hit, and it was the big one," Denick said. "We didn't know how big but we saw Justin get real serious about it as soon as it jumped."
"I've seen a lot of big tarpon the last four or five years," Moore said. "The no-kill rules are letting them get bigger and bigger, and we're seeing fish all the time in the 180-pound range and some 200s, but this one was way bigger."
While he wanted to get his hands on the fish to confirm the enormous size, he was also aware of the growing threat from the approaching thunderstorm - and of the tired anglers he had aboard.
"I decided to crank down the drag and really get on the fish and see if we could wear it out fast," Moore said.
With heavy duty spinning tackle, a 9-foot rod and 65-pound-test braid, the anglers were able to put lots of pressure on the fish, to be sure. And as soon as one fisherman tired, the next jumped up to grab the rod and continue the fight.
Despite the intense pressure, it took an hour and 40 minutes to bring the giant to boatside.
"I could see it was really heavy and deep in the body when it jumped, but I didn't really get how big until I pulled it up to the side of the boat," Moore said.
It was, yeah, way big.
Using his 9-foot rod as a gauge, as Moore held the fish against the side of the boat, the anglers put the length at a full 8 feet long. Moore then used a piece of 80-pound-test mono and a slip cork to slide around the thickest part of the girth and get a measurement there - he had no measuring tape on board.
The fish was then revived - which took a while because it was totally worn out - but finally it came back to life and swam away.
When the anglers got back to the marina, the girth measure came out to an incredible 53 inches.
Because catch-and-release tarpon fishing has been around so long, anglers have developed a formula to give a very close estimation of the weight of the fish - raising big fish out of the water to weigh them usually has a bad effect on their internal organs, so tarpon are rarely weighed these days. (The recent FWC ruling making the species a no-kill gamefish except for world records will further reduce the already very low number being killed each year.)
The formula is length times the girth squared, divided by 800.
On that basis, the fish could have weighed a stupendous 337 pounds.
Even allowing for vagaries in the accuracy of an approximation, it very likely approached or exceeded 300 pounds.
The existing IGFA all-tackle world record for tarpon is 286 pounds, 9 ounces for a fish caught off the coast of Africa in 2003.
To be sure, even if Moore had been in possession of a tarpon tag and brought the fish in, it would not have qualified as a IGFA record - under their system only fish landed by a single angler are considered for a record.
But the fact that the central West Coast of Florida produced a fish of this size is surely an amazing fact - and perhaps a harbinger of things to come. Tarpon live 35 to 50 years, so the numerous fish that are now reaching the 200-pound class have a good chance to get much bigger, barring unfortunate encounters with the sharks that are always close to big tarpon schools.
To see video of the catch at Moore's website, go to www.moorefishing.com.