Heavyweight Fishing Records

by Louis Bignami

The search for record fish builds harbors, moves fishing boats from America to Central America and would probably exhaust the budget of Costa Rica. As often seems the case, Hemingway said it best with his, "Only the first catch counted, for every other record may be broken." Why then do fishermen spend so much time, effort and hard cash in often uncomfortable and usually inconvenient settings to set records that are almost always temporary?

After interviewing 40 record holders for a book, Stories behind Record Fish, it's clear records return what you bring. Some, like Joey Pallotta, holder of the sturgeon record, and Kelley Everette, holder of the Pacific Blue Marlin 30 pound line test record, parley records into careers as skippers. Some, while compulsive in their quest, treat their records casually. A few find their records a burden. Maybe it's the Puritan ethic, but those who set records by intent, rather than by pure luck, seem to value their accomplishment most.

Of all the records in saltwater, two stand out. Let's look at these first.

Marron's Marvelous Swordfish

On the morning of May 7, 1953, in the golden era of billfishing, the Marron's Flying Heart slowly rolled over a gentle sea off Iquique, Chile. As Mrs. Marron recounted it in her book, Albacora, "Bosco!" Lou bellowed at once. Bosco was their term for a huge billfish.

"Everyone aboard jumped into action, and baiting began before the sound of Lou's shout faded. Lou pulled line off the big Fin-Nor reel and stood holding the end of the big, trailing loop in his hand. We waited, breathless.

Swordfish. "Eddie Wall, the veteran of many swordfish safaris, was our captain that year. He put that bait right across the albacora's nose. The fish turned away. Again we maneuvered. This time with a great splash of his mighty tail, Bosco dove for the bait.

"Wham" - the sword lashed out. Lou was in the chair now, waiting and watching . . .. A little of the line peeled off, then a little more, faster and faster.

"Strike! Ahead with the boat," Lou shouted. He had struck Bosco, the king of kings." Twelve times Lou hauled the fish to the boat with his heavy 130-pound -- then called 39 thread -- line. A dozen times the giant fish surged away. Then, as the huge fish reached the boat after its thirteenth run, Eddie Wall leaned out and grabbed the heavy leader with gloved hands. The monster thrashed. A gaff sunk home. The legendary monster the Marron's had sought for years was theirs.

At the dock the fish weighed 1,182-pounds - -the largest game fish caught anywhere up to that day. Given current depredations of long liners, many experts say it's the unbreakable record!

Thirty-seven Times Test

Zane Grey caught the first "grander," a 1,040 pound blue marlin off Tahiti back in 1930. The IGFA didn't allow the catch as sharks bit the fish at the boat, but it took another 22 years to catch another 1,000+ pound "grander".

Blue Marlin. While the current all-tackle record taken on 130-pound test weighed in at 1,376, the most astonishing record in saltwater may be Kelley Everette's 1,103 pound catch, which he managed on line 100 pounds lighter. A fish that's 37 times the line test used to catch it is astonishing!

World Record Certificate. Kelley, now a professional skipper out of Hawaii's Kona Coast, took the fish with a live 3-pound skipjack tuna bait just off the rocky volcanic shores of the Big Island. After the fish popped the bait, the skipper, Carl Schloderer who ran Kelley's boat on his day off, backed down for the set. The Everette's boat, the Northern Lights, a classic 37-foot Merritt, played a big part in the upcoming struggle. Smaller, more agile boats than used in most billfishing areas, are usual on sheltered Kona Coast waters. Add a skilled skipper, a tough deckhand to position the fighting chair and, hopefully, wire the fish, and a fisherman who combines endurance with a light touch and some amazing catches result.

As the line came tight, Kelley jammed the lovingly-sharpened hook home. It took an hour and a half to bring the fish close in. No pauses, no rests here! Fish recover faster than fishermen, so you need non-stop effort. As the blue shape neared the boat, then with a struggle broke away to jump once, twice, three times, Kelley knew he had a fish that threatened the existing 626 pound record. After another series of runs, the swivel hit the rod tip and the deckhands set three gaffs. Two pulled out, but a big gaff held and they hauled the silver fish through the transom door before the quick run to harbor and the weigh-station.

The IGFA representative, Phil Parker, had the balance scale set at the old record, 626 pounds. Like the gathering crowd he'd heard of the catch on the marine radio. The big blue gradually lifted off the loading dock. The beam flipped up. Reset at 826 it flipped again, and again, and again before it finally settled at 1,103 1/2 pounds.

Budget Tigers

Tiger Shark. Not every heavyweight record requires big bucks, or big boats. Walter Maxwell managed the tiger shark record without a boat, fighting chair, skipper or other help. He caught his fish off a Carolina pier. He remembers the one that got away best. "The big one nearly overlapped the pier's end," he said. "That's 20 feet long." "The little one I caught only went 13 1/2 feet and, after losing an estimated 10 percent of its body weight, weighed in at 1,780 pounds.

While this record may be broken, it won't be broken from a Carolina pier. After jaws, shore communities barred pier fishing for sharks on the theory it wouldn't help tourism.

Back in 1964, Maxwell, a very fit bricklayer, noted, "Shark fishing was big. We could see stripes on tiger sharks that cruised off the piers. I thought I knew why more fish weren't caught. Fishermen didn't have the right kind of gear."

Maxwell geared up with a 16/0 left-handed Penn Senator purchased at a bargain $135. With a custom rod, 1,300 yards of 130 pound test on the reel and a five pound skate bait on 14/0 Mustad hooks whipped onto a bit less than 30 feet of steel cable, he was ready.

After losing a huge shark on Saturday when it swam away with his pier gaff cutting a periscope wake, Maxwell changed his approach. A couple of 10 foot fish hit on other lines. Then, in the confusion, Maxwell missed his hit. When he looked up the rod tip was down. As he ran to the rail in the confusion of crossed lines and cursing fishermen his fish surged out of the water. As Maxwell remembers, "My tiger rolled again about 200 yards from the pier. It sounded like nothing I'd ever heard." A buddy later reported it looked and sounded like "someone had dumped two bathtubs into the ocean at once."

Maxwell's shark headed down the beach toward Florida. With over one half a mile of line out, Maxwell finally stopped the fish. Line built on the reel, then smoked off. The problem was leverage; Maxwell needed to get down on the beach. After four hours and a half, the big shark rolled under the pier. One hook was bitten off; the other barely held at the corner of the shark's mouth just off it's gnashing teeth.

The wire leader came into reach, but even Andre the Giant couldn't wire a shark from a 20 foot high pier. So Maxwell managed to place his gaff in the shark's mouth. The gaff handle tore free, but the inch-thick gaff line held. Maxwell jumped down to the soft sand, hauled his catch into the shore break and lassoed the shark's head and tail. It took nearly a dozen men on three ropes to strand the huge fish above the surf. The fish lost pounds in the long wait for the wrecker's truck arrival. It still beat the old record by 350 pounds. Fisheries experts agree that, if weighed when caught, it would have topped a ton.

Great Whites

Great white. Alf Dean's Great White dwarfs Maxwell's fish, and it's not even the largest Australian shark caught on rod and reel. But larger fish came on line heavier than the IGFA maximum 130 pound test or were otherwise disqualified. Aussies seem at war with the sharks that swarm off swimming beaches and surfing areas. So Alf Dean's catch got plenty of publicity back in 1959. At 2,664 pounds it smashed the old record and was Dean's forth time in succession to have held the Australian record.

Dean and his boatman, Ken Puckridge, had chummed for hours without seeing a shark. At about 3:30 in the morning the big shark bumped their boat. Only careful husbanding of chum kept the shark interested until first light, about 7 a.m. -- you don't mess with two ton sharks in the dark.

It only took 50 minutes for the experienced pair to muscle the shark to the boat. After it was gaffed and tail roped, they returned to a mob scene at the weighing station. The shark measured 16 feet, 10 inches and more than nine feet in girth. Dean took all this attention Australian-style.

As Dean notes, "A good boatman makes a big difference. We were able to work the fish all the time without much line out. The fight wasn't that hard. I did worry a bit when the fish jumped. It's something to see such a big fish slam back into the water after jumping clear."

Dean's fish did this twice before giving up. It boggles the mind to imagine what a 2,600 pound fish would do if it slammed down on the cockpit!

It's astonishing that Dean's record has stood for three decades. Bigger Great Whites, like the 3,450 pound Montauk Monster, have come to gaff even though they did not meet IGFA standards.

Tarpon On Four

Tarpon. You don't need monster fish on gut-wrenching tackle to set, and enjoy records. While M. Salazar's 283-pound all-tackle tarpon, and the accounts of the catch, have disappeared, more recent line test records offer an interesting challenge. The best of these records may be Bill Riesenfeld's 108-pound 8-ounce tarpon taken on 4-pound test in Florida Bay in 1987.

Such records, as Bill will be the first to state, require special gear and a special approach. Bill prefers Knightsticks, Daiwa BG15 reels with custom leather washers and Ande 4-pound test. Rigging the 15 foot shock leader which IGFA allows between the test line and bait or lure remains the most critical point. With 30-pound, 50-pound and, at the tarpon end, even 80-pound sections, this leader holds the record key. For if you can hook a tarpon on a shallow flat and, after the first wild jumps, fight the fish "on the leader" you have a chance.

A skilled guide like Joe Wejebe who can find fish and pole all day long in the hot sun helps too. However, even record days can start poorly. Wejebe couldn't get decent big shrimp, the aerator in the bait tank broke and the bait died. So, after a pod of big tarpon refused a soft plastic bait, Bill cast the Finger Mullet lure he'd rigged on a second rod.

A huge tarpon "garbaged the plug" and, as Bill bowed to the fish to avoid a broken line, porpoised seven feet in the air before it ran wildly over the sandy flat. Bill followed the fish with his rod tip. Wejebe poled hard. After a long fight Wejebe missed the fish with his gaff. The fish dove under the boat and around the motor. Bill plunged the rod into the water and cleared the line. Finally, after poling for miles, over two and a half-hours, Bill led the fish into range. Wejebe took a deep breath, stretched and jammed the big gaff home with both hands.

At the nearest certified scales the fish weighted 108 pounds, 8 ounces and stretched 88 inches. It beat the old record by over 30 pounds!

Surgin' Sturgeon

These days Joey Pallotta runs a sturgeon boat in the Northern California waters where he took his record 468 pound fish. Regulations changed; you can not keep sturgeon longer than six feet, so his record may well be good for all time.

Sturgeon. Pallotta feels, "Sturgeon fishing is a lot more relaxing than most methods where you work hard. You set out a bait and wait. It's ideal for those who work hard during the week."

Pallotta set his record on 60-pound test on a lazy day when he and his girlfriend had enjoyed lunch and worked on their suntans in the broad waters of San Pablo Bay. Suddenly, over his girlfriend's shoulder, Pallotta saw his rod tip dip into the water. He stroked to set the hook, momentarily thought he'd snagged bottom and fell back as the huge fish surged partly out of the water, shook it's gills and took off. Pallotta cranked up his 18-foot runabout and followed through the heavy weekend boat traffic which ranges from container vessels to atomic submarines. It took "only" five hours and 30 minutes before Pallotta, now exhausted, could jam a rope through the giant fish's gills.

Now mounted in the Crockett Museum, the fish is not nearly the largest sturgeon on record. Fish hauled in by horses pushed 2,000 pounds around 1900. However, this record should stand because of the changed regulations.

Real Rainbows

David White's dad was mad. The taxidermist to whom he sent his son's big salmon wouldn't stop phoning with questions about his eight year old son's catch. Then, the problem cleared up as the taxidermist noted, "I'm certain this is a big steelhead, not a salmon. It could be a world record."

Rainbow. After many delays, such as flying experts to Alaska's Bell Island to check scales, and all sorts of other problems, David's fish now stands as the IGFA record rainbow. David isn't impressed. As he noted, "I don't remember anything special. It took about 35 to 40 minutes to land the fish. He was still fighting when Dad netted him. He was blind in one eye. So when he swam by the boat he couldn't see the net."

Dr. White, David's father, remembers it a bit differently. He notes, "A lot of people thought we were crazy. We often fished together out of our Avon." On the day in question the whole family was aboard. Dr. White ran the outboard. David and his two brothers perched on the center seat with, as his father says, "the bare minimum of pushing, shoving and elbowing after being cooped up in a chartered Beaver (small bush plane.)" David's mother and sister huddled in the covered bow out of the spray.

As they trolled the Glory Hole off the resort, David got what Dr. White called, "the big hit." The fish ran out of current into slack water and a long slogging struggle began. David couldn't hold the fish, but when he tried to give up, his dad threatened to put David's brothers on the rod to share the glory. David held on. He'd rest one arm and reel with the other. By the time the fish hit Dr. White's net it was dark. So, when Alaskan Fish and Game weighted the huge fish at the dock, it won the salmon derby. Dr. White wanted to steak and eat the fish because it wouldn't fit into their coolers. The lodge owner convinced Dr. White that David would probably never catch a bigger salmon and suggested the fish be boxed and frozen for the taxidermist. So nobody saw the fish in daylight. After an IGFA investigation, the fish was certified as the world record Rainbow at 42 pounds, 2 ounces. Twenty years later, David still isn't impressed.

Blue Collar Bluefin

Bluefin Tuna. Ken Fraser keeps the tail of his record Bluefin tuna in his basement. According to Mr. Fraser, "It didn't bring much. I did get some recognition from sports Illustrated, but as far as Canada goes, nothing." Fraser was probably in the wrong place. He usually skippered out of Prince Edward Island, but took his record fish off a friend's boat off Nova Scotia. Apparently the two areas don't get along well. When asked about Fraser, Nova Scotia Tourism claimed he was dead.

Fraser lives, but his interest in fishing has died. He complains of long-liners, over fishing and the burden of records. His account of the catch mostly runs to gear, and there is no excitement in his voice when he talks of that day. Apparently, he had to fight the fish and direct the skipper during the short 45 minute fight. Even after the catch Fraser seemed disappointed. ". . . I didn't know how big the fish was until I couldn't get my usual tail rope over the fish's tail for the hoist. If we had weighed the fish right away, it would have gone over 1,500 pounds. Even so, I don't think my record will be beaten."

Rolling your own record

Given the number of line tests open at the North American Fishing Hall of Fame, and the low weights of some International Game Fish Association test records, fishermen willing to meet the varied requirements of these organizations should be able to set their own records. However, it's clear that, like fame and fortune, records bring their holders what the holders bring their record.