Since 1975, the Florida state record for a tarpon has been a 243-pound fish caught in Key West. Since 2003, the world record has been a 286-pound tarpon caught in Rubane, Guinea-Bissau, Africa.
Both of those records may have been broken June 24 by Capt. Justin Moore and his four anglers.
For Capt. Justin Moore, chasing tarpon along west central Florida has been a favorite family pastime. Growing up as the son of renowned guide Scott Moore, fishing for and landing tarpon was a routine summer activity. "We caught more than a thousand tarpon together as I was growing up," Justin said. "None were as big as that fish."
"That fish" will be one that lives in the memories of all the anglers onboard Moore's custom-built-in-Bradenton 24-foot T-Craft by Scott Schulte. Longtime client Drew Denick and Ron Joyce, national account executives of ABC Supply Company, chartered Moore. Joining Denick, Joyce and Moore were Denick's clients from Wisconsin, Jeremy and Jan Tombl.
Never miss a local story.
"The biggest fish they've ever caught was a 24-inch walleye," Denick said. "They flew down just to tarpon-fish, but were nervous going into the Gulf of Mexico because they've been seasick in the past."
The nervousness was quickly put aside as Moore put them right onto a hot tarpon bite off the Anna Maria Island beaches. The first bait into the water sent a tarpon airborne. "That first fish was probably 160 pounds," Denick said, as it was landed after a 30-minute battle.
For the next four hours, each angler on board took turns fighting tarpon. Before long, they had landed a 130-pound fish and three 150-pounders, which Moore said has been about average for this year. "We were all exhausted at that point, ready to go home," Denick said. "Our cameras and phones were dead since we were using them so much for pictures."
The tired crew was ready to call it a day after a great day of tarpon-catching when Moore started the engine and told the anglers to bring in their baits. "Jan left his bait out for a second, and then it was hit," said Denick.
"I didn't see the fish at first," Moore said. "I was concentrating on the school trying to get a doubleheader at that point. (Fellow guide) Craig Madsen saw it. He called me and said 'That's a huge fish you've got on.'"
As a storm built overhead, Moore tightened the drag down on the 7500 Fin Nor Offshore with 65 pound Power Pro braid to put more pressure on the fish. "We were either going to catch it or break it off," he told the anglers. For the next 90 minutes, each angler took turns fighting the tarpon.
"About 50 feet off the boat I could see this was a huge fish hooked right in the top of the lip. That's when I told them 'We're going to land this fish,'" Moore said.
"When it got up to the boat we couldn't believe the size of it. I've seen 200-pound fish before, and this was significantly bigger. Everything was bigger, including the scales, eyeball and anal fin."
To get measurements, Moore held up a 9-foot custom Crowder fishing rod, seeing the fish was about 8 feet from mouth to forked tail. To get the dorsal girth, he had to get a line around the underside of the fish. "I couldn't reach that far," he said. For this, he attached a bobber to fishing line and pushed it under the massive girth to the other side. They then cut the line tight and held onto it for safekeeping.
"I thought the girth was maybe 42 or 43 inches," Moore said. "When we measured 53 inches, I couldn't believe it."
As the measuring was going on, with all cameras dead, Jeremy pulled out an iPad to record video of the fish at boat side. This shows Moore placing the 9-foot rod up to the monster tarpon before the release.
When Moore was back on dry land, he shared the measurements to get a tarpon weight estimate. "I thought it was going to be in the 250-pound range." Based on those size estimates, this tarpon would weigh between 310 and 340 pounds, a state and world record. "That's hard even for me to believe," said Moore.
To verify a world record would have meant killing the tarpon to be weighed. Doing it all over, the conservation-minded captain would have released the fish without second thought, even if it were a world record.
"One of the reasons that fish was so big was because of the eggs she was carrying. Most likely she is offshore spawning now, and I feel better about that than any record."
Denick, who holds a state record for a 33-pound 6-ounce skipjack tuna, was completely onboard letting the tarpon live to see another day. "Even knowing it could have been a world record, we would have released it to see another day. To me that is the best part of it all."
To see the video, head to Bradenton.com/outdoors and take your best guess about how big that fish is.