Daniel Keyes   

I launched the boat out here at Stick Marsh around mid-morning, and headed over to the back corner where I had spent a little time a few days ago, my first time here. That day, I had caught five fish in a little over a half hour, including two 3 pounderís and one 4 pounder, on a Carolina rig. Today when I arrived, there were two guide parties anchored in the prime spot, fishing with shiners. They were very nice, and invited me to move my boat right in there with them, which I did. I spent perhaps two hours within casting distance of these boats, and caught only one fish the whole time on my Carolina rig. During this two hours though I watched those shiner fishermen catch at least 20, and they said that before I arrived theyíd already caught 20 others! Those fish simply didnít want my Carolina rig with all the live bait around, and one of the guides suggested that if I really wanted to fish artificials, then I should go out in the middle of the lake and pitch worms into the holes in the hydrilla. This is classic Florida fishing, and exactly what we do on Lake Okeechobee for the entire month of January. I like that style though, so thatís what I did next, and what a difference it made.

I set my boat down in the middle of hundreds of acres of hydrilla, and began pitching a Gambler Paddle Tail worm. In the first 50 yards I caught a four pounder, and then a three about 50 yards beyond that. I drifted on a bit without catching any more, so I circled back and drifted over the same area again. This time I caught another four pounder, and missed an even bigger fish. I circled around and drifted through yet again, and this is when the big bite came. It didnít feel any different from the thousands of bites I have had in the past. Just a subtle acknowledgment that the bait is no longer swinging free, and a split-second later when I know itís not hung on a piece of grass, and I jerk. I was rewarded with that incredible experience that comes with jerking the rod upwards with all your might, only to have it arch over forward to itís maximum bend, the taut line singing in the wind, and the rod tip pointing down towards a monstrous fish whoís just been jerked into your moment.

The fight itself was not much to write about. There was no open water for the fish to dash off into, and true monsters like this are just plain too big to put on any arial exhibitions. This fish just came up out of her hole once, perhaps hoping Iíd have a heart-attack when I saw her size, then went back down again. Iíve caught enough fish in the hydrilla to know that my only chance was to get her back on top, so I did what I had to do, straining my equipment and muscling her back to the surface. As she came up and began sloshing near the boat, I realized that I had never, ever, seen a fish this size. I actually had a vision, for a moment, of a world-record fish. By the time I was reaching down to lift her into the boat, I was thinking 18, maybe 19 pounds. Maybe a Florida state record. There was simply no way to estimate her size, for I had absolutely nothing to compare it with. I can tell a 2 from a 3 from a 4 pound fish in an instant, but this was like estimating the weight of an automobile.

The next few minutes were a blur. I know I fumbled around, in vain, looking for my digital scale. I know I put the fish in the livewell, and it was so big it bent over in a "C". I removed the divider in the livewell, giving the fish both sides at once. I remember thinking that up until now, I considered a big fish one with a mouth into which I could insert my entire fist. Into this mouth I could have inserted my head. It must have been ten inches across. I remember looking around desperately for another boat. I just had to show this fish to someone else, and get it weighed. Both of the guide boats I had been with earlier had moved on, but I thought maybe they were back at the ramp, so I headed back in with my fish. They werenít there, nor was anyone else who might have a scale, but I was able to find my own scale back in the truck. In the parking lot a fellow approached and asked how I did today. Here was the witness that I was looking for. I told him, and I showed him, and he was awestruck. He went back to his truck for his camera, and then took some photos of me weighing the fish. It was 13 pounds, 5 ounces. By far the biggest fish I have ever caught. Not a world record, not 18 or 19 pounds, but I guarantee it is a memory I will keep for a lifetime.

After photographing and weighing the fish, I carried her down to the shore where a little boy and his mom were fishing. I let him admire and touch the fish, and together the two of us released her alive and unharmed into the water. Sheís swimming free again, in Stick Marsh, and perhaps someday she or one of her descendants will provide this same boy the experience of a lifetime, like she did for me today.

To answer a few of the questions Iíve already had about this story, Iíll add the following. First, this fish was caught using 30 pound-test Spiderline braid, and was fooled by a Gambler 5" Paddle Tail worm (junebug) sprayed with BANG fish attractant. Second, the fish was not full and fat from eggs, and showed no signs of being ready to spawn. Had it been full of eggs, thereís no telling how big it might have been!

One final note: To anyone who may have seen a guy with a great big smile in the local grocery store later that day, weighing frozen turkeys with his digital fish scale, that was me, verifying the accuracy of my device. Itís pretty close.

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