Part of fishing’s allure is the fact you never really know for sure what’s lurking beneath the surface. Even when you’re merely angling for a few sunfish for supper, there’s always the possibility that a world-class catch may swim your way.
Such was the case for humble panfish fan Hector Brito.
He was soaking a live nightcrawler a foot above bottom on a drop-shot rig in 10 feet of water on mighty Lake Havasu February 16, hoping to hook a sunfish or perhaps a bass, when something remarkably large inhaled his bait.
“There was a solid jerk and the fish started pulling line,” he recalls. An avid fisherman, the Lake Havasu City, Arizona, angler has landed his share of hefty catches over the years. And, judging by the way this mystery fish tussled and tugged, he guessed it was a good-sized catfish. “It fought really hard for about 10 or 11 minutes,” he said. “Then it finally came to the top.”
When his prize surfaced, Brito was surprised to discover that it wasn’t a whiskerfish at all, but an enormous redear sunfish. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I’ve caught redears up to 2½ pounds, but nothing close to this.” Indeed, stretching 17 inches long, with an astonishing girth that would later tape out at 19½ inches, Brito’s beast was a true behemoth among the Lepomis microlophus clan.
But it wasn’t out of the water yet.
Fishing from a pontoon on the south end of Havasu’s main basin, near an area called the Chalk Cliffs, Brito was armed with tackle more appropriate for palm-sized sunnies. “I had only a size 8 Aberdeen hook and 6-pound line,” he says. “So I was afraid I would lose the fish.” Fortunately, Brito’s luck—and his line—held up, and soon the massive sunfish swung over the rail.
Brito immediately knew he had a remarkable redear. But he didn’t know the depth of its breadth until he brought it to Bass Tackle Master back in Lake Havasu City, where it tipped the state-certified scale at a whopping 5 pounds, 12.8 ounces. Such heft put it in elite company. The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame’s current all-tackle redear record, caught by Amos Gay in South Carolina back in November of 1998, stands at 5 pounds, 7 ounces.
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For its part, the International Game Fish Association recognizes the South Carolina fish, along with a 5-pound, 8.8-ounce redear plucked from Havasu in May of 2011 by Robert Lawler. Lawler’s fish did not replace Gay’s because IGFA rules require record challengers under 25 pounds to beat the existing benchmark by at least two ounces. Brito’s bruiser, however, is big enough to knock both catches from the books.
Lawler’s fish is also listed as the Arizona state record for the Colorado River Waters division. And California, which also borders the 19,300-acre impoundment, lists a 5-pound, 3-ounce fish taken from the Folsom South Canal in 1994 as its top redear, which means Brito could bag dual state records as well. In fact, record applications are already in the works. John Galbraith, proprietor of Bass Tackle Master, weighed Brito’s catch, and said he completed the necessary paperwork to apply for Arizona and California state records, along with the IGFA world record.
Brito called catching the giant fish—a pending world record sunfish, no less—a “wonderful” experience that words can’t fully describe. “I am so excited, it’s hard to explain,” he grinned.
While many world record fish are shrouded in controversy, the only shadow associated with Brito’s catch is the fact that larger redears undeniably lurk in Havasu. Arizona biologists acknowledge that sunfish of epic proportions have been on the upswing ever since exotic quagga mussels appeared in the reservoir in recent years. Galbraith agrees. He personally weighed a 5-pound-plus redear that fell just shy of the all-tackle record, and believes breaking the 6-pound barrier is possible. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new record, especially during the spawn in May and June, when the fish are full of roe,” he says.
Whether quaggas are fueling the incredible growth of trophy redears as menu items or in more indirect means is up for debate among fisheries scientists and anglers alike. Regardless, Havasu is the hottest thing happening for giant sunfish at the moment. And you never know when the next record will rise from its depths.