We both saw it charge the lure. We watched it swirl and miss, and I thought I missed my chance. But the fish stayed hot and charged my lure again. Fish on. I set the hook and watched the rod tip double over as the fish made a beeline for a submerged pipe. I moved to counter its charge and, in doing so, lost my concentration and let slack in the line. Fish off.
"You just lost your shot at glory," Marty Arostegui said to me, his voice haunted. Arostegui, who holds well over 100 IGFA certified world records, had put me in perfect position to get my first one - a snakehead. Yeah, that's right, a snakehead. An estimated 8 1/2-pounder that was a potential world record for eight-pound test line.
Not what you were thinking? Most people don't. I had never given any serious thought, or thought at all really, about pursuing record setting fish. What are the odds that a guy like me would come across a 1,403 pound blue marlin or a 287 pound tarpon? Chasing the glamour fish seems the equivalent of chasing a white whale, an unattainable pursuit that could consume and destroy your psyche.
But then I heard about Arostegui, the man who changed my way of thinking about record pursuits. He studies and targets fish you may have never heard of, let alone tried to catch. "I go after the ugly fish," he said. Like that fat snakehead I just hooked and lost. But you can try to set a record, too, if you just change your approach.
At the Snake Pit
The body of water where we began our record pursuit is no pristine setting that evokes images of man vs. nature in a remote wilderness outpost. It is an innocuous drainage ditch alongside a busy divided road that runs through the heart of South Florida suburbia. Thousands of drivers pass by daily without noticing it (except maybe to dump litter in it from their car windows). But to Arostegui, the ditch - about three blocks long and 10-feet wide - is nirvana. He calls this place "The Snake Pit" for its increasing population of snakeheads with world record potential.
We jumped the curb in his blue SUV and pulled onto a grassy patch at the start of the pit. This is the spot where Arostegui set the snakehead record on 8-lb. test, a five-pound, four-ounce fish. (He also set a fly rod record here, catching a five-pound, twelve-ounce snakehead on 16-pound test.) Using soft plastic bass-assassins, we worked our way down the canal casting our spinning rods along the banks. The spool on my rod had an "eight" written on it in black permanent marker. Arostegui's had a "two." The designation signaled that my reel was spooled with eight-pound Ande Tournament line. Arostegui wants to be sure that in his record pursuits, he leaves nothing to chance.
Despite his relaxed appearance and good-natured self-deprecating demeanor, Arostegui-a retired doctor who emigrated to Miami from Cuba at age 14 - has the Type A personality needed to doggedly pursue records.
He started this all 17 years ago when his wife bought him a guided fly fishing trip with legendary guide Bill Curtis in Biscayne Bay. "Something happened to me," he said of that day. "I became obsessed."
He practiced fly fishing and spin fishing relentlessly, entering local clubs and fishing tournaments with fervor. He caught his first record in 1994, a 10-pound tripletail on four pound tippet while fly fishing in the Everglades. He also caught an eight-pounder on two-pound tippet, a record that still stands.
The tripletail, while no snakehead, does not engender the passion of, say, a bonefish or largemouth bass. Perhaps it set the tone for Arostegui to pursue countless records chasing less-than-stellar species.
"I do like a lot of the weird fish," he said. These include records for alligator gar, oscars, jacunda and trahira from Brazil, yelloweye rockfish in Alaska, sorubim in Suriname, and oscars and tilapia in other Florida canals.
These fish may not be glamorous, but Arostegui put a lot of time and preparation into catching them. "When you start chasing world records," he said, "you've got to learn about fish that are difficult to fish for. I'm learning all kinds of new things."
Like when he decided to pursue alligator gar. When he realized the species had attainable fly rod records, he found a guy in Texas who guided exclusively for alligator gars, but had never taken anyone with a fly rod. Arostegui researched the fish and designed his own flies for them. He caught one almost immediately.
Back at the snakepit, I hooked up again, and Arostegui sprinted over to see if I had another snakehead. Nope. "It's just a trash fish," he said jokingly of my three-pound largemouth bass. Does that mean Arostegui doesn't take pleasure in targeting the glamour fish? "Not all my records are ugly," he said. "I have to redeem myself."
He's not kidding. This spring, while fishing with famed guide Ralph Delph in the Florida Keys, he landed the largest fish ever caught on fly tackle, a 385-pound lemon shark. Yet, he displayed a similar level of excitement for my eight-pound snakehead. I left the Snakepit looking at record fishing a lot differently, and determined to find a species I could call my own…