VERO BEACH — A few hours before sunset one day last week, real estate agent Manuel Briceno walked the half-block from his Sandpiper Lane home in South Beach to the ocean. He carried an Ugly Stik fishing rod with 20-pound test line, a package of orange fish-bites for bait, a knife for cleaning and a Publix plastic bag to put a fish in – just in case he lucked out.
With the water lapping around his flip-flops as the sky went pink, he cast into the surf, then put the pole into a rod holder he anchored in the sand.
While he was snapping photos of the aquamarine sea and cloudless sky to send to friends, his line made that glorious whirring sound that signals a hit.
Before he could grab the rod, it went flying out of the holder.
As Briceno lunged for it, grabbing it just before it went in the water, the weight of it almost pulled him in.
“I knew I had hooked something big,” he said.
Days later, he discovered the pompano he caught was an unofficial world record.
The tug of war between human and fish went on for about a half an hour, with Briceno raising his rod and winding the reel, then lowering it and backing up, as the fish, full of fight, took off again.
Over and over, he repeated the process until the fish was about 20 feet from the shore.
That’s when he saw it flash in the sunlight.
“The most gleaming silver-gold I’ve ever seen,” he recalled.
Finally, as a crowd gathered around him, Briceno dragged the fish from the water, and walked over to look at it.
As the huge pompano flopped in the sand next to him, he felt the reverberating thud of its weight go from the bottom of his feet through his body.
He studied its amber eye – larger than his – and its smooth muscular strength. He watched the blood-red gills heave in the alien air.
And, suddenly, he was filled with regret.
“I had taken a magnificent creature from the sea,” he said.
When Briceno was growing up in Venezuela, he liked to hunt deer and rabbit. But he stopped because it bothered him to kill them.
Fish, however, were different.
No soft brown eyes. No whimpering young left behind.
Fish were fun to catch, delicious to eat and guilt free – that is until that day.
“I felt a very personal attachment to that king,” he said.
At the time, it didn’t occur to him to unhook it and put it back in the water.
The fish was too big for the plastic bag he had with him, so Briceno called his neighbor, Robert Winn, who showed up with a 5-gallon bucket.
While Briceno cleaned his gear, Winn, a Manhattan- lawyer- turned-meditation-teacher, lugged the fish, which Briceno had already killed and gutted, to his house. He put it on a bathroom digital scale, which he described as “reliably accurate.”
With its organs removed, the pompano weighed 8.4 pounds, and about 9 pounds with its organs.
Briceno couldn’t bring himself to eat the fish. So he cut it up and gave a piece to Winn and two other friends, including his boss, real estate broker Alex MacWilliam.
A few days later, Briceno took weight information and photos of the fish to Vero Tackle and Marina next to the Barber Bridge. Manager Ernie White looked at the pictures and assured him it was a pompano, not a permit, which resembles a pompano but is much larger.
White turned to page 57 of Sport Fish of Florida and looked at the world record for the largest Florida pompano ever caught. It was 8.4 pounds.
If Briceno had taken the fish to Ft. Lauderdale to register it, it would’ve been the new official world record. As it was – at 8.8 pounds or more – it was the new unofficial world record.
“Terrific,” he told White.
But he didn’t look happy.
“I feel so bad about killing it,“ he said, almost in a whisper.
“Why did you? Why didn’t you throw it back?” asked White.
“Next time, I will,” said Briceno.
He has become philosophical about the great fish he calls “King Pompano.”
He’s not convinced that the fun he had catching it and the attention he got outweighs the pain he feels over killing it.
“I like to think that long-time survivor came from the sea to teach me a lesson about catch-and-release fishing,” he said.
The same day the fish was caught, Winn grilled his share on his outdoor grill with lemon, salt and pepper.
“Delicious beyond words,” he said.