Field & Stream profiled Thomas Gibson Jr. of Houston as “Texas’ tarpon guru,” in 1991. At the time he'd caught 973 tarpon—including the Texas state record and two International Game Fish Association line-class records.
Gibson, 75, has since run his tally to more than 1,400 tarpon and counting, and he’s added a lot more noteworthy catches to his name, including several IGFA line-class records and a 230-pound tarpon caught in 1993 (pictured at bottom) that still reigns as the Louisiana state record. But none surprised him nearly as much as his most recent catch, a 102-pound Guinean barracuda that is the pending IGFA all-tackle world record.
Gibson caught the ’cuda February 14 while trolling for tarpon near the mouth of the Cuanza River in Angola. He has traveled to the west coast of Africa for the past nine years to chase the fish that hooked his heart back in 1949, when he caught his first one as an 11-year-old boy near his childhood home on the Panama Canal.
“I’ve fished all over the world,” Gibson says. “Gabon, Angola, Louisiana, Texas, Boca Grande, Key West. Everywhere there are tarpon. Always looking for the biggest ones.”
Fishing on the Cuanza proved to be slow during his seven-day trip in February. Along a stretch of coastline where last year he caught 28 tarpon—10 of them over 200 pounds—this year he tempted only one strike, and that fish broke off. So Gibson suggested to his fishing partner, Cam Nicolson, that they troll in order to try to locate the tarpon. That’s when the barracuda struck.
“He pulled out all kinds of line,” Gibson says. “Oh, man! We’re looking back, waiting for this thing to jump. It never jumped.”
Gibson says tarpon hooked in the top of the mouth often don’t leap, and he told Nicolson that was exactly what he believed had happened with his red-and-white Rapala lure. It took him only 10 minutes to get the fish to the boat, and seeing the shape of it in the murky water below, he still couldn’t say for sure what he’d caught.
“All of a sudden I pulled it up, and Cam said, ‘Jesus! What is that? It looks like a crocodile with no legs!’”
With only a small hand-gaff aboard, the anglers were underequipped to deal with an intimidatingly toothy barracuda, especially one nearly seven feet long. But once they hauled it over the gunwales, Gibson says, “It never wiggled again.”
Nicolson and his family, who live in Angola, hold several barracuda records themselves. “They’ve caught probably a dozen record fish on his boat,” says Gibson, who usually releases every catch. “He said he’d never seen anything like this. He thought we’d better take it in, so that’s what we did.”
The big barracuda weighed 46.4 kilograms—102 pounds, 8 oz.—narrowly topping the current all-tackle IGFA world record, a 45.9-kilo (101-pound, 3 oz.) fish caught in the west African country of Gabon in 2002 by Dr. Cyril Fabre. Gibson’s unexpected prize stretched an impressive 6' 10.7" long, with a girth of 27 inches.
If final approval is granted by IGFA, as expected, the record will be the second all-tackle mark for Gibson, a former employee of NASA who managed spacecraft software on the Mercury, Apollo and Space Shuttle projects from 1959 to 1996. His first, a Jack Crevalle caught in 1982, was bested in 1991 by his buddy Nicolson. The Texas state record, a 210-pound tarpon, was broken in 2009 after 36 years in the book. In fact, of the nine records he has earned in a lifetime of fishing, only the Louisiana state-record tarpon and the world-record barracuda are current. “The rest are, as they say, ‘retired,’” Gibson says. “Like me.”
On his way to catching more than 1,400 tarpon, 90 of which were more than 200 pounds, one big record has eluded Gibson.
“I’d rather have the all-tackle tarpon record—in fact, I was in a boat 300 yards away when the guy caught the 286-pounder that is the current world record—but this barracuda was certainly good,” he says. “It made the trip worthwhile. Anytime you catch a really outstanding fish, it’s exciting. They’re all good.”
Gibson's 230-pound tarpon caught in 1993 still reigns as the Louisiana state record.