2023 was a banner year for big fish. We saw a quarter-ton swordfish break a long-standing state record in California, a world record Texas alligator gar tipping scales at nearly 300 pounds, and a shark-bitten “opah” that outweighed the International Game Fish Association’s (IGFA) all-tackle world record—just to name a few. Her are five of our favorite big fish stories from 2023.
A 500-Plus-Pound California Swordfish
Back in late October, angler Mason Karafa and a crew of three other fisherman were testing out a relatively new technique known as “deep dropping.” The innovative method allowed Karafa to rig a squid to a 11/0 J-hook and send it down to extreme depths. After motoring several miles off the coast of San Diego, Karafa used the deep-dropping setup to hook a swordfish that most people only dream about. When the crew finally brought it aboard, Karafa’s swordfish—which died during the battle—weighed in at an astonishing 520 pounds, toppling the California state record by nearly 70 pounds.
Massive Alligator Gar Breaks 72-Year-Old World Record
Angler Art Weston and guide Kirk Kirkland have been chasing big gar together for years, and they have dozens of IGFA records to show for their efforts. Field & Stream has reported on multiple they’ve broken over the years, but none more impressive than the 283-pound gar that the renowned fishing duo managed to land while fishing in Sam Rayburn Lake in September 2023. The men were out on a week-long expedition aboard Kirkland’s “Garfish Enterprise” when Weston hooked the giant prehistoric fish on 6-pound test line. He fought it for more than two hours and twenty minutes before landing it. And it’s since been certified as the IGFA all-tackle world record, upending a legendary 72-year old alligator gar world record that was set by Bill Valvardi on the Rio Grande River. Valvardi’s 1951 gar weighed 278 pounds and measured 93 inches long. He caught it while targeting catfish with fresh mullet on a home-made bamboo rod.
Unicorn Catch: World Record Opah?
A first-time angler boated the world’s largest “opah” or moonfish back in August while fishing off the coast of California. Beau Leaman was fishing on the Horizon, a charter boat that runs overnight trips out of San Diego, when he hooked into the giant fish. The crew, led by Captain Bill Wilkerson, was targeting tuna in 300-feet of water at the time of Leaman’s catch. The fish would later tip scales at 188.6 pounds, nearly 10 pounds heavier than the IGFA world record. But it’s unclear if Leaman’s catch will actually make the IGFA’s coveted books, due to shark bites found on the fish’s flanks. The IGFA database still lists Joe Ludlow’s 2014 Opah, caught off the coast of Baja, California, as the standing world record.
Regardless of its IGFA status, Leaman’s catch is a rare accomplishment worthy of celebrating. “Shoutout to the angler Beau Leaman for hooking and landing the fish of a lifetime,” wrote Horizon Captain Bill Wilkerson on Instagram. “I, as owner and operator [of the Horizon], have witnessed Opah being caught three times in 40 years. It’s kind a like a unicorn.”
Tennessee Angler Breaks His Own Blue Cat Record
On June 28, 2023, Micah Burkhart broke Tennessee’s blue catfish record for the second year running when he netted a 122-pound giant while fishing on the Cumberland River. Burkhart, who used a white bass head for bait, filmed the catch and the release and posted the footage to his Youtube page. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency later shared the news of his catch on Facebook, writing that it weighed precisely 122.3 pounds, measured 57.5 inches long, and had a 42.25 inches in girth. Burkhart bested his 2022 state record, which F&S reported on at the time, by just four pounds.
Idaho Steelhead Record Falls
In October, angler Kyriacos Panayiotou of McCall, Idaho hooked into a record-setting steelhead while swinging a spey rod on the Clearwater River. Panayiotou eventually landed the wild steelhead, measured it with a flexible tape at a whopping 41 inches, and returned it to the river. And the Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) later declared it a new catch-and-release state record. “At around 30 degrees of a swing, this beautiful wild steelhead buck boiled to the surface and grabbed the fly with authority,” the angler recalled. “The vintage Hardy Perfect reel could do nothing in slowing down this fish… it’s something that I’ll never forget.”
In a press release, IDFG said that steelhead measuring 40 inches or more are extremely rare in Idaho. “Since we have all the trapping data from Lower Granite Dam, we have a good sense of the size distribution of Idaho steelhead,” the agecny wrote. “In a typical year, the number of steelhead in the 40-inch range is less than 1% of the run.” Spawning steelhead must travel more than 400 miles, from the mouth of Columbia River, to reach the Lowe Granite where IDFG does its monitoring.