LORIDA - This big fish didn't get away, Bobby Kotch threw it back.
On a fishing vacation last month at Lake Istokpoga, Kotch caught what might have been - heartbreaking emphasis on those last three words - a world-record tilapia near Trails End Fishing Resort.
When Kotch, 46, from Green, Ohio, told his big fish story to a Lakeland friend, "He said, 'Man, I can't believe you threw it back.' I didn't know what it was."
It was, according to the scales on Kotch's boat, a 25-inch long, 10.7 pound tilapia, and that would have been big enough to establish a new world record. If Kotch had verified the details with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The current official state record, according to a Feb. 14, 2011 Florida Fish and Wildlife report, was set in August 2010 by Pamela Henry of Stuart, who reeled in a 9.6-pound, 24-inch blue tilapia from the south fork of the St. Lucie River in Martin County, using a dough ball dipped in peanut butter. That's also the largest blue tilapia caught in the world.
"They're not a game fish," said Don Hatcher, a Lake Istokpoga fishing guide.
"They feed primarily on plankton and small organisms living in or on the bottom," FF&W said. "However, some urban anglers catch them in ponds, using bread balls,small pieces of hot dogs, dog food or live worms. They are rarely caught on artificial lures."
And that makes Kotch's fish tale even more interesting, because he was casting a chartreuse-skirted lure with two spinner blades on the end. He was reeling at a speed so the lure would stay a half-foot from the surface, not slow enough for the 3/4 ounce weight to drag through the tilapia's nest. March is normally the end of the tilapia's spawning period.
"I was fishing for bass," Kotch said. "My buddy has a boat down there. I used to live in Lakeland and Clearwater, and I go down (to Istokpoga) every year. We fished a week in Istokpoga and a week at Ocala. I was staying at a place on Cowhouse Road. I'm not sure the name of the bay, but there's a marina there at the end, Trail's End. We were about four bays down from that."
Tilapia beds, Hatcher said, "are like a truck tire. I wouldn't want to step in one. Really deep beds. On Lake Jackson, (fishermen) shoot them with a bow."
Although tilapia is commonly sold in supermarkets, sport fishermen usually don't target them, Hatcher said. "They're non-native, but they're in all our lakes now, another exotic that comes into our waters. We don't know what effect that has on our native population."
"There were beds all over," said Kotch, who could see through the clear water. "I thought they were bass at first, but their beds are deeper than the bass bed. Most of them were probably one to three pounds."
After he returned to Ohio, he researched tilapia on the Internet and realized they rarely bit any bait. Tilapia are sometimes snagged by dragging a treble hook over a nest. Kotch theorized that his 10.7 pounder may have seen the spinner over its nest.
"And it tried to grab it and kill it. It was a fluke thing, really."
That's why he was bass fishing through the weeds with artificial spinner bait, Kotch said.
Kotch has caught largemouth bass up to 13 pounds, so the tilapia wasn't his biggest prize. Back home in the Midwest, he once landed a tiger muskie that was a state record.
"But that only lasted two weeks," Kotch said.
In fact, after he hauled the tilapia into the boat, he wasn't sure what it was.
"It had really pretty colors, bluish and yellow, and I thought at first it was a bluegill." But as he studied the tilapia, he realized it wasn't a member of the sunfish family.
If he had caught a bass, Kotch would have practiced catch-and-release. "I like to measure them and take pictures and throw them back, usually."
But if he'd realized the tilapia was a record holder, Kotch said, "I would have took it to have it mounted."
Florida tilapia law
Tilapia is a restricted species, native to West Africa.
First collected in 1974, tilapia rapidly became so abundant in South Florida, the butterfly peacock was introduced to control it.
Possession and transport of live tilapia is illegal in Florida without a special permit (except blue tilapia). Tilapia can only be possessed if dead, so anglers wanting to eat this fish should immediately place them on ice.