ON A magic spring day, a Bay Area man caught one of the largest steelhead in history, 32 pounds, 2 ounces, 41 inches long, with a girth of 25 inches.
And then he let it go.
This past week, that same fish was denied as a world record by the International Game Fish Association because it was not weighed on a certified scale.
The angler in the middle of this is Armand Castagna of San Rafael, whom Giants manager Dusty Baker called "the best steelhead fisherman I've ever seen" -- and who is outraged over policies for world-record and state-record fish that promote catch-and-kill rather than catch-and-release.
"You can spend your whole life fishing for Mr. Big," Castagna said. "Then when you finally get him, the last thing in the world you want to do is kill him. You should release that fish to perpetuate the genetics that created him in the first place.
"It makes no sense to have policies to kill off the very thing we desire most. We should have policies to promote leaving this irreplaceable genetic stock in the water."
This is not the first time a high-profile angler has brought this paradox to the public eye. This month is the 10-year anniversary of the biggest largemouth bass caught in California history, 22 pounds even, just 4 ounces less than the world record, by Bob Crupi at Lake Castaic. That fish was weighed on a certified scale, photographed dozens of times, measured and then released unharmed, an act that turned Crupi into a hero in the fishing world.
Yet that giant bass was denied as a California state record by the DFG, a horrific and downright stupid blunder, that even now should be overruled by the Fish and Game Commission. The
IGFA, on the other hand, accepted that bass as a line-class world record, since it was weighed on a certified scale.
I caught up with Castagna this past week in Mendocino County, where he was fishing the Eel and Mattole rivers, with six steelhead to 15 pounds caught and then let go. Castagna said he understands requiring a certified scale can standardize the records. But since almost no fishermen own such a scale, especially in remote areas, he said it creates a "bounty hunter mentality."
"Fish that might otherwise be released, providing a future for a river, end up getting killed," Castagna said. "That hurts everybody."
The current steelhead world record for 8-pound line is 26 pounds, 9 ounces, so Castagna's 32-pounder not only broke the record by 6 pounds, but is the first 30-pounder in history landed on 8-pound line.
Castagna provided me with a copy of the videotape of the event, titled "Him. " It provides an insight into the skills of a real talent, often better than "A River Runs Through It."
It takes place on the Gold River on Vancouver Island, where Castagna and Nick Amato are fishing crystal-clear, low-water conditions, using spinning gear from shore. After several fish are caught and released, Castagna eventually hooks Mr. Big.
Over the course of 35 minutes, the fish has six major runs, and late in the fight, Mr. Big manages to work downstream away from quiet water toward some rapids -- where it could likely break free. While leaning back hard with his rod, Castagna reaches down, picks up a large rock and throws it just downstream of the fish. It is a stroke of genius. The steelhead reacts by surging upstream, away from the splash -- and away from the rapid and into quiet water, where Castagna can apply full pressure.
That is where Mr. Big is finally brought to shore. Castagna uses care to revive the fish, while it is also photographed and measured. Amid giant grins and whoops from the anglers, Mr. Big is released "to fight again another day."
In most circles, the catch is being recognized as one of the top fish of any kind caught in the world in several years. A photo of Castagna and Mr. Big will appear on the cover of the April-May issue of Salmon Trout Steelhead, being published in the coming week. Meanwhile, the IGFA sent Castagna a "Certificate of Recognition."
"That's not exactly what I had in mind," he said, frustrated that the world record has eluded him.
"So now I've ordered a pre-certified scale," Castagna said. "I'm going to catch Mr. Big again, use that scale, take a photo with a yard stick and I'm going to break that world record.
"And then I am go to release that fish, just as the IGFA and state DFG should be advising everybody. Give me 36 months."
Castagna is available as a steelhead instructor and for custom charter trips in San Francisco Bay and coast at (415) 460-9773.
E-mail Tom Stienstra