Ask Beau Leaman about beginner’s luck. The Santa Clarita, California, salesman was on his first fishing trip when he caught a potential world-record-breaking fish. Even more amazing, Leaman’s catch was of an extremely rare fish called an opah (Lampris guttatus). “It really was a blessing,” Leaman says.
Leaman was on an overnight tuna trip on the headboat Horizon out of San Diego, California. “I was with a group from church and some friends,” Leaman explains. Although this was Leaman’s first time on the ocean, he had experience trout fishing in lakes and streams. Leaman laughs, “I thought we were going to find some fish and cast spinning rods.”
Once he was on the boat, it didn’t take long for Leaman to realize he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. “I have never tried to sleep on a boat,” he starts. The rolly, noisy ride had Leaman tossing and turning. Up on deck, the scene was equally unsettling.
The crowd was a mixture of families and first-time anglers, along with grizzled veterans you’d expect to see on a party boat. “There were guys with tattoos of fish and hooks,” Leaman marvels. He recalls one angler showed him pictures of a 300-pound tuna.
Leaman describes another angler pacing back and forth, staring at the ocean all night. “Holy cow, what kind of environment am I getting myself into?” he remembers.
When the boat stopped, Leaman had more surprises. “I didn’t know we were fishing with live bait,” he says. Leaman rented two rods: a lighter rod for live bait and a heavier rod for deep jigging. “The mates showed us how to hook the live bait and people in our group had experience,” Leaman says.
Still, Leaman spent a lot of time tangled with other anglers. At one point, he lost track of his fishing rod. “I was searching all over the boat looking for my rod.” Eventually he found his rod and marked it with a yellow ribbon. By late afternoon, the highlight of the day was a bonito Leaman hooked with another angler. “Nothing much was going on,” he says.
When the captain announced he was marking fish 30 feet below the boat, experienced anglers grabbed the light live-bait rods. Leaman decided to use his heavier jigging rod. “I figured I would warm up by jigging a lure from 300 feet,” he explains.
Leaman watched the depth-marked line leave his reel until his lure reached 300 feet. “I felt a bonk,” Leaman remembers. When he started cranking the reel handle, he found the line was stuck. “I thought I was snagged on a rock ,” he says. Leaman knew the water was too deep for a snag, so he continued to try to turn the reel handle.
“I didn’t want to cry wolf,” he laughs, so he continued to struggle with the reel in silence. Eventually a friend asked if everything was okay. “The line was tight, but nothing was pulling. I felt steady, heavy pressure.”
After other anglers confirmed Leaman must be hooked to a large fish, the crew started to buzz with excitement. In a few minutes, the captain was standing next to Leaman coaching him to fight the fish.
At one point, the fish dashed to the bow and then ran to the stern. Leaman says, “The captain took the rod and helped me weave in and out of the other anglers.” Mayhem ensued with anglers yelling and shuffling while Leaman fought his fish.
When the huge fish surfaced, the captain yelled for gaffs. Four deckhands worked together to secure the big round fish and drag it onboard.
“I was shocked,” Leaman says. A bystander remarked the strange fish looked like something engineered by the government. An opah is shaped like an angel fish with flat, silver sides mottled with shades of red and speckled in white spots. Sometimes these fish are also called moonfish.
“The fish had a huge eye and was covered in armor,” Leaman adds. Several places on the fish showed bites from cookie-cutter sharks. Leaman reflects, “There is so much grandness in the fish; I couldn’t help thinking of God’s creativity and power.”
Back at H&M Landing, the Opah weighed 188.6 pounds. The previous world record, set by Joe Ludlow in 2014 at San Quintin, Mexico, was 180 pounds, 12 ounces. Of course, the captain’s assistance and the shark bites could be ruled violations of International Game Fish Association rules, but the opah is still the biggest recorded rod and reel catch for this species.
Leaman laughs, “My wife asked, ‘Why couldn’t you catch a normal fish?’” Leaman’s already shared the meat with friends and he’s looking online for opah recipes.