August 14, 2022
By Lynn Burkhead
It's beach snook season in Florida, and the fishing has been decent this summer among the usual haunts on the state's Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines.
But for one fly angler, snook fishing 2022 has been really good.
That's because a series of Florida snook caught this summer by fly angler John Kelly could end up seeing him break into the International Game Fish Association record book.
And it's a world record for snook that Kelly apparently set not just once, but twice earlier in the summer, potentially earning him three IGFA world-record certificates.
Forget a triple play in baseball, a hat trick in hockey, or an eagle three in famed Amen Corner on the Masters' Augusta National Golf Course, because according to an IGFA social-media post, Kelly has done something even rarer.
"John Kelly was fishing Indian River Lagoon, Florida, on July 28, 2022, when this beautiful 88-centimeter [34.6 inches] snook struck his crab fly," the IGFA posted on Facebook on Aug. 11, 2022. "With this fish, John could potentially set the IGFA All-Tackle Length Fly World Record for the species."
That's an impressive accomplishment in and of itself, for sure. But even more interesting is the next statement from the IGFA that said the world record that Kelly's catch appears to have broken … was his own!
According to the IGFA, it's "a record John currently holds with an 86-centimeter snook landed back in early June.
"What is even more impressive is John has submitted another application for a 91-centimeter snook landed just 3 nights after this impressive fish. This record is currently pending and under review."
There's little doubt that a man breaking a world record is impressive. But to set the record once, then apparently break it again a few weeks later with your own catch, and then top both of those apparent records just three nights later, is an angling story that will be tough to beat, for sure.
More to the Story
Now for a little backstory for some context. First, the record that Kelly first broke came last year when Capt. Elmer John Pillon submitted a 68-centimeter snook to set the IGFA All-Tackle Length Record on fly gear. According to an IGFA social-media post on Oct. 12, 2021, the guide who plies the waters of Everglades National Park set out with his fly rod, hoping to set the record in the snook-rich Chokoloskee area of southwestern Florida.
Second, the record category that both Pillon and Kelly have participated in came about last year when the IGFA announced it was expanding its All-Tackle Length Record program to include fish caught on a fly rod.
Back in 2011, the IGFA established the length category, a record-book niche that requires the safe release of the fish in order to qualify. Currently, the IGFA lists 117 eligible species in both freshwater and saltwater that have been chosen because they are able to be safely handled and released back into the water alive.
Over the last decade, the catch-and-release, length-record program proved it worked and grew in popularity, but it made no distinction between fish caught by conventional means and those caught by fly tackle. Given fly fishing's popularity, the growing interest in the record-length program, and numerous requests from IGFA constituents, the organization created a length record fly-fishing category and line-class expansions last year, announcing the changes in July 2021, not long after the conclusion of the ICAST fishing trade show.
"Since 1939, the IGFA has recognized outstanding angling achievements and set the standard for angling rules and world record catches," IGFA President Jason Schratwieser said in a July 31, 2021 news release. "With the expansion of our all-release All-Tackle Length record category to fly fishing, and the logical expansion of our line classes to match our minimum ratio requirements, we will continue to make participation in the IGFA's angler recognition programs more accessible and understandable to anglers around the world."
To qualify for the fly-fishing category, the catch must comply with IGFA International Fly Fishing Rules and the heaviest class tippet permitted is 10 kilograms (20 pounds).
The organization also noted last summer that any current All-Tackle Length World Records caught on fly tackle that is IGFA-legal will be automatically transferred to the fly category, therefore creating a new vacancy in the conventional category. The organization also noted that minimum lengths for the eligible species would not change and would be the same for both conventional tackle and fly-caught fish.
More Records to Come?
That program expansion opened the door for fly anglers to begin targeting species like the snook along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast shorelines of Florida, a record-book opportunity that Pillon was able to take advantage of last fall while fishing the area between the Florida Keys and the Fort Meyers/Naples/Marcos Island/Sanibel Island.
Then it was Kelly's turn to pursue the record, a task made possible since he lives and fly-fishes on the Atlantic Ocean side of the state, and in a region with a good reputation for producing some of the biggest snook around.
Kelly got his chance back in June when he landed the 86-centimeter snook, or world record No. 1.< He was far from being done. According to the IGFA, Kelly was fishing late last month when he caught apparent world record No. 2, the 88-centimeter snook that struck a crab fly presented in the Indian River Lagoon on July 28. But before the ink was dry on that WR application, Kelly beat his own record again three days later with the landing and releasing of the 91-centimeter snook.
Obviously, this has created a bit of a stir in Florida, as anglers congratulate Kelly and wonder what the future might hold for even more record-class snook on the fly.
Capt. Patrick Smith, who is a fly-fishing and light-tackle guide from the Palm Beach area, was quick to applaud the catches, but also pointed out that the record could fall again soon. With Smith bringing numerous big snooks into his own boat and working with the Ole Florida Fly Shop, he's seen first-hand proof that now is a good time to be chasing the popular saltwater game fish on the fly.
"That's a great fish (Kelly's WR) from a boat on fly," said a social-media post by Smith, the owner and operator of Swamp to Sea Guide Service. "I have a feeling though, now that this has been posted it's going to get crushed pretty quickly by the guys walking the beach."
Inside the Numbers
When you convert the centimeters to inches for Pillon's world-record catch last fall, 68 centimeters works out to about 26.7 inches. And taking a look at a table published by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Pillon snook, which was caught on the Gulf side where snook tend to be a little smaller than on the Atlantic side, the fish likely weighed in the 4.5- to 5.5-pound range.
What about Kelly’s three snook, in terms of length and potential weight?
Noting that they were all caught on the Atlantic side and in the May-to-October timeframe when the fish are spawning running the narrow swash zone along the beaches, the first WR fish of 86 centimeters was likely in the 33.8-inch range and had a weight of between 10 and 14 pounds according to the FWC chart.
The July 28th snook, was 88 centimeters, or about 34.6 inches, and likely weighed in the 12- to nearly 17-pound range. And the fish caught three days after that, the 91-centimeter snook, would have measured nearly 36 inches and could have weighed somewhere between 12 and 22 pounds.
So what does all of this mean? First of all, kudos to the two anglers and their world-record catches, and especially to Johnny Kelly and the feat of breaking his own world record twice.
Second, kudos to the IGFA for creating this opportunity with the fly-fishing version of the catch-and-release, length-record category. With a wide open record book there, expect to see many more records get caught.
And given the management of snook in Florida—the popular species has harvest regulations, season closures, a one fish daily limit, and a slot limit as a part of the state's aggressive management—-the trend is certainly positive right now in many regards as lunker snook catches become more commonplace.
The Florida FWC thinks so, noting that more lunkers are being caught, something particularly noteworthy since "Prior to 2000, it was a rare event that any angler reported catching, or even seeing, a common snook much larger than 36 inches total length, especially on the gulf coast."
Now, such catches are happening with greater regularity and it's possible that somewhere soon in a brackish canal, next to a lighted nighttime dock on the coastline, along the beach in the summer months, or underneath the canopy of a few shady mangroves, that some angler is going to toss a lure, a live bait, or a fly into the right spot at the right time and catch a trophy.
Perhaps even to challenge the state's longstanding official record, a 44-pound, 3-ounce snook caught at Fort Meyers on April 25, 1984.
Maybe even the "unofficial" snook record, a 54-incher caught and released on July 29, 2000 near Stuart by then 15-year-old Zak Khaelin. That fish had a girth of 34 inches and could have weighed between 50 and 60 pounds, according to a newspaper story by Steve Waters.
Read about more state-record catches