Twenty years of free diving in the muddy waters of the Chesapeake Bay paid off for Todd Elder two weeks ago.
The 38-year-old from Virginia Beach set a world record for the International Underwater Spearfishing Association on May 10 when he caught a 17.4-pound Atlantic Sheepshead.
Elder said he was diving off a jetski to spearfish near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel with a friend on what was just his second day of fishing in the season when he saw the massive fish swimming below.
Sheepshead are more of a summertime fish, Elder said, so he was surprised when he entered the water and found a plethora of them when he was initially targeting striped bass and tautog.
“That one fish, it was just pure luck,” Elder said. “Basically, I dropped down on the one piling and he was there in a school of probably five or six, and I just picked out the biggest one and he happened to not dart away.”
Before he dropped down to aim for the fish, Elder said he took a second to collect his breath at the surface in an attempt to slow his nerves before he took the shot.
“Of course, you’re gonna get excited when you see it, but you try to just stay calm, moving very slow,” Elder said. “After the trigger is pulled and you have that fish in your hands, then that’s when all the emotions happen and the real excitement hits.”
Elder said he knew immediately he had a shot at a record fish when he saw it in the water.
“I’ve seen large sheepshead before, but this is by far the biggest fish I’ve ever seen out there — the biggest sheepshead I’ve ever seen out there,” Elder said. “We shot a couple fish in the 12-14-pound range, and this thing just dwarfed it. It dwarfed all of them.”
When he first weighed the fish that night, Elder said it clocked in at just above 19 pounds. Atlantic Sheepshead typically range between 1 and 8 pounds.
He wasn’t able to have a certified weight of the fish until two days later — but the official weight of 17.4 pounds is still more than two pounds heavier than the previous record of 15 pounds, set in 2011.
Elder celebrated back on land that night with his wife — a fellow angler — and their infant son.
He said he’s heard congratulations from other friends and family members since, and his commercial spearfishing company, Virginia Beach Seafood Company, has had a big response to the catch.
Initially, Elder was going to dry-age and sell the record fish. But instead he kept it for his family to eat on Mother’s Day.