Dan Dillon was 13 hours into a recreational fishing trip off the coast of Delaware on Friday night when a sharp tug jolted his arms.
Under the glare of a spotlight on the charter boat's bridge, he could see a monstrous, dark mass slinking under the surface of the Atlantic.
For the next hour and a half, the Herndon resident fought and gave and pulled until he hauled in the largest tuna ever caught in Delaware: 873 pounds of bluefin, 9 feet 7 inches long and more than 6 feet in girth. It beat the state record by more than 500 pounds.
"I'm just a casual fisherman who got lucky," said Dillon, 39, an executive for a Bethesda real estate services company and goes fishing two or three times a year.
Reeling in the fish, Dillon said, was strenuous and systematic. At first, the tuna swam under the boat, almost snapping the 80-pound test monofilament line. Several times the fish took off, trying to break free.
When that happens, Dillon said, fishermen simply let their catch swim, making sure to keep the line tight. When the fish tires and slows, that's when they pull, and that's what Dillon did.
At 6 feet 2 inches and 270 pounds, Dillon said he felt well-suited to the task. But several times during the struggle, his boat mates had to keep him from being dragged overboard, he said.
Once Dillon had brought the tuna close to the boat, the Captain Ike II, skipper David Collins announced that the fish would have to be shot, Dillon said. Because of its size, having it onboard alive could have been dangerous.
"Its tail is so powerful it could snap your arm if you're not careful," Dillon said.
It took six men two hours to haul the tuna onto the boat using pulleys and ropes, and they made it to shore by morning. Dillon had estimated the fish's weight at 500 pounds. "We were just blown away with how big it was. It was just an incredible experience," he said.
Don Klein, president of the Indian River Boating Association, a Delaware fishing club that runs tournaments and advocates for wildlife in the area, said Dillon's catch was a once-in-a-lifetime event. The old record of 322 pounds for a tuna was set in 1992, he said.
What makes this catch unusual, Klein said, is that large tuna rarely venture so far south. Toward Maine, where the water is cooler, tuna can grow to more than 1,000 pounds, he said.
"You just don't see them down here," he said. "This is not their habitat."
Coincidentally, Dillon caught the fish during the Delaware Open Tuna Trolling Tournament, run by Klein's club. The tuna that won that competition weighed 120 pounds. Previous tournaments, Klein said, have yielded winners of about 100 pounds.
Dillon said he hasn't decided how to commemorate his catch. The tuna is a little large to mount on a wall, but he said he'll have a Japanese rice paper print made of its tail. And, he could mount the head, he added.
In the meantime, the Dillon family is eating well. Dillon's wife, Claire, 38, their son, Michael, and daughters Meredith and McKenzie, along with Dillon's parents and several nieces and nephews, were on hand to meet the Captain Ike II when it docked at Indian River early Saturday.
That night, after spending $400 to fillet the bluefin, Dillon and his family threw part of it on the grill, basting it with teriyaki sauce. The rest is in the family freezer.
The delectability of the fish matched its size, Dillon said.
"When you catch it yourself," he said, "it has a special flavor to it."