RODEO RECORD: Big John hauls in big fish for the record books

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Editor's Note: The Destin Fishing Rodeo, Destin's longest running tradition, will be celebrating 73 years this October. In the past few weeks, The Log has looked back at some of the fish that hold down Rodeo Records, and the fish to beat for this year's fishing tournament. Here’s one of the last. 

Rodeo record — Warsaw, 358.8 pounds 

They were in search of something big, and that’s exactly what they got on Oct. 25, 2003. 

Capt. Todd Allen of the Big John had gotten an order of sorts for a big fish from his old deckhand John Hardin of Dunedin.  

The crew aboard the Big John show off their Destin Fishing Rodeo record Warsaw in 2003. Standing from left are Capt. Todd Allen, Eric "Turtle" Cornish, angler John "Bull" Hardin and Miss Destin 2003 Amanda Braden.

Hardin, or rather Bull as Allen and others fondly called him, had brought a group up from South Florida to fish the Destin Fishing Rodeo. 

“They wanted to go look for something big. They didn’t care what it was, they just wanted something big,” Allen said. 

So they headed out that last week of the Rodeo in search of a monster. 

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Allen said they stayed out in 350 to 600 feet of water all day. They had caught scamp and snowy grouper. 

Then they had a double hookup. 

“We had two of them on at the same time and we cut the smaller one off,” Allen said. 

Did they know exactly what they had? 

“It was either two Warsaws or a Warsaw and a ‘jack,’” Allen said. 

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As for the monster on the end of the other line, Allen said Hardin got about a 5- or 10-minute “real solid” fight out of him. He was using a 9-ought with 150-pound test line. 

“Then after that, it just blew up. ... In fact, you’ve got to move the boat out of the way,” he said. 

“When they come to the surface … he came completely out of the water. It was a like a giant balloon coming up,” Allen said. 

“You just got to get the boat out of the way,” he added, noting the fish rose up about 75 yards behind the boat. 

He explained that the Warsaw catch the bends and they are done, then they rise to the top. “Their eyes are all bugged out” when they surface, he said. 

That’s why they let the other fish go. They didn’t want to kill it if it was another Warsaw. 

But catching the Warsaw was just half the battle. 

“The biggest thing was getting it on the boat,” Allen said. Without a block and tackle, “We figured something out.” 

They tied a rope through the jaw of the fish and then ran it through the footstep of the tuna tower.  

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Allen and his deckhand, Eric "Turtle" Cornish, lifted the fish while the other six or seven “younger big guys” pulled on the rope. 

“We used it like a come-along to get him in the boat,” Allen said. 

“It almost took just as long to get him in the boat as it did to catch him,” he remembered. 

It was 2 p.m. when they boated the Warsaw about 48 miles from Destin, so they headed back to the Rodeo scales. 

Allen said they had to stay quiet that they had a big fish on board. 

But “I think it leaked out somehow.”

Twelve-year-old Seth McDonald of Destin stands next to a 302.5-pound Warsaw grouper at the Destin Fishing Rodeo. McDonald caught the fist Sunday while aboard the charter boat Reville II. Also pictured is Miss Destin Melissa Jo Firth and Ken Beaird, captain of the Reville II. Oct. 18, 2000. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

"I don’t think Bruce (weighmaster for the Rodeo) thought we had anything that big. He was shocked when we pulled in,” Allen said. 

The Warsaw weighed 389 pounds whole and 358.8 pounds gutted. 

Allen says he still fishes for Warsaw but “We don’t see them like we used to.”

The largest Warsaw weighed at the Rodeo in 2020 was a 19.8-pounder. In 2019, the winning Warsaw weighed 52.4 pounds, and in 2018, the winner was a 22.6-pounder. In 2017, the top Warsaw was an 81.4-pounder.