About 300 people were on hand at Fisherman's Landing as the Excel, which had been at sea for 16 days, pulled into port just after dawn. They cheered as a fish that had been estimated to weigh about 460 pounds, while still on the vessel, tipped the dock scale at 445 pounds.
Onlookers also cheered for John Petruescu, the angler who caught the whopper during his first long-range fishing excursion to the giant tuna grounds, deep in Mexican waters.
Before Petruescu's catch, at remote Hurricane Bank after a two-hour fight, a 427.9-pound yellowfin caught last April off Puerto Vallarta had been the largest.
"People on the boat were telling me they've been fishing on these long-range trips for 20 or 30 years and have never caught a fish like this," said Petruescu, 33, of San Diego. "All I knew after catching it was that this fish was big."
The world record currently stands at 405 pounds. The 427.9-pounder did not qualify because another person touched the rod during the battle. The tuna caught by Petruescu, likewise, cannot qualify because a crewman grabbed the rod briefly to help manage the fish and line safely around the bow anchor.
"Had we known how big it was obviously we would have let him try to do that himself," Capt. Justin Fleck said.
The tuna is one of only four known angler-caught yellowfin exceeding 400 pounds.
The hype began when the Excel posted on its Facebook page, as the boat was leaving Hurricane Bank for the long journey back to to San Diego, that Petruescu's tuna had "taped out" at 400 pounds. That process involves a tape measurement formula that is reasonably accurate.
This fueled interest and speculation, and lured curious fishermen to the dock, despite the early hour, to greet the Excel and watch the giant tuna being offloaded and weighed.
Petruescu, who had warmed up by catching a few smaller tuna, explained that he baited the big one with a live mackerel and battled it for two hours before reeling the fish to within reach of the deckhands' gaffs. "I thought I had hooked a hammerhead shark at first," he said.
The tuna was so plump that it barely fit through the tuna gate at the stern of the 124-foot luxury sportfisher. Fleck wondered briefly if it might be a bluefin tuna, because it was so large.
"We were stunned," he said. "None of us had ever seen anything like that; it was so fat around."
Fleck added that several other large tuna were being fought at the same time, describing the morning bite as "pandemonium."
Petruescu said his feat really had not yet sunk in. "I just came out to try to catch some big fish," he explained. "But I guess I caught the big one, so I'm stoked."
He said he planned to enjoy fresh tuna, canned tuna and smoked tuna over the next several weeks, and that he would donate some as well.
The Excel crew also offloaded several tuna topping 200 pounds and a handful of "cows," topping 300 pounds.
--Note: this post also appears on the GrindTv.com Outdoor channel
--Image shows John Petruescu posing with his prized yellowfin tuna after the weigh-in at the landing (Capt. Justin Fleck is at left). Credit Excel Sportfishing