TARPON SPRINGS — Go ahead and scoff. Scott Smith is used to it. Even his bumper sticker says, "I fish, therefore I lie."
"Nobody believes us that we catch these fish and let them go," said Smith, 48, a construction worker from Ozona.
But this fish tale has everything.
An epic struggle.
A whopper of a catch.
And a fish that not only didn't belong in Lake Tarpon, but didn't belong within 1,000 miles of the place.
And Smith has the photo to prove it.
He and his friend Phil Youngs recently hooked an unusual catch in the Lake Tarpon Sink, a body of water next to the lake.
Smith, who grew up on the Great Lakes, has fished the sink, which is just south of A.L. Anderson Park, since 1980. He and Youngs like to hold up their string of bass when the guys in their $10,000 bass boats breeze by — and watch their jaws drop.
When you catch and release, it's harder to brag, but Smith manages.
"They say 10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish," he said. "And I'm in that 10 percent."
From a small dock, Smith used a heavier pole and stronger line than he typically uses for bass when he cast on the breezy evening of May 25.
"We were fishing for catfish is all we were doing, using dead shiners for bait," he said.
Then his line shot out.
"It was like I had hooked a southbound bus," he said. "We knew it was something big."
It was an old friend, a red pacu Smith thinks he caught and released about eight years ago.
The exotic pacu, sold for aquariums at the size of a quarter, comes from the Amazon and can grow to about 3 feet long. They outgrow aquariums, get released and thrive in Florida's warm waters.
Smith set the hook, and the fight lasted 10 to 12 minutes.
"Once you get a fish to the surface, they know they have that one last chance to break the line," Smith said.
Smith kept the tension on. If you don't, he said, a smart fish will thrash about, spin around a piling, throw the hook or break the line.
Youngs, 39, of Tarpon Springs reached into the water with the net and the fish swam right into the net.
The fish, about the size of a manhole cover, tore at the net, creating such a splash that three big alligators swam toward them. Out of the water, the pacu flopped while the fishermen measured its length — 33 inches — and girth — about 30 inches.
Smith estimated the fish's weight at more than 37 pounds.
And he guessed at its story — one of hard struggles and dramatic escapes — by the hooks in its mouth. There was Smith's — and three others, souvenirs of past fights.
The two fishermen shook their heads, then took a few photos to show back home.
"It was like holding two cinder blocks," Smith said.
Pacu look like piranhas, so they have been popular for aquariums, said Steven Esposito, owner of Pets Unlimited on Drew Street in Clearwater. But he tries not to sell them.
He used to look up the facts on them in a book called Tank Busters, he said. They aren't good for the environment when released.
And it's illegal to release any non-native species in Florida.
"They have been invasive in Florida for years and they are becoming more and more widespread," said Skip Uricchio, director of husbandry at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
In their native habitat in South America, they eat fruit, he said, and are eaten by humans. Non-native species like pacu compete with native species and can bring in non-native diseases. And they grow.
"They are not pretty when they get big — a big lunk of a fish," he said. "And I love fish."
That night on the dock, the pacu stopped flopping after a few minutes.
This time, it seemed, there would be no escape for this canny survivor.
"I don't think he's going to make it," said Youngs, who works in pest control.
But then fate intervened. Smith, who doesn't eat seafood, had no desire to keep it. Youngs got two of the hooks out, and holding the pacu by its tail, he moved it back and forth underwater, forcing water through its gills.
"Then the fish looked up at him with one big eye," Smith said. "He came to and took off like a rocket."
And now the big fish is back out there swimming. It's not supposed to be. It doesn't belong here — Smith acknowledges as much, with some mixed feelings — and it might have been caught long ago.
But it's free, and that suits Smith just fine. "I'd rather have peanut butter and jelly and see the fish live," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Theresa Blackwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.