At first, Clark Wright thought they had hooked a giant carp.
"I said, 'That fish has got an orange head,' " recalled the Bradenton charter boat captain.
He was fishing a school of tarpon in the Tampa Bay area June 4 when he hooked the unusual specimen shortly after 7 a.m.
"The first time the tarpon took flight, I noticed the fish had bright orange features around its head and down its back," Wright said. "Each time the fish jumped and rolled and we got better looks, there was no doubt that it was a tarpon unlike I have ever seen or heard of before."
After a 45-minute fight, angler George Seibel brought the fish alongside the boat. Wright's mate, Matt Smithman, handled the 140-pound fish for a photo, then took a DNA sample, which was sent to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
"People often mistakenly call a fish such as this an albino," said Kathy Guindon, a marine biologist who specializes in tarpon.
The first scientific reference to a similar fish occurred in 1936, Guindon said. The specimen was skin mounted and placed in New York City's Museum of Natural History.
"Technically, while this coloration is described as an albino in the 1936 published paper, today this would be referred to as a piebald, not an albino," Guindon said.
Over the years, Guindon has received several similar reports. On May 13, 2008, Barry Hoffman caught and released a similar fish in Key West. One month later, Tampa Bay Times Captain's Corner correspondent Ed Walker hooked and jumped a piebald tarpon off the beach in the Boca Grande area.
In 2011, an Islamorada fishing guide took underwater images of a piebald tarpon swimming with a large school of fish. Also that year, some guides in Boca Grande sighted what could have been the same fish swimming in that area.
"Now that we have a DNA sample, we will be able to tell if it is the same fish if it gets caught again," Guindon said.
To learn more about the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's tarpon genetic program, go to myfwc.com/research/saltwater/tarpon/genetics.