Wes Covington was shocked when fishing buddies shouted, "It's a hogfish!"

Covington had leaned away from the water so he wouldn't fall in after battling what he thought was his biggest grouper ever on Sunday.

Instead, it turned out to be a 21-pound, 15-ounce hogfish, a fish that epitomizes the adage beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Seldom caught on rod and reel, Covington's catch is expected to be recognized as a new South Carolina record and is a potential world record for the species.

There are still a few loose ends to tie up, but S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist Amy Dukes said the fish is expected to supplant the 24-year-old current record of 20 pounds, 8 ounces.

Jack Vitek, world records coordinator for the Florida-based International Game Fish Association (igfa.org), said Covington's catch is "definitely heavy enough" to beat the existing record of 21-6. It takes at least 60 days after a catch for IGFA to officially recognize a new record.

Covington, a Summerville attorney who practices in Columbia, was joined Sunday by friends Joseph Smith, Tim White and Pete Anderson for a grouper fishing trip aboard Covington's 21-foot Mako, Tigress. They were fishing in about 180 feet of water.

Covington wasn't fishing when Anderson had his line broken by a big fish. Anderson stepped back to tie a new leader and Covington moved into his spot dropping a natural bait (he didn't want to reveal the actual type of bait he used).

"I felt this weird bite, something abnormal, and I could not hook whatever fish was biting," Covington said. "I tried a couple of different things and made four different drops. I could not hook it. Finally, I did something I never do. I barely hooked the bait, and without revealing too many details, I hooked the fish."

It took some time before Covington could get the fish off the bottom using a lightweight jigging setup his wife gave him last Christmas.

"I thought for sure it was a giant grouper. It's the hardest fighting fish I've ever caught. It was tremendously powerful for being only a 22-pound fish. The fish got more powerful with each run. I had to increase the drag power on the reel to stop the fish throughout the fight," Covington said.

Covington said he was totally exhausted when he got the fish to the surface. Smith had on a pair of gloves and reached inside one of the fish's gill covers to pull it aboard.

"A lot of things went perfect. There's no other explanation," Covington said. "Hogfish are very brave in how they interact with divers, but they very rarely will bite a hook. The bigger issue is how hard they are to hook because their mouths are so hard."

Covington said he plans to begin the paperwork necessary for world record certification immediately, but he also has another concern.

"I'm trying to figure out how to get a taxidermist to make a replica," he said. "Because they are so rare, they don't have (fiberglass) molds for them. And the whole fish doesn't exist any more."

The International Game Fish Association maintains records of more than 1,200 fish species worldwide. The following are all-tackle records from South Carolina in which there is no restriction on the breaking strength of the line (up to 130-pound test).

Species | Weight | Where | Year

*Tiger shark | 1,780-0 | Cherry Grove | 1964

Channel catfish | 58-0 | Santee Cooper | 1964

Bowfin | 21-8 | Florence | 1980

Grey triggerfish | 13-9 | Murrells Inlet | 1989

Blacknose shark | 41-9 | Little River | 1992

Sand tiger shark | 350-2 | Charleston Jetties | 1993

*Redear sunfish | 5-7 | Santee Cooper | 1998

Yellowmouth | 22-8 | Murrells Inlet | 2001

*Tie

HOGFISH RECORDS

S.C. record 20-8 Murrells Inlet 1988

World record 21-6 Frying Pan Tower, N.C. 2005