Fishermen face scales of justice

A fish tale that got a lot of play online earlier this year headed into the courtroom Thursday when two men were charged with catching a rare giant black sea bass off the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach.

The fish they hauled in measured 62 inches long and weighed 140 to 200 pounds, authorities said.

John Francis Brady, 45, of Huntington Beach and Jonathan Paul Apothaker, 45, of Valley Village, if convicted, face up to six months in jail on charges of misdemeanor possession of a black sea bass, which is listed as critically endangered in California.

The Orange County district attorney’s office and the defendants agree on most of what happened that day.

On Jan. 3, the two men were fishing separately at the pier. Brady was in a small boat and Apothaker was on the pier above when the latter got a bite from what turned out to be a giant black sea bass.

Apothaker struggled with the fish for about an hour until the line broke. Brady offered to help if Apothaker would agree to give up half the fish. He did so and the battle with the fish was rejoined.

Brady grabbed the broken line and Apothaker swam out to help him. Together the men towed the monster fish to shore while it was still alive.

Here’s where prosecutors and the men’s account diverge.

Prosecutors say the men pulled the fish out of the water and posed with it as a trophy.

Apothaker said in interviews at the time that once he learned the fish was endangered, he and Brady tried to save it. He said that he massaged its gills for up to 45 minutes and that it finally swam away weakly.

Days later the bass washed up dead on the shore, authorities said. The fish was 20 to 25 years old; members of the species can live to 100.

The men seemed to be off the hook initially, but as dozens of videos appeared on YouTube in the days after the incident, the state Department of Fish and Game reexamined the case.

Both men are scheduled to be arraigned July 16 in the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.