Chasing the bass record has revolutionized how we fish for largemouths. Here are some of the best tips from those still in the hunt.
“Drink, ye harpooners! Drink and swear God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death” ˆHerman Melville
Comparing the obsession for catching the world-record largemouth bass to Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest to kill the white whale might be a bit over the top˜but then again maybe it’s not.
Untold numbers of anglers are fixated on “The One,” as big-bass specialist Jed Dickerson refers to the mythical record fish, and although the quest has not claimed the ultimate sacrifice˜a life˜ it has cost some anglers plenty. In Southern California, ground zero for the world-record bass chase, dynamics are as complex as a presidential election campaign. The serious commit to sleep deprivation, eschew home life, keep atop the endless stream of fishing intelligence reports and rumors, interpret weather implications and maybe even look for mystical signs.
For the rest of us whose goals are less heady than the record, methods employed by the cult of the obsessed can be applied to catching big bass wherever they live. Whereas during the 1980s, focus in California was on fishing live crawdads on pre-staging spots on lakes Castaic and Casitas, present emphasis is focused on Lake Dixon and jig-fishing beds and giant swimbaits.
Who’s Who˜the Latest Leading Lights in the Quest for Moby Bass
Bob Crupi: His 1991 catch of the 22-pound, No.2 bass from Old S—house Cove, Lake Castaic triggered, today’s big bass madness. The quintessential predator, Crupi holds the IGFA 2-, 4-, and 12-pound line-class records for bigmouths as well. A taciturn motorcycle cop, he says he’s burnt out; then he slyly hints about getting back in the game.
Mike Long: Arguably the most consistent producer of big bass and heir apparent to Crupi’s record-contending crown, Long also claims to have caught “Dottie,” the ostensible world record with the black dot on her tail, in 1991. He weighed her at an ounce heavier than Perry’s record˜before she purged eggs and was certified at 20 pounds, 12 ounces.
Jed Dickerson: One of the “Three Bassketeers” of Lake Dixon, this quiet young angler has the focus of a laser. By catching Dottie in ’03, he slapped the Big Bass Crown right out of Mike Long’s hands when she weighed 22 pounds, 9 ounces on the lake scale. But again, the egg-laden record lost roe and fluids and officially went 21 pounds, 6 ounces.
Arthur “Mac” Weakley: He could have been the new world-record holder after catching the sow bass with the black beauty mark in ’06 and weighing her on a new Berkley digital scale at 25 pounds, 1 ounce. But he released the fish. It had accidentally been foul hooked. In the fast track, this Bassketeer drives a ’72 custom DeTomasso Pantera and whoops the glitterati in high-stakes poker. He’s not going to go away soon.
Mike “Buddha” Winn: Third member of the Bassketeers, Winn alternates with his buds on the electric motor and the rod between stints in the casino gaming rooms. A former big-fish saltwater mate, he has a slow-to-boil demeanor that belies his pit-bull tenacity.
Mickey Ellis: A once rage-driven ex con who found religion, Ellis says he was “called” to form his custom Biblical 3:16 Lure Company. The big bass mob lusts for his lures including the $310 Armageddon swimbait, the world’s most expensive.
Jerry Rago: It’s not hand-to-hand combat, but the fierce competition between Rago and Ellis for king of the big-bass baits crown is likened to a blood feud coupled with mutual respect. His Rago Rat, along with exquisitely crafted hard- and soft-plastics is “gotta-have” bait among the big-bass Mafioso.
Todd & Rod Thigpin: They spawned the giant, soft-plastic Stocker Swimbaits in the ’90s, undisputed Lake Casitas killers that are finding their ways into more SoCal record hunters’ arsenals. And when these guys get time to fish, they are a double force with which to reckon.
Dottie: Dottie-They call her other things too, like Cash, Big Bertha, The One, Queen Kong, The Beast and Big MF, depending on who’s naming and his mind set. But the beauty dot below her “chin” on the right side convinced anglers the giant bass is the same fish caught by Jed Dickerson in 2003 and by Mac Weakley, proof that catch-and-release works. No one knows if she’s still alive, though bass can hit the quarter century mark. Nor do they know if she’ll again slide into the shallows for another go at dropping eggs with the built-in genetics to build another super largemouth. Bass anglers are waiting.
George Perry: Still the world-record holder who has likely flipped in his grave.
Bed Fishing for Giants
Tactic at a Glance: Fishing for nest-guarding bass is not nearly the slam-dunk that detractors would have you believe. The primary goal is to locate deep bass beds, those most often utilized and guarded by only the largest of the species. Typically, the nest has one sweet spot. When a lure hits the spot, it is viciously attacked. However, these beds are difficult to pinpoint and the sweet spot can be even harder to find. To top it off, there is frequently only a short window during which the presentation has a chance of eliciting a true strike. Otherwise the offering will be ignored or the fish might simply try to knock it away.
Bed fishermen rely largely on visual information. Early crawdad/bass bed anglers like Bob Crupi and Dan Kadota would spend 6 to 12 hours double anchored, waiting for pre-spawners to move onto one or two spots. Nowadays, Dickerson spends only 20 minutes or so working a bed, trying to get all elements in his favor.
“Sometimes it just gets personal,” says Dickerson. “Finally, I’ll move to another nest on the shoreline but come back later.”
Bassketeer Battleplan: Dickerson almost invariably uses ∏-ounce white jigs for better visibility at depth, and sometimes spikes them with Pro-Cure’s Rainbow Trout Super Gel (pro-cure.com).
Aside from the custom Bob Sangster Rattlesnake jig that Weakley used to catch Dottie, the trio sometimes present big Toro tubes˜custom-colored, dressed with eyes and slightly weighted. Note that other anglers often troll these lures. Watching these three anglers fish˜hunt, really˜you are struck by their intensity. In the pre-dawn mist and chill breeze, or later when the sun is high, you first think that the pulled-up hoods of their jackets or sweats are protective, but the hoods often stay up in calm and cloud, as though to shut away distractions and enhance their focus.
“You’ve got to be with it all the time now” says Mike Winn. “Before the big fish was caught, Dixon bass would hang maybe three or four days on the beds. Now they’re in and out faster; sometimes they move at night.”
Sometimes, when opting to bed-fish with a swimbait rather than a jig, Dickerson chooses one of the variously designed soft-plastic swimtails. To work it, he casts the bait beyond the bed, dragging it in as he would a jig. Sometimes swimbaits and jigs are alternated with each presentation. The key, however, is to let the lure lie still on the bottom right after entry.
Once it has rested a bit, Dickerson “activates” the bait. A right-hander, he tucks his rod butt beneath his left arm, and with his baitcasting reel in gear, he takes the line coming from the levelwind mechanism between thumb and forefinger for a better sense of what the lure is doing. Then he begins to shake, or more accurately, vibrate his arm. The tremor-like movement is telegraphed down to the lure. Should the line drape over a rock or other object, no problem˜it can actually help achieve the ultimate goal of keeping the lure in the target zone as long as possible.
“Sometimes the fish will hit the lure way off to the side of the bed,” says Dickerson, “especially in the clearest lakes.”
Many skilled anglers prefer a slack set, dropping their rod tip a moment, then striking. But Mac Weakley who, aside from Dottie, has numerous bodacious bigmouth to his credit including a 19.44 from Lake Dixon, will advise you otherwise in bed fishing.
“You’re fishing close, so you can’t give them that moment. You set quickly, directly.” Mac and his pals mainly use 7-foot rods, typically the G. Loomis GLX BCR 855. “Once you set, you keep your rod low and crank. If she jumps, don’t drop-bow to the fish. Just keep cranking and pull her another four feet over,” says Weakley.
Tactic at a Glance: Since the 1980s, uncounted variations on big trout-imitating swimbaits have come and gone, but the form continues to claim center stage among many record hunters as well as those simply interested in good odds on big bass.
Of the hard baits, newer multi-jointed models are the vogue. Hybrids that include at least the hind end˜if not the entire body˜and are configured of soft plastic have a long track record and seem even more popular. Various weighting systems and wiring are used on the soft-plastics. All have some form of swimming tail. One of the more unusual makes is the Stocker Swimbait (tacklewarehouse.com) with its patented, clear-plastic concave wings or fins jutting from each side. The wings help broadcast considerable vibrations. Todd and Rod Thigpin never designed the baits to sell, but word got out. Now while Todd markets the lures, Rod guides anglers for trophy bass (rodthigpin.com; 805-901-3196). Neither brother has the patience for bed fishing, so they use their lures cranked at varying speeds at long-studied spots, especially on Lake Casitas.
Swimbait Shockers: With highly active fish in warm weather, the Stocker swimbaits can be worked briskly on top, but mainly it’s a slow-and-slower presentation that produces best. Retrieved in that mode, the lures have gained a reputation as the bait with the perfect tail. A crank-and-pause retrieve causes the things to push a subtle wake when worked just beneath the surface, typical of trout and many other baitfish. The lures can be swum near surface, but left alone they’ll sink, each size˜7, 9, or 10-inches˜at a different rate. The trick is to line watch, keeping your rod tip down, ready for the big, full swing it often takes to hook up using these baits. Bass sometimes blow up on the lures, mouth closed,probably just to see what the thing will do. Obviously, you’ll swing˜and get nothing. Right then you must leave the lure where it is, not moving, then slowly inch it away. Excited from your initial reaction, the bass will come again and the second strike is usually for real.
Lakes with definitive pre-spawn staging structures and ambush points are ideal for swimbaits. Points are perfect, as are edges accessing shallows with a nearby drop-off. Current, prevailing wind, or some unique structural feature regularly determine where baitfish schools (including stocked rainbows in California lakes) will hold along a point. Bass learn those hotspots. Once you do, it pays to work a swimbait there rather than follow the normal practice of paralleling the entire point during the retrieve. That said, on Casitas, as elsewhere, there are a few spots where retrieving along a point is better˜usually by slipping the boat next to shore, then casting out to where bass gang up on the structure’s downwind side.
The Thigpins fit Shimano 400 CTE reels to their 8-foot G. Loomis swimbait rods (mainly model 957 with the 904 for the 7-inch baits). The longer length produces increased casting distance and enhances hook sets by moving more line on the sweep. Casting these big baits demands practice. First let the lure hang 16 to 18 inches below the tip with the rod out front. Come back a bit past 90 degrees, pause, letting the rod fully load, and use your lower hand as a fulcrum to power forward. If you make a swift back and forward cast as is typical with normal lures, the rod tip can whip around, and with the long line drop, the bait gets awfully close to your head on the forward cast.
When the water’s clear, bass will come up from 30 feet and deeper for the big swimbaits. In early spring, the Thigpins are happy for a little wind after a calm because it tends to push the bed fishermen off, giving the brothers more options. Similarly, cold-front shots will push bass from the shallows to 15-20-foot-deep staging areas better fished with the big lures.
During post-spawn periods on Casitas, big bass often pack up and can be truly aggressive.
“Sometimes those packed-up, post spawn bass just follow the bait,” says Ralph “Doc” Holliday (a.k.a. the Hawg Doctor), a master angler with the Stocker baits. “This is vital: You have to leave them and come back later. If you keep beating up on them you’ll ruin them for the day. They learn.”
Todd Thigpin will tell you many anglers mistakenly fish big swimbaits only a half-hour at a time. “That’s not long enough to gain confidence,” he says. “You need to throw them all day and use them correctly.”
SoCal bass fishing is no-doubt the epicenter of the world-record bass chase. Are the dynamics symptomatic of that part of human nature ever striving to push the envelope of achievement˜faster speeds, more home runs, new world records˜through our work, our dreams, innovations or imaginations? You’d better believe it.