Finding The Million-Dollar Baby
Baseball has Yankee Stadium. Football has Lambeau Field. Tennis has Wimbledon. And in fishing, the place of worship is Montgomery...
Baseball has Yankee Stadium. Football has Lambeau Field. Tennis has Wimbledon. And in fishing, the place of worship is Montgomery Lake–a small oxbow slough of the Ocmulgee River in south Georgia near the town of Helena. Though the lake is silted in now and attracts few fishermen, it is a storied place to bass anglers. Here is where the world-record largemouth bass of 22 pounds 4 ounces was caught on June 2, 1932, by 20-year-old George Washington Perry.
No other world fishing record is so revered, so discussed or so sought after as the one Perry established 70-odd years ago while fishing with his friend Jack Page in an old rowboat. The pair shared a rod and reel of dubious quality that cost $1.30, a hefty chunk of change in those days. Page and Perry took turns casting and rowing, and by chance it was the latter’s turn on the rod and reel when the huge bass engulfed the Creek Chub Wiggle-Fish at the end of the line. Perry reported later that it took him about 10 minutes to get the huge fish to the boat, and the pair was impressed by its size.
Shortly after he caught the bass, Perry took it to the J.J. Hall and Company General Store in Helena to show it off. In between the “whoo-boys” and “man-oh-mans” of admiring neighbors, somebody mentioned that Field & Stream magazine was conducting a fishing contest and that prizes were being awarded to those anglers who entered the heaviest fish in several categories. Perry lugged the largemouth to the Helena Post Office, where it was weighed again on certified scales and measured. Its length was 32 1/2 inches, its girth 28 1/2 inches. Then young George did what anybody else would do in those days: He took the bass home and presented it to his mother, Laura, who cooked the fish and fed her large family with it.
Perry later won that year’s Field & Stream contest for the biggest bass and collected $75 worth of merchandise, which included a Browning shotgun.
Today it is estimated by some authorities in the fishing industry that the angler who catches a largemouth bass bigger than Perry’s could pocket upward of $1 million. Profits would come from various product endorsements, speaking engagements and other promotions in the lucrative marketplace that surrounds and cultivates the sport of fishing these days. If the bass is kept alive and healthy for display purposes, untold riches could befall the angler who lands it.
But just how realistic is it to break a fishing record that millions of anglers target annually?
More money and effort has been spent by anglers trying to eclipse Perry’s feat than on any other record quest. Yet only a handful of largemouths whose verified weight approached that of Perry’s fish have ever been caught. Despite efficient, modern techniques and tackle, electronic gear, boats and motors that would amaze Depression-era anglers, nobody has beaten the young farmer with the wooden plug and the cheap rod and reel who made the right cast in the right place at the right time.
Some anglers have come close, though. For example, the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the official arbiter of fish records, recognizes a largemouth that weighed slightly more than 22 pounds as its 16-pound-line-class record. That fish was caught in March 1991 from Castaic Lake, Calif., by noted big bass angler and guide Bob Crupi. After the fish’s weight was recorded on certified scales before witnesses, Crupi released the bass back into the lake, which caused many anglers to become dreamy-eyed about it being caught again when it grew at least 5 ounces heavier. That never happened, of course.
Incredibly, Crupi also holds three other IGFA bass line-class records, all from Castaic, including a 21-pounder on 12-pound-test line. But Castaic and other storied lakes such as Casitas and Miramar have lost some of their luster as big-bass producers in recent years. With the exception of Perry’s fish, half of the biggest bass on the all-time list were caught in the 1990s (see sidebar). Since the turn of the century, two Top 10 fish, including a 21-pound 11-ounce bass boated in 2003, have made the list. Both were caught from 76-acre Dixon Lake near Escondido, Calif.
DON’T FORGET FLORIDA
Strange as it might seem, while all largemouths of record-book proportions are invariably Florida-strain bass, no IGFA line-class record is credited to Florida. Save for Perry’s world record, such bass have come from California, where Florida-strain largemouths have been stocked heavily. Texas, too, has stocked Florida-strain bass in abundance, and a number of noted lakes there yield huge fish, including popular Lake Fork Reservoir near Dallas, where bass crowding 20 pounds have been taken. Still, no state in recent years has been able to rival California for near-record largemouths. It could be argued that the heyday of Florida lunker fishing occurred much earlier in the 20th century. Fish to equal or exceed Perry’s bass might have been caught there but not recorded by fishermen who, like him, were fishing more for food than glory.
“The reason such big bass get caught in California now might be due more to the intense fishing pressure the lakes there get than to anything else,” says Hal Schramm, a U.S. Geological Survey fisheries biologist in Starkville, Miss. “There’s probably not two or three dozen California lakes that have really giant largemouths, and they get a heck of a lot of pressure. Other places, like Florida, have hundreds of lakes that potentially could give up a record largemouth bigger than Perry’s, but fishing pressure is dispersed.”
Only a Florida-strain bass is going to grow over 15 pounds and only a handful of states–mainly California, Texas and Florida–are likely to produce them. Even then, a bigmouth over 22 pounds is still a freak of nature. It takes the right genetics to produce such a bass, plus a long growing season, optimum food supply and perfect habitat.
Schramm thinks it’s possible a largemouth bigger than Perry’s record fish eventually will be caught. But he’s betting on Florida giving up the behemoth.
“In many waters outside of Florida where the Florida strain is stocked, the superior genetics that are introduced are eventually diminished as those fish hybridize with the native largemouths,” he explains. “If a hundred thousand Florida-strain bass fry are stocked in a fifty-thousand-acre lake in Alabama, that might seem like a lot of heavyweights slated to grow big. But it only takes a couple of generations of Florida bass hybridizing with those native fish to diminish the optimum genetics.”
This may be one clue why California shines for heavyweight largemouths. Bass are not native to California. So when Florida-strain bass were stocked, there were few fish to hybridize with and dilute the Florida bumper-weight bass strain.
Still, Schramm predicts Florida will be home to the next largemouth bass record.
“If Florida can preserve its choice bass habitat, I think the next world record will come from there,” he continues. “There are many waters where giant Florida bass are available in the Sunshine State. Lakes such as Kissimmee and West Tohopekaliga and parts of the St. Johns River are potential record spots. But there are lots of smaller lakes from central Florida through north Florida that potentially could yield a bass bigger than twenty-two pounds and they’re not getting too much pressure.”
CALIFORNIA VITAMIN T
Big-bass gurus Bill Siemantel and Bob Crupi, both of whom are Californians, vigorously disagree with Schramm’s contention that Florida is likely to produce the next world-record largemouth.
“No place compares to California for record-size bass; just look at the stats,” says Siemantel, a Los Angeles fireman who has caught more than 300 California-grown bass that weighed 10 pounds or more. “There are places in Mexico that might be good. But there are thirty or more lakes in California that are perfect for producing a record largemouth. I’d target a lake of two hundred acres or less that has Florida largemouths, is stocked with rainbow trout and gets little fishing pressure.
“A small California lake is best because there are only so many ‘key’ spots where big fish can live, which makes it an easier target for a good fisherman who knows where to look,” adds Siemantel. “A Florida-strain bass has the potential to reach more than twenty pounds in California, especially if it has plenty of trout to eat. Trout are a huge protein source for bass–‘Vitamin T,’ we call it. There are some California lakes that aren’t fished hard, like a few around San Diego. But they have what it takes.”
Crupi thinks any of the well-known Southern California bass lakes are still capable of producing a record largemouth, and he believes some of those lakes have such a fish in them now.
“I’d bet California gives up the next record largemouth,” Crupi says. “The state has produced a lot of twenty-pounders, and all the ones I’ve seen have been fat and healthy. Any one of those twenty-pounders, if it had just eaten a two-pound trout before it was caught, could have beaten the world-record weight.”
TOP 10 BASS*
1 22 pounds 4 ounces Montgomery Lake, Ga.; George Perry; June 2, 1932
2 22 pounds 1/2 ounce Lake Castaic, Calif.; Bob Crupi; March 12, 1991
3 21 pounds 12 ounces Lake Castaic, Calif.; Mike Arujo; March 5, 1991
4 21 pounds 11 1/8 ounces Dixon Lake, Calif.; Jed Dickerson; May 31, 2003
5 21 pounds 3 1/2 ounces Lake Casitas, Calif.; Raymond Easley; March 4, 1980
6 21 pounds 1/2 ounce Lake Castaic, Calif.; Bob Crupi; March 9, 1990
7 20 pounds 15 ounces Lake Miramar, Calif.; David Zimmerlee; June 23, 1973
8 20 pounds 14 ounces Lake Castaic, Calif.; Leo Torres; February 4, 1990
9 20 pounds 12 ounces Dixon Lake, Calif.; Mike Long; April 27, 2001
(tie) 20 pounds 4 ounces Lake Hodges, Calif.; Gene Dupras; May 30, 1985
20 pounds 4 ounces Lake Miramar, Calif.; Johnny Garduno; March 25, 1990
* Records courtesy of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. Compiled by Matt Vincent, editor of BASS Times and staff writer of Bassmaster magazine.
CHASING THE RECORD For some anglers, George Washington Perry’s 73-year-old world record for largemouth bass represents a summit to be scaled; for others, it’s an obsession. Author Monte Burke examines the quest and those who seek fishing’s most elusive record in his new book, Sowbelly ($23.95; Dutton, 2005).
BASS BY THE NUMBERS
•10 of the 11 heaviest largemouth bass on record were caught in California.
•1 Georgia bass made the all-time bass records, but it’s the one that counts the most (George Perry’s 22-pound 4-ounce world record).
•7 of the 11 biggest largemouth bass ever recorded were caught within the past 15 years.
•9 of the top 11 bass were caught between February and May; the other two were caught in June.
•2 of the heaviest 11 bass were boated during a full-moon phase. Three of the 11 were caught in each of the other moon phases (new, first quarter and last quarter).
•4 of the top 11 bass came from one place: Castaic Lake, Calif.; farther south, Lake Miramar has yielded 2 of the top 11 largemouths.
SUPERSIZE YOUR BASS
SLAM-DUNK TACTICS FOR NAILING 10-POUNDERS
Living in Florida, my first “ultimate” goal as a youngster was to catch a 10-pounder. When that happened, I discovered that a single 10-pounder didn’t satisfy my craving. Since then, I have managed to catch more than 500 bass that weighed between 10 and 17 pounds. Along the way, lunker bass taught me a lot about their nature and what I needed to know to catch them consistently. Here are some of the things I learned.
Bass grow steadily throughout their lives, so it makes sense that the biggest fish are those able to grow the fastest over the longest period of time.
Metabolism is the energy burned to satisfy general body functions and to swim and feed. Growth occurs when the energy consumed exceeds that needed for metabolism.
Warm Water Is Key Because bass are cold-blooded (their body temperature is about the same as their environment), metabolism increases with water temperature. Thus, to continue to grow, bass need to consume more food as water temperatures climb. The preferred temperature for largemouth bass is 78 to 82 degrees, and the upper temperature limit is around 95 degrees.
Living Large Longer Life span is also determined by temperature, so a bass in Maine might reach 8 or 9 pounds over a life span of 25 years or more, while a Florida bass will live around 12 years and grow to perhaps 14 pounds. As a rule, females are larger than males. The biggest fish are not found in the coolest water, where they live the longest, or in the hottest climates, where metabolisms peak, but somewhere in between. Most of my biggest bass came from the deeper lakes of central Florida, as well as from cooler, spring-fed rivers, where bass can live as long as 12 to 14 years.
Spring Hangouts With spawning season close, bass prefer sheltered areas on the lee side of cold-front-based winds, which usually means the north and northwest sides. It helps that the north side of a cove also gets the warmest rays of the afternoon sun and south winds push in warmer surface water.
After the Spawn Look for the largest flats with the most cover (especially vegetation) and concentrate on the 8- to 15-foot depth range. Use subtle, realistic lures, such as big soft-plastics. If gizzard shad or stocked rainbow trout are likely to be the favorite forage of big bass, use lures that imitate them. Whatever you fish, make it large. Big bass don’t waste a lot of energy chasing after small gulps; they go for volume over quantity. Bottom-dragging soft-plastics can meet with success, too.
Fall Haunts Most of the biggest bass in a lake will move out to the long points that extend to deep water. Points that adjoin or connect to flats will produce the best. Use large diving lures or minnowbaits fished along the 8- to 12-foot contour of these flats. Winter is tough; it’s better to wait for spring.
Best Big-Bass Days
I’ve spoken to a number of fishermen who have caught more than one 10-pound-plus bass. The majority of them said they caught their biggest fish in the middle of summer.
Sure, spring is a good time to catch numbers of big bass, but what about the biggest bass of all? For truly monster bass, I’m betting on summer, because of what we know about bass metabolism and the fact that fish have had time to attain the peak of their fat content.
I boated my first 10-pound bass while fishing an unweighted 11-inch plastic worm like a snake across lily pads and heavy cover in a north Florida lake. I prefer to fish lakes with large lily pad fields because lunker bass gravitate to such cover.
Perhaps my most productive lure has been a 6-inch straight-tailed plastic worm rigged with a slight bend at the head so it spins on retrieve. Fished properly over and through weedy cover, the slowly spinning worm resembles a swimming snake. I fish this rig with a slow, steady retrieve behind a good swivel around cover in 3 to 8 feet of water.
I never go fishing without a 1/4-ounce white or pale yellow bucktail jig tied on a bullet-shaped head. I fish the jig by letting it fall on a slack line through surface-schooling bass, then working it with a slow, pumping retrieve just over the bottom. My biggest largemouth on a bucktail jig weighed 13 1/2 pounds.
Midday Is Best
If you can’t fish at first or last light, it’s no big deal. A lot of big bass are caught between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on sunny days. Although bass rely on other senses to locate food, they are primarily sight feeders, and light is important to effective feeding.
Measured against my belief in time of day and time of year as critical factors, it comes as no surprise to me that, during the new and full moon phases each month, the daytime “major” lunar period falls around noon. On the days of the two monthly half moons, the “minor” lunar feeding periods occur around noon, too.