Sports Nut

Fish Tales

The dark art of catching world-record bass.

It was a bad week for bass, and for the South. On Monday morning, Mac Weakley caught a 25-pound, 1-ounce largemouth bass at Lake Dixon, outside San Diego. If verified, the fish would have shattered one of angling’s most venerable records: George Perry’s 22-pound, 4-ounce bass, which he landed deep in the heart of Georgia in 1932. But a troubling detail emerged. Weakley didn’t exactly “catch” the fish. Rather, he “snagged” it. The fish was foul-hooked near the tail, not properly hooked in the mouth. The bass could have been considered for the world record, but it would always be tainted, a fish shadowed by an asterisk. After consulting with his friends, Weakley decided not to apply for the record.

Not long after this news came across the wires, sentiments like the following began to appear on Internet message boards: “I must say that I for one am quite pleased that the record stays where it belongs, namely: Georgia.” The largemouth bass holds a prominent place in our stereotypical understanding of Southern culture—somewhere between the Confederate flag and loving your mama. The largemouth bass is the state fish of both Georgia and Mississippi; more than a few bass fishermen believe that the only real bass fishing occurs well south of the Mason-Dixon Line. George Perry’s world record has become part of good-ol’-boy folklore. He was a young farmer whose fields were too wet to plow that fateful June day, so he went fishing. He reeled in the monster, weighed it on a scale at the local post office, and, in the best detail of all, ate the bass for dinner.

No matter what parochial Southerners might argue, the largemouth bass has since blossomed into the Great American Fish. As Americans migrated to the Sun Belt, damming the rivers and building new towns, we brought the largemouth bass with us. The fish thrived in this artificial landscape: in the reservoirs, in the irrigation ponds, and, seemingly, in the puddles outside 7-Eleven. Thanks to its ubiquity, and, truth be told, its willingness to lunge at large plastic baits, the bass became our most popular recreational fish. Now, the bass anchors a professional tour that’s attempting to become the “next NASCAR.” The stakes for breaking Perry’s record have become high. Lakeside sages hold that a world-record bass is a million-dollar fish when you factor in all of the endorsements, television deals, and free tackle that will be showered upon the triumphant angler.

Given this pot of gold, cheaters and naysayers abound. The skeptics are right to question, as the dark arts have always been a prominent part of bass fishing. Competitors have been known to tie fish to stumps, then “catch” them during a tournament. Shoving lead down a bass’s gullet to increase its poundage at the weigh-in is a cliché. Many high-profile events now require the winner to agree to a polygraph test.

As for world records, the most notorious case involves a 1972 fish that some claim was found lying dead on the surface of the water. The most recent controversy occurred in 2003. A 45-year-old California woman named Leaha Trew was photographed hoisting an enormous bass, which she claimed to have caught while fishing with her son. As you can see from this photo, Trew held the bass out in front of her, a time-honored trick to make your quarry appear larger. (Weakley’s friend Mike Winn  ably demonstrates this technique  with the Lake Dixon bass.) Alas, the Trew family took only one picture of the monster fish before they chose to return it to the lake. This evidence was considered too shoddy by the International Game Fish Association, which certifies world records.

Bass nurtured in Southern California present a more difficult and philosophical judgment call. As detailed in Monte Burke’s essential book, Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass, San Diego’s reservoirs, carved out of the Colorado River, have essentially been engineered to create record-setting fish. In the 1960s, a lakes superintendent imported the Florida strain of bass, which grows to larger sizes than the northern strains. What happened next was something of an accident: The Fish and Game Department stocked the lakes with rainbow trout, which turned out to be an ideal food for fattening largemouth bass. It’s fair to ask, then, if these SoCal bass are wild fish or contented denizens of a very nice aquarium. In 1973, the first 20-pounder was pulled from San Diego waters. Much to the chagrin of prideful Southerners, the world-record bass is expected to emerge from a reservoir in spitting distance of avocados.

The current world-record situation gets worse, at least from a marketing point of view. Mac Weakley is not an aw-shucks weekend warrior but part of a dedicated, three-friend fishing team that has been pursuing the world-record bass for several years. The day before Weakley caught the 25-pound bass, he offered another fisherman $1,000 for a chance to cast at it. The fish had been spotted in Lake Dixon’s clear waters. It was a bedding female, patrolling a nest where she planned to deposit her eggs. That’s the big-bass game: A female that’s full of eggs can weigh as much as 2 pounds more than a comparable, nonpregnant fish.

Here’s where it gets a little weird. Weakley’s fish had been caught before! Distinctive markings suggest that it’s the same fish his friend, Jed Dickerson, bagged three years ago. At that point, it weighed 21 pounds, 11 ounces and was the fourth-largest bass ever landed. Weakley returned his fish to Lake Dixon, where, presumably, it’s sulking and annoyed. The rumor mills have half of Japan getting on an airplane to catch the brooding monster. The world-record hunt has narrowed into an obsessive stakeout of one outstanding specimen.

Stepping back, though, it’s hard to fault Weakley and his buddies. They are taking advantage of a local ecosystem that they’ve spent countless hours observing. And when you think about it, the distinction between what is “natural” and “man-made” long ago became moot. That’s why the Internet chatter that connected Weakley’s “juiced” fish to Barry Bonds’ tainted home-run chase was revelatory in a way. It’s symptomatic of a particular strain of sports blindness: We want our records to be broken in a “natural” way while we blithely ignore the unnatural circumstances that allowed them to be broken in the first place.