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California gold: 'God, let me catch this fish'

3/16/2005
Mike Long registered the largest largemouth in two decades when he boated this bubba at Lake Dixon in late April 2001. 

SAN DIEGO — Size matters.

Or does it?

Apparently not to female bass looking for a mate. Just ask California angler Mike Long.

The 20-pound, 12-ounce big-mama bucketmouth he boated at Lake Dixon the last Friday in April wasn't interested in anything but the smallest male at the tiny reservoir in Northern San Diego County.

"There were about 20 males on this 50-yard flat and she was relating to the area," Long said in describing what would turn out to be the eighth heaviest largemouth bass ever weighed and certified. "There was one area in particular where there was a very small male; I could barely see him, he was so small. But she would go to that area all the time. Basically she wanted to try to spawn with that male later in the evening or something."

Long's accomplishment was remarkable. It had been more than 10 years since the last 20-pound bass was recorded, a 22.01-pounder taken March 12, 1991, by Bob Crupi out of Southern California's Castaic Lake. Cracking the top-25 list is cause for celebration in and of itself. Only two other bass hooked since 1991 hold spots on the coveted list. Of course, the 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth taken by George Washington Perry in June 1932 from Georgia's Montgomery Lake is the oldest and most highly prized freshwater benchmark.

Back at Lake Dixon, Long had hooked and lost his fish earlier in the day. He switched setups, tossed a 6-inch rainbow-trout-pattern Castaic swimbait from a 7-foot rod and said a prayer: "God, let me catch this fish. I'll weigh her, take pictures and let her go."

"I watched her come three or four feet toward it and just kind of stop, then back up," said Long, 35, a Poway, Calif., construction-company project manager renowned for his trophy-bass prowess. "So I left the bait there and backed the boat all the way to the shore."

Waiting game

A waiting game had begun, with Long stationed at the end of 65 feet of 15-pound line at the back of a rental boat, all that is permitted for use on the 70-surface-acre Escondido, Calif., impoundment.

A half-hour would pass, with Long crouched as low as he could, the line absolutely still and the bruiser bass inching slowly toward the sinking swimbait that had long settled on the lake's floor. Then 45 minutes.

"It took an hour for her to get all the way in," he said. "I made everything calm and quiet, like I wasn't there. The water had been a little choppy for a while, so I could just see her black shadow."

Later the water would glass over, and Long could see the fish "perfectly."

"I tightened up the line and shook the bait once, and I watched her go 45 degrees," he said. "And I shook it a second time, just gave it a pop, and then she went as vertical as she could go and I remember my rod was just going toward the water. And I thought, 'The boat's moving.'

"Then I realized, 'Oh, man, she's hit it,' and I just swung. I looked out and a saw a flash and I knew I'd hooked her. And I remember saying to myself, 'Here we go again, here we go again.'"

What dreams are made of

Baseball players dream in home runs when they're kids. But boating a 20-pound bass was Long's dream growing up in San Diego. He would stare for hours on end at trophies mounted in private homes or at boat shows. He started fishing at age 6 and caught his first 10-pound bass two years later.

He would go on to set several lake records for area bass: 17.51 pounds at Lake Poway; 16.54 pounds, Lake Sutherland; 16½ pounds, Lake Mission Viejo; 14 pounds, 2 ounces, Lake Cuyamaca. "I'm not really into setting records; it's just something that kind of happens," Long explained.

His previous personal best was 17.96 pounds out of Lake Murray, and, while he doesn't fish professionally, he did once catch an incredible stringer of 14-4, 12-1, 10-8, 10 and 9 while sight-fishing out of Lake Poway.

But 15.45 pounds was largest bass he had boated at Lake Dixon, in March, and a 20-pounder was the goal he had set for himself as a child. He had had his chances before: "I should honestly have three over 20 pounds and the world record, but all were lost."

That was about to change with a 20-pound, 12-ounce specimen at Dixon.

"The weeds out in deeper water were about two feet high and all I remember was it looked like I'd hooked a lawnmower out there," Long said of his catch. "You could just see her tail going crazy, but she never, ever came up and jumped. She stayed on the bottom."

There were obstacles

There were obstacles. The bass took Long's line under a dock and its anchor cables, then back again, untangling the line. Long actually had to net the fish backward, a huge no-no because the bass could have shot right out again.

But when it was all over — after Long secured the fish with a 10-foot rope stringer, tied that around his leg, then stood on the rope as he motored to the dock — the largest bass ever thought to be hooked sight-fishing was weighed in. Even that was a mission; the key to the facility's calibrated scale went missing and the lake ranger had to call a counterpart at a nearby lake to fetch another scale.

"Not only will this big bass stir up people throughout the country, it will also give people motivation," said Mickey Owens, founder of the Big Bass Record Club in Tampa, Fla., which offers prize money to members who catch lunkers.

Indeed, it may put more people onto the record trail, but, according to Dave Precht, editor of BASSMASTER magazine, a huge catch often reduces the chances of hauling in a world record, at least in Southern California.

"I know there is a tremendous amount of pressure on these lakes as soon as word gets out, and that works against hopes of catching a world record," Precht said. "Somebody catches a 20-pounder and somebody else goes to catch a bigger one and the boat pressure puts the fish down.

"But outside the Southern California area, I think fisherman everywhere get really excited about it. Everybody is kind of probably hoping the world record is broken. It's almost 70 years old now."

Long has been paid for photos of the fish and will win $25,000 in prize money as a member of the Big Bass Record Club if his fish holds up as club-best for the year. And who knows how much he'll make through endorsements, if that's the route he chooses. It doesn't sound like it is, however; he claims he's not interested in cashing in any more on his catch.

Kept true to his prayer

He kept true to his prayer and released the fish.

"In the videotape, it was such a sight to see her sit in the water and not really know that I'd let her go yet, and she just slowly starts kicking," he explained. "It was so neat to see. I've watched it 100 times. I did the right thing."

Any advice for fellow bassers?

"Appreciate the water, man," Long said. "Appreciate how lucky you are to be out on the water, whether you catch a fish or not, you know."