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Bass beware: Sowbelly search continues

3/28/2006
  • Broadcast: If you missed Saturday's complete coverage of the bass extravaganza, tune in to this week's re-airs of "BassCenter" at 4:30 a.m. ET Wednesday and 5 a.m. ET Thursday on ESPN2.

  • Mailbag: Did Mac Weakley do right by dropping his record chase? Respond here.

  • Forum: Contribute your thoughts to our new Outdoors message board.

    Bass anglers worldwide, take a deep breath.

    That's good advice after a dizzying week that began with news of a 25.1-pound largemouth hooked on a white jig and pulled from southern California's Dixon Lake by Mac Weakley.

    But due to the catch-and-release of the fish, not to mention the foul-hooked element of the story, what followed next was a whirlwind of reaction in the media, cyber-talk and coffeepot debates at boat-dock cafes all across the bass nation.

    Would the Weakley bass be the behemoth destined to topple George Perry's legendary 22¼-pound largemouth pulled from Georgia's Montgomery Lake in June 1932?

    Weakley answered that question with a midweek decision not to pursue the International Game Fish Association's largemouth bass world-record mark.

    With that question answered, others remain, namely when, by whom and where will the next official world-record largemouth bass be caught.

    As for the when, who knows?

    In terms of who will catch the next world record, Weakley and his longtime So Cal angling pals Mike Winn and Jed Dickerson would seem logical choices, given their big-bass track record.

    (Dickerson already has the fourth-heaviest largemouth bass on record — a 21.7-pounder taken from Dixon Lake in May 2003. Weakley has No. 15 on the list — a 19.44-pounder netted at Dixon 11 days before Dickerson's behemoth. And Winn will be forever remembered posing for snapshots of this week's 25.1-pound Dixon denizen.)

    And on the issue of where, it seems apparent that Dixon Lake, the 72-acre San Diego County impoundment where Weakley's big bass was pulled from, has to lead the official world-record charge at the moment.

    But Dixon Lake certainly isn't the only Golden State water body capable of producing a world-record lunker.

    Hardly, says Monte Burke, a senior reporter for Forbes magazine and author of the acclaimed "Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass" (Dutton; $23.95).

    In fact, Burke lists another six California lakes on his "Top 10" list of international bass waters that could one day produce the record-toppling sowbelly largemouth.

    After No. 1 Dixon Lake, Burke rates California's Castaic Lake No. 2; Lake Casitas No. 3; Diamond Valley Lake No. 4; Lake Miramar No. 6; Lake Mission Viejo No. 7; and Lake Wohlford No. 8 as waters capable of giving up the world-record largemouth ghost.

    Indeed, only four fish in The Bassmaster Top 25 all-time largest largemouth are from outside of California. Curiously, California, which has no native largemouth bass, imported fast-growing, long-living Florida-strain bass in the 1950s.

    Aside from California's ample supply of big-bass water, Burke also lists Cuba's Lake Hanabanilla at No. 5, Florida's private Disney World waters at No. 9 and Texas' Lake Fork at No. 10 as other spots having the potential to produce the next IGFA record.

    Why California's dominance on Burke's "Top 10" list?

    Much of that has to do with the Florida-strain largemouth genetics introduced into California's water sources, with nearly all of them sporting a rather lengthy growing season.

    But perhaps the biggest reason is the forage base, including the winter stocking of put-and-take, protein-rich, hatchery-reared rainbow trout in many of these waters.

    In fact, many bass-fishing observers believe California's trout stocking is the single-most important factor leading to the big-bass potbelly at the end of the rainbow.

    "In California, the reason these fish are getting so big is they're eating the trout planted there for other sportsmen," Burke said, whose research indicates some 35,000 pounds of trout are planted in Lake Dixon every year.

    "I actually got to see this happen, where the truck pulled up to dump in all of those 1-pound, 12-inch fish. That's a 1-pound solid protein treat."

    Trout notwithstanding, 2005 BASS Angler of the Year Aaron Martens, who grew up fishing for southern California's bass, gives much of the credit for the bucketmouth bonanza to the catch-and-release ethic that runs strong in the Golden State.

    "The biggest reason in California that the fish get so big? Catch and release," Martens said. "I guided for some time and I can tell you firsthand that the reason that these fish get so big is that when they get caught, they go back into the water."

    Case in point is Weakley's 25.1-pound largemouth caught earlier this week.

    Weakley and his angling pals Mike Winn and Jed Dickerson believe that because of the fish's markings, the bass is the same 21.7-pounder Dickerson caught in 2003.

    "That just goes to show you what catch and release will do for you," said BASS senior writer Tim Tucker, arguably the most knowledgeable bass-fishing observer on the planet.

    "Catch it, photograph it, and let it go; there's no greater evidence for the effectiveness of catch and release than that fish."

    Martens contends that because of California's catch-and-release ethic, the state has produced more than the one world- record contender that America became keenly aware of earlier this week.

    "I've fished for them before," Martens said. "A couple of times in my life, I've seen a world-record fish (in California)."

    "I've seen them, but I just couldn't get them to bite."

    One of those was a Lake Castaic fish — a world-class bass Martens spotted and tried to catch nearly a decade ago.

    "That one for sure was pushing 25 pounds," Martens said. "They're big. They're monsters. When they get that big, they're (seemingly) about 4 feet long."

    After failing to catch the fish on that particular January day, Martens said he went back two days later and tried again. Unfortunately, he never saw the fish again.

    Others agree that California is probably the state to beat in the race to spit out a new world record largemouth, although Tucker admits that he was beginning to wonder.

    "I thought the California gold rush (for big bass) was over," Tucker said. "There have not been that many bass around 20 pounds caught in the last few years."

    Two-time CITGO Bassmaster Classic champ Kevin VanDam echoes Tucker's thoughts.

    "I thought sooner or later, someone would catch a real big one in California. But then again, I thought it would have happened before now," said the traveling VanDam, who learned about this week's big largemouth while in Texas to film some bass-fishing action on Toledo Bend.

    Speaking of Texas, VanDam believes that the state's most famous bass water, Lake Fork near Quitman, also is a solid contender to produce a world-record lunker.

    "There have probably been more bass 13 pounds or over that have been caught out of there than any other lake in the country," VanDam said of the east Texas body of water that has produced 224 ShareLunker entries since 1986.

    For the record, the Fork bass entered into that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department program (which accepts for spawning efforts live bass weighing more than 13 pounds) includes Barry St. Clair's January 1992 state-record behemoth weighing 18.18-pounds.

    "When you've got a lake and state record in the 18-pound class, you don't have to go much father than that to get to world-record size," VanDam said.

    The Michigan pro believes that wherever the next official world-record bass comes from, it will be a lake like Fork that brings together several ingredients, including the Florida bass gene, some deep water and a tremendous forage base.

    Tucker doesn't disagree, but he also thinks that it's very possible that a lake with relatively light fishing pressure anywhere in the South could be capable of giving up history's biggest official bass.

    "Florida could do it, although I think it's doubtful," Tucker said. "I think it will be some place with a decent growing season, but not a lot of pressure, maybe some place like Mississippi."

    "That's the neatest thing about this whole thing," Tucker added. "There are so many places where the world record could be swimming around right now.

    "It could be swimming around in Lake Fork, in Florida or even the lake I live on."

    Burke agreed, but that doesn't mean that he'll bet against California any time soon.

    "The current world record is from Georgia, so you never know," he said. "What I can tell you is that it's not going to come from a place like Minnesota or New Hampshire, where the growing season isn't long enough.

    "California is the hands down favorite to do it."