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Bassing's world-record rush

4/14/2006

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Monte Burke's new book, "Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass" (Dutton; $23.95).


In the midst of the research for my book, in the prime of the spring spawn of 2004, I fished with John Kerr on Lake Jennings, a renowned big-bass reservoir on the outskirts of San Diego.

John has been best friends with Mike Long — who is perhaps the most famous big-bass fisherman alive — since the 6th-grade. But they could not be more different.

John is the Yin to Mike's Yang. John is a wiry 36 year-old, with short, reddish hair he covers with a white Ranger Boats baseball cap. He is a few inches shorter than Mike, maybe 5-foot-9, and slighter, looking young enough to pass for a college kid.

John is like the little brother of the duo, and he happily lets Mike do all of the talking. He is naturally a very shy man, diverting his eyes and mumbling almost inaudibly when he talks to anyone he doesn't know.

Their methods and preparation differ, as well. John is sort of an absent-minded professor. He'll sometimes go a whole day on the water so full of intent and concentration that he'll forget to take a sip of water or a bite of food, and wonder why he feels like passing out face first on the dock at the end of the day.

He often has to be reminded to take off his down jacket — necessary to fight the chill of the early morning — well after the southern California sun has turned up the heat to furnace-like levels in the afternoon.

His four rods are messily splayed about the boat, the tips of a few of them hanging perilously off the side. Remnants of old lures — plastic shad baits and ripped up rubber salamanders — lay scattered on the floor of his boat.

But John more than holds his own on the fishing end. He's primarily a tournament angler, participating on the local San Diego circuit, where the modest purse money helps pay the bills more than chasing after the world record. He's been pretty successful, too.

In 2003, John won the US Open on Lake Mead. The prize included the boat and motor he's using today, the Ford truck he hitches those toys up to and $50,000 in cash.

Mike has lately begun to join him in some of the tournaments, and they've become a formidable duo, winning almost everything they enter. Even their names, they like to think, evoke fear in the hearts of their fellow tournament anglers'. When read together, "Long-Kerr" sounds like "Lunker," the universal name for big, bad bass.

Though Mike garners almost all of the attention, John doesn't seem to mind. It takes some of the burden off his shoulders. In fact, he seems to prefer to avoid the spotlight.

"Sometimes the pressure is too much on Mike," he says. "It gets to the point where he feels he has to be on the water all the time. It gets to him emotionally."

John's just happy to fish. "Me? Obsessed? Yeah," he says. "If I could, every free moment, I'd be fishing."

As it turns out, John has to work like the rest of us. He's a bulk manager at a local grocery store, earning enough of a salary to feed and house his wife and five sons. But John, in his own quiet way, is a dark horse in the race to catch the world-record bass because of his connection to Mike and his talent.

Indeed, if he didn't spend so much of his time fishing in tournaments, where the time constraints don't reward the patience needed to hunt big bass, John might be the forerunner.

"I'd put some money on John, for sure," says Jerry Rago, the California luremaker. "He's just as good as anyone else out there. Just quieter about it."

Quiet, but he's after it, too, when he has the time. And he understands what's at stake, describing it with all of the blunt wit of Gertrude Stein. "The world record is so important to so many people," John says. "That's why it's so important."

It's a pleasure to watch John ply his craft. His cast, called a "pitch," is a thing of effortless beauty.

As he gets ready to make the cast, he holds the lure in the long, slender fingers of his left hand. He holds the rod with his right, his thumb on the open-faced spool to keep his line from backlashing. Then he "pitches" an underhand toss, starting the rod tip at 6 o'clock, and ending the motion at 11, letting go of the lure at the precise moment that the line tightens on it.

It's all done with the grace of a bullfighter pulling his red cape away from a charging bull, the control of a yo-yo artist and the accuracy of a champion horseshoe thrower.

His target is tiny, a spot with maybe a 3-foot radius some 20 feet away. And he didn't miss all day. With his lure settled on the bottom of the lake, he focuses on the small spot in the water, his entire body tense and inert, except for his right hand, which shakes the rod tip to give the lure down below some movement.

He is a bit more talkative than usual, perhaps because, with his concentration down deep, he does not have to look me in the eye. He works the trolling motor with his foot, his eyes forward, always scouting. He stops when he sees a promising fish and repeats the whole thing over again.

He does this for hours. Sitting behind him on the boat, I am almost lulled to sleep by this rhythmic casting and working of the fish.

But the peacefulness of the day is shattered when John suddenly swings back on a big bass that he'd been stalking for half an hour. But instead of going tight, the lure comes sailing out of the water. He's missed it.

He starts breathing heavily through his mouth as if he's just crossed the finish line in a sprint. But watching him more closely, I see that the heavy breathing is more a manifestation of the seething he feels inside at the missed opportunity. "That was a big fish," he says.

His near miss has suddenly woken me up, as well, and I stand as John guides the boat back to a place where he had marked a big fish earlier. This time it only takes a few casts.

He lifts back with a violent backstroke, his glinting black rod pulled into an arc. He has this fish hooked, and he gives the rod a short pump, then does a few lightning-fast revolutions of the reel to gain line.

He does this over and over, horsing the big bass in, trying not to let her get her bearings. If he gives her even a second to figure out what's going on, she'll gain the upper hand, diving deep or running for some sort of cover, like a downed tree where the line can become tangled and snap.

Anglers like John love these big bass because they seem more intelligent than smaller fish, like they've been hooked before and know how to get loose. It all adds to the challenge.

"Don't come up, don't come up," John starts repeating under his heavy breaths, this time generated from adrenaline in a positive way.

The big she-bass does anyway, breaking the glassy surface of the lake 10 feet from the boat, her massive black back to us, full of fury for having been unceremoniously yanked from her matrimonial bed. In the air for only a split-second, she gives a huge headshake, all massive white mouth and pinkish gills. She is absolutely enormous.

"Grab the net!" John yells at me, his shyness suddenly gone. I oblige and, with a lucky scoop, 15 pounds of glistening female bass are brought aboard the boat.

John is smiling now, a wolfish grin. He picks her up for a second and admires her incredible girth. Her stomach is impossibly large. It seems that if she were to take just one more bite of food, she just might spontaneously burst into a bloody, fleshy mess.

Her distended eyes are the size of half-dollars — big, frightened-looking, jet-black pupils encircled by brown. He puts her in the livewell, which is barely big enough to contain her, and turns on the water and aerator.

John stops for a moment to check his lure and line for any damage, then takes a deep breath and puts his foot back down on the trolling motor.

He had just spent three hours fishing with only a near-brush with success. Then came the moment — the hookup, the battle, the netting, the dumping of the fish in the livewell — which had taken maybe 30 seconds all together.

But it's that which makes it all worth it, makes him want to get up at 4 a.m. to come back out tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that, to do it all over again.

It makes him now step on the trolling motor with more force to get to the next spot even faster, more determined to catch another big bass (which he will). He's still pushing audible breaths through his mouth, but they're coming more slowly now, in a more even cadence.

"You question your ability when you lose one. But when you catch a big one, you're back on top," he says. "That 30 seconds … it's just a rush. That moment when you get her into the net, that's the moment you wait for. There's such relief."

He pauses to light a Marlboro Light 100. "You won and she didn't."

The "rush" analogy may be right on, but it seems like it could even be something larger, more cosmic than that for these guys, like T.S. Eliot's "still point in a turning world."

It's the moment when this big and confusing and busy earth stops for a second, and gives you a glimpse of something absolute and controllable, something ripe with hope and optimism and potential.

Reprinted from "Sowbelly" by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.
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For more information on the title, visit www.monteburke.com.