Reviews: Big bass and chicken soup


Editor's note: This is the inaugural book-review column for ESPNOutdoors.com. Look for additional reviews in the coming weeks.

A big bass is a joy to its beholder … and all that much more if its beholder actually caught it. A really big bass offers even more joy. But landing a really, really big bass not only brings joy, but also acclaim, fame and potential riches.

Largemouth bass fishing has grown (if you like what you see), or devolved (if you don't), from casually chucking wooden lures at the local pond to the competitive circuits with their lightning-fast boats, state-of-the-art electronics, insignia-laden clothing and, yes, big money, too.

But something nags like a line cut on a wet finger at today's bass-fishing world — that the record largemouth, caught in 1932 in a decidedly low-tech search for food, has not been exceeded by the sheer force of our national collective of bass-fishing expertise and mania.

The grand arc of this story is ably traced by Monte Burke in "Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass" (Dutton; $23.95).

It begins with George Washington Perry's catch one rainy morning of a 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth in a small Georgia lake — seduced by a wooden Creek Chub Wiggle Fish — and, fortunately, weighed before being served with cornbread that evening.

The record stands today, seven decades later, despite the best efforts of millions of moderately obsessed bass anglers and of a few gonzo anglers who live for the cause.

Burke follows the paths of this latter group, made up of oddball characters, some of whom have lost marriages and careers along the way and one poor soul so desperate that he is trying to grow the record in his private ponds.

The epicenter of their quest is southern California — far from Georgia, and not even within the native range of the species.

(For the review of the latest monster bass to be plucked from SoCal waters, click here.)

But it is there that the faster-growing Florida strain by chance was stocked in deep, manmade reservoirs that were then enriched, from the point of view of the bass, by endless numbers of put-and-take rainbow trout that became their major chow.

Many "normal" bass fishermen would be bored silly by the most-successful approach for old sowbelly in California: many of these anglers double-anchor in deep water over structure or nesting bass they spot and drop a crayfish bait to the bottom.

Then they wait, wait and wait some more, sometimes for 200 days a year, perhaps resting in preparation for the glory and the chaos that will surely ensue if they best George Washington Perry.

Maybe they should try a Wiggle Fish.

But a bass is not a bass is not a bass. Sowbelly sizes are the rare exceptions among largemouth bass — really an oversized sunfish.

Striped bass of the true bass clan, however, routinely come in large packages.

In ocean waters from Maine to North Carolina, fishermen seek a species that frequently weighs 10 to 40 pounds … with a world's rod-and-line record crowding 80 and some net-caught lunkers in the 1800s that scaled well more than 100 pounds.

Although anglers catch stripers along the "striper coast," in myriad ways, there are few methods as challenging and, therefore, as rewarding as surfcasting.

In each part of the striper coast the practice of heaving lures from shore in heavy seas has its own history and lore.

In "Striper Chronicles" (to be confused with George Reiger's 1997 "Striped Bass Chronicles"), author Leo Orsi Jr. reports on his love affair with surfcasting at two of the most fabled East Coast surfcasting hotspots, both in Rhode Island: Jamestown and Block Island, or, to aficionados, "the Block."

These rocky isles described in "Striper Chronicles: East Coast Surf Fishing Legends & Adventures" (Akmo Publishers; $24.95) are battered by ocean breakers that create live waters that sometimes attract, often on dark-night tides, great schools of large striped bass.

The rule is, the worse and more dangerous the weather, the better the fishing. Orsi is among the many that haunt these shores, hoping for the 50-pounder that, if not a record, is the accepted threshold for what the writer calls a "lifetime accomplishment," a saltwater sowbelly, if you will.

Orsi's 30 years of chasing stripers has yielded a trove of memories that he, well, chronicles, occasionally in more detail than some of the stories appear to deserve.

But eventually I forgave this apparent self-indulgence (most of the anecdotes are entertaining and all are buoyed by a spirit of sheer enthusiasm for the sport that is irresistible) kind of like a young boy who has a great adventure and can't stop sharing his excitement about it. Marvel at the passion.

"Striper Chronicles" is really a fishing biography, one of a genre that illustrates a path well worn by any angler who masters a difficult specialty:

Youngster is exposed to the sport, flounders about making horrible mistakes but learning crucial lessons along the way, shows enough promise and commitment that older sages teach him a few tricks and over time becomes a teacher himself.

You've simply got to pay your dues. Orsi has paid his, luckily for him in what he calls "two of the most spectacular islands on earth."

Wise folks know it's the journey, not the destination that matters. Fortunately for Orsi he will continue the journey to the Block looking for that 50.

If the difficult search for large bass of either variety gets you down, you need chicken soup, a metaphorical broth with some tasty morsels served up in "Chicken Soup for the Fisherman's Soul" (Health Communications; $12.95), edited by those best-selling "chefs," Jack Canfield, Mark Hansen and Ken and Dahlynn McKowen.

As the cover states, these are "fish tales to hook your spirit and snag your funny bone." Sounds a little dangerous, but it's not. In fact, this highly inviting volume is a different kind of fishing anthology.

Most collections of angling literature are of diverse and finely wrought stories previously published by talented and unique voices.

What you'll find on your plate in this one are short tales edited with a heavy hand that sets up each story with just enough literary serifs to keep them potable before the payoff, which as predicted neatly impales either your spirit or your funny bone.

The 80 some stories that are the ingredients of this "Chicken Soup" were winnowed from more than 600 submissions. Its list of authors is an odd mix of people you have never heard of, plus Jimmy Houston, Patrick McManus, John Gierach, Norman Schwarzkopf and former presidents Carter and the elder Bush (who rhapsodies on, of all things, mackerel fishing).

The editors group these pieces within themes, such as "First Casts," "Small Fries," "Family Ties" and "Reel Women," so you can decide which emotional terrain you wish to transverse.

Some of the contributions are downright saccharine and may best be read while sipping a very dry beer. But others are little gems, perfectly seasoned, leaving you feeling warm inside and pretty much OK about ol' sowbelly ignoring your crayfish for the 98th day in a row.

John Waldman is a scientist, angler and author, most recently of "100 Weird Ways to Catch Fish." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Waldman and his aquatic research, visit his Web site.