At four o'clock on a Saturday morning about the only people you will find awake in San Diego County are short-order cooks, cops, insomniacs, truck drivers, and bass fishermen. Of them all, the bass fishermen are probably the only ones who really like being up at that hour. They have arranged their lives to accommodate those few still hours before dawn. They cheerfully get out of bed at two, or maybe three, and gather with their fishing buddies at the local coffee shop to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and talk about the one thing that compels them to keep such unnatural hours. "Bass fishing." one of them says. shaking his head in wonder. "It gets to be an addiction. You get to where all you want to do is eat, sleep, and breathe bass fishing."
There are other kinds of fishing, they will grudgingly admit, but neither the fishermen nor the fish amount to much. Anybody simple-minded enough to find sport in fishing for the sunfish — bluegill, crappie, or perch — is relegated to the status of "perchjerker," which is something less than a rational man. On the subject of catfish, one bass fisherman says, "A stinky, slimy fish, A bottom feeder, I wouldn't have one of those forty: pound whiskered things in my boat." Trout are a beautiful fish, and God put them on this earth for a good reason, too: to give bass something to eat. "You take a nineteen-pound bass, feed it a four-pound trout, and you've got a world-record fish," a bass fisherman says, delighted by the simplicity of it.
Most fishermen seem to be a bit exclusive about their own style of fishing. Fly fishermen think that anybody who would fish anywhere but a mountain stream isn't truly a fisherman at all. Other fishermen won't fish for anything but suckers — a bony, inedible fish that puts up a good fight. Even carp fishermen have been seen wearing T-shirts that read: "If you ain't a carp fisherman, you ain't shit." But to a bass fisherman, the only suitable subject for conversation on those dark mornings waiting for the sun to come up is bass. Preferably big bass. World-record bass. And on that subject nearly every bass fisherman in the county seems to have a story. "There's, a world-record bass in San Vicente," an older fisherman says, "I've seen it myself, standing on the rocks looking down into the water. We're talking about a fish maybe thirty inches long, with a belly so big it looks like it's carrying a basketball."
Gary Whyte, of Ramona, who makes his living manufacturing plastic worms, says, "If you really want to see a world-record bass, go to Lake Poway. There's one living under the boat dock there. Just lift up the hatch over the dock and look down in the water. You're not going to believe what you see."
Bill Becker, a bank manager and bass fisherman, says, "I know five guys who swear they've had a twentyfive pounder on the line at Lake Murray. But then you gotta remember, bass fishermen are a bunch of liars."
Maybe so. That's a disease frequently found in other kinds of fishermen as well, But Dave Zimmerly wasn't lying when he pulled a twenty-pound. fifteen-ounce largemouth bass out of Lake Miramar in 1973. That fish was only twenty-one ounces under the world-record bass caught in 1932 by George Perry in Georgia — one of the oldest world records in the fishing books.
The names. dates, and weights of world-record catches roll off the tongues of bass fishermen like kids who have just memorized their multiplication tables and can't stop repeating them, "The biggest freshwater bass caught in San Diego so far in 1984 was a seventeen-pound, seven-ouncer at Lake Hodges." says Mike Kennedy, a cigarette sales representative, "That fish would have been a record in forty states, but it isn't even a county record in San Diego. The rumor is that divers checking the dams for earthquake safety standards have seen several world-record bass in San Diego lakes. But the way I figure it, the chances of catching one of those fish is very, very remote. Some people say fish are stupid, but even the dumbest bass can humble an expert bass fisherman; and that world-record bass, wherever it is, didn't gel that big by being stupid, It's probably been hooked a few times, and gotten wilier each time."
Some of San Diego's bass fishermen have started calling that world-record largemouth bass "the million-dollar fish," because that's what they figure it will be worth to the person who catches it - in promotions, endorsements, lecture fees, and complimentary fishing equipment. Every bassboat manufacturer in the country will be after him to put out his own model boat. The same with rod and reel manufacturers, He will suddenly become a highly sought-after professional bass fisherrnan, which is maybe the next best thing to being a rich and retired bass fisherman.
People who have never been bass fishing before might think of it as the kind of sport in which you row out to the middle of some muddy lake, toss a worrn overboard, crack open a can of beer, and sit back to enjoy the day. Nothing could be further from the truth, Bass fishing has become as competitive as professional golf, as technological as video games, and as expensive as yachting, Below is a partiallist of the equipment a serious bass fisherrnan will need to participate in his sport today:
First he will want a seventeen-foot, low-draft. V-bottorn boat with a fiberglass hull and a metal-flake paint job. Next he will need a 175-horsepower V-6 engine to minimize the time wasted gelling from the boat launch to the best fishing spots. (The speed limit in most county reservoirs is ten miles per hour, which means the fisherrnan can sneak it up to twenty-five miles per hour until he is out of view of the lake ranger, then punch it up to about fifty miles per hour.) To reduce noise and save fuel while fishing, he will need an electric trolling motor, mounted on the bow, with foot-pedal controls, a supply of rechargeable batteries, and a charger; he does not use this motor for trolling ("That ain't fishin', that's trollin'!"); rather, he uses it to maneuver in and out of shallow inlets, to make minor changes in direction while fishing, and so on, He will need at least two depth finders, one for the bow and one for the captain's chair; contrary to what many people think, these are not "fish finders," though fish will sometimes show up as blips on the screen: one of the depth finders should be equipped with a graph to draw the structure of the lake bottom as the fisherrnan cruises along looking for likely places to find fish, The boat should have an aerated live well for holding fish, and a pump that automatically circulates the water in the well; this is necessary because the fishing limit is five bass per day, and after he reaches the limit, the fisherrnan will constantly be "culling" his fish — releasing the smaller fish and replacing them with larger fish. The boat should have at least three mounted chairs: an adjustable butt-rest seat on the bow. a back-rest seat on the stern, and a luxurious captain's chair. The boat, fully rigged, will cost about $18,000. A trailer and a camper truck or van to pull the trailer will cost, say, another $15,000.
After the fisherrnan has purchased these basic necessities, he can begin thinking about what kinds of fishing tackle he would like, Most serious fisherrnen will probably have about twenty boron or graphite rods on board; the reason for so many is that the fisherrnan doesn't want to stop and re-rig during the day: a good rod and reel will cost, about $180, unless the fisherrnan wants to make his own, in which case it will cost about fifty dollars more.
And finally the fisherrnan will need a supply of line, hooks, sinkers, and lures, Lures come in thousands of different designs, all imitating some forrn of live bait which, though legal, is considered poor style by most bass fishermen. Generally the lures can be categorized as "crank bait" (you cast them out and crank them back in), which come in frog patterns, shad patterns, crawdad patterns. buzz baits (spinners), and so on; and "plastics" (don't call them rubber), which also come in various patterns, with worms being the most popular, The fisherman will not, as you might suppose, need one or two of each, Mike Kennedy, for example, has in his garage seven large tackle boxes full of nothing but plastic worms, in various colors such as watermelon, motor oil, blue-flake, and cinnamon, They cost twenty-eight cents apiece.
The production of plastic worrns has become something of a mini-industry in Ramona, where Gary Whyte employs five people full-time making 50,000 plastic worrns a month, all of which are sold in San Diego County, "We could sell 200,000 a month if we could make them fast enough," he says, When asked if a bass can really tell the difference between a watermelon blue-flake worrn and a cinnamon gold-flake worrn, he laughs and says, "Well, you gotta catch a fisherman before you can catch a fish, " And he's caught a lot of them, Many local fisherrnen won't use any other brand than Whyte's AA Worms.
After adding up the fuel, ice, and beer, by the time the serious bass fisherman backs his trailer down the boat launch, he probably has sunk about $40,000 into his sport. Some of them say it's more like $50,000, But to put that into perspective, at the U.S. Open Bass Fishing Tournament at Lake Mead in August, $300;000 in prize money was given away, with the winner taking home $50,000, And though most fisherrnen realize that the life of a professional bass fisherrnan is beyond their reach (it cost $1300 justto enter the U .S. Open), it is just close enough to make $50,000 in equipment look like a good investment. "'The thing about being a professional," one of them says, "is just putting in the time on the water. They don't really know anything that the rest of us don't." And of course there is always the possibility that the fisherman could take that short cut to success by hooking into the big one — the worldrecord twenty-five pounder.
All this is fairly new to San Diego, which has not traditionally been thought of as a prime place for freshwater fishing, In 1965, when the volume of water behind reservoirs in the county was approximately one-eighth what it is today, bass fisherrnen mostly thought of San Diego as a desert. Even today all the lakes in the county would fit into' one arrn of an average-size lake in Louisiana or Florida, where bass fishing has its roots, Yet to show how rapidly the bass fishing in San Diego has improved, consider that in 1982 more bass over nine pounds came out of Otay Lake than any other lake in the nation; and in 1983 that same honor went to Lake Hodges. "People talk about how great bass fishing is in the South," says Mike Kelly, who works for Champion boats, "and it is good in the South because of all the water there, But with our own little lakes here in San Diego County, we 've got some of the best bass fishing in the world."
The reasons why bass fishing in the county has become so good have a lot to do with the nature of the largemouth bass, A native of North America, Micropterus sa/moides first found its way to California in 1874, It liked the sunny climate and prospered here, but the good climate did little to temper its nasty personality, It is an aggressive and unsociable fish, even among its own kind, With its armor-like scales, sharply pointed dorsal fins, and mouth big enough to swallow a fish onefourth its own size (or at least to try), the largemouth bass seems always to be warning other water creatures to keep away, It is a solitary hunter, often hiding in a patch oftules or underwater brush, waiting to bushwhack some smaller fish, crawdad, tadpole, frog, or insect, A bass will sometimes claim a rock or stump as its home territory and defend it against all intruders for a few days, until it becomes bored and restless and wanders off in search of' something else to fight over.
But it is precisely these nasty habits that the bass fisherrnen like, Aggressive hunters make good prey; but an overly aggressive fish is almost too easy, too vulnerable, and it wouldn't have taken the fisherrnen long to wipe them all out. That is why the California Department of Fish and Game introduced the Florida strain of largemouth bass to San Diego's lakes in 1965. (Some local fishermen, it turns out, had been releasing them for years.) It is a more discriminating fish than other largemouth bass, more careful, and more specific about what it eats, making it harder to catch, It has interbred with the other bass in the lakes, producing a fish that has not only survived but actually thrived under very intense fishing pressure.
Bass like warm water, preferably seventy to ninety degrees. and because the lakes in San Diego seldom freeze, the bass population rarely suffers from the "turnover conditions" that plague other bass lakes in the nation, On a night of freezing temperatures, the surface water on a lake chills, drops to the bottom of the lake, and kills the algae which produce oxygen for the fish, Turnover conditions can destroy a bass population overnight. On the few nights when lakes in San Diego can freeze, the fish are protected at most lakes by an aeration system — a large compressor that forces oxygen into the water and which serves the additional function of improving the taste and odor of San Diego's water supply.
Another factor that has helped the bass to thrive in San Diego's lakes is the abundance of forage fish — mostly shad and bluegill — which the bass eat. Bass fishermen talk a lot about the fertility of San Diego's lakes, by which they mean the entire food chain, from microscopic organisms through the forage fish to the bass and finally the ultimate predators, fishermen.
The fertility of San Diego's lakes didn't happen by chance. Almost any bass fisherman in the county will tell you it is the work of Larry Bottroff, a biologist with the department of fish and game, The soft-spoken man has been working with the freshwater fish in San Diego since the mid-Sixties, and has established a rapport with the local fishermen that fish and game personnel throughout the state rarely have.
On any Saturday Bottroff can be seen at one of the lakes in the county inspecting the fishermen's catches, measuring and weighing the fish, looking for the clipped fins that identify a fish he has previously captured by electro-fishing — a technique which temporarily stuns the fish while he marks and measures them, In this way he is able to determine the total number of fish in a lake. "Warm-water fishing in San Diego is at its peak right now," he says, "because the water level in the lakes is high and has been stable for four or five years.... Of all warmwater fishing [bass, catfish, perch] the greatest angling pressure by far is on the bass. Yet the take is low compared to the total number of fish." Otay, for example has 40,000 to 50,000 bass, but only thirty or forty percent are caught each year, ensuring a steady population without stocking the lake with planted fish.
The local bass fishermen credit Bottroff with the healthy fish population, and say he has done a lot to educate them on the proper way to take care of it. Many of the local fisherrnen exercise more restraint on themselves than does the state: for example, the use of only artificial baits and the releasing of fish less than thirteen inches in length, neither of which is required by state fish and game laws, "Most bass fishermen," Mike Kennedy says, "realize that with all the technological equipment made available to us in the last few years it wouldn't be long before there weren't any fish left to catch. That's why most of us practice a catch-and-release philosophy."
But Bottroff admits to having some doubts about the catch-and-release philosophy, particularly in bass fishing tournaments in which the fishermen are constantly releasing their smallest fish as they catch larger ones. "The mortality rate of the fish is high," he says, "In the summer. when the water is warrn, it may be as high as seventy percent. The handli ng of the fish destroys the protective membrane which covers their body and allows bacteria and fungus to infect the fish, Sometimes within a few minutes the infection shows up as a reddened discoloration around the fish's gills and fins. Once it has begun, this will almost certainly kill the fish." He doesn't consider this to be a serious problem yet. "Even if they released all the fish they caught, there wouldn't be a significant impact on the total fish population, But why waste good fish? If the fish are going to die anyway, why not give them away? The fish and game laws say there will be no wasting of the resource, What we have to do is decide what constitutes waste."
Bottroff has been telling the fishermen to use aerated live wells in their boats, to add an antibiotic formu», to reduce infections, to minimize the handling of the fish, and even to add ice to the live wells in the summer. And he says the local fisherrnen have been cooperative, But as word of the excellent bass fishing in San Diego has spread to Los Angeles and Orange counties, the area has been flooded with nonlocal fishermen. "Sometimes they're uncooperative," Bottroff says, "They release too many fish. Some of the locals aren't too happy about it."
"They're just a bunch of freeway fisherrnen," one local says, "and they fish just like they drive the freeways — no courtesy."
Bass fishermen, unlike bass, are not solitary hunters, In fact, they are a surprisingly sociable bunch. There are fifteen bass-fishing clubs in the county, with anywhere from twenty to fifty members each, They frequently hold tournaments among themselves and in competition with other clubs; but they are also beginning to realize there are enough of them to have an economic and political impact, and for this reason the clubs have recently organized under the San Diego Council of Bass Fisherrnen. They are interested in seeing that the water level in San Diego's reservoirs is kept high enough to maintain a healthy bass population, that speedboats and water skiers are kept off the lakes, and that whatever else they feel will benefit bass fishing in the county is given consideration.
Every year the bass fishing clubs get together for the event of the year: the Bill Wade Memorial Tournament. Bill Wade, who died in 1980, is considered by many to be the father of bass fishing in San Diego. He helped organize the original bass club in the county, Pisces, and was instrumental in bringing the Florida strain to our local lakes. The tournament bearing his name is also called the "top-six" because the participants are limited to the top six fisherrnen from each club, based on their standings in tournament fishing that year. The ninety best bass fishermen in the county — from clubs such as the Hidden Valley Bass Masters, the San Diego Strokers, the Ramona Bass Anglers, the Road Rangers, the Bass Pros, the Bass Company, and the North County Bass Busters — take this tournament very seriously. It's considered an honor just to qualify for the tournament, like being in the baseball All-Star game, and for the team that wins it...well, for the next twelve months, whenever they tell a fish story, the other clubs will have to listen.
Last year the surprise winner of the top-six was a new club from Escondido, the Bass Club. They had only been organized about eight months at that time, but their leader, Joe Seale, a building contractor, was one of the most experienced and best-liked fisherrnen in the county, Besides having a natural, though modest, confidence, he is said by other fisherrnen to have caught so many big bass in his life that he has reached that almost mystical level of consciousness in which it is more important for him to pass on his knowledge to younger fishermen than it is for him to catch big fish himself. He's the perfect leader for a clan of hunter/fisherrnen, and under his guidance, the Bass Company has been able to put together, as he puis it, "a handful of guys who get along well without Robert's Rules of Order, without officers, and without bylaws."
The lodge of the Bass Company is the back corner of the Fisherman's Headquarters, a bait and tackle store in the middle of a crowded shopping center in Escondido. (Just down the street, at Bob's Bait and Tackle, is the lodge of a rival clan, the Hidden Valley Bass Masters.) It is decorated with rows and rows of fishing tackle, and sanctified by a dozen or more trophy fish which are mounted so high on the wall that you have to stand back and look up at them in awe. At almost any time of the day or night, you can find one or more members of the Bass Company at the store, working behind the counter, repairing equipment, planning the next trip, recounting the legends of their most heroic members, sleeping in the back room, or, of course, speculating on the chances of catching the big one, the world-record bass, in one of San Diego's lakes. "I definitely believe it's there," says Rich Swettenam, a thirty-five-year-old vice president of a carpeting company, "and I believe it could be in more than one lake, too, But I think the chances of it being caught are slim to none. Most guys these days are going to lighter, less visible line — four- to six-pound test — and if they do hook into it, it's probably going to break off."
Ron Baker, a forty-six-year-old fencing contractor, says, "If it's caught, it'll probably be in February, when the fish are spawning. Almost all the big ones are females, and for it to weigh that much it'll have to have about three pounds of eggs in it. But the chances are getting slimmer all the time. A fish that big has to be fifteen years old, and like people, as they get older they just waste away."
"I think it'll probably die before it's caught," Joe Seale says. "But if anybody has a chance at it, it'll probably be the poachers," meaning fishermen who fish illegally at night, during the winter season when the lakes are closed, or who use live trout for bait. "I've heard rumors of poachers taking a twenty-five pounder out of Miramar; but the poachers are usually afraid to record them for fear they'll get caught telling a lie about where and when they caught it." That would be a uniquely suited punishment for a poacher, to catch a world-record fish and not be able to tell anybody about it.
But one thing the fishermen all agree on is what it could mean to the person who legally catches a worldrecord bass. "If the right person catches it, somebody who's outgoing, has a good rapport with the public, and knows how to sell himself, he could make a lotta, lotta money," Rich Swettenam says.
"I don't think anybody's going to give you a million dollars just for catching that fish," says Jim Maguire, a thirty-five-year-old computer systems analyst. "But if they know you caught it on ability, and not luck, they might figure you can teach them, too."
Rich Swettenam agrees. "Fishermen will pay a little bit to hear you tell a fish story, but they'll pay a lot to hear you tell how you caught it."
"If one of us caught that fish," Joe Seale says, "the first thing he'd probably want to do is not say anything to anybody. Not even let pictures of it be taken. Then go and get himself a lawyer. "
"Yeah," Jim Maguire nods,
"Don't say what kind of rod and reel you caught it on, Wait until you get the right offer from a rod and reel manufacturer, then say. 'That's what I caught it on!'"
This year the top-six tournament was held at Otay Lake, a hot, wind-swept mudhole east of Chula Vista. It usually has a reputation for poor fishing during the summer months, but for several weeks it had been putting out some good fish, At three o'clock on the morning of August 18, the county's ninety best bass fishermen gathered outside an RV parked next to the shore of the lake to wait for Mike Kennedy, the tournament director, to go over the rules. It had been raining since midnight, and this was the major topic of conversation as the men stood around in their nylon club jackets, "Who would've thought rain in August," one of them says. "Hell, I had to get up in the middle of the night and bail my boat out."
"Wonder if the rain'II send the fish down." Low barometric pressure, as everyone knows, can sometimes do that.
"Oh, I dunno. If it stays dark later, there might be good top-water fishin' all day,"
"This fella was tellin ' me all about top-water worm fishing the other day," one of the men says, and as he pauses, the other men snon and guffaw. and snuff out their cigarettes at something as ridiculous as top-water worm fishing. "I know it sounds funny. but he's got a thirteen-pound fish hangin ' on his wall. and l ain't got one."
Everybody thinks that over, then someone decides, "Christ, if it works for you, do it!"
"I suppose there'll be guys trying everything out there today."
"Those fish out there have already seen everything in everybody's fishing catalogues."
"And know the price tag on it, too!" When Kennedy begins going over the tournament rules, the fishermen only listen halfheartedly — they've heard it all dozens of times before. The lake's ten-mile-per-hour speed limit can be stretched to twenty, but anybody kicked off the lake for going faster than that will be disqualified, All boats will be inspected for live bait (none is allowed) and for fish in the live wells, (It is rumored that overzealous fishermen at another tournament once tried to sneak frozen prize-winning fish into their live wells.) There will be no alcohol until after the weigh-in, which will be held at 3:30 p.rn.; anybody not in by that time will be disqualified. The fishermen will fish in pairs — forty-five boats in all, There will be a club prize, and a big-fish prize. The prizes, all donated by local businesses, include a generator, rods and reels, batteries, motor oil, Padres tickets, and more.
At 4:45 a.m. the gates to the lake are opened and the half-mile row of trucks and trailers begins backing down to the launching ramp, Just before dawn the signal is given for the tournament to begin, and the boats roar off in the darkness.
Most of the fishermen begin looking for clues as to where the best top-water fishing spots will be. Often flocks of sea gulls or waterfowl will give them away, In the early morning hours the bass usually gather under and around the large schools of shad and begin driving them toward the surface. As the bass begin feeding on the shad, the shad become nervous and start swimming erratically, trying to get away. This sends the bass into a feeding frenzy, and before long they can be seen "busting" the surface in large boils as they attack the shad. The birds are the first ones to find these boils, but the fishermen aren't far behind. They cruise up to the edge of the boils and begin casting their lures into the shad. "Eat that I" one of the fishermen yells each time he casts, "Eat that!" as if it's some kind of magical incantation.
It's strictly a hit-or-miss kind offishing, but the idea is to make your lure appear to be an injured shad, which the bass can't resist. But the bass are feeding so fast, and in such huge numbers, there is no way to know where to cast. So the fisherrnen work as quickly as they can, casting one way, then another.
Some of the fishermen are worki ng their rod tips with a peculiar jerking motion known as the "Frankenberger jerk," It was invented by a young San Diego fisherman, Byron Frankenberger, who is on the water today. He noticed that the jerking motion gave the lure an extra action which the bass found irresistible, and before long the other fisherrnen in the county noticed too. Now, as Byron jerks his rod, he is surrounded by dozens of other fishermen jerking their rods in imitation of him. They try to put a littIe of their own style into it, but basically they're just copying Byron. So far this jerking action is mostly a San Diego technique, but it's beginning to spread all over the nation.
Since bass have no eyelids to protect their eyes from the sunlight, they will usually go deep as soon as the sun comes up, But today the sun never really comes up and they continue feeding long into the day.
Some fishermen give up top-water fishing and begin "jigging," They let their lures flutter down in the water, pull them up rapidly, then let them flutter down again. This, too, is in imitation of an injured shad. Other fisherrnen move on to their "plastics." They cast a weighted plastic worm, let it sink to-the bottom, then reel it in slowly. Making the worm appear realistic is more difficult than one might think. "Most fishermen wormfish too fast," one of them explains, "Hell, the bass can't bite the worm 'cause he's got a busted neck from watching it go by so fast."
The Florida strain of bass, wily as they are, often won't attack a worm; rather, they will move up cautiously on the worm, flare their gills, suck the worm into their mouth to taste and feel it, then spit it out. That's why most fishermen use a scented bait (anise being the most common and natural) to disguise any human odors, "I smoke, but I don't know any fish that do," Mike Kennedy says. "That's why I use a scent to disguise the tobacco on my fingers. The whole challenge of this kind of fishing is to take something totally artificial and present it to the fish in a way that makes them think it's something good to eat."
As for the six competitors from the Bass Company, they are trying hard to defend their reputation as the winners of last year's tournament. They spent two weekends before the tournament fishing Otay Lake, trying to find where the fish were. "We pooled all our inforrnation together and found we had discovered the same thing: the fish were in the grass," Jim Maguire says. So they go straight to their plan of fishing the grass, and stick with it throughout the day. Using a technique called "flipping," they cruise slowly and quietly along the shoreline, easing their plastics into the rules. Every now and then this produces not a bass but a big catfish, which is more of an annoyance than anything. "'That 'II really put the spook on you," Rich Swettenam says, "When you hook into a big catfish, your eyes get wide and your knees start to tremble; then the line gets that slow throb in it as it starts to circle the boat, and you say to yourself, 'Oh no, another Alabama carp.'"
By midafternoon there are a hundred or more club fishermen gathering on the banks to see how things are going. Among them is Kay Hofer, one of the few female club fisherrnen in the county. (The fishermen seem to have agreed that a fisherwoman, if she's any good, will be called a fisherman. too.) Kay and her husband Bill frequently compete in professional tournaments together. Though she didn't qualify for the topsix this year, the other fishermen say she can back a boat trailer down a launch as well as any man, and can repair an outboard motor better than, most. Besides that, at four in the morning she's a lot easier to look at than some grizzled, unshaven redneck with snuff stuck to his teeth. "I decided a long time ago I wasn't going to be another fishing widow," she says, "My husband went through two other wives before me, They weren't interested in fishing and couldn't understand what he saw in it. When he married me, I think he was looking more for a fishing partner than a wife."
Later in the day a club fisherman shows up at the launch in a three-piece suit and, talking excitedly, he explains, "I qualified this year, but I had to go to a goddamn wedding this morning — no way to get out of it — and I gotta go to the reception this afternoon; but I just had to stop by and see how they're doin ' out there."
"Looks like they're catching a lot of fish," someone says.
"Sonofabitch!" the man says, tortured by regret. "I think I'mjust gonna go to that reception this afternoon and get drunk as hell!"
At 3: 15 the boats begin converging on the shore, and it soon becomes obvious what a great day of fishing it has been. A scale is set up and Mike Kennedy begins weighing the fish, calling out each team's catch weight. The fisherrnen are obviously tired — many of them didn't sleep at all the night before — but there is still a good deal of backslapping and joking, "I heard them fish clink when you tossed them in the bucket," one of them teases, "What are you doing. feeding them lead pellets?"
"You gonna have that little 01' fish stuffed so your daughter can hang it in her doll house?" another kids.
Out of the forty-five boats, eleven came in with double limits (ten fish). Nine boats caught more than twenty pounds of fish. There were 297 fish caught during the day, for a total of 682 pounds, And to no one's surprise, the winning club is the Bass Company, with seventy-three pounds, ten ounces.
Nobody caught the million-dollar fish; she's still out there. The biggest fish of the day was a five-pound, two-ouncer caught by Allen Tatum of the Southland Bass Club. But without a doubt the best big-fish story of the day goes to Ron Baker of the Bass Company. "We were fishing in Otay arm, when I saw this fish busting the surface close to the bank. I didn't think it was a very big fish. I kept watching it swirling around until finally all I saw was its tail flopping on top of the water. I pulled up my trolling motor and coasted in for a loo., The fish was stuck up on a patch of moss and just couldn't swim through it. So I put down my net and the fish swam right in it. I guess it weighed about nine pounds." It's against the rules to keep a fish caught by any method other than hook and line, but only Baker's teammates had seen him net it. "It was a big, big decision not to weigh that thing in," he admits, "but we finally decided we wouldn't be able to live with ourselves if we did." So the fish of the day was turned loose.
Like most fish stories, there's a moral in that one: the fisherman's reward is not the fish, but the fishing. More than 300 years ago, lzaak Walton said it in his classic, The Compleat Angler, "...He that hopes to be a good Angler, must not only bring an inquiring, searching, observing wit; but he must bring a large measure of hope and patience, and a love and propensity to the art itself; but having once got and practised it, then doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be like a virtue, a reward to itself."
Most bass fishermen don't give a damn about the million-dollar fish. They know what the chances are of catching it. The million-dollar fish is something they tell other people about — nonfisherrnen. Most people, they realize, understand the possibility of fortune and fame a lot better than they understand bass fishing. There is no way they can explain the satisfaction of spending hours at home perfecting their equipment for those few minutes at dawn when the fish are busting all over; the addiction of early rising; the camaraderie that comes from sharing experiences with your partners — seeing them at their best, and their worst, and still liking them; the competition, the cooperation, the gratification of knowing you outsmarted an animal better in its own environment than you are in yours, They can't explain these things to their neighbors, their wives, the people at work; so they tell them about the million-dollar fish, and hope they'll bite on that.