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Record-smashing smallie

Stockton angler Howard Hardin tossed a charcoal-colored swimbait into the Mokelumne River Arm of north-central California's Pardee Lake for this 9.83-pound state record bronzeback. Courtesy of Lake Pardee Recreation

In a state where 10-pound bass are more prolific than iPhones, a 9.83-pounder doesn't even raise eyebrows at the local tackle shop.

Unless it's a smallmouth.

Less than 40 miles away from one of the world's premier largemouth fisheries — the San Joaquin Delta — in a state that already sits center stage on the watch for a world-record largemouth, Stockton, Calif. resident Harold Hardin hijacked the 36-year-old California state smallmouth record on July 3 when he hooked a 9.83-pound bronzbeck in the Mokelumne River Arm of Lake Pardee, a 2,257-acre water-supply impoundment in the Sierra Nevada foothills southeast of Sacramento.

"Yep, I had a little fun with that fish," deadpanned Hardin, a retired state worker who's been fishing Pardee's gin-clear waters for over 40 years. "Back when my brothers and I started fishing up there in 1966, we couldn't catch a darn thing. Figuring that lake out took a whole lot of work. But, I guess it finally paid off."

Hardin's record breaker was examined July 5 at the Sacramento headquarters of the California Department of Fish & Game, where the fish was scale sampled, confirmed as a smallie, and officially weighed and taped out by biologists at 24 ½-inches in length with an 18 ½-inch girth, shattering by nearly ¾ of a pound the record previously held by a 9.1-pound smallie taken in 1971 on Trinity Lake.

The record must still receive final certification by the director of the DFG's Fisheries Branch, but according to Mike Harris — one of the associate biologists present when Hardin brought the fish in for examination—– that approval is only a formality.

"All the paperwork is filled out and it's been entered here as a 9.83-pound smallmouth," Harris confirmed. "You'd have to see the fish to understand how impressive it is. It's truly a big, big fish."

Hardin's hawg came only after the soft-spoken local parlayed four decades of grinding it out along Pardee's 43 miles of shoreline with a big-fish bait that he's been throwing for less than a year: a 6-inch, charcoal-colored Castaic swimbait, which the 62-year-old was casting in 15 feet of water along the rocky shoreline around Leveque Point, just inside the mouth of the lake's sprawling river arm.

"This time of year, those big smallmouth are up shallow in the big boulders, feeding on smaller fish like perch," Hardin said. "My brother Ed and I had seen a largemouth a week earlier in that same area, up shallow chasing perch, so we knew the bigger fish were up in the boulders. They like to hide in the shallow water up there in the river channel because it's cooler, and they can ambush smaller fish like perch. That swimbait seemed perfect."

Big bass progression: Hardin's record-breaker is the latest in a series of gargantuan smallies taken in roughly the same area in Pardee's Mokelumne Arm over the past two years. The previous lake record, an 8.94-pounder, was taken off the same rocky point on March 4 by 15-year-old Ryan Leveque, and a bookend pair of 8-pounders — an 8.7- and 8.22-pounder — was weighed in on the same day (Feb. 12) in 2006.

Pardee also holds a deep gene pool of hefty northern-strain largemouth: a lake-record 13.4-pound bucketmouth was caught, weighed and released on March 22 in the lake's main body, and several 10-pounders are hooked and released every year.

A growing number of Golden State bassers are convinced that Pardee is on the verge of becoming the next Dale Hollow Lake. Hardin says that he hooked and lost a significantly larger fish shortly after returning to the Mokelumne Arm from weighing his 9.83-pounder, and the small town of Ione has become an increasingly popular destination among California's cadre of big-bass hunters in pursuit of David Hayes' five-decades-old world bronzeback mark of 11 pounds, 15 ounces, taken in Tennessee's Dale Hollow in 1952.

"You can go back into the river arm in the spring and see fish on beds 6, 7, 8 pounds," said Dennis Johnston, the manager of Pardee Recreation Company, the lake's longtime concessionaire. "I've talked to several people who claim they've seen 11- and 12-pound smallmouth on beds. There's absolutely a world record in there somewhere."

Record controversy: Befitting a potential International Game Fish Association all-tackle mark — and following in the much-disputed footsteps of Hayes' Dale Hollow fish — Pardee's bronzeback bonanza is the subject of some amount of controversy. Despite the DFG and East Bay Municipal Utilities District's insistence that biomass surveys of Pardee list only smallmouth and largemouth, and that spotted bass have never been planted in the lake, the central and northern California-based internet forums are already buzzing about the possibility that the fish in Pardee are smallmouth/spotted bass hybrids.

"I've never fished that lake in my life, but I've seen a lot of photos of fish out of there that look to me like hybrids, through and through," said Gary Dobyns, a Yuba City-based pro who's lifetime tournament winnings on the West Coast surpass $1.25 million. "I'm sure they have pure-strain smallies in there, but I've seen numerous fish held up in photos from Pardee that are absolutely hybrids.

"There's a group of us who have been talking about this new fish this week, whether it's a hybrid or not. But, the biologists say it's a smallmouth, so, who's a bass fisherman to dispute a biologist? They're calling it a smallmouth, so, it's a smallmouth."

A qualification that Harris confirmed in no uncertain terms: "The lower mandible structure and dorsal fin and spines are those of a smallmouth. It's very characteristic of a very, very large smallmouth."

Big-fish fodder: Despite its burgeoning potential as an entry into the IGFA's World Record Game Fishes Annual under "smallmouth bass", Pardee's reputation among most Nor Cal anglers is that of a trout factory: the lake kicked out an escalating run of certified 15-pound or larger rainbows in one two-week stretch in 2002 (including the current lake record of 18.65 pounds), and typically produces 3- to 7-pound trout for even semi-skilled anglers.

Pardee is aggressively stocked by the EBMUD and Pardee Recreation with fast-growing 2- to 4-pound triploid rainbows, boosted with an additional several tons of rainbow fingerlings every year by the DFG, and fished heavily during the late spring and summer by day-tripping trout trollers from Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. Those same salmonids, though, are part of the reason why Pardee's smallies are booming.

"Everything that goes in the water here is feeding the bass," Johnston said. "The DFG stocked hundreds of thousands of kokanee fingerlings here for years, and there are also good populations of perch, sunfish and crawdads. Somebody will catch a largemouth and he'll spit up a 12-inch trout. There's just a lot for those bass to eat here, and they're lovin' it."

The entire forage menu is agitated into a bass-friendly bouillabaisse in late spring and early summer, when runoff from the Eastern Sierra spews from the mouth of the Mokelumne (pronounced "mo-CALL-uh-meen") into Pardee's east end.

The impoundment is carved out of steep, rocky Sierra foothills canyonland and filled with cold water, so smallmouth usually won't drop their eggs until April/May, and will then go on a post-spawn feeding frenzy during the two-month period when bait is most abundant. The result: the bronzeback "Perfect Storm" of forage, and ample girth on ultra-aggressive fish concentrated in the river arm.

"When the lake starts to fill up in springtime, there's a tremendous amount of food washing down the river," Johnston said. "You can go to the mouth of the river and see bass busting the surface, and then go into the shallows and see them chasing perch and bluegill around. The place is just loaded with bait."