World-record bass boated in California

  • Editor's note: Mac Weakley has decided not to pursue the world record. Story

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    CARLSBAD, Calif. — "Chaos has broken out."

    Well, what do you expect when you notify the media that you boated a potential world-record bass?

    That was the story at the home of Mac Weakley, who early this morning caught a mammoth largemouth on tiny Dixon Lake in southern California that he and his longtime fishing partners Mike Winn and Jed Dickerson weighed out at 25.1 pounds on a hand-held digital scale.

    If that weight stands up it would shatter what is considered to be the granddaddy of angling records — the 22¼-pound largemouth bass taken in 1932 at Georgia's Montgomery Lake by George Washington Perry.

    "I feel good, awesome, in fact," said Weakley, 32, of Carlsbad, Calif, who used a white jig with a skirt and rattle on 15-pound line to boat the brute. "I'm just stoked to see a fish that big."

    Claimed by many to be a mark that could never be eclipsed, the largemouth-bass record has become the thing of legends. It's the Joe DiMaggio 56-game hitting streak of the angling world.

    "It's simply because there are people who are out there who didn't think a bass can grow to more than 22.25 pounds," said James Hall, editor of Bassmaster magazine. "It's because of how elusive the record has been for so many years."

    Fortunately for the naysayers, the fish was documented by anglers with impressive resumes — Weakley and Dickerson each already are officially recognized for boating top-15 bass of all-time at Dixon Lake — and they claim to have witnesses, photo evidence of the catch and video documentation of today's behemoth on the scale.

    "There is no smoke and mirrors," Hall said.

    Dickerson believes the 25.1-pounder is the exact same fish that vaulted him to the No. 4 spot on The Bassmaster Top 25 list when he caught her on a swimbait May 31, 2003, at Dixon Lake — a drop-in-the-bucket, 72-acre impoundment in San Diego County. He knows this because she has the same distinguishing black beauty mark under her right gill plate. Back then she weighed 21.7 pounds, and quite clearly she still is a big fish in a small lake.

    "It's the same fish I caught three years ago," said Dickerson, 33, a casino-industry employee from Oceanside, Calif. "I knew this was a world record before we even weighed it. It's the biggest, most ferocious bass in that lake, guaranteed."

    Obviously Weakley and his crew have elevated the art of catch and release to catch and recycle.

    But, like any good fishing story, this one comes with several intriguing sidebars. There's the fact that the fish was foul-hooked. That it wasn't weighed on a certified scale. And, ultimately, that it was released.

    All of which will no doubt conspire to make this morning's catch much more difficult to be recognized as a world record.

    Weakley, Winn and Dickerson, who fish Dixon Lake as often as five days a week, said they decided to release the spawning fish because they were under the impression it wouldn't qualify as a record since it was foul-hooked.

    Only later did they discover that may not be the case.

    "It may still qualify," Hall said. "The IGFA (International Game Fish Association) has a pretty vague rule about foul-hooking, which states you cannot intentionally foul-hook a fish."

    Weakley now plans to submit his catch — along with photos, video, the line and the scale — for verification by the International Game Fish Association, the most-recognized keeper of angling records.

    "We didn't know" about the foul-hooking specifics, he said. "Now we are learning other things about it. If you accidentally foul-hook a fish and you instinctively set the hook, apparently it counts."

    We'll certainly learn more about it, also, in the coming weeks as the world-record application is processed.

    The International Game Fish Association does not comment on pending records. "It's not official until it's official," said Jason Schratwieser, Conservation director for the Dania Beach, Fla.-based organization and overseer of its World Records Department.

    This much Schratwieser was able to share:

  • The IGFA will consider certifying a scale after the fact.

  • It will disqualify any fish determined to have been intentionally foul-hooked.

  • A staff of three to five reviews all applications for record status. "We treat every record the same, whether it's a 1-pound bluegill or the all-tackle largemouth bass," he said.

  • An official decision on record status usually is reached one month after the application is received.

    "It's way too early; this one is really up in the air," Hall said. "Ideally it would have been caught in the mouth and ideally it would not have been released and ideally it would have been weighed on a certified scale.

    "Ultimately, however, the fact that he boated a 25-pound largemouth needs to be recognized."

    No matter the outcome, Weakley can add this fish story to his trove of bass accomplishments. Weakley already has a 19.44-pound bucketmouth — considered No. 15 all-time — to his credit, taken on a swimbait at Dixon Lake on May 20, 2003. (Dixon has yielded one other top-25 bass — Mike Long's 20¾-pounder that was boated on a swimbait April 27, 2001, and that ranks as No. 9.)

    What is it with southern California and big bass? Twenty-one of the top-25 bucketmouths have been caught here. To top it off, largemouth bass aren't even native to the Golden State.

    California imported fast-growing, long-living Florida-strain bucketmouths in the 1950s. Combine these ingredients with a bountiful forage base, including a generous winter stocking of put-and-take, protein-rich, hatchery-reared rainbow trout, and you have a super-size strain of Micropterus salmoides, a k a the largemouth bass.

    And spring is when one can expect to catch the largest of the largemouths. That's when expectant mothers are packed with eggs — sometimes, Hall said, as much as 4 or 5 pounds worth, which represents a possible increase in body weight of up to 25 percent in the case of this morning's bruiser.

    Spring also means sightfishing, when bass are on their beds, and that's a very attractive time for big-bass anglers because they can pick and choose their targets. Since bass can indeed be easy to spot on the spawning grounds they are programmed to safeguard, bedfishing — known in some circles as "robbing the cradle" — is considered controversial by some and downright unethical by others.

    As for today's catch, Dickerson explained that it was raining and dark early this morning when the anglers came across the bedding bass in 12 feet of water. A male — often much smaller than a female in the world of spawning bass — also was on the bed, and it made several stabs at the jig. The fishermen couldn't tell whether the male or female was hitting the jig when Weakley set the hook at about 6:40.

    The fish surged to deeper water, and Winn, who said he was manning the boat, motored toward a nearby dock — where, Weakley explained, three people, including the dock attendant for the city-owned facility in Escondido, Calif., witnessed the action. There Winn fumbled on his initial attempt at netting the fish.

    Yep, Winn swung and missed, which is surprising to anyone who saw him skillfully gaff saltwater fish on the fly when he was a second captain on a charter boat out of Santa Barbara, Calif., in an earlier career.

    "My heart was in my throat," said Winn, 32, of Carlsbad, who now also works in the casino industry. "I was wondering which I would get next — a black eye or a bloody nose."

    In the confusion and excitement that can at times underscore this level of fishing, Winn had picked up a net that wasn't his and was unfamiliar to him.

    "I just grabbed for whatever was closest. I have never, ever missed a fish with my net," Winn explained. " But I got the fish halfway in and it freaked out and kicked out of this other net."

    By this time it was quite apparent that it was the female at line's end, and one extremely large and displeased specimen. It again finned to deeper water, and the pursuers followed in their electric-powered rental boat (all that is permitted for use at this 80-foot-deep reservoir).

    Yet only a few moments later and but five minutes after she was hooked, the big mother was in Winn's net.

    To the anglers' great dismay, however, the fish had been hooked in its side. Soon after that sad discovery — and determining that its own weight might hurt the fish in the handling process — the bassers decided to release it.

    Winn said he hoisted the fish out of the water and did most of the handling, while Dickerson weighed it — on the dock. (The IGFA will only consider for record status a fish weighed on land, Schratwieser said.)

    "This was so big, we thought we were going to break its neck," Weakley said. "But we were confident in the scale. It is without a doubt the world record, so we let it go."

    Hall notes that there is the potential for a lot of cash to be associated with a world-record largemouth bass. It's been fabled by many that such a milestone could be worth $1 million or more to the lucky angler.

    "Had they not released the fish alive — and I think releasing it is the right thing to do — I think they might have made quite a bit of money," Hall said. He surmised that there might be sponsorships from the manufacturers of the gear used to catch the bass and payments for guest appearances with the fish mount on display.

    Hall said they still could get a plastic replica mount made, "But I don't know where in the hell they are going to get a mount that large."

    Whatever happens, Mac Weakley no doubt will become the poster boy for catch and release and, refreshingly, he's all right with that, even if he doesn't break the record or make a dime on his amazing catch.

    "Would I be disappointed? Not at all," said Weakley, who is a supervisor at a casino in Oceanside. "I feel I'm very blessed; everything I care about is family and friends. I really don't care about money.

    "To tell you the truth, I have a good job and I do all right, and I really don't give a (second thought) about it at all. We're more happy just to see that there is a 25-pound bass still living and in this lake."

    Weakley sounded fairly calm at the time of this interview, but Winn said that wasn't exactly the case on the water earlier today. "He was kind of shaken up from the whole thing," Winn said.

    Indeed, Weakley was so out of sorts that he insisted Winn hold up the big bass for the obligatory snapshots. Weakley deferred to his fellow basser for the photo op because of Winn's fish-handling experience as a former charter-boat second captain, Winn said. Weakley obviously had regained confidence in his buddy after Winn's earlier netting troubles.

    "He was afraid he was going to drop the fish," Winn said.

    Weakley was adamant and didn't have to twist Winn's arm too terribly, as Winn explained: "'Grab it,' he said. 'Dude, I can't hold it; I'm afraid I might drop it. Just grab it, dude; I don't care.'"

    Weakley then composed himself long enough to compose the photograph.

    And so Winn gets of a share of the 15 minutes of fame. "People are going to start calling me Mac," he said.

    But in this tight group of fishing friends, it's all in the family, especially when it comes to the pursuit of world-record bass.