The 23-Pound Bass

After more than 70 years, the largemouth world record is ready to fall. Here's why-and where the biggest bass ever might be caught.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The surface of the large Sunbelt reservoir is calm this spring morning, but it belies the frantic movements beneath. Twenty feet down, shad suddenly take flight. Crayfish back quickly under rotting logs. A lone bluegill freezes like a statue next to a hydrilla bed. They have good reason to be alarmed. The huge shape moving toward them is a massive green package of muscle, scales, and mouth, sliding through the water with the unhurried confidence that comes only to creatures that rule their environment. The bluegill backs slowly into a hole in the hydrilla as the 33-inch largemouth glides past, a tanker passing a dinghy. The fish, nearly 21/2 feet in girth, looks like an NFL offensive tackle with fins. Its immense belly, swollen with eggs, is nearly dragging on the bottom. The beast is in no hurry. She is unconcerned with the buzzing of the trolling motors above, pays no attention to the artfully painted crankbaits wobbling through the water here and there. If only the anglers knew: This is a 23-pounder, the new world record.

The nation's leading bass researchers say that isn't a fantasy.

"If it isn't out there now, I don't see any reason why it won't be in the years ahead," says Phil Durocher, director of inland fisheries for Texas Parks and Wildlife. "That's what we're working on."

These are bold words, if the past is any indication.

The all-tackle world record for largemouth bass-22 pounds 4 ounces-has been standing since 1932. It is one of the longest running in all sports, outlasting such "unbeatable" records as the 60-home-run season, the four-minute mile, the 26-foot long jump.

It is fishing's most recognizable number, surviving three generations of anglers in North America and-thanks to rapidly expanding stocking programs-on at least four other continents. Literally hundreds of millions of history's best-equipped fishermen have made billions of casts, spending about $40 billion a year in their crusade.

And still the record hasn't been broken-yet, fisheries managers like Durocher are quick to add.

It's going to happen, they say, for one reason: They're going make it happen. They're going to use the emerging science of fisheries genetics coupled with innovations in regulations to bring that 23-pounder to a reservoir near you-if they haven't already.

"That record might be 70 years old, but there's no reason it can't be broken," Durocher says confidently. "Nothing lasts forever."

The Georgia Giant
Certainly 19-year-old George Perry didn't have immortality in mind on June 2, 1932, when he went fishing near his home in southern Georgia. He was just looking for a meal. The Depression had been hard on his farming family, and his father had passed away the year before, pushing the young man into the role of breadwinner for his mother and four siblings. But dawn brought a steady rain, making his fields impossible to work. So Perry called a buddy to help search for dinner on Lake Montgomery, a slough off the Ocmulgee River. Then he looted the family food budget to purchase a rod and reel for $1.33 and a Creek Chub Wigglefish for $1.35.

"I took money we should have eaten with and bought myself a rod and reel and one plug," Perry reminisced in an interview five years before his death in a 1974 plane crash. "And I never regretted it."

The two friends were taking turns casting and paddling that day when the rod ended up in Perry's hands for the fateful toss into a pocket between two fallen trees. After a few twitches, the Wigglefish disappeared in a great splash, and Perry set the hook. At first he thought he was snagged. Then the snag began to move. The two eventually dragged the giant bass over the gunnel.

The size of his catch meant only one thing to Perry: food.

"When I caught that 22-pounder, the first thing I thought of was how nice a chunk of meat to take hom" Perry said.

But when a friend mentioned a $75 merchandise prize being offered by Field & Stream for outstanding fish of the year, Perry didn't go straight home. He stopped at the J.J. Hall and Co. General Store in Helena. "It was almost an accident that I had it weighed and recorded," he admitted.

The monster bass was 321/2 inches long, 281/2 inches in girth, and weighed 22 pounds 4 ounces. He had a world record.

It didn't mean much to Perry. He didn't even bother to have a picture taken before the bass was butchered for a feast that would last the Perry clan two meals. Although Perry won that Field & Stream prize (he purchased a Browning autoloading shotgun, shells, a rod and reel, and some clothing), there was no other indication at the time of what his catch would mean to the angling world.

That would change.

Bass Crazy
During the last half of the 20th century, demographics and genetics made the largemouth bass the most sought-after sport fish in America, if not the world. The nation was building an ever increasing number of reservoirs across the South, which had to be stocked with fish. The hardy, native, and sporting largemouth was a logical choice. Later the birth of bass clubs and pro bass fishing unleashed a cultural phenomenon that rocketed bass past catfish and trout in the consciousness of America's anglers.

Bass fishing began to make an impressive economic impact. Florida was the shining example, attracting a steady river of anglers from across the nation who came to take their big bass away and left a stream of dollars behind.

It was clear that bass anglers loved big bass, and that most big bass lived in the South. It was equally clear to fisheries managers across the country that they might be able to attract some of those anglers, and a lot of that cash, if they could get their states to produce Florida-size largemouths.

"We started using the Florida strain to improve the size of bass, just like you breed the larger cows and bulls to produce bigger cattle," says Durocher. "It's something man has been doing for centuries. Why wouldn't it work with bass?"

By the mid-1980s, states across the Sunbelt from the Carolinas to California had begun seeding their waters with the Florida-strain genes. Results were impressive. Ten-, 12-, and even 15-pound bass were recorded. By the 1990s a string of Southern California reservoirs had made 20 pounds the standard, producing nine of the biggest 10 bass ever recorded, including Bob Crupi's 1991 catch on Lake Castaic. That 22.01-pound giant (the fish was weighed on an electronic digital scale) fell just a shiner short of the Perry fish. It seemed like only a matter of time before the most prized record in fishing would finally fall. It never happened. Since Crupi's catch, the worldwide top 10 list has been breached only once: A 20-pound 12-ouncer taken on California's Lake Dixon in 2001 claimed spot No. 8.

There have been many stories about the record being caught and-as in: I caught it and ate it; and released it; and weighed it with an uncertified scale; and left it in the sun too long; and gave it to aliens.

The record bass has been "seen" more times than Bigfoot, and it's been "predicted" at any number of "superlakes":

  • at Cuba's mysterious Treasure Lake, where a 33-pounder was reportedly speared by a native
  • at 75-acre Spring Lake near Santa Rosa, California, where angler Scott Duclos gained the cover of Outdoor Life in 1997 with a "24-pounder" he weighed on a bathroom scale and released
  • at Zimbabwe's Hippo Valley Lake, where anglers reportedly have found 24-pounders-all floaters
  • at the Mexican-lake-of-the-year that turns up every spring with testimonials about swarms of 25-pound bass lost by writers and guides-who were guests of the lodge. But no one has been able to actually catch a certifiable record, to lay that hawg on a scale for all to see. Skeptics say Mother Nature is sending a message to the world's anglers, telling them the lack of a new record means this species has simply reached its limits.

Scientists, however, disagree.

Making the Monster
"We're operating under the premise that we can create the conditions for that record to be broken," says fisheries director Durocher. "Here in Texas, people think big."

Indeed, Texas has been on the leading edge of the attempt to create that record, pouring resources into trophy research and management. Scientists there and in other states say research convinces them the record is going to be broken. It all has to do with population dynamics, genetics, and regulations.

Fisheries managers know that super-big fish, like super-big humans, are rarities, genetic blips in the population. Call it the Shaquille O'Neal rule. Humans seldom grow taller than 6 feet, but every once in a while, one like Shaq comes along, pushing past 7 feet and putting on more than 350 pounds of muscle. His size, scientists point out, is simply a happy coincidence of nature and opportunity.

"Shaq had two things going for him. He was born with the rare genetic potential to grow very large, and he was raised in an environment where he could reach that potential," says Gary Garrett, Ph.D., who heads a program trying to produce large, hungry bass for Texas Parks and Wildlife. "Both points are very important and apply to fish as well. A bass can have the Florida gene, but if it isn't in the right environment where it can reach its full potential, then it won't reach that large size."

This superbass would actually be a female (males don't attain that size) and probably be somewhere between 7 and 9 years of age but possibly as old as 20. Only a tiny fraction of any bass population lives past 5 years, but most that do typically reach their peak size and vitality between 7 and 9 years, researchers say.

**The Flaw **
The environment needed for a largemouth to reach its maximum size must include healthy water, mountains of nutritious food, and safety from predators. Fisheries experts are confident they have been providing two of these keys: Sound management of reservoirs has developed huge forage bases for those bass and provided healthy water.

Their weakness, Durocher says, has been in providing the safety factor. It's a weakness embedded in a twist of irony. Regulations allowing small fish to become large may actually have had the net impact of producing populations of smaller-growing fish.

"For most of the [BRACKET "last century"] we've had regulations that encouraged people to take the big fish out of the water," says Durocher. "We have minimum sizes and slot limits, all aimed at allowing fish to grow to a large size-but then we harves, to lay that hawg on a scale for all to see. Skeptics say Mother Nature is sending a message to the world's anglers, telling them the lack of a new record means this species has simply reached its limits.

Scientists, however, disagree.

Making the Monster
"We're operating under the premise that we can create the conditions for that record to be broken," says fisheries director Durocher. "Here in Texas, people think big."

Indeed, Texas has been on the leading edge of the attempt to create that record, pouring resources into trophy research and management. Scientists there and in other states say research convinces them the record is going to be broken. It all has to do with population dynamics, genetics, and regulations.

Fisheries managers know that super-big fish, like super-big humans, are rarities, genetic blips in the population. Call it the Shaquille O'Neal rule. Humans seldom grow taller than 6 feet, but every once in a while, one like Shaq comes along, pushing past 7 feet and putting on more than 350 pounds of muscle. His size, scientists point out, is simply a happy coincidence of nature and opportunity.

"Shaq had two things going for him. He was born with the rare genetic potential to grow very large, and he was raised in an environment where he could reach that potential," says Gary Garrett, Ph.D., who heads a program trying to produce large, hungry bass for Texas Parks and Wildlife. "Both points are very important and apply to fish as well. A bass can have the Florida gene, but if it isn't in the right environment where it can reach its full potential, then it won't reach that large size."

This superbass would actually be a female (males don't attain that size) and probably be somewhere between 7 and 9 years of age but possibly as old as 20. Only a tiny fraction of any bass population lives past 5 years, but most that do typically reach their peak size and vitality between 7 and 9 years, researchers say.

**The Flaw **
The environment needed for a largemouth to reach its maximum size must include healthy water, mountains of nutritious food, and safety from predators. Fisheries experts are confident they have been providing two of these keys: Sound management of reservoirs has developed huge forage bases for those bass and provided healthy water.

Their weakness, Durocher says, has been in providing the safety factor. It's a weakness embedded in a twist of irony. Regulations allowing small fish to become large may actually have had the net impact of producing populations of smaller-growing fish.

"For most of the [BRACKET "last century"] we've had regulations that encouraged people to take the big fish out of the water," says Durocher. "We have minimum sizes and slot limits, all aimed at allowing fish to grow to a large size-but then we harves