Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the July 2006 issue of the magazine. We are publishing it online, for the first time, to coincide with George Perry’s catching the all-tackle world-record largemouth bass on this day in 1932.
You probably heard the story of the 25-pound largemouth—the fish that rocked the bass scene, showed up on SportsCenter, and looked like a sure thing to shatter the 85-year-old world record. But what you might not have heard is the story of three men who have dedicated their lives to finding this fish, spending over 200 days a year on one small lake. And ultimately why, when they finally found what they were looking for, they turned their back on the dream.
The story begins in the first week of March on Dixon Lake in Escondido, Calif., a reservoir full of clear Colorado River water, there to slake the thirst of San Diego’s suburbs. Dixon seems incapable of doing anything more significant than that. All told, it’s only 70 featureless acres. In a rented Velco aluminum boat powered by a trolling motor, you can go from one end to the other in under 10 minutes. But size isn’t everything.
Or is it?
An old man, a lake regular whom everyone calls “Six Pack,” mans his usual post on what’s known as the handicap dock at Dixon. It’s morning, and the fog has just begun to burn off the hills. The old man holds a light spinning rod rigged with 2-pound-test. On the point of a small hook he’s stuck a BB-size ball of Power Bait. He’s fishing for trout, and Dixon is a good place to do that. Some 30,000 pounds of rainbow trout are planted in the tiny lake each year, courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Game. Fishermen aren’t the only beneficiaries. “Nobody feeds their bass as well as we do,” says lake ranger Jim Dayberry.
The old man already has a few good ones on his stringer when his bobber starts to dance again. He lifts his rod and sets the hook, gently, because of the light line. He reels, feeling a rhythmic pulse. He lets his mind wander a bit, thinking ahead to the trout fillets he’ll eat that night.
But just as he has it nearly in, the hooked trout goes berserk, zigging and zagging in wild figure eights. There’s an explosion of water, and the light tug of the trout is suddenly gone, replaced by a brutish grab that seems to want to pull him, the dock, the sky in with it. He spots his trout in the maw of something impossibly large. In a second, the pull is gone. The old man is left with his frayed line coiled like a pig’s tail, his rod lifeless, his mouth agape. Later that morning, Six Pack stutters as he tries to recount the tale to a dock attendant. No one believes him. And no one realizes it at the time, but the old man had just hooked the biggest bass in the world.
Over a week later, on March 19, a cool Sunday morning, Jed Dickerson, 33, and Kyle Malmstrom, 34, are in line at the concession stand at Dixon Lake, waiting to get their permits. Dickerson is at the very front, Malmstrom just a step behind. They each fork over $30, then hustle down to the dock to the rented boats, the only type allowed. They race to attach their trolling motors. Malmstrom is the first one off. He heads north. Dickerson glances over at the handicap dock. It’s one of his go-to spots, but three trout anglers are fishing from the shore nearby. He decides not to bother them and heads east.
For the past five years, Dickerson, along with his two best friends, Mac Weakley, 33, and Mike “Buddha” Winn, 32, have been chasing the next world-record largemouth bass. Their dedication to this pursuit has hurtled from pastime into obsession. Working flexible nighttime hours in the casino industry has allowed them to fish nearly 800 days among the three of them in those five years, on Dixon and a handful of other San Diego reservoirs that are the epicenter of the hunt for the world-record bass. Their persistence has reaped rewards. In 2003, Weakley caught a 19-pound 8-ounce bass from Dixon, good enough for 12th place on the list of the top 25 biggest largemouths ever recorded. Later that same year, Dickerson landed the fourth-largest bass of all time, a 21-pound 11-ounce monster, also from Dixon. The trio is well known for their dedication and skill. Dickerson has always been the most fervent of the three, the one for whom the quest has taken on its own life. He’s out here early on this Sunday morning as Weakley and Winn sleep in.
Malmstrom is also a record hunter, though his obsession is limited by his nine-to-five job as an estate-planning consultant. But he has caught some notable bass, including one close to 15 pounds. He speaks in a laid-back drawl and spends most of his free time at Dixon. “You always get that magical feeling going up there that any day could be the day,” he says.
On this morning, he drives his boat backward, led by his trolling motor. It’s the preferred style of Dixon’s big-bass hunters, providing precise control and clear sight lines into the water. He works the shoreline, peering into the depths, searching for the cleared-off rings that indicate a bass bed.
He comes around to the handicap dock. The spot is now empty. Just as Malmstrom nears the dock, he sees a massive shadow shoot from the shallows under his boat and into the deep water. “My first thought was ‘Holy crap, that’s an 18-plus,’” he says. He anchors on the shore, waits for 15 minutes, then idles over to see if she’s returned. He spots her, maybe 10 feet away, slowly inching back to the nest. “Then I decide to wait her out,” Malmstrom says. For two hours he sits, far enough away not to spook her again but close enough to guard his spot from other anglers, especially Dickerson.
At 9 a.m., he can’t wait any longer and motors over. He sees the bass hovering above her nest and feels a shot of adrenaline. Tying the front of his boat to the dock, he drops an anchor off the back. The day has cleared and there’s no wind on the water: perfect -sight-fishing conditions. Malmstrom casts for the fish, throwing jigs and swimbaits, teasing the lures across the nest, trying to agitate her into striking.
After two hours of fruitless casting, he’s tense and excited and can no longer keep his find to himself. He does something he will later regret: He calls Dickerson on his cellphone. The two men, though they compete for the same fish, have a cordial relationship. “I’m on a big one,” he boasts. Dickerson, who’s on the other side of the lake, immediately relays that information to Weakley and Winn, who are now awake.
Weakley and Winn show up at the handicap dock at 1 p.m. Dickerson joins them, and they watch Malmstrom throw casts over the enormous bass. A local teenager, Dan Barnett, his interest piqued by the commotion, joins the party of onlookers. Malmstrom knows this is a special bass and decides that he will fish for her all day if he has to. But he has a problem—he needs to call his wife to tell her he won’t be home anytime soon, and his cellphone has just died. He asks Weakley if he can borrow his. They work out a trade: Weakley will let him use his phone if Malmstrom will show him the fish. Malmstrom makes his call, then Weakley jumps in the boat and gets his first good look at the bass. “My God,” he says, “that’s Jed’s fish,” recognizing it as the 21-pound 11-ounce bass that Dickerson had caught three years earlier.
Back on the dock, Weakley, lusting after what he knows is at least a 20-pounder, begins pestering Malmstrom. “Come on, give me a shot. I guarantee you I can catch it.” Malmstrom refuses. Weakley offers him $1,000 for 30 minutes on the fish, showing a roll of $100 bills to Barnett on the dock. Malmstrom refuses again. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” he says, “if Mac caught that fish.”
He stays until dark but leaves the lake empty-handed. The big bass might have hit his jig once, he thinks, but he isn’t sure. He’s bone-tired. He contemplates calling in sick the next day to come back for the fish, but then, feeling a twinge of guilt, decides against it.
Just before the concession stand closes, Winn buys a camping permit, which allows access to the grounds, but not the lake, before the outside gates open at 6 a.m. The trio is determined to be the first on this fish the next day. But they’ll have competition: Dan Barnett, 14, calls his 18-year-old brother, Steve, and they decide to come out to Dixon early the next morning to take their shot.
In retrospect, Malmstrom says he learned two things that day. “I’m never calling those meatheads ever again when I’m on a big fish,” he says with a chuckle. “And I’ll be sure to take the next day off from work.”
Weakley, Dickerson, and Winn grew up in Escondido. They met in the fourth grade and have been best friends ever since, bonds forged tight by the anguish of broken families. In a span of two years when they were teenagers, Weakley’s father died of a heart attack and both Dickerson’s and Winn’s parents split up. The boys escaped by spending hours trout fishing on nearby Dixon Lake.
In his 20s, Weakley began to frequent the Indian casinos that had popped up in the area, becoming a regular at the low-stakes poker tables. One day a man approached him, impressed by the clean-cut young man’s knowledge of and hunger for gambling. He offered Weakley a job as a manager in his company, Pacific Gaming, which provides the betting cash for casinos in Southern California. Weakley liked the job, liked hanging out at casinos and card rooms, liked the high-risk vibe and the big money. He was good at watching the cash, and his boss told him to hire two lieutenants. Weakley hired Dickerson, who had been installing carpets, and Winn, who had been working as a first mate on a deep-sea fishing boat. The trio hung out together every day on the job and off, when they trout fished on Dixon.
At the beginning of 2001, they noticed that Mike Long, the unquestioned king of the San Diego big-bass scene, was fishing Dixon nearly every day. He seemed to be onto something, working his boat slowly along the shoreline, staring into the water, as if the lake’s bottom were lined with gold. In a sense it was: That year, an outfit in Tampa called the Big Bass Record Club was offering $8 million to the angler who broke George Perry’s iconic 1932 world record for largemouth bass. The three friends, ever the gamblers, liked the odds of finding that fish in their home lake, which they knew so well. They ditched their trout gear, bought heavy rods, and became bass fishermen.
Their methods were primitive at first. Plastic worms and live shiners were their bait, not the jigs and swimbaits that serious big-bass hunters preferred. Determined to learn, they approached Mike Long to pick his brain, but he spurned the upstarts. So they studied him on the water from afar and found out how to fish for big bass the hard way. That year, the trio logged more than 200 days at Dixon.
In the spring of 2001, they were bystanders as Mike Long caught a 20-pound 12-ounce bass from Dixon, the eighth largest ever at the time, and the first recorded over 20 pounds in a decade. That only made the trio fish harder, even as the Big Bass Record Club, along with its $8 million bounty, disappeared. Why they fished now wasn’t because of money but something else entirely: They had become too good to stop.
In 2003, Weakley caught a 17-8, then the 19-8. Later that spring, Dickerson capped it all with the 21-11, the fish that officially put the men on the big-bass map. Long was at the lake on the day Dickerson landed that fish and claimed that it was the same one he had caught two years earlier, when it was a pound lighter. The evidence: It had the same dime-size black dot underneath its jaw. A few weeks later, Long said that some trout fishing friends had found the fish floating dead; he’d sent the carcass to a taxidermist. Weakley never believed him. “Total b.s.,” he says. He suspected that Long was just trying to keep the hordes off of his honey hole, figuring that someone could catch that fish again, and this time it just might be the actual world record.
Mike Long had good reason to worry.
At 4 a.m. on March 20, Jed Dickerson flashes his camping permit and passes through the gates at Dixon. Weakley and Winn are getting doughnuts and coffee. The night before, the trio hatched their plan. Underlying their conversations was something they didn’t dare verbalize: This bass could be the one.
Weakley and Winn arrive at 5 a.m. The three of them gather in Weakley’s car and listen to the radio. Dazed by the early-morning hour, they barely utter a word until Weakley, pointing at the windblown streaks of rain on the car window, says, “Man, what the hell are we doing here?” They laugh, knowing the answer.
Meanwhile, Dan and Steve Barnett nudge their car up to the Dixon gate outside the grounds, but at 6 a.m., after running to the concession stand to get their permits, they glance down to the water and see Weakley, Winn, and Dickerson already in a boat. The camping permit has worked. The Barnett brothers, with no shot at the fish, opt to watch the action from the handicap dock. Chris Bozir, a part-time dock attendant, joins them.
Winn, as always, mans the motor. Weakley and Dickerson stand, rods ready. They ease toward the handicap dock. Wind and rain make it impossible to see anything more than the shadow of the fish. But she’s there.
The first cast is Dickerson’s. Tossing out his white Bob Sangster jig underhand, he lets it sink to the bottom and sit, a foot or two away from the fish. Then he works the lure over the nest. He jerks the rod tip, making the skirt billow and contract. The bass turns but doesn’t take. Weakley then tosses in his jig. The huge female’s consort, a 3-pound male, gets agitated, racing around the bed and diving on the lure.
Dickerson and Weakley continue to alternate casts. Three times, Dickerson thinks the bass bumps his lure, and he instinctively swings his rod but fails to connect. The visibility is so poor that he can’t be sure if it’s the male or the female that’s hitting his jig. Weakley tries to set the hook a few times, too, and also comes up empty. No one—either on the boat or the dock—is talking much.
After 45 minutes, Weakley feels his line twitch again, and he swings hard. This time his rod doubles in half. Time doesn’t slow down, as it’s supposed to. It speeds up. The fish dives for deeper water, jerking the 15-pound-test line from his reel. She begins to give in a bit, and he reels, fast. Weakley knows that truly big bass don’t fight that well. Their obscene girth tires them quickly, like a 400-pound man trying to climb stairs.
When Weakley gets the bass close to the boat, Winn reaches down with the net but misses. With new life, the bass runs hard for the handicap dock and the audience gathered there. Weakley pulls on his rod with all his strength, determined to keep her away from the pilings. He turns her head, then easily reels her in. This time, Winn gets her with one scoop.
To the Barnett brothers, this is the most exciting thing they have ever witnessed on the water. The scene has played out not 15 feet away, and now the show has reached its climax. “That’s an insanely enormous bass,” Steve remarks.
But then he sees something else, something that deflates his euphoria. The white jig is embedded in the fish’s back, maybe 3 inches behind the dorsal fin. Steve groans and yells, “Oh man, it’s foul-hooked!” Weakley and Winn glance in the direction of the yell, momentarily distracted from the black-and-silver mass of fish in the net.
Their attention quickly returns to the bass. Winn unhooks the jig and runs a stringer through the fish’s mouth. Though the fight took little physical energy, the three men notice they are breathing heavily. Lying on the boat’s bottom is the biggest bass that any of these men have ever seen. It’s the one.
They should feel total elation, but Weakley keeps looking down at a spot on the fish’s back, the hole left by the jig. I foul-hooked the damn thing, he thinks. Then he hears voices on the dock. The audience is clamoring to see the fish up close. Winn hears them, too. Reaching for the trolling motor, he instead heads for the middle of the lake after the others lower the stringer into the water. The trio talk for a few minutes, casting occasional glances at the fish tied to the boat. They lift her out of the water and put her on Dickerson’s handheld Berkley scale: 25.5. The weight is far above the magical mark of 22 pounds 4 ounces. They motor back to the dock.
The moments there are chaotic and quick. They hang the fish on the scale again. Now it shows 25.1 pounds. Weakley gets out his video camera and shoots the footage of the fish that will soon appear on ESPN and various evening news shows. Toward the end of the shaky clip, the camera pans in on the fish, and a disembodied voice from somewhere behind it utters five words: “That’s the beast right there.”
Dickerson wants to take a photo of Weakley with the fish, but Weakley says his arm is too tired from lifting it. Winn stands in, grabbing the fish with one arm. The photo is snapped. Later that day, it would fly around the Internet, incorrectly captioned as “Mac Weakley.”
Weakley and Dickerson look at the fish more closely. They notice something: a dime-size black dot under the fish’s jaw. “I’m 100 percent sure that this is the same fish I caught in 2003,” says Dickerson, which, of course, would make it the same fish that Mike Long caught in 2001. A replica mount from the 2003 catch was featured on the cover of Field & Stream. This is a bass accustomed to the limelight. Then the men notice something else: a short strand of 2-pound-test running out of the bass’s mouth. Remember Six Pack, the old trout fisherman?
Then Steve Barnett hears either Weakley or Dickerson say, “Look, there’s a mark on its back.” He can’t quite remember who uttered those words amid all the excitement. Steve is confused, not exactly sure what the comment means, what whoever said it is trying to imply. “We saw you foul-hook it, though,” Steve says, pleading almost, still unsure. Then he hears Weakley tell Winn to release the fish. Winn unhooks the stringer, and the biggest bass in the world swims lazily away and disappears.
The beast? Well, that turns out to be something else entirely.
A ranger at Dixon makes a phone call to a friend, the first trickle in what will become a flood. It builds with more phone calls, then e-mails and Internet chat-room postings. Within a few hours, the first news stories hit the wires.
At first the attention is fun for the men. This is the fish they have worked so hard for, justification for the hours, days, months, and years they’ve been after it. “You always heard people claiming that they saw a 25-pounder,” says Weakley. “We proved it exists.”
Over the next two days, Weakley does dozens of interviews—The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, The Early Show on CBS. ESPN sends a camera crew to the lake. They retest Dickerson’s scale with a 5-pound weight. It’s perfectly accurate. News reports deem the fish the new world record, even as they note the ambiguous manner in which the fish was caught and documented. An IGFA official is quoted as saying that the foul hooking may or may not matter, and that Weakley should submit his application anyway. The one sticking point seems to be a California state regulation that says that any fish not caught in the mouth must be released immediately.
In the beginning, Weakley contemplates going against his own first impulse and sending in the photo, the videos, and the testimony of the five witnesses to the IGFA. He’s buoyed by the praise, caught up in the attention.
But quickly, the murmurs of a conspiracy become shouts. People start to focus on the negative: There’s the foul hooking. The fact that the fish wasn’t weighed on a certified scale, even though there was one maybe 100 feet away in the ranger’s office. The lack of measurements of the fish’s length and girth. “These boys know the rules better than anyone and they didn’t follow them,” says Ray Scott, a voice to be reckoned with because of his considerable influence on the IGFA record committee.
For some, the questions become broader. What are the ethics of fishing for a spawning bass on its bed? And what about the unnaturalness of California bass, Florida transplants that are hand-fed thousands of pounds of planted rainbow trout? The attacks even get personal. These guys work in the shadowy world of gambling. What about the unsavory nature of the $1,000 offer and the camping permit?
Less than 48 hours after catching his fish, Weakley sits in his house, hollow-eyed, exhausted. Winn has been on the Internet, checking the pulse of the bass fishing nation. After agonizing over the question with Winn and Dickerson, Weakley decides he doesn’t want to prolong the negativity. He goes with his initial gut instinct. He foul-hooked the fish. It shouldn’t count. He won’t pursue the record.
“I know we did the right thing,” says Weakley. “Look, me and Buddha and Jed got to hold a 25-pound bass. No one else ever has. That was cool for us.” He thinks it’s all over now, but the calls still stream in at all hours of the day and night. Local newspaper writers approach him with proposals for screenplays. Eventually, he’s overwhelmed and turns off his phone, done with the telling and retelling.
Meanwhile on Dixon, there’s world-record hysteria. Lake ranger Jim Dayberry estimates that business is up 80 percent over normal. On many days, some 30 boats jockey for space on the tiny body of water. “And everyone coming in here says they want a shot at that bass,” Dayberry says. A man flies in from Texas and rents a motor home and fishes for a week. Anglers from at least 20 different states have called asking about reservations. And amid it all, an old man sits at his normal post, fishing for trout.
The irony, of course, is that George Washington Perry’s fish, the 22-pound 4-ouncer caught in the backwoods of Georgia in 1932, would have been just as controversial, if not more so, in our modern age. There’s no photo of his fish and no mount. Nobody ever made contact with the only witness to the catch. Perry simply weighed his fish at a country store and sent the information to a Field & Stream contest. Then he took the bass home and ate it.
But Perry’s story, true or not, carries incredible resonance to this day. It’s a symbol of a more innocent age, of the egalitarian American ideal that any man, no matter his station in life, can achieve greatness. It’s grown more powerful over the years, snowballing in the way that stories that are passed down from generation to generation tend to do. It’s no coincidence that it’s primarily older men who are Perry’s fiercest protectors. This new era of nakedly ambitious record chasing seems to them to be blasphemous, a perversion of the right way—and the right reasons—to fish.
Months after weakley caught his fish, the media firestorm has burned into smoldering embers, now almost gone. As he sits in his house in Carlsbad, his 8-month-old boy asleep in the next room, Weakley is finally able to reflect. And what he finds isn’t that pretty. “I look back now and it all seems kind of sick,” he says. “Fishing is supposed to be fun.” Maybe like it was when he was a teenager and he and Winn and Dickerson would head to Dixon to blow off steam and fish for trout. He thinks about some of the stories that were written, of the excessive importance given to this record, the opinions—the real beast that emerged from the water that day.
“I see how stupid it all is. It’s actually been a nice wake-up call,” he says. “Me and Bud-dha and Jed realize now that we should get out and live life and spend more time with our families rather than being obsessed with a fish. It’s just a fish. Just a stupid fish.”
But that fish may be back next spring, drawn into Dixon’s shallows by the urge to spawn. Rest assured, Weakley, Dickerson, and Winn will be there too, lured by the equally powerful pull of obsession.