Big Bass and the Men Who Love Them

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

Big Bass and the Men Who Love Them

By hook, crook, and crawdad--live from the hunt for the world's tubbiest largemouth
By Brad Wetzler

Shortly after Los Angeles cracked open during last year's earthquake, Castaic Lake, a man-made reservoir on the city's industrial northern fringe, burped air bubbles the size of bowling balls and turned a terra-cotta brown. State water officials closed it to fishing for a few days so that they could check the dam and make sure the lake's contents weren't about to go rumbling down Interstate 5 toward the San Fernando Valley. But at the Mini Mart, a stuccoed convenience store where Castaic's hard-core fishermen congregate and where shiny, airbrushed replicas of largemouth bass hang from the walls in droves, the word about the calamity was this: It was time. The quake had stirred the huge bass that cruise Castaic's depths like walleyed submarines, and sometime soon one of the regulars--Porter Hall, Bob Crupi, or a dozen other guys who fish the lake daily--was going to catch what they were all after: the world's biggest largemouth bass, a presumed-to-be-down-there beauty reverentially referred to as Sow Belly. "Turned out it was a false alarm," says Hall, sitting in the Naugahyde driver's seat of his 19-foot Ranger bass boat. The sleek, state-of-the-art craft is custom-fitted with a 20-gallon "live well" capable of safely holding a fish the size of a small dog until it can be weighed, photographed, and then carefully released. "Nobody made contact with her."

Hall is a 40-year-old Ahab of sorts, with a chubby midsection, neatly trimmed brown hair, and a molasses drawl. It's a bright March morning on Castaic Lake, and he's wearing his standard springtime fishing garb: a baggy oxford-cloth shirt, khakis, and a baseball cap that reads FISHIN' FOOLS. For the last 15 minutes, he's been chugging his boat back and forth over a golf-green-size patch of water while staring at an instrument on his dash that looks like an eight-inch black-and-white TV. It's his Lowrance sonar fish-finder. The device sketches the lake's bottom contours and unidentified swimming objects on an unscrolling piece of graph paper. "There has got to be bass here somewhere," he says.

Hall doesn't think of it this way, but the Birmingham, Alabama-born son of a mortgage banker is perhaps the South's last great hope to keep its hands on freshwater fishing's oldest and most sought-after prize: the largemouth bass weight record of 22 pounds, four ounces, set by a Georgia farmer back when Babe Ruth was still a Yankee. That's because, odd though it may seem, it's now widely agreed that southern California--where largemouth bass were artificially introduced in the 1940s--is home to the planet's biggest lunkers. In the last few years, dozens of monster fish weighing between 15 and 22 pounds have been hauled out of Castaic and a number of similar artificial lakes nearby. For legions of Deep South bassers from Florida to Texas, this fact is poisonous heresy, but to Hall it was a reality he couldn't ignore. So two years ago, drawn by the siren sploosh of big fins and underwritten by the interest on private investments, he moved his family 2,300 miles--from the magnolia-lined streets of Gainesville, Florida, to the San Fernando Valley--for a shot at Sow Belly.

By most accounts, catching the leviathan will make some lucky angler immortal in the eyes of America's 32 million bass fishermen, not to mention considerably richer. "If you break that record, a million dollars is conceivable," says Ted Dzialo, chief record keeper of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin. "You'll appear on sports shows, give seminars, endorse lures and rods and reels." But spend time with Hall, or watch the homemade videotape documenting his biggest catches of the last three years, and you come to realize that the man is also driven by more fundamental forces. Big bass have a narcotic effect on him. When he lands one, his jowls twitch and his voice quivers and occasionally cuts out altogether. Sometimes he hyperventilates. You can see why he'll soon be in a hurry to hook another, bigger bass, because the thrill on his face leaves as soon as the fish collects its senses and swims away after being released.

It's a mood swing that other fishermen on Castaic Lake must know well, because the competition here, Hall will tell you, has gotten rancorous, at times unbearable. "It's awful crazy," he says, "and I don't like it. Everyone's got a pair of binoculars, and they spend half the day spying on everyone else. You make a splash and they've got their eyes on you, trying to see how big a fish you've got, what kind of bait you're using. Some guys out here must've seen me piss a hundred times." Electing to do a little glassing himself, Hall lifts a pair of high-power binoculars to his face and scans Castaic's coves and barren shorelines for the regulars. "Gary's working Elizabeth Canyon," he says, sounding like a radio newscaster. "Harry the Hat is graphing off Trout Point." He then focuses on a big white bass boat about a football field away. On board are two novice bass fishermen and a tall, stocky fellow with a motorcycle cop's mustache, biceps frescoed with tattoos, and a white T-shirt emblazoned in bold, red letters: BODACIOUS BASS. This is Bob Crupi, arguably the greatest big-bass fisherman alive--in 1991 he nearly broke the world record by netting a 22-pound, one-ounce bass at Castaic--and, by most accounts, the lake's resident bully. "Yep," says Hall, as if everything is just as it should be. "Crupi's back on Mud Point."

Suddenly, the pen on Hall's fish-finder starts making faster, shorter strokes. "There's a little guy--a two- or three-pounder," he says, as a small, fuzzy splotch materializes. He spins the steering wheel and the boat carves a swift 180. The pen goes apoplectic. "Look at that! Look at that!" says Hall. Like a seismograph during a scale-seven boomer, the pen scribbles frantically until the fish-finder displays a symmetrical school of four smallish splotches, in the middle of which, like an overripe peach, sits a great black blob...sporting a tail fin. His voice now in full quiver, Hall eyes the screen and makes a short but portentous statement: "We've got company." "You're a knowledgeable bass fisherman," a thin, worn looking fishing guide is saying to his antsy client, preparing him for the possibility of a disappointing day, "and you know that some days you're just not going to catch a lot of fish. We might have one of those today." Then the guide launches into a more inspiring mental exercise. "You're the bass and I'm the fisherman. I want to know what your life is like. I want to know what your habits are. I'm going to watch you walk from the TV set to the refrigerator so many times that I'll know exactly when you're going to go for something to eat. And then I'm going to kick your ass."

It's before dawn on the day of my outing with Hall--4:15 A.M., to be exact--and we've stopped on a two-lane highway amid a long line of Jeeps, Suburbans, pickups, and trailered boats. As we approached the scene in the morning mist, it looked as if there had been a massive, chain-reaction fender bender, but it's really a tailgate party for the long queue of fishermen who are standing around while they wait to get into the Castaic Lake Recreation Area.

The park doesn't open until six, but to secure prime fishing water it's best to be in line by four. Those in front left the lake last night at six, attended to a few pieces of real-life business, made a prompt U-turn, and camped right in front of the gate. Their lumpy sleeping bags are now stirring in the backs of their vehicles. Other fishermen are milling around outside, cooking breakfast on portable stoves, tilting 20-ounce 7-Eleven coffee cups, and chewing the fat about the previous day. So far nobody's admitting to any major catches. Such downplaying, Hall says, is standard procedure at Castaic, where the fishermen put a creative slant on the standard pastime of fibbing. Instead of inflating their catch or telling the proverbial big-fish-that-got-away story, Castaic's fishermen are likely to deny having caught anything, or they'll sheepishly admit to bagging "a few small ones--nothing major." When they do net a bass, they usually don't flash it in the open. Instead they hold it firmly by the lips, close to the boat and very low to the water, as if the fish were a promising gin hand. Then they remove the hook and perform a quick weigh-and-release. Someone could be watching, noting where you were fishing and what you were using. If so, your lucky spot might not be empty the next morning. Paranoia aside, everyone does seem to agree that fishing has been slow recently, probably because of a strange algal bloom brought on by exceptionally warm temperatures. Nonetheless, there's a tangible anticipation in the air.

Of course, the highly driven men in this crowd are aware that, in the wider world of bassing, the heroes tend to be the tournament professionals, guys like Jimmy Houston and Roland Martin, jaunty, sunburn-lipped southerners who travel to weekly fishing derbies where purses of up to $50,000 are awarded to whoever dredges up the largest total poundage over a three-day period. Big bassers, in contrast, are a breed apart, obsessive loners who generally toil in relative obscurity. There are a few tournaments where the biggest bass wins, but there's no real circuit, and you don't earn endorsement money for landing the second- or third-biggest bass in history. Even so, the patient siege artists of the big-bass set shun the easy catches, trading small fish for the prospect of that one ultimate score. "It's a mind-set that doesn't need a lot of external support and validation," says Doug Hannon, a Florida big-bass expert and conservationist who's known in bassing circles as the Bass Professor. "It's like a martial art in that the emphasis is less on the enemy and more on you, on yourself being prepared."

As we make our way down the road's gravelly shoulder, Hall and I encounter a zealous young man with long, blond hair and a surfer's way with words. He's describing to a small cluster of men what, if it's true, must have been a hair-raising experience: a run-in with Bob Crupi. "We were fishing near Crupi's boat," he begins. "Excuse me, Crappy's boat. But we weren't that close. We weren't bothering him at all, and all of a sudden Crupi--uh, Crappy--started casting this big ol' cast-iron deep-sea lure over the top of our boat. The only reason could have been to keep us away from his spot." He says Crupi then nonchalantly reeled in the lure, as if it had been just another cast, and pointedly heaved it at his group again. Crupi isn't hearing any of this. Working today as a paid guide, he's hunkered with two clients inside his blue Chevy Suburban, his heater blasting. He's third in line. A motorcycle cop with the Los Angeles Police Department--"I wanted to be an officer ever since I was 14 and started watching Adam 12 on TV"--Crupi is by far the most talked-about subject at Castaic Lake, Sow Belly included. Sometimes the conversation involves his bitterly resented antics, but more often it sounds like this: "Why is Crupi catching big bass and I'm not?" A couple of years ago, a surge of anti-Crupi loathing fueled unfounded rumors that he was using live trout as bait, an illegal practice that would all but guarantee big catches. "Let them bad-mouth me all they want," Crupi has belligerently said of his detractors. "But can they prove anything?"

Beyond dispute is the fact that Crupi has caught two of the world's five biggest largemouth bass and 126 other hawgs of more than ten pounds. His seminal 22-pounder was a hamburger-with-extra-pickles shy of the world record. Grouchy and intimidating, Crupi is the costar of a how-to video--called, of course, Bodacious Bass--which showcases his no-nonsense approach to the sport. "There are no secrets to big-bass fishing," Crupi likes to say. "You simply must not make stupid mistakes."

Crupi's obsession with bass once got him in a smidgen of trouble with the LAPD. Four years ago, he went to the Cumberland River, outside Nashville, Tennessee, to represent California in an event called the Big Bass World Championship. But the day before the competition, he was thrown from a boat that was traveling at 65 miles per hour when it collided with the wake of a passing dinner-cruise boat. He suffered a compression fracture in his back and was laid up from working for five months. One day while recuperating, he went out to Castaic to make a few casts. Who would guess he'd land an 18-pound, nine-ounce largemouth, the biggest of the year? The catch was featured in the Los Angeles Daily News sports pages, and Crupi was summoned to explain just how bass fishing fit into his recuperation program. After an internal proceeding, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing. "A lot of people say Bob Crupi doesn't play fair," says Hall, who when it comes to Crupi is a voice of reason among Castaic's catty throngs. "Me, I've never seen him do anything wrong, and I'm not going to comment either way until I do. That doesn't mean I haven't seen him piss somebody off."

Nnnnnnnnyaaaaaaaahhhh! A tinny siren sends coffee splashing over the rims of Styrofoam cups. The roadside klatches disperse like revved-up basketball players after a time-out, and the fishermen sprint to their trucks. Headlights are turned on in sequence, from first in line to last, and the battalion of 50 or so boat-hauling vehicles wends downhill to the shores of Castaic. Drivers jockey aggressively for position and accelerate toward the water. Fending off a dozen hostile bumpers, Hall roars to the boat ramp-- a slab of concrete cocked at 15 degrees--spins us into a 180-degree turn, and shifts into reverse. A forceful push on the accelerator and our boat slides into the water.

Phase one of our attack plan complete, the onus is now on me to shuttle our car and trailer to the parking lot, lock it up, and then sprint back to the docks. With Hall frantically waving for me to hurry up, I make the 300-yard return dash and leap seven feet to our boat, which is thwuck-thwucking loudly and spitting water. My butt slams against double-stitched vinyl and my face is yanked back toward L.A. as Hall accelerates to 50 mph. In less than a minute, we arrive at Red Rocks--Hall's name for a patch of water at the far end of the lake that he's been obsessed with for about two weeks--and drop anchor.

As we settle in, Hall rigs up and talks bait philosophy. "Some people swear by the green ones," he says, leaning over so that his head is practically inside a 48-quart Gott cooler that contains 15 wriggling Louisiana crawfish. "Some people swear by the red ones. I just look for a jumpin' one." Hall points to a candidate that is rearing up on its back legs like a surly stallion. "There's one that's got an attitude," he mutters, reaching in and grabbing the moss-green and fireball-red crustacean behind the pincers. He skewers it on a number four barbed hook. "Hook 'em around their face and it doesn't hurt 'em," he vows, demonstrating what he means. "They'll swim around down there, acting pretty natural."

The crawfish is the bread-and-butter key to catching big bass in the L.A. style, which in a nutshell means fishing with the best bait in very deep water. There are other ways to go about the job, like trolling painted wooden trout that have flexible rubber tails, but bass--maybe it's their southern heritage--really crave crawfish, especially in winter and spring, when they're calorie-loading in anticipation of spawning season. The idea is to send a crawfish down to a cluster of rocks where bucket-mouthed ambushers lie in wait. Then you let the critter crawl, occasionally steering it out of crannies with a gentle tug on the line as if it were a balky hound.

Rod in hand, Hall cocks his right arm behind him, pauses for one count, and with a tight flick sends the little red crustacean forth, its pincers still grasping the air for some sense of its situation. It lands with a plop and sinks, settling on the rocks about 40 feet down. Hall opens a Mountain Dew, lights a cigarette, and stares into the water as if he could actually spot the green and black stripes of Sow Belly.

During the next three hours of actionless fishing, Hall recasts frequently and talks about his own quest for the Big One, which has been going on for almost 30 years, since he wrangled his first ten-pounder from the Florida swamps while on a family vacation at age 12. Ten pounds is the catch of a lifetime for most bass anglers, but for a big-bass specialist like Hall, it's more of a bar mitzvah, proof that you're ready for bigger and better things. The achievement, though, apparently wasn't viewed with great joy by his eight rather competitive bass-fishing brothers. "For my own safety," he remembers, sounding like he hasn't entirely recovered from the experience, "my dad had to rent me my own hotel room for a few days, or I'da been battered and bruised." Later, in the midseventies, Hall attended Florida State on a pole-vaulting scholarship. But Lake Jackson, one of the finest natural bass lakes in the world, happened to be only six miles from his freshman dorm, and three weeks into his first year, before he ever took an exam, he dropped out to live in a tent in a nearby national forest. "I couldn't stay off the lake," he drawls, adding that after a year he'd had enough of the roughing-it lifestyle. "You won't ever find me goin' camping again."

For several years after that, Hall made enough money to eat and fish by running a guide service and a wholesale bait business, selling minnows and shiners to small-time tackle shops in the South. Eventually he went back to college, earned a bachelor's degree in biology, and found a job with the State of Florida, studying the effect of hydrilla, an aggressive nonnative plant, on largemouth fisheries. The position allowed Hall to keep tabs on the state's biggest bass, but there was a problem: Times had changed, and Florida wasn't home to the nation's biggest bass anymore. They were consistently turning up in California. After a few years of watching the plot thicken from afar, Hall flew out to Castaic for a firsthand look in 1991. By 1992, he'd pulled up stakes and moved his wife and infant daughter to the San Fernando Valley, a 15-minute drive from his lake of dreams. Looking back, Hall says the walls of the Mini Mart alone were enough to infect him with irreversible Castaic fever. "When I first saw those bass replicas hanging down there," he remembers, "it shook me up real bad." In the noonday heat, the dark gray Astroturf on the floor of Hall's boat is starting to feel like a stove top, and Hall hasn't felt a nibble. Unrattled, he's reclining in his swivel chair, thinking about changing his bait to an imitation trout. Looking over the side, it's a little hard to believe there's life down there, much less the world's biggest anything. Wedged between the scrub-covered foothills of the Angeles National Forest and the Bakersfield-bound trucks on Interstate 5, Castaic Lake looks more like the tailings pond of a gold mine than largemouth heaven. It's deep, 330 feet in places, compared to the cozy "bassin' holes" and relatively shallow reservoirs of Florida and Georgia. Plonked in the desert, Castaic's rocky, sepia-colored shores conspicuously lack the woven afghan of moss and weeds and primordial gunk that bass like to wrap themselves in. If you were a bass, you'd probably be drawn more strongly to some rum-colored puddle outside Chattahoochie. There you could hunker down and use that big mouth for just the purpose God intended: vacuuming crawdads off the bottom and skimming waterscooters and dragonflies off the surface. As the Bass Professor says, "It's not that bass are smart. They just like to keep their options open."

No, fact is, even the water doesn't belong in Castaic. It was a forest canyon before the California Department of Water Resources built aqueducts 23 years ago to deliver fresh, cool runoff from the melting snows of the Sierra to the growing populations scattered around the parched Los Angeles Basin. From the mountains, the aqueducts flow 338 miles south into a system of holding reservoirs north of Los Angeles. Castaic, at the southern end of the system, marks the water's last stop before it flows into the San Fernando Valley, where it greens the lawns of ranch-style homes, and beyond to the fire hydrants of South Central or the beach showers at Santa Monica. The aqueduct system in ancient Rome, tainted with lead, is thought to have caused people to go insane in the late Roman Empire. In southern California, the system, one might say, has rendered some citizens bass crazy.

It wasn't like this in south Georgia when George Washington Perry caught the original Sow Belly. The tale of Mr. Perry's bass--the Story, as it's sometimes known--is canonical in tackle shops from Lynchburg to Kissimmee. Sixty-three years ago, on a rainy June day, a handsome, dirt-poor Georgia farmer set out in a homemade johnboat on Montgomery Lake, a small patch of water that oxbows off the Ocmulgee River in Telfair County. Ducking cypress branches, he cast a thumb-size wooden lure--a Creek Chub Wiggle Fish--into the weeds just shy of the bank, working it so that it resembled a small perch feeding on water bugs. Nothing doing, but Perry kept casting. He was just about to call it quits when he noticed what he called "an interesting ripple." He cast toward it. Suddenly the water exploded as if an M-80 had detonated just under the surface, and the lure took a powerful hit. "I knew at once that I was fast into a real bass," Perry would tell Field & Stream magazine later that year. He fought the fish for several minutes, jimmying it away from a network of underground roots and branches and toward his boat. "Suddenly he jumped almost clear of the boat," he said. "I had a good look at him, and it seemed as though he ought to weigh about 50 pounds." After he pulled the creature aboard, Perry and Jack Pace, his fishing buddy, beelined to the scales of the Helena post office and read the astonishing numbers: 22, 4. Using the certified weight, Perry entered the bass in a national fishing contest sponsored by Field & Stream. His first-place prize: $75 in merchandise, including a Browning automatic shotgun, shells, and a new fishing rod. As for the fish, Perry cleaned it and his mother pan-fried it. According to legend, it fed six.

For six decades, no one came close to matching Perry's fish, which loomed like Bob Beamon's epochal long-jump record, giving rise to years of speculation about how such a big bass came to be--the most common theory being that Perry's backwater fishing hole was, even for its time, extremely remote and saw little or no fishing pressure. Such conditions simply do not exist anymore. But in the early seventies, word surfaced that some of the recently stocked lakes in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas were producing largemouth bass of incredible size. Mystery hung over the big-bass world: What on earth was going on in California? The first theory offered up was that these giants were some sort of über-offspring of "northern bass," which had been stocked in L.A.-area lakes since the 1940s, and more robust "southern bass," which weren't introduced until the early 1960s. Northern bass feed deep on other fish, and southern bass feed in the shallows on worms and crawfish and such. A hybrid might have the capacity to feed in both zones.

As it turned out, the emerging lunker bass were hybrids, but that was only part of the story. The rest of the pieces of the puzzle were in the belly of the beast. If you watch the docks just north of the dam at Castaic, every week to ten days you'll see a green truck from the California Department of Fish and Game back down the ramp and unload 2,500 pounds of wriggling, silvery lake trout--the equivalent, to a bass's palate, of a juicy chicken-fried steak covered with extra gravy--paid for with taxpayer money and intended to be caught by weekend fishermen on salmon eggs, hand-tied flies, and worms. Unfortunately for the trout, they were dying a more violent death in the jaws of one of nature's hungriest freshwater fish. Hence the dirty little secret--and the reason some purists think the Castaic lunkers deserve an asterisk in the record books--is that the fish aren't extraordinarily big in terms of length and bone structure. They are just very, very fat, and they get that way by hanging around waiting for free lunches. An 18-pound fish in Castaic, notes Doug Hannon, has the same size frame as a ten-pounder in Florida. "Take away that gut," he says, "and these fish are just your average bass."

The sun, now on its downward arc, hangs somewhere over Simi Valley, and Hall has been sitting in his swivel chair for about seven hours, casting crawfish and letting them settle to the bottom. The only thing he's caught is a measly two-pounder, which he'd just as soon forget about. Hall shows no signs of boredom, though he can't understand why that promising ink blob that keeps showing up on the fish-finder isn't falling for his bait. "It's gotta eat sometime," he complains. Far from dispirited, however, Hall is still carrying on quite animatedly about bait in general and crawfish in particular. "These crawdads will crawl into cracks on you, which can be tricky," he says. "But the good thing about them is how they panic and shake when a bass is on them. They'll let you know when they're about to get bit."

The topic then turns to the future. His wife, Cindy, has continued to be supportive of her husband's habit. ("This is the only way I've ever known him," she says. "Our first dates, we went fishing.") But she does admit to hoping that "the catch" will happen in the next few years. "I think we'd rather have our daughter go to school back home, in the South," she says. Meanwhile, other questions weigh heavily. What if Hall never does make contact with Sow Belly? Or what if Crupi or one of the others reels her in and becomes an instant millionaire tomorrow? What if the move to California, virtually a continent away from family, friends, and such beloved intangibles as the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, was for naught? "I don't really think about it," Hall answers, allowing the thought to linger a moment. "I do know that if I caught the world record today, I'd slow down quite a bit--probably not fish for a while." Just then: Splsssshhhhh! Hall tilts his head to hear where the commotion is coming from. "Damn!" he says, lifting his binoculars to his eyes. "Son of a bitch." The image that's slowly resolving on Hall's retinas causes his voice to quiver again, but for all the wrong reasons. Coming into focus is a hefty guy with a motorcycle cop's mustache and a T-shirt that says BODACIOUS BASS. And he's celebrating.

wIn truth, one of Crupi's two clients has caught the fish, but according to the rules of the game among the insiders on Castaic, bragging rights belong to the guide. He provides the boat, the bait, the rod, the reel, and the line, and he divines the lucky fishing spot. Hall watches glumly as Crupi grabs a two-foot-long piscine slab by the lips. Its bloated white belly seems to spill out of its metallic green-and-black skin. Crupi barks orders to two men in baseball caps as they scramble to take pictures of the trophy. "I heard him say 15-6," says Hall, meaning 15 pounds, six ounces. It's not Sow Belly by a long shot, but it's not a two-pounder either. "Ha-haaaaaa!" Crupi's terrible cackle shimmies down Castaic Lake toward our boat.


Brad Wetzler, the associate editor of Outside, once caught a sunfish that was nearly the size of his hand.

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