On bass lakes, turning a rite of spring into race for a record

States have expanded breeding programs as the fishing industry grows, though catching the big one remains elusive.

When George Perry yanked back on his cane rod in 1932, he pulled up the largest bass ever caught: 22 pounds, 4 ounces, one that would loom as large as myth to millions of fishermen. To break the record would be like Mark McGwire besting Roger Maris's season homerun record.

Indeed, while weights have gone up thanks to stocking and breeding, the "big hawg" remains elusive in the white-lie world of fishermen. Still, the race to break the longest-held record in sports is getting heady as America's 28 million freshwater fishermen edge closer to the "million-dollar fish." Some states are spending huge sums on genetics and habitat management. Fishermen camp out at California boat ramps, where one woman caught an unofficial 22-1/2-pounder last summer. This year, Texas has logged 13 bass over 13 pounds - a size class just below the 20-pound and above.

Texas fishery managers have launched Operation World Record, breeding Texas-born Florida bass that have reached 13 pounds, and stocking 10 million spawn in some 70 lakes. So far, it's working: Where a five-pound bass used to get your picture in the paper, today no one looks twice unless it tops 10 pounds. "It's the most revered record there is and we're actively going after it," says Phil Durocher of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "It's not going to happen by accident."

Today, Georgia still holds the bragging rights: Its hundreds of ponds and man-made lakes, swamps, and wetlands are home to a breed that produces the giants. But many believe Florida is ripe for the record. Fishermen spend some $116 billion a year in the US - and any state that bests "Perry's fish" would get a windfall.

"The time is now to beat Perry's record," says Marc Mitrany, a fishing guide on Lake Casitas in the California canyon nest that many see as a likely site of the record bass. "Anyone has the ability to break this record, and they'll be rewarded with lots of money and fame literally overnight."

The tricks are genetics, a protein-rich diet, a warm habitat, and longevity. The monster mama (it will probably be a female) will be about 12 years old. But with fishing pressure high, fish are wise to would-be captors. Getting fishermen to throw back big fish to grow bigger is also hard.

The large-mouth bass, with its cavernous yawn, belly, and green hue, is native to North America. A 20-pound bass would feel a lot like hooking a full-grown Jack Russell Terrier on a 10-pound test line.

"There's something about it that makes grown men speed to their honey holes," says Florida fisherman Frank Carbone, whose record is a 15-pound bass - and who often daydreams about Perry's fish. "You get sucked up in it."

Today, fishermen use all kinds of bait, from live shiners to crank baits and plastic worms, pig-n-jigs, stick baits, spinners, and salt-flavored worms. And many say the record fish has probably been hooked already. "A lot of people who have hooked into a record fish haven't had the skill or ability to bring it in," says Mr. Mitrany.

The biggest fish he's seen on a line was hooked by a 7-year-old in his boat. She screeched as the giant breached the water 15 yards away. The fish dove, took massive line, and vanished. "I don't think she realized it was the fish of a lifetime," he says.

The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) says certifying any record is tricky, with hyperbole and fish tales at a premium. Some have tossed lead weights down the gullet of bass to inch their weight over the record. "When you're talking about the all-tackle record bass that could put a million dollars in the pocket of whoever catches it, there's potential incentive to exaggerate the catch," says Mike Leech, the ambassador-at-large of the IGFA in Dania Beach, Fla.

For some, the record isn't worth the pressure. Six years ago, a man who says he caught a 23-pound monster withdrew his application after receiving messages accusing him of finding the fish dead and trying to cheat his way into the record books.

Leaha Trew, a California mom fishing with her son on Spring Lake last summer, also drew skepticism after hooking into what she claimed was a 22-1/2 pound giant. The IGFA knew it was a big fish, but the one photo showed her holding it in front of her, throwing off the visual scale. There was a witness - a family friend on shore. But with the stakes so high, proof must be irrefutable - photos, measurements, certified scales. The IGFA turned down Trew's application in January.

Some records may stand forever, including the 1,400-plus pound bluefin tuna, a size class that experts say simply no longer exists. But the million-dollar large-mouth, many believe, is only a few casts away.

"I do feel there are bigger bass than 22 pounds swimming in some lake or river some place," says Mr. Leech. "It could just as easily be a 9-year-old kid with a Zipco rod-and reel that catches it.... And hopefully they'll have lots of witnesses."

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