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Hooked on Snagging the Big One : Anglers trolling Lake Casitas for unpredictable bass admit they can get downright obsessive about their hobby.

August 10, 1995|KEN McALPINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whack, something's on the line and it's big--and Rod Thigpin jerks to attention. He's up out of the seat at the front of his 17-foot bass boat and peering into the clear, green shallows of Lake Casitas. His graphite rod nearly folds over on itself as down in the weedy murk a crawdad is fractured between the jaws of a very large fish.

Largemouth bass are feisty eaters. Your typical largemouth--in the one- to two-pound range--writhes and contorts and slaps about while ingesting its meal. Largemouth have been known to explode from the water to snatch low-flying swallows. Slowed by bulbous bellies and the weight of their years, the behemoth largemouths, the lunkers of legend, feed differently, which is to say they simply chomp down and sit.

"It's just like you've hooked on to a stump or something," says Harry Jioras, an Ojai resident and retired fire captain who has dedicated much of his life to pursuing big bass. "It just won't budge. When you hook into something like that, that's when you get your rush."

Ventura County and its surrounding environs are dotted with bass lakes, and a few of them contain some of the biggest largemouth bass anywhere on the globe. Many believe Lake Casitas is home to the monster bass, the piscine porker that will change a fisherman's life and set the fishing world on its ear, a one in a billion fish that by dint of savvy and gluttony has grown into something approximating the shape and heft of a bowling ball.

Rod Thigpin, 27, is among these believers, and so he is experiencing a rush right now. The fish on the other end of his taut line is not the bass that will eclipse George Washington Perry's 63-year-old, 22-pound, 4-ounce record, but it's a big one, no doubt. Rod has caught enough big bass to instantly gauge, through his hands and forearms, a fish's weight. This one is well over 10 pounds.

Rod reels the line in slowly--you don't catch granddaddy bass by simply yanking them out of the water--his voice edged with excitement.

"This is a good fish," he says.

After taking a moment to grind the crawdad into meal, the fish begins to move. The line starts toward the back of the boat.

Typically, bass suck up their meal in a mad flurry, then promptly repair to "structure"--grass, weeds, rocks, tree stumps--to proceed with digestion. Pulling a big bass from such cover is supremely difficult, explaining why most bass fishing stories, at least the ones that are true, could be titled "The Biggest Hawg I Never Did See."

This fish, however, is headed for open water.

"All the time I've fished here, I've never had a fish go this way," says Rod. "This is the way I like it.

His brother Todd, 29, leans out over the edge of the boat and squints at the water. A murky outline appears.

"It's not a carp, is it?" asks Todd.

Rod leans out too.

"Awwwww, you got to be kidding me."

Bending, Rod scoops the fish from the water with a net. It is big indeed--15 pounds--but decidedly unbasslike with goldish-orange coloring, a long body and lips like Mick Jagger.

Rod tilts back his baseball cap and rolls his eyes heavenward.

"I ought to just give up fishing for big bass and see what the record is for carp," he says.

It would certainly be easier. In theory, here's how fishing for big bass works:

After spending years on the water, you learn the spots where the big bass like to hang out. You pick a spot and you sit on it--dangling a live crawdad or any of the dozens of lures bass fishermen swear by or swear at, depending on their current luck. You hope that eventually a monster fish will rouse his bloated self and drift toward the surface to feed, whereupon he will happen upon your bait, which is precisely what he hankers for, and inhale it in one big lurch. Your job then is to pull him into the boat before he goes right back down to a bottom littered with weeds and rocks from which you will never extricate him.

Unfortunately things don't normally happen this way. Bass are unpredictable. They can be indiscriminately voracious--big bass have been known to slurp down ducklings, frogs and snakes--but they can be persnickety too. You may be sitting over a hungry fatty, but he might not be eating what you are offering.

Unfortunately, it takes roughly eight years for a bass to reach 10 pounds, generally considered the lower limit of trophy bass--so there aren't hordes of them around. There are an estimated 32 million bass fishermen in this country. Each year only 20 to 30 bass over 15 pounds get caught. After George Perry, a dirt-poor Georgia farmer, reeled in his monster 22-pounder in 1932, nearly 40 years passed before another 20-pounder was caught.

The paucity of big bass and their fickle behavior explains why most of the time big bass fishing is about as action-packed as stalking a lawn ornament. Big bass fisher folk can sit on a spot for days with nary a nibble.

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