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Invasion of the Bass Catchers

The Next World-Record Lunker May Well Come From a Lake Within 100 Miles of L.A. and Be Worth $1 Million. Of Course, That's a Mere Sideshow of the Tournament Fishing That's Creeping Into the Golden State

April 05, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | Bob Sipchen is a senior editor of the magazine

Something about the the glint of metal-flake in the morning must do to men what it supposedly does to bigmouth bass. The explosion of red, green and gold sparks in a pickup's headlights must ignite predatory instincts deep in the primitive brain; blot out common sense; trigger a tightly focused competitive frenzy.

That's one of my theories, anyway, as I loiter in a parking lot beside Lake Perris, looking for some guy named Walker--Jerry Jeff? Johnny?--my blind-date partner in this tournament for the seemingly insane.

Already, out on the black water, a couple of 200-horsepower outboards gurgle eagerly. Most of the glittery bass boats, however, are still trailered. Their owners putter with expensive electronic gear or cluster in a circle of light spilling from an old motor home.

Inside the RV, a man and woman work at two laptop computers, checking in anglers, assessing their fees and collecting for the intricate side bets--"Easy Money," "Big Fish," "Double Down"--that make competitive bass fishing the weird amalgam of compulsions it has become. * It doesn't take long for my partner to spot me. Jimmy Walker, a pleasant, 33-year-old San Diego County Sheriff's detective is the part-time pro the organizers have roped into shepherding the outsider. "These are some of the best sticks going," he says, assessing the milling competitors. I smile, not sure what to say.

A couple weeks earlier I had talked with the head of a Redondo Beach-based group called American Bass. I told him I was doing a story on Southern California's unlikely reputation as the home of huge lunker bass and asked how I could check out a tournament. He said only competitors were allowed on the lake, but that he'd be happy to find me a partner. "I don't have a clue about bass fishing," I admitted. "No problem!" he replied. Only later did I learn that hooking the press this way has been a key secret behind bass fishing's peculiar All-American success story--a story a lot of folks would love to retell here in Southern California.

The next world record bass, you see, may well come from a lake within 100 miles of Los Angeles. It could, all things considered, be worth a million dollars. And that scaly grail is just a sideshow to tournament bass fishing, a big-bucks carnival that is making more and more otherwise-rational Californians lose all sight of the line between simple recreation and a calling.

But none of this made a lick of sense to me until I met Bertha.

Bass are not native to California but come exclusively from the waters spilling off the Mississippi River. The largemouth species probably migrated westward as nervous fingerlings, jiggling along in tin cans shipped by rail to sportsmen who had relocated from other parts. Half a century later, researchers identified a distinct subspecies of largemouth black bass being caught by anglers in America's South. In the 1960s, the California Department of Fish and Game planted San Diego County's Upper Otay Lake with this hefty "Florida" strain. In all likelihood, Bertha descended from that branch of the largemouth family tree.

But genetics alone doesn't explain her or her increasingly common kind.

If a fish could have a self-image, Bertha's undoubtedly would have a lot more to do with her role as predator than prey. Bass are masters of the ambush. Well camouflaged, they hunker down until a victim--bluegill, trout, worm, mouse, fellow bass--happens by, then lunge at 30 or maybe even 35 miles an hour. Slurp. With just a flash of effort, the fit get fitter on the energy of the vanquished.

For some 11 years, Bertha survived this underwater jungle. Growing bigger and more dangerous, she patrolled ever-widening turf, possibly circling the entirety of 2,200-acre Lake Perris in a day, before returning to a nook some call Rock Climbers' Cove. She was prowling this shadowy, sun ray-streaked kingdom in January when an aluminum boat with two booms extending from its bow appeared overhead.

Mike Giusti, a biologist with the California State Department of Fish and Game, watched his depth finder. When it said he was in eight feet of water, he hit a switch. The booms sent a low-amperage charge sizzling through the water. Bertha never saw the electric body-slam coming. Her muscles convulsed. Her pea-sized brain jolted. And within seconds she was belly up, floating toward the sky.

"Oh, my God," Giusti thought as the fish surfaced. The Lake Perris record was 16.2 pounds. Giusti pulled out his digital scale and measured: 17.75. With luck, if she could live to the ripe bass age of 15, this fish, Giusti knew, might well contend for the world record.

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