Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bassby Monte Burke
In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, a fascinating look at obsessed fishermen and their quest for fame, fortune, and the seventy-two-year-old record for the heaviest largemouth bass
On a rainy morning in the spring of 1932, a farmer named George Washington Perry decided it was too wet to plow and went fishing instead. That day, a star was born in/b>/i>
In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, a fascinating look at obsessed fishermen and their quest for fame, fortune, and the seventy-two-year-old record for the heaviest largemouth bass
On a rainy morning in the spring of 1932, a farmer named George Washington Perry decided it was too wet to plow and went fishing instead. That day, a star was born in McRae, Georgia, when George landed the largest largemouth ever recordedtwenty-two pounds four ounces, to be exact. The fish has inspired and frustrated hundreds of also-ran anglers for decades. They've dedicated their lives to the pursuit of “Sowbelly”a nearly mythical fish, whose swinelike girth holds the key to their dreams. Now avid fisherman Monte Burke captures their stories.
Sowbelly features a motorcycle cop from Los Angeles who came within ounces of besting the record, the tiny lake in suburban San Diego where competition has turned especially fierce, a biologist from Texas trying to produce the next world-record bass through scientific research, an Alabaman who has lost his marriage and his daughter to this futile pursuit, and even an excursion to Cuba. Tracking each story with an entertaining, stranger-than-fiction eye, Burke brings readers unprecedented access to the key players in this legendary race.
Published just in time for fishing expos and Father's Day, Sowbelly reels in the ultimate catch for the eleven million fishermen pursuing largemouth bass.
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.75(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)
- Age Range:
- 14 Years
Read an Excerpt
I n the spring of 2003, I approached my editor at Forbes magazine with a story idea about the chase for the world-record largemouth bass. It wasn't immediately an easy sell. I wasn't going to uncover some seedy corporate scandal or analyze some brilliant new marketing scheme. And the somewhat obscure endeavor of a few obsessive fishermen surely wouldn't move any markets. But the chase had all of the elements of a good story, so I gave it a shot anyway. I pitched it like this: A collection of very dedicated peopleentrepreneurs, reallyare actively pursuing a lofty goal, using their wits and an incredible amount of hard work. At stake was the possibility of great triumph, as well as the risk of utter failure. The plot thickened with the colorful, mysterious, and daunting history that had to be overcome. It helped, too, that at the time an $8 million bounty lay on the head of the world-record bassmoney put up by a Tampa, Florida, outfit run by a used- car salesman and a real-estate developer.
I'll admit that I had more than a little self-interest in this story. I have been a fisherman all my life. I grew up in the American South, in North Carolina and Alabama, where fishing for largemouth bass is both a predominant pastime and an industry like, say, skiing in Austria or window shopping in New York City, where I live now. In North Carolina my family lived on a farm. Behind the house, down a gentle slope of horse pasture, lay a blackwater pond full of plucky bass. After my father, Donald, patiently taught me how to fish, I spent an inordinate amount of time tossing lures into its dark water, sometimes even hooking into a wriggling, green- sided largemouth bass. One summer I used a miniature remote-control boatoutrigged with a 6- inch rod tip, 4 feet of monofilament line, and a spinning lureto troll the pond. I hooked and fought bass from a lawn chair on the shore.
When my father died of cancer in 1989, we moved to Alabama to be closer to my mother's family. I was seventeen years old, an awkward and self-conscious teenager, devastated by my father's death. Fishing was one of the few things that I believed I did welllargely thanks to my fatherso I did it often. Luckily for me, my grandfather, whom we called Toots, had a bass lake in Alabama that was just a twenty-minute drive from our new house in Birmingham. He named the lake Tadpole. I fished that lake nearly every day during my last summer before college, and it became a bridge that connected my past with my future.
And I haven't stopped since. Fishingespecially for largemouth basswas just something you did in our family, a stubborn stain on our genetic code that, like freckles, hasn't been scrubbed out through subsequent generations, though it missed a few of us. Neither my mother nor my youngest brother cares much for the sport. But for me, as it had been for my father and grandfather, fishing was a necessity, though why I love it and continue to pursue it with such passion is as mysterious and beguiling as the black water in that North Carolina farm pond.
So I thought that maybe by hanging out with these world-record-bass chaserseven though they obviously had taken what was for me merely a passion to the much higher level of obsessionI could shed some light on this mystery of mine. My inquiry, I believed, was perhaps similar to the way a pathologist studies the brain of a madman to determine the roots of lesser mental illnesses.
I didn't tell my editor any of this. But I did say that all fishermen, every time they cast a lure, dreamt of catching the biggest fish. And the world-record bass was, for reasons both mythical and absolute, the most sought-after prize of them all. I thought, however quirky, that this was a story the readers of the magazine would enjoy. My editor leaned back in his chair in an office that overlooked Fifth Avenue and thoughtfully rubbed his goateed chin as the idea dangled in front of him. Then he bit.
The article was published in Forbes in the summer of 2003, my contribution to the canon of fish tales. But something happened during the research and writing of that piece: I found myself falling in love with the stories of this small group of individuals who have distilled what they want out of life to the single act of catching the world-record bass. The result of that love is this book. The stories within, I believe, are more than just tales of catching fish. They are about what we humans will do, what we will gain, and what we are willing to sacrifice, in attempting to reach a goal. They are stories about life.
And one story gave birth to all the others included here.
On the rainy morning of June 2, 1932, a poor twenty-year-old farmer from Telfair County, Georgia, decided it was too wet to plow his fields, so he went fishing. A few hours later on Montgomery Lake, an oxbow of the Ocmulgee River, George Washington Perry caught and kept a 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bassthe largest ever landed in recorded history. We know very little about George Perry and his fish. None of the eyewitnesses to his catch are alive today, and only a few stories published about his fish actually use Perry as a primary source. As such, plenty of people doubt that the event ever really took place. Yet the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the keeper of all fishing records, still recognizes Perry's bass as the world record to this day, and it is notable as much for its staying power as for the mysterious circumstances under which it occurred.
Perry's story is also the element that bonds together the rest of the characters in this book, all of whom I spent a year traveling the United States and beyond tracking down. Their stories make up the strange and lively tale of the chase for the new world-record largemouth bass, that mythical, as-yet-uncaught fish that some of its more fervent pursuers have affectionately dubbed “Sowbelly,” for the swinelike girth it will most certainly possess.
I started in California, wended my way through Texas to rural southern outposts in Mississippi and Georgia, and even traveled to the forbidden island of Cuba. I interviewed historians, biologists, con artists, detectives, and fed-up spouses. I fished with some of the best big-bass anglers alive. Along the way, I met a taciturn LAPD motorcycle cop named Bob Crupi who came within a hairbreadth of besting George Perry's record and finally exorcising the demons that lie buried deep within his soul. I hung out with Mike Long and Jed Dickerson, the de facto heads of two competing fishing posses, whose increasingly tense turf battles take place in suburban San Diego on a tiny lake that harbors enormous bass. I visited Bill Baab, the world's leading authority on the story of George Perry's fish, and the story's most tenacious guardian.
In Texas, I met biologist Allen Forshage, the head architect of that big-thinking state's complex and very expensive plan to grow the next world-record bass in a laboratory. I spent a week in a shack with Porter Hall, an Alabaman who has lost his marriage and daughter in his thus-far futile pursuit of the world record, but who believes he's finally found the magic bullet: to grow the damn thing himself in his private pond in Mississippi. I contacted fame-seeking con artists who were caught with lead weight stuffed into the bellies of their bass. And in Cuba, I spent time with the thoughtful Samuel Yera, for whom the chase lives most vividly in his curious mind. Each of these characters had one thing in common: They were all chasing the ghost of George Washington Perry.
George Perry lived in a more innocent time, before our age of technology and stringent rules and media consciousness made records the objects of ravenous desire. His fish remains an anomaly in our modern era, which is remarkable for its unsentimental attack on records of all kinds. Whether it's from improved fitness, advanced technology, illegal supplementsor some potent combination of the threethe significant feats of the past continue to fall. Roger Bannister's 3:59-minute-mile mark has been lowered by 16 seconds since 1954. Bob Beamon's historic long jump stood for twenty-three years until Mike Powell bettered it by two inches in 1991. In baseball, Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak set in 1939 was broken fifty-six years later by Cal Ripken, Jr., and Roger Maris's 1961 single-season home-run record has been twice topped, first by Mark McGwire in 1998, then again three years later by Barry Bonds. Even important fishing records, like those for brown trout (1992) and Pacific Blue Marlin (1993), to name just two species, have fallen. Part of the hubris of our age is the belief that we can always do things better than we once did. But Perry's record, almost three-quarters of a century later, remains unbroken.
In order to qualify for an all-tackle (using up to a 130-pound test line) world-record catch today, fishermen must go through a some-what tedious process. The IGFA requires the following: that the fish is weighed on an IGFA-certified scale in front of witnesses who must be shown the actual tackle used to catch the fish; that the fish is 2 ounces heavier than the previous record; and that the angler mail in a photograph showing the fish, the tackle, the scale, and the angler with the fish. For the more important records, like the largemouth bass, the IGFA reserves the right to administer a polygraph exam. The certification process is not fail-safe, which has compelled more than a few to try to cheat it. But in general, it weeds out the imposters. In January 2004, a controversial pending world-record bass caught by a woman named Leaha Trew (whom you'll meet later in the book) was thrown out for not meeting the standards.
The irony, of course, is that Perry's fish would have never qualified today. Neither a photograph nor a mount of his fish exists. No one knows for sure the make of the rod and reel he used to catch it. And no one ever subjected him to a polygraph test. Perry did nothing more than weigh the fish on a postal scale in front of a few witnesses and send the measurements in to a Field & Stream magazine fishing contest.
Then he took the bass home and ate it.
His nonchalance was completely understandable: In 1932, the record was no big deal. His bass wasn't officially recognized as the world record until two years later, and only became the IGFA's standard when Field & Stream's records were transferred to that organization in the 1940s. The conspiracy theorists have always debated the authenticity of Perry's catch, a din that only grew louder when he died in a plane crash in 1974, taking all of the secrets of the world's most hallowed fishing record with him to the grave.
But since 1932, the importance of the record has grown immensely, corresponding with the incredible rise in popularity in the United States of the largemouth bass, which has unequivocally become America's fish. How and where to catch the next world record has been a perennial favorite story of the nation's outdoor periodicals like Field & Stream, Bassmaster, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield since the 1970s. And the heightening fixation on the record has had a strange effect on a handful of bass fishermen: It has turned them into record chasers, individuals who play out their passion in relative obscurity, known primarily only to others who are in pursuit of the same scaly grail, on the lunatic fringe of the $12-billion bass industry.
The true record chasers have no rabid fans cheering them on, no million-dollar national tournament tours to compete in, no television shows to host, no lucrative sponsorship deals to sign. And as four notable modern anglersBob Crupi, Mike Long, Jed Dickerson, and Porter Hallknow all too well, unless you break the 22-pound, 4-ounce mark, you earn no riches. And even that money exists more in the theoretical realm than the actual one. The outdoor press often repeats that the angler who breaks the record will reap at least $1 million in endorsement money, but not if that angler happens to be using the wrong rod or reel, or the tackle companies deem him not marketable. Every so often, a magazine will put up prize money, but it's usually closer to $10,000 than $1 million. The Big Bass Record Club was offering $8 million to any member of its organization who caught the biggest bass in the world, but it folded in 2003 due to a lack of new members and the untenable burden of heavy insurance premiums.
That's not to say that fame and money can't be made in bass fishing. Denny Brauer, a tournament angler from Missouri, appeared on a Wheaties box in 1998 and has made almost $2 million in career tour earnings and another $1 million in endorsements. Together the CITGO Bassmaster and the Wal-Mart FLW tours have minted a dozen millionaires, and enabled another five hundred or so anglers to make bass fishing a full-time career. And then there are television personalities like Roland Martin, who can be found five days a week on the Outdoor Life Network kissing bass before he drops them back into the water, his hair bleached blond from the hours in the sun and his shirt festooned with as many sponsorship patches as a NASCAR driver's Nomex suit. Even a hybrid of the two types of bass celebrity has been created. In 2004, a bass tournament angler was featured on the reality show, The Bachelor. Plenty of individuals have become famous and made very comfortable livelihoods from simply catching bass. But no one has ever made a living from pursuing the world record (though some, as you'll see, have spent a fortune in doing so). And what's ironic to record chasers is this: Most of the fish these famous bassers catch are . . . well . . . small.
There's a reason for that. Truly huge bass are extremely rare. Lets say, for argument's sake, that the 11 million frequent bass anglers in the United States each catch five bass a year (a gross undercalculation that doesn't take into account bass anglers in other nations or the tens of millions of bass caught by the 33 million other freshwater anglers in the United States). Most of these bass will weigh between 2 and 3 pounds. In 2003, there was one bass caught in the world that was officially 20 pounds or more, one of only twelve such fish on record since 1923. That means, at the very best, your annual chance of catching a 20-pounder in the United States alone is 1 in 55 million. That's what statisticians call an outlier. You are far more likely to be struck by lightning or become a U.S. Senator than catch a 20-pound bass. There just aren't that many around.
But fishermen in general rely on an almost theological faith“Faith that the water that you are fishing has got fish in it, and that you are going to catch one of them,” as the novelist and noted fishing bum William Humphrey once wrote. Fishing is the sport of optimists. Every cast into the unknown water world is merely an expression of that optimism, and thus no guarantee of some connection with another living being. The world-record chasers have taken this faith a step even further. They are perhaps the fishing world's biggest optimists in pursuit of a bass that, statistically speaking, may not even exist. Each of these anglers believes somewhere deep down that catching the world's biggest largemouth bass will get him or her somethingpersonally, financially ... each has his or her own reason.
And to get there, they've each turned this pursuit into an obsession. Susan Orlean wrote in The Orchid Thief that once people become adults, they view obsessions about seemingly inconsequential thingslike flowers or big bassas a bit naïve. But very rarely in this world does someone achieve the absolute pinnacle of his or her profession without some sort of obsession. For these record chasers, that fixation has manifested itself in various ways. Some things have been irretrievably lost: Edenic innocence and purity and even the enjoyment of a sport that most fell in love with as children. But others have been gained: notoriety among peers, a profound faith in the unknowable and, perhaps most significantly, a sense of purpose in an otherwise chaotic world.
But here's one thing that gnaws at the gut of each and every one of these record chasers: Anyone could break it. Whereas you or I will never top the single-season home-run record in baseball, we could land the next world-record bass. An eight-year-old on his or her first fishing trip is just as likely to pull off the feat as someone who has spent a lifetime on the chase.
And yet this dedicated collection of individuals persistscasting, retrieving, and hoping for that one fish.
The question is, Why?
It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
CHAPTER ONE Why Settle for the Small Ones?
Bob Crupi circles the busy block in Van Nuys twice on his Kawasaki 1000 before settling on the best vantage point: the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. He shuts off his bike, leans it onto the kickstand, and sits and waits, chin resting on his hand, eyes darting to-and-fro behind his dark aviator sunglasses, searching for patterns. His quarry is predictable: The hookers working the circuit, flaunting their wares in hot pants and skintight sweaters. The shifty small-time drug dealers in their shabby green army jackets. All anxious, trying to make eye contact with passersby or people in cars, as attuned as auctioneers to the tip-off of a subtle nod. It's six-thirty on a spring evening that's whitewashed by the dry southern California sun, still hours away from setting. But he knows they will be out soon, working the cars constantly emptying and refilling these streets that run by the seedy hotels and fast-food restaurants and under the wires that coil like black ivy around the telephone poles and traffic lights. The daylong heat and sun always makes them lose patience, makes them careless. Their urge overpowers them, is insatiable. And eventually, it will drive them onto the streets in broad daylight and into the world of Motorcycle Bob. All he has to do is sit and wait. Just be patient. “If you're in the right spot,” he says. “It's only a matter of time.”
He knew some of them by nameat least by their street names. The hookers: Precious, Sweetness, Chocolate. The dealers: Smiley, Casper, Ricardo. They all played the same game every day, in the same place, with the same players apprehended, arrested, and back on the street a few hours later. They might as well make it legal, Bob thinks. But it's not, and probably never will be, and anyway, he has a job to do. You have to follow orders.
That's the number-one rule for a cop. He grimaces when he thinks back to Compton in 1992, when he watched that order crumble, driving by slowly on his bike as the looters smashed store windows and pulled out the TVs, the VCRs, the liquor. They dropped things as they skipped away: Walkmans, loaves of bread, and bottles that fell from overfilled arms and popped into so many shards on the asphalt. Greedy fuckers. The orgy of looting. They scurried right by him without even a glance or the slightest hesitation. He was powerless to stop anyone. “We could have smoked a bunch of those shitbirds while Reginald Denny was getting his brains bashed in,” he says. Cops like to go in and do their business, but when you tie their hands behind their back, well ...
But you have to follow orders. And that's what Bob is doing now. Following orders. Scanning the streets of Van Nuys, looking for patterns.
There. He sees one. First of the evening. She's swinging her hips, working the sidewalk, close to the traffic, bending down occasionally to look into car windows. Bob waits until the right moment. Don't want to strike too soon. Wait for them, make sure they're hooked well, then strike hard. She stops. A single white male, his head on a swivel, is in a green Buick that's braking for a stoplight. She leans over into the open passenger's-side window. They talk, exchanging street code (“You a cop? Show me your dick.”), then her head pops up, a quick surveying glance. She opens the door and gets in. The john drives slowly, one eye on the road, the other sizing up his new companion. That's all Bob needs. He twists the ignition key, firing up the Kawasaki, and pulls the bike upright and forward off the kickstand. He flips on the flashing blue-and-red lights and cuts quickly across traffic, maneuvering in the narrow spaces between the cars until he's behind the green Buick. They both pull over to the curb. Bob leaves the lights on and gets off his bike, standing up to his full ursine height, arching his back and straightening his belt buckle. He has a body that looks capable of inflicting serious pain. His light brown police shirt is pulled tight over his casklike torso. Fading blue ink from his tattoos spills out from the short sleeves that partially cover his burly sunburned arms. On his forearm, a wild boar rides a largemouth bass like a rodeo cowboy. Bob's hair is short and brown and edged with gray, like the tip of a lit cigar. A trim brown motorcycle-cop mustache forms a crescent above his top lip.
He approaches the car slowly, fingering the billy club that swings at his hip. Hookers are generally less dangerous than drug dealers, who have taken wild shots at him, but he still has to be careful. Step out of the car, he says, hands on the hood. He is, as always, as straightforward as a lead pipe. The john says he was just giving the woman a ride, though he's cloudy on the details of their exact destination. Yeah, she says, he was just giving me a ride. Bob asks them both for identification. Neither has any. She gives a name, made-up of course, then turns to let him put the cuffs on. She knows the drill. The john is not so compliant. I was just giving her a ride, man. Driving without a license, Bob says, and soliciting a prostitute. You have the right to remain silent. The man resists and pulls away. Gonna be a shitbird, eh? Bob grabs the man's right arm and twists it behind his back and yanks it toward his head, hard, sending a shot of pain up the man's elbow. The man gasps. The cuffs go on, tight. Bob radios a black-and-white to transport them to the station.
The evening has begun. It will go on like thisthe stalking, the arrestsuntil his shift is over at 3 a.m. and the younger men on the force ask him out for a drink. They go to blow off some steam, to let loose the nervous energy held so tightly during the shift. But Bob has no tolerance for that anymorethe antics of the young officers, the case of beer hidden in the alleyway, the false bravado of the stories from the night. Bob is in the zone now. He knows that this is his big opportunity, his chance. He knows where the damn fish is, knows how to stalk it, how to hook it and land it, knows what this will all mean. So he punches out at the station and jumps back on his bike, the wind peeling away the stresses of work with every mile gained on the dark high- way home.
He tiptoes into the modest ranch house, pulls off his shiny black motorcycle boots and takes off his uniform. He peers into his bedroom at Trish, his wife, sound asleep, her face lit by the blue light of the digital clock that reads 3:33. He passes the kids' room. His six-year-old daughter and five-year-old son are under the covers in their beds, sleeping peacefully. He doesn't know them at alldoesn't know what their favorite foods are, the TV shows they watch, what they do after dinner, if they are happy and well-adjusted children. He feels a sharp, quick pang of hurt in his stomach but fights it off. This is his opportunity and he must seize it. He is good at what he does. Very good. But what separates him from the others, above all, is his dedication. And that, of course, comes at a cost. It always does.
Outside, the Chevy pickup sits on the street, hooked up to the trailer and the bass boat, ready to roll. He checks one more time to make sure everything is in place. His checklist consists of two anchors, a depthfinder, and a twelve-pack of Diet Pepsi. No food. Don't want to have any unusual scents on your hands. The bass might pick them up. Three rods, all black graphite. He runs his fingers over the 8-pound test monofilament line to check for nicks, then double-checks the knots that attach the size-two bronze hooks. The drag on the reels is set perfectly: not too tight, but not loose enough to give on the hookset. He is meticulous about his gear. No secrets exist to catching big bass. You just can't make stupid mistakes. He checks the minicooler full of live crawdads.
He does all of this now so he doesn't have to think about it later on the water, where he will sit from sunup until sundown. In the zone.
Bob starts the pickup and drives twenty minutes through the sleepy, dark world to the Castaic Lake Recreation Area. He's the first to arrive, as always. He noses the front bumper of his truck up to the gate and turns off the ignition. He leans the driver's seat back and folds his arms over his brawny chest. Then the best big-bass fisherman in the world falls into a deep sleep for two and a half hours, dreaming of a fish known to the locals as “Sowbelly.” When he awakes, he'll employ the same vigilance he exhibited hours earlier on his beathis pursuit of justice never ends. By all rights, that record fish should be his. He's fought the good fight, crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's. He upheld his own system.
From 1988 until the Northridge earthquake of 1994, this is how Bob Crupi lived his life.
Bob Crupi had come within 4 ounces of breaking the world record in 1991, when he landed a 22- pound, 1/2-ounce bass on Castaic Lake near Los Angeles. It was one of two fish he had on the top-ten list of the biggest largemouth bass in history. No one in bass-fishing circles had heard from Bob in nearly a decade, but most assumed he had never stopped trying to catch the world record, especially after coming so tantalizingly close. So I gave him a call. A gruff voice on the other end of the line said, “This is Bob Crupi.”
I flew out from New York to Los Angeles late on a Tuesday night in July of 2003 and drove forty-five minutes north on eight-lane Interstate 5 to Castaic, a truck-stop town littered with gas stations, strip malls, and strip joints. A couple of eighteen-wheelers were pulled over on the off- ramp, their yellow-bulbed night-lights tracing the borders of their trailers as the drivers slept in their darkened cabs. My motel room, a dingy, overpriced flea-bag right off the exit, sounded like I-5, and not a river, ran through it. I didn't sleep a wink.
The next day, in the gray light of 6:00 a.m., I stood outside of a Shell station across from the motel, holding a large cup of coffee, shivering a bit in cool morning air. A Suburban attached to a bass boat, with a license plate on the trailer that read DBL DGT, pulled up in front of me. I opened the door and got in and shook hands with fifty-year-old Bob Crupi. Apparently impervious to the chill, he was wearing long black shorts and a sleeveless black T-shirt that showed off his big arms and tattoos. The interior of the truck was spotless. A stuffed lion stalked me from the dashboard. Bob and I exchanged some pleasantries. I could tell right away he didn't really like talking to journalists. We annoyed him.
Bob and I had agreed in a phone call the previous day to fish the lagoon portion of Castaic Lake, the reservoir in the scrub-covered desert hills above Los Angeles where Bob had landed both of his near-record fish. The man-made reservoir is the last link in a chain of reservoirs that hold precious Colorado River water meant to slake the insatiable thirst of the San Fernando Valley. The upper portion had been ruined as far as big largemouth bass went because of the introduction of striped bass (or “stripers”), which outcompeted largemouth for food. And the city of Los Angeles had ordered a drawdown of Castaic in 1995 to check for damage to the dam after the earthquake the year before, and with that had destroyed some of the best bass habitat. But as far as anybody could tell, no striped bass inhabited the lagoon, and Bob said he'd seen “what would be the world record swimming in the lagoon on more than one occasion.” I was excited. I was going hunting for the world-record bass with Bob Crupi, the man I had first read about in an outdoor magazine when I was a teenager, the only man ever to land two bass of more than 21 pounds. Granted, July was not the best month to fish for big bass, but they would be in there and, well, you never knew.
Five minutes into the drive, I asked Bob a question about his pursuit of the world record. The muscles in his jaw clenched tight, and his face turned red. He was simmering. I thought he was thinking about his answer. His silence made me nervous. I started to stammer a bit, trying to clarify my questions. When he answered, his voice rose well above mine. “I'm not after this goddamn record anymore. I'm done with the whole fucking thing.”
“Well,” I said, as calmly as I could, “let's just go after it just for today, OK?”
“You're the client,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
We pulled past the gate at the state park and backed the boat into the water. Bob jumped in and threw me the keys to the truck. “Park it right over there,” he said, motioning to the barren lot. We were the only ones there. I guess he was right about July. I parked the truck and warily eyed the stuffed lion on the dashboard. I walked quickly back to the dock, leaped into the boat, handed Bob the car keys, and we were off.
Maybe fifty yards from the dock, Bob moved the boat with the electric motor in gradually diminishing circles while eyeing the depthfinder, which showed a few small green blobs (“Those are fish,” he said) and a severe dropoff on the lake's floor. It was, he said, a good spot for big bass that lie in wait to ambush their prey. He finally shut off the motor and let out one anchor from the front of the boat. I let out another anchor from the back. We'd employed Bob's now- famous double-anchor technique, cribbed from other anglers during the glory years, an example of just how hard he had studied his craft. The two anchors held the boat absolutely still, negating any swaying effects that a slight current or breeze might have on the boat and his line in the water. “You want to sit the bait,” he said.
Bob opened a bucket, took out a crawdad, and hooked it just behind the head. The crustacean raised its pincers, protesting mildly. Then Bob cast maybe thirty feet from the boat, letting the line out until the crawdad settled on the bottom of the lake. He flipped his bail and held the monofilament line in his fingers. I followed his lead. He told me to watch the line, to look for the sudden jerks that would signal that the crawdad felt imminent danger and was using its powerful tail to try to swim away from a big bass. If the line started to move, he explained, you held on and waited until it went straight. That meant that a bass had taken the bait. You had to wait until you were absolutely certain it was hooked. And that was when you were supposed to strike.
The sun was already out in full force in what would be an excruciatingly hot southern California day. Bob opened up the first of many Diet Pepsis and sat silently, chin in hand, looking out from behind his dark polarized glasses, as if he could see through the mystery of the dark water. We sat like this, in the exact same spot, for twelve hours straight. Neither of our lines ever moved, once.
Robert J. Crupi, it could be said, was born to break George Perry's record. On June 2, 1953, exactly twenty-one years after the world record was set, Bob was delivered into this world in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Salvatore and Viola Crupi. When he was ten years old, his father moved the family to Los Angeles to take over the management of a five-and-dime store. But Bob brought something out west with him from Brooklyn: the burning desire to be a cop. His maternal grandfather, Christian Schultz, was a member of the New York City Police Department, a tightly wrapped man who frequently brought his job home and treated his family like the street criminals he stalked on his shifts. Bob hated the powerfully built, bitter old manhated his guts because of his propensity to ruin a Thanksgiving gathering or Christmas dinner by getting drunk and yelling at Bob's father. The old man would even, on occasion, threaten to hit Bob's mother and even Bob. They all cowered in his big presence. But something about the air of authority that his grandfather carried with him intrigued young Bob, especially when the older man was wearing that crisp blue uniform, that shiny badge and holstered gun. Nevertheless, Bob hated him. Even at a young age, Bob had a heightened sense of what he perceived to be right and wrong. And he decided very early on in life which side he wanted to be on.
The move to California, out from under the grime and menace of New York and his grandfather and into the sun-sweet land where dreams were reborn, invigorated the Crupis. They were happy. While his parents ran the store, Bob spent every free moment of his childhood on the rivers and reservoirs, fishing. Something about the sport intrigued him, though he could never say exactly what that was. But it made him joyous, unbelievably so, to bring home a stringer of bass or trout for his parents. He even convinced them to buy him a four hundred-gallon tank, which he put in the garage. He filled it with lake water and a few big bass. He would sit and study his pet bass, watching them swim for hours and experimenting by dropping in live crawdads and golden shiners to see which bait the bass preferred. His friends played other sportsfootball and basketballand excelled at them. Bob was always good at catching fish. And the more he caught, the stronger his urge became to catch even bigger ones, to be the one at the dock at the end of the day with a stringer that included at least one fish that was larger than any of the ones that the grown-ups in boats had brought to shore.
In 1975, Bob graduated from the police academy and lived with another cop in the Sunland area of Los Angeles. He started working on the force in a patrol car, and he found police work exhilarating. Young cops, they say, are like children: They don't know enough to be afraid. The car chases, the stakeouts, the drug busts, even the light duty of traffic patrol were immensely satisfying. He had found the perfect methodology for carrying out his black-and-white vision of the world. There were law-abiding people and there were shitbirds and there was no in-between. He even enjoyed some of the off-duty fun, hanging out with the others after the shift, unwinding with more than a few beers, chasing women who loved the uniforms in a much different way than Bob had when he was a kid.
But Bob never strayed too far from bass fishing. He spent his days off and his vacations on Castaic Lake and noticed that at the docks he still had the knack for hauling in the biggest fish. While other fishermen would show up with a stringer full of 3- to 5-pound bass, Bob would walk over at the end of the day and slap down a 12-pounder with an authoritative thump on the dock, his one fish that he had spent the whole day hunting. To Bob, the world of fishinghis passion was as black and white as his job: There were big bass, and the rest were pretty useless. The scale told the story, settled the debate. “Why settle for the small ones?” he was fond of saying.
Turns out, Bob Crupi was not the only left Coast transplant who made good. Largemouth bass are not native to California, but like oranges, they have taken very well to the Golden State. As the story goes, Orville Ball, the San Diego lakes superintendent; Rolla Williams, a writer for the San Diego Union; and Ray Boone, who played baseball for the Detroit Tigers, went fishing one day in 1958. According to Orville, Ray started talking about his fishing exploits during spring training in Florida. “He said that these damn three-pound Northern-strain bass in these reservoirs were no big deal compared to the eight-pounders he caught in Florida,” recalls Orville, now eighty and retired in Washington state. “That got my curiosity up.” Orville contacted the world's leading icthyologist at the time, Professor Carl Hubbs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and confirmed that Florida-strain bass had the potential to grow bigger than their northern cousins. In 1959, Orville convinced the county to import some pure Florida bass to Upper Otay Lake near San Diego. To prepare the reservoir, the state put in rotenone, a toxic chemical, to kill all of the fish in the lake, which included northern bass, bluegills, and catfish. They wanted the new bass to start with a clean slate. In the spring of 1959, twenty thousand bass fry arrived via a National Guard training flight from Florida. But that first batch was contaminated with Ichs, a parasite, and had to be destroyed. A year later, twenty thousand new fry came from a hatchery near Pensacola, Florida, and were planted in the lake and, eventually, all over the state. The thinking was they would make a nice addition to the state's other game fish and take well to the state's newly constructed reservoirs built to handle California's ever-expanding population in the 1950s and '60s. Little did they know how well.
A few years after the initial stockings, wildlife biologists began to notice something strange. Like some of the female humans who inhabit California, the bass disappeared for a while, then turned up with a part of their anatomy unnaturally enlarged. The adult bass being caught in the state had the same head-to-tail lengths as their Florida kin, but their weight was uncanny. These bass had bellies that would have made Nell Carter seem svelteso big that some of the fish appeared to be almost circular in shape. The biologists noticed that just six or seven years after a reservoir was stocked, bass would grow to 10 to 15 pounds, a size that largemouths in their native state of Florida would be lucky to reach by age twelve. Sure, the long warm-weather season in southern California and clean reservoir water made a nice habitat for the bass, but their sizes made no rational sense to the biologists, so they started looking for a reason. Then it dawned on them: The largemouths were eating another Fish and Game Department project.
Since the 1950s, for recreational anglers, the department had been stocking thousands of pounds of rainbow trout, California's native fish, in the same reservoirs as the bass. The big bass were gobbling up these one-pound protein treats like they were food pellets and growing to abnormal sizes. “We knew that the fish had the potential to grow larger, but we didn't know how large,” says Orville, the Godfather of big bass in California. “And we didn't think they would eat the trout. But it's a good feeling whenever you plant something in the garden and a beautiful thing comes up and blooms. It tickles me to death.”
Just fourteen years after that initial stocking, California bass began an attack on the record books that hasn't ceased. In 1973, Dave Zimmerlee landed a 20-pound,15-ounce fish in San Diego's Lake Miramar that became the world's second-largest bass and the California state record. It was the first 20-pound-plus fish caught since George Perry's, forty-one years earlier. Raymond Easely beat that with a 21-pound, 3.5-ounce fish from Lake Casitas, a reservoir near Ojai, seven years later, and the second California gold rush was officially on. When his friend and sometime rival Dan Kadota caught an 18-pounder from Castaic Lake in 1988, Bob Crupi knew his time had come. His lakethe one he had studied for years and knew inch-by-inchwas bearing fruit.
In 1988, Bob made his full commitment. Bass fishing became for him something more than a passion. It was more akin to breathing. He was always the first in line at the parking lot at Castaic, always the last off the water. He spent every nonworking waking hour on the water, observing, trying new techniques, watching for patterns. He cobbled together all of his vacation days so he could take the month of March off, the time of year when the big bass went on the spawning beds and were at their most vulnerable and, because of the eggs, which can add up to two pounds in weight, at their heaviest.
The days all blended together in a sunburned California dream. At the dock, the motor would pop-pop-pop until it caught a gear, then Bob would gun his boat across the reservoir to his spot, circle it a few times with the quiet electric motor, eye the fishfinder to make sure he was on at least one big fish, then double-anchor, bait his hook, cast it out, and sit and bake in the hot sun. For hours, for days, for weeks.
Every fish could be caught. They all made mistakes, made themselves vulnerable. You just had to be in the right place at the right time. He called these places his “confidence spots.” If he knew a big fish was in the vicinity, he had no reason to move. For anything. He carried a white bucket on the boat that served as a Portajohn. He would drink one Diet Pepsi after another. Visualizing his crawdad slowly making its way along the rocky lake bottom, Bob stared hard into the water trying to clear his head of any other thoughts. Every once in a while, though, he would find himself thinking about the money, the talk shows, the product endorsements that were sure to come when he broke the record. How it would change his life. How he knew he could do it. But he would banish those distractions as quickly as they came and would refocus even harder on the bait below. He wasn't doing this for the fame. This was about hard work and sacrifice and a world that if it were at all just, would reward him with what he so desperately desired.
Though he worked all night and got only a few hours of sleep, Bob never felt tired on the lake. He was always on point, always focused on the water before him, on the monofilament line he held between his fingers. He watched the line for anything unusual, any jumps or twitches that might signal a bass. Bob mostly fished by himself. He didn't need help from anyone else, and anyway, he wasn't interested in anyone tagging along. He didn't mind being on the water for so long every day all alone. In fact, he quite liked it.
His techniques on the water were not unique. The use of two anchors he learned from Dan Kadota, who had himself learned it from some commercial fishermen in the Pacific. Crawdads? Sure, some guys used rubber imitation trout or live golden shiners, but most of the two-dozen or so people on the lake on any given day were using the crustaceans. Everyone knew that bass loved them (“Maybe it's a Southern thing,” said Bob). Perhaps the only technique that Bob used that was different was the 8-pound test line. That was far lighter than most people were willing to go. But Bob felt that big bass were warier, and anyway, he could land big fish on 8-pound test, no problem.
But what separated Bob Crupi from all of the others was something else. Like a great natural athlete, he had all of the physical tools. But to be the best, you have to possess the intangible. For Bob, the intangible was his ability to deny basic human nature, to fight off the boredom and loneliness, to resist the urge to change his tactics if they didn't produce immediate results, to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. “I don't think he was any better at it than a handful of other people,” says Porter Hall, who chased the record on Castaic at the same time as Bob. “The thing that separated Bob was that he was there all day, every day. Always the first on and last off. Damn did he fish hard. He just outworked everybody else.” Porter remembers only one day when Bob left the lake early. As Bob motored by on his way to the dock, Porter asked him why he was leaving. Bob looked irritated. He explained that he had to go pick up his kids from school. “Nobody's fault but my own,” Bob said, shaking his head in disgust.
By the late 1980s, southern California was abuzz about Castaic, about the huge bass that had been seen swimming in the lake: a fish of well over 20 pounds, possibly even a world-record fish. And, all of the locals said, if anyone was going to break that record, it would most likely be that crazy motorcycle cop.
Around this time Bob's fishing began to take a toll on his family. His wife, Trish, had given birth to a daughter in 1987. A year later she had a son, and Bob was at the hospital for the actual birth, but had shed the sterilized garments and was back on the water within an hour. Bob was rarely at home, and even when he was there it was either to pick up the bass boat after work or to get a few hours of sleep before reporting back to his job. He saw the kids or his wife only in passing as he blew through the house, rushing to get onto the water or onto his bike. Trish began to complain that she was raising Bob's two children all by herself. Bob hired a nanny, but Trish said he had missed the point. But still, Bob couldn't stop fishing. It wasn't just the world record anymore, not the fame and money that would supposedly follow it, not the esteem and jealousy that it would certainly inspire in other anglers, his competitors. It was something else altogether, something he had no easier time explaining now than he did when he was a kid. It was an obsession that bordered on addiction. “It gives me a high to catch big bass,” Bob said. “It comes from doing something that's not average.” In some eerie way, Bob had unwittingly become just like the johns and druggies he arrested every day while on patrol. His wife first threatened him with divorce in late 1989.
Then on March 9, 1990, Bob announced himself to the big-bass world with a bang. His fishfinder had picked up a huge bass that hung tight to the lake bottom at Trout Point. A year earlier a fisherman had hooked and lost an 18-pounder in that same spot. He knew that this could be it: the fish that he had spent two years pursuing. He double-anchored his boat and, two hours later, hauled in a huge basshis biggest ever. He brought it in to the dock later in the day and had it weighed on the postal scale, which wouldn't make it official, but would give him an idea of what he had on his hands. Just for a moment, he allowed himself to dream about the world record or, at the very least, the state record. His heart sank. The scale was reading just over 21 pounds off the world record by a pound and change, and even below Easely's record for California. Bob took the fish into town to have it certified anyway (it was part of a five-fish stringer that weighed 72 pounds, 1 ouncea state record that still stands today). He wanted to make it official. The 21- pound, 1?2-ounce fish was the third-largest bass in history. He hoped that it would help justify all of this fishing to his wife. And, maybe more importantly, to himself.
Then Bob Crupi experienced something that he had never gone through in his thirty years of fishing: a slump. He suddenly had trouble locating big fish and sat over spots that felt fishless. And even when he did hook big bass, they somehow threw the hook or broke the line. He even began to feel tired during the day, losing his concentration, something he never thought was possible. He was miserable and began to question if all of these sacrifices he had made at home and at work were for nothing. A slump was nothing to be ashamed of. Even premier athletes like baseball players went through periods when they couldn't produce. Most of the time they just fought their way through it. But Bob knew, also, that some of them never recovered; their confidence was irrevocably shaken. He worried that he had lost his edge, maybe forever.
In the beginning of 1991, Bob hit his nadir. He had gone too many fishless days. He needed a break. His wife was set to attend a seminar, a David Del Dotto “get-rich-quick-from-real-estate” conference that was being held in Irvine. She pleaded with him to go with her, to take time off and maybe, just maybe, save their marriage. With no other place to turn, Bob decided to go. The other anglers on CastaicDan Kadota and Leo Torrescouldn't believe what they had heard. Big Bad Bob Crupi was leaving the lake just as it seemed ready to spit out the world record. Now of all times? But Bob, ever sure of himself, dismissed their comments, left Castaic with his wife, and headed for Irvine.
The trip was just what Bob needed. He didn't listen too hard to Del Dotto's real-estate ramblings, but enjoyed the time off the water. He spent hours by the pool, relaxing, not thinking about fishing. At night he and Trish would go out to dinner, either with other conference attendees or by themselves. They were getting to know each other again. Bob was softening up, enjoying his first real time away from bass fishing in ten years.
One morning he went down to the hotel lobby to pick up the paper. He flipped to the sports page, and there on the front were two brothers, Mike and Manny Arujo, smiling, holding two fish, one 14 and the other 18 pounds, caught at Castaic Lake. Bob was incensed. He knew every other fisherman on the lake, but who the hell were these two, and how the hell did they catch those fish? He went back up to the hotel room and started pacing. “Pack up, honey. We're going home.”
Bob was back on the lake the next day, but something still didn't feel right. He fished, without any real success, for the next two months. But he knew if he just kept at it, something would happen. And something did, on March 5, 1991 . . . just not to Bob. Mike Arujo, one member of the sibling duo that no one had ever heard of, who had only been fishing the lake for three months, landed a 21-pound, 12-ounce bass, smashing Easely's state record with a fish that was a mere 8 ounces from Perry's world record. Bob was devastated. A newbie had caught a spectacular bass after just ninety days on the lake. Bob had been on the chase for years with little to show for it. All of the hours, the stress, seemed for naught. He went home that night prepared to tell his wife that he was done, that he had given up the chase. “Fuck it, I thought. It wasn't worth it,” he said.
Here for the first time was the crack in the fortress wall that had always been so stone solid. This was the sign, he thought, that he should quit. He'd go back on duty and forego the rest of his planned month off. He expected Trish to be relieved, to want him back for the sake of the family, to be happy that he had decided to quit. But what she said shocked him: She told him to get back out there and catch a bigger fish. For better or for worse, the Bob Crupi that she had married wouldn't give up right now, not when he had come this close. She appreciated the time and attention he had given her lately and knew that he loved her. But now it was time for him to get back on the lake. “Then the light just went on,” Bob said.
He was on Castaic the next morning. Once again, Bob was first in line and first on the water. He fished hard, relying on his old instincts, his old determination. “It all felt right,” he said. Did it ever. On the morning of March 12, 1991, Bob had a hunch. Some big bass had been caught a few days earlier at Old Shithouse Cove (named for the floating Portajohn that was once there). While waiting by the gate, he'd made the decision to spend the day on the cove. He moseyed his boat up to a spot by a sunken tree that provided excellent cover for a big bass and ran the quiet electric motor.
A dozen or so other boats dotted the water that morning, scattered in some of the other big-name spots, like Elizabeth Canyon, Trout Point, and Red Rocks. Bob didn't know if the Arujo boys were there that morning, and he didn't care anymore. Thinking about them was only a distraction. He stopped and double-anchored. He opened the bait bucket that held maybe thirty crawdads that he had hand-selected from the secret creek behind his house. He waited for one to catch his eye. He liked the crawdads with what he called “daditude,” the friskiest, most pugnacious of the group. A little brown crustacean reached up to Bob's hand as he lowered it into the bucket. There he was. Bob grabbed it on the back and impaled it with a hook behind its brain.
It was eight o'clock on a bluebonnet morning. He pitched out the crawdad and let it settle onto the shallow, rocky bottom. Almost immediately, the line started to move in quick spurts. He put his reel in gear, took out all of the slack, and waited. The line jumped sidewaysa sign of a strike. He reared back, bending the rod almost in two. The fish ran hard, smoking a bunch of line from his reel. He knew right away that the fish was about the same size as the 21-pounder he had caught almost exactly a year before. He worked the bass to the surface, careful not to put too much strain on his rod and the 8-pound test line. The fish kicked its tail on the water and pulled out some more drag. Slowly, Bob got it to the surface again, and this time he reached for his net. He worked the fish in, inch by inch. Three minutes after he had hooked the bass, with its mammoth distended belly, it was safely in his livewell. “I knew it was another big fish, but I didn't think right away it was the record,” he says.
Instead of motoring straight to the dock and the postal scale that was stowed in the park office, Bob calmly rebaited his hook and took another cast. He caught a 6-pounder, probably the male partner of the fish in the livewell. He let that one go. He made a few more casts before he got curious. He wasn't thinking about the world record, but maybe, he thought, this fish would put Arujo in his place and break his lake recordno small achievement. Bob took it into the docks. The postal scale read somewhere around 22 pounds. At that point Bob knew he had the state record, and potentially even the holy grail that he had sought for three years now.
He took the fish to a local liquor store with an official, certified digital scale. The man behind the counter photographed the fish, took its measurements, and acted as the witness. The fish was absolutely gigantic, with a belly the size of a bowling ball. Eggs were dripping out of its stomach. Bob draped it over the scale. He first saw the numbers “22” flash on the digital readout and thought for a momentjust for a momentthat this was the fish. Then he saw the “.01” that followed. He was short by just under 4 ounces. If this fish had eaten maybe two more bites for breakfast, Bob would have beaten Perry's world record. A call was put in to the State Department of Fish and Game to come and certify this fish as the unchallenged new state record. No one was in the office. A message was left. Then Bob thought about the thousands of eggs that this female bass was carrying and decided to drive it back to the lake. He got into his boat and went back to Old Shithouse Cove. He held the fish in the water for maybe five seconds, then it shook free with a kick of its giant tail. And with that, only the second ever recorded bass of over 22 pounds in the world disappeared into the depths forever.
Bob left the lake and went home. Even before he could tell his wife about the fish, the phone started to ring. Writers from Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, and the Los Angeles Times asked him the same questions.
“No, I never thought about keeping the fish,” Bob answered, politely at first.
“It was full of eggs.”
“I hoped that it would grow bigger in the next year or two.”
“I'm a cop.”
“No, I don't believe in George Perry's record.”
He started to get agitated almost right away.
Bob wasn't prepared for what would happen next. He had always been a solitary man, on his bike and on the lake. He was naturally a bit surly, not a talker, never speaking any more words than were necessary to get him through the day. He wasn't accustomed to all of this attention, all of the questions. The media bothered the crap out of him. He was like Ted Williams in that way. He just wanted to do what he did so well in a vacuum. For Williams, that meant hitting a baseball. For Bob, it was catching big bass. But the press kept hounding him relentlessly. Calls came in from New York, Miami, even Japan, at all hours of the night. He let the answering machine pick them up, then deleted them immediately. Reporters showed up at the docks in the morning, hoping to get a comment, barging into his personal space. They wanted to know what kind of rod and reel he was using, wanted to know all about his techniques. They wanted to fish with him, to watch him do his thing, to study him like a lab rat. “I was doing things my own way and didn't want to divulge anything,” Bob said. He refused to cooperate, so they started printing preposterous rumors and falsehoods they'd obtained from anonymous sources (he'd killed a man while on duty; he'd cheated and used live trout for bait; he'd illegally used two rods).
But the media wasn't the worst problem he had. Suddenly, Castaic was packed full of boats. In the parking lot, license plates from Alabama, Kentucky, and New York were sprinkled amidst the blue-and-gold California plates. On the water, other anglers spied on him with binoculars, watching his every move. “I can't tell you how many people have seen me take a piss in a bucket,” he said, still irritated twelve years later. Little groups of anglers, gossiping like ladies at a tea party, would suddenly get quiet when he walked by them at the gate in the morning. Men like Mike Arujo bad-mouthed him at tackle shows, saying he was a cheater. Other anglers started calling him “Bob Crappy” behind his back. Bob didn't do himself any favors with his guarded, secretive, and snarling ways.
Porter Hall, after considerable nagging, even fished with Bob a few times but never felt comfortable in his presence. “Bob's a cop and has this shell around him,” he said. “I don't know if he considers anyone a friend. He and I had respect for each other, and I enjoyed fishing with him. But he doesn't want any real friends.”
The park service boats, maybe picking up on the things that other anglers were whispering, started motoring by him on the water, eyeing him closely, kicking up wake into his double- anchored boat and screwing up the natural movement of his bait. When Bob got on a good bite at a certain spot, other anglers would horn in and ruin the action. A group of gypsies in johnboats, pontoon boats, and every other type of watercraft imaginable anchored up around him for a week at Mud Point, one of his honey holes, and their anchorlines and general commotion spoiled the spot. Even his employer seemed to get in on the act. When Bob hurt his back during a big bass tournament in Tennessee, he went on disability. A month into his rehab, his doctor told him to start some light exercise. So Bob of course went fishing. He caught an 18-pound, 9-ounce bass that made the papers. The LAPD launched an investigation for benefits abuse. Internal Affairs found him not guilty. But Bob's world had suddenly shrunk to an uncomfortably small size.
A few months later he'd finally had enough of the allegations and called Ed Zieralski, a respected outdoor writer at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Bob wanted to exonerate himself, wanted the truth to be out there. He granted Ed an interview, fully disclosing all of his methods. The story appeared in mid-1991. He even began to answer some of the calls from the television folks, but soon found out that talking to the press was a mistake. They all wanted to film him, have him haul their photography boats. They wanted him to pose with a fish in a certain way, to read from asinine scripts. But he was giving them something for nothing. He found no upside in cooperating with the media. They didn't make him any money, and he didn't want the fame. And it all took away from what he would rather be doing: chasing the world record. He stopped granting interviews altogether by the end of 1991.
But he persevered, fishing under this microscope, in his zone, for three more years. Other anglers, like Porter Hall from Alabama, John Collins from Ojai, and Bill Sansum from San Diego, imitated his tactics and made names for themselves on the lake. Even Orlando Woolridge, the former NBA player, fished the lake. The scene at the gate every morning had taken on the character of a Grateful Dead concert. Some fifty trucks, each trailing a bass boat, would sit in the early morning darkness. Groups of anglers gathered in small huddles, bleary-eyed, drinking coffee over small campstoves, talking about how they were sure Sowbelly was swimming in the depths of Castaic. Every morning the line in front of the gate crackled with anticipation that this could be the day. And when the siren sounded, they took off and jumped in their trucks like the start of a Le Mans auto race and jockeyed
for position at the boat ramp and on the lake. At nightfall, they went home for a few hours' sleep, then turned right around and headed back to line up at Castaic. But no one ever came close to Bob's fish.
Then in January of 1994, an earthquake registering 6.7 on the Richter scale rocked nearby Northridge. Everyone in the fishing community took it as a good sign. This was the near- cataclysmic event, they thought, that would stir up the big bass in the lake. Nature was indicating that she was ready. The year turned out to be one of the most popular on the lake. But the fish numbers and sizes inexplicably went down. Then in 1995, the city of Los Angeles, fearing that Castaic's water was about to burst through and flood the San Fernando Valley, drained the lake down 130 feet to check the dam for any earthquake damage. And later that year, someone landed a striped bass, signaling an irreversible invasion of that voracious species. And Castaic's magic run was over, just like that.
Bob told me all of this during our long and uneventful time together on the water. He seemed strangely distracted that day. Some of his gear had fallen into disarray. His seat cushions were coming apart at the seams, and the Astroturf-like rug on the bottom of the boat was shabby and peeling at the edges. When he talked to me, I noticed that he'd put his rod down behind him, leaving the bail on his reel open, unconcerned with holding or even watching the line. He didn't seem to really care about fishing at all.
Many people I had spoken to before my trip had warned me about Bob. They said he was a bitter man who had become hardened by the fact that he had come so close to the record and the riches, but had ultimately failed. There is no award for second place in this race. The whole chase thing and the near miss did seem to have taken its toll on him. He talked very openly about how it had almost destroyed his marriage and his family. “I missed the first five years of my kids' lives,” he said. His children hate fishing as a result, and you get the feeling from his stories of their insouciance that he has very little moral authority at home, whether it's a result of his own guilt or just the simple fact that he was absent for a bit too much of their childhood.
And it's true that he didn't realize too much gain from the number-two fish in history, at least in monetary terms. He sold a few T-shirts and a few thousand copies of his video, Bodacious Bass. He garnered a few tackle sponsorships that entitled him to free rods for life. But the one consistent moneymaker has been his guiding business. His fame has allowed him to book trips whenever he likes and charge an exorbitant fee of $650 a day. But it's pretty clear that Bob doesn't really like guiding all that much and that the money doesn't make it any better. His temperament and methods don't fit very well with guiding clients, a garrulous job that requires sublimation of one's ego. Hunting record-size bass is a solitary endeavor or, at best, one shared by two like-minded individuals with the same end goal and a steadfast agreement on the best means to get there. Clients talk too much. They get bored very easily. They have to pee all the time. They lose their concentration. They don't listen to him. They want to catch the 5-pound bassconsidered trophies in most parts of the worldthat breach around the boat all afternoon (“Little shitbirds,” Bob calls them). And they ask him questions about his fish, which makes him clench his jaw and turns his face red and raises the volume in his voice a decibel or two. To Bob, it should all be reduced to the simplest of terms: A man. A method. A fish. The rest is just bullshit.
And anyway, he's sick of the whole chase thing, as he frequently reminded me on our trip. “I don't believe in Perry's record. There are way too many holes in the story,” he said. “But I want all of this to be over and done with. I'll go down and buy whoever gets it a round of drinks. I had my fifteen minutes of fame. I just hope whoever gets it works hard for it.”
Bob is not an easy guy to feel sorry for, and what I felt that day for him was not exactly that. But as other boats gunned by us without so much as a glance, and two kayakers just blithely paddled by, I found myself wanting to yell out, “Do you know who this is? This is Bob Crupi, dammit! He was once the best big-bass fisherman alive!” But I didn't. Bob has a good life. He still has his family. He still does pretty much what he wants to do, saving up guiding money for trips to Africa to hunt elephants and dart rhinos (He's still a predator who likes to hunt for the biggest things around). And he's at the age where he can retire from the force at any time and live comfortably for life. The stresses of his job have started to wear on him. Just before we fished together, he had worked overtime as Los Angeles was put on orange alert due to the threat of terrorism.
But I did find myself that day wishing he would enter the race againfor his own sake, maybe. He was, in a sense, still an underdog to this legendary world-record bass and the mythical qualities that had surrounded it in the almost seventy-five years since its capture. And I did start to wonder, given his venom for the press, why he had agreed to our time on the water, to be subject to my niggling questions. And toward the end of the day, as the sun started to fall behind the scrubby hills of the Angeles National Forest, he did steer the conversation back to the record, with no prompting from me: “You know, when I retire, I'm going to hunt and fish full-time,” he said. It was like he wanted to get in his final words, ones that he had been thinking about since my first questions in his Suburban some twelve hours earlier. “If a lake turned on somewhere and wasn't too far away, if there was another opportunity, I'd be a fool not to try again.”
We finally gave up a little after six. He pulled the boat up to the dock and I went to fetch the truck. The other cars had been long gone, and with good reason. We hadn't even had a bite. I started up the engine and looked again at the stuffed lion on his dashboard. We cinched up the boat, and Bob drove me back to my motel.
“Thanks, Bob. That was fun,” I said as I got out of the truck. And it had been fun for me. I had just spent the day with Bob Crupi on a lake he said (and I believed him) the world-record bass was finning around in, somewhere. Though he'd been a difficult, taciturn interview and we hadn't caught a thing, I did have a good time. And I couldn't shake the last words he'd spoken on the boatwhat seemed to me to be the ones that broke his hardened carapace for only a brief moment like he was a tight fist about to unclenchthe ones about the “opportunity.” Most of us only get one in our lives if we're lucky. But out here in California, you never knew.
“No, it wasn't that fun,” Bob said. “It's fun when you catch big bass.” There it was, in black and white with no room for gray. There were big fish and there were shitbirds. There were those who abided by the law and those who broke it. Bob just wanted to go about doing his job and keeping order in the universeon the streets and on the water. A certain purity came from his law-and- order view of the world, and he was certain that he was on the right side of things. With that, I closed the doors of the truck. And then the lion in winter drove his bass boat off into the California horizon.
When I got back to my office in New York, I had three messages on my machine. Two were from other record chasers in California. Both asked the same thing: Was Crupi still after the record? Both sounded worried.
Meet the Author
A devoted angler and outdoorsman, Monte Burke has written many articles for Field & Stream and other periodicals.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews