One magic spring day at Otay Lake, Jack Neu caught five largemouth bass that weighed a total of 53 pounds, 12 ounces, probably the largest five-fish bass limit ever caught on planet Earth. I was with Jack on that special day, and as it evolved, it was as if everyone at Otay had been launched into a different orbit than the rest of the world. In a two-hour span at the dock scale, 30 bass weighing eight pounds or more were checked in. Out on the water, though, Jack and I were still at it. He'd caught four that weighed a total of 45 pounds, topped by a 16-pounder. One more and he'd earn a place in history.
When it comes to bass, history is being lived in present-day Californianot just looked up in record books. In the past few years, there have been several line-class world records for largemouth bass, including the most famous of all, the 22-pound bass caught and released at Lake Castaic by Bob Crupi, which was just four ounces shy of the all-time world record. Because so many anglers spend so much effort searching for big bass, the world record has become a legend among legends. It weighed 22 pounds, four ounces, and was caught in 1932 in Georgia by a postal worker named George Perry, who after documenting the fish's weight, took it home, cut it up, cooked it, and with the help of his family, ate it.
The pursuit of a new world-record bass has led to intense, sometimes maniacal scenes being acted out at many California lakes: Guns have even been drawn. You often have to reserve your bait in advance. In the choice between bass or spouse, some anglers have chosen bass. At lakes that are open only on Wednesdays and weekends, some anglers will pay college kids to sit/sleep/eat in their trucks with trailered boats so that come Saturday morning, they will have a good place in line at the boat ramp. Crazy? You bet it is. But the possibility of catching a 15- or 20-pound bass can do strange things to the afflicted.
Before you start searching, however, you need to choose one of two strategies. Do you want maximum excitement and catch rates, but virtually no chance at a monster-sized bass? Or do you want that monster, and are you willing to face long periods of dead time in the process of waiting for it?
Jack Neu and I chose the latter, and in the amazing scene that ensued, Jack caught those four bass weighing 45 pounds. One more and he'd make history, so we cruised off to a cove at Otay Lake in search of Number 5. It was a clear, warm spring day. The hills were still green, and after a cold winter, the bass were coming to life with the warming water temperatures. Jack reached an old favorite spot, slowed the boat to a crawl, and with a switch, flipped on his paper depth graph.
"The new electronic fishfinders are outstanding," Neu said."They show bottom contour, depth, water temperature, and they mark fish. But I really prefer the paper graphs, even though they are more expensive because you have to keep buying paper scrolls for them. They not only are more detailed, even showing the size of individual fish, but because it is all recorded on paper, you can take it home, lay it out on a table, and study the lake bottom. After doing this for a while, you can get to know the bottom of a lake as well as the layout of your own home."
For 10 or 15 minutes, Jack motored his boat around the cove at the pace of a slow walk, and, while doing so, studied the marks on the graph. Suddenly, his shoulders tightened, his mustache scrunched up, and he pointed at the graph.
"Look! Look!" Neu exclaimed, like a safecracker who had just heard the right click on the dial."There's a big one down there." He pointed to the place on the paper where a large inverted U had been marked, indicating a huge fish.
Jack immediately tossed out a small buoy, which spun around on the water as the attached rope weighted with a sinker unrolled straight to the lake bottom. The buoy then floated there in place, secure, and Jack stretched out his arm, pointing at it. "That marks the spot," he said. "That is where we'll find the big one."
He slowly motored the boat off to the side, threw out an anchor, and turned off the engine. His breathing was shallow and short, his speech edgy and excited. It was as if sparks were shooting from him. For a moment, I thought Jack might spontaneously combust.
Then he pulled out a cardboard flat, the kind that will hold two 12-packs of Budweiser, but instead of beer it contained about 15 live crawdads. Jack waved his hands over the top of the crawdads as if he was a sorcerer applying a magic spell.
"First one that moves gets elected," Jack said. Gets elected as bait that is. By waving your hand over the top, you can find the liveliest bait. One squiggled a bit, and Jack grabbed it. "You're elected," he told the crawdad.
Jack held the winner on its side with a thumb and forefinger, positioned so the little bugger couldn't nail him with a pincher, then hooked it right between the eyes with the No. 8 hook that was tied to fishing line. Jack uses no sinker, no leader. Just a small hook. That way the crawdad will swim around most naturally," Jack said. "When a big bass starts to chase it, the crawdad will swim off trying to escape. Nothing gets a big bass more excited than what appears to be a good meal about to escape."
With his rod and reel in hand, Jack tossed the bait out toward the buoy then let the crawdad swim to the bottom. For bass fishing tackle. Neu believes in a rod and reel that is comfortable for the angler regardless of whether it is a spinning outfit or a revolving spool reel. "What is more important," he explained, "is knowing what to do, then doing it exactly right.
For 20 minutes, knowing what to do was doing nothing. We waited and watched, staring at where our lines entered the lake. Then, suddenly, his line twitched in the water a bit.
"I'm getting hit," said Jack, now panting. He stood with his rod, careful not to pull or twitch, and pointed it at the water. As he did so, his line gained a bit of slack and settled limply in the water. Jack's stare burrowed in on that limp line, and for 20 seconds, nothing happened.
"I know a big bass is down there," he said, breathing even heavier. "I know my crawdad is down there. And I know that something made it move."
Five seconds later, the slack line began to draw tight.
"He's picking it up, he's picking it up," he said. The line tightened further, then tightened a lot, and Jack Neu set the hook hard. It was whoo-ya time: the rod bent down like he'd hooked Moby Bass. He'd hooked it. The fish never jumped, but instead bulldogged in short thrusts of power near the lake bottom, just as the big ones often do. The runs were very short bursts, and Jack had trouble turning the fish toward the boat. Finally, though, he did, and soon after that, the fish was alongside, then in the net. Jack Neu had caught that magic bass Number 5, and it was another beauty.
The fish turned out to weigh an even eight pounds, bringing Jack's five-bass limit to 53 pounds, 12 ounces. It was one of the most extraordinary angling accomplishments in history, and Jack's strategies and techniques provide an excellent fishing lesson that anyone can learn from.
But don't think that all you have to do is show up, use electronics to find a big bass, and then toss your bait out to catch it. "It sure doesn't work that way most of the time," Jack said with a laugh.
For example, I have had the opportunity to "pre fish" many of the great bass lakes in Southern California. Pre fishing is when you fish a lake that has been closed for many months before it opens to the public. Sounds like a can't miss deal, right? Wrong. I've had times when electronic fishfinders marked hundreds and hundreds of fish, yet not one of them would bite.
''The first day I started using electronics to locate fish, I couldn't believe how many bass were down there," Jack said. "Then after I didn't catch any, I was ready to throw the thing overboard. I started to wish I didn't know how many fish there were. Electronics can provide an edge, not a guarantee. To catch these big bass, everything from start to finish needs to be working for you."
On that magic day at Otay, everything was.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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