The quest goes on for giant bass

Published March 6, 2005

Jonah and his whale are only slightly more famous than George Washington Perry and his bass. Perry was the 20-year-old farmer who dragged a 22-pound, 4-ounce behemoth from a Georgia backwater on a rainy day in 1932. Perry's fish became a world record that still stands, the subject of myth and endless debate, and two meals for a family in the depths of the Great Depression.

It also became a life-changing obsession for a small group of anglers whom author Monte Burke calls the "lunatic fringe" of the multibillion-dollar bass-fishing industry. Burke, whose book, Sowbelly, goes on sale March 17, is a financial writer for Forbes who spent more than a year tracking down and interviewing the denizens of this strange universe where a bass that weighs a mere 12 pounds is hardly worth notice. The title of his book derives from a name commonly given to a hypothetical record-breaker.

To those for whom a 10-pounder is a dream, these guys are nuts.

There is Bob Crupi, a Los Angeles motorcycle cop who is the only person to catch two bass of more than 21 pounds, including the second-heaviest at 22 pounds, 1/2 ounce, a Quarter Pounder short of immortality. (Actually, to be official any record must exceed the old one by at least 2 ounces, but let's not quibble.)

Crupi's catches came at a price. According to Burke's book, Crupi spent virtually every nonworking hour between 1988 and 1994 on the water, usually at Lake Castaic, a California reservoir whose deep, clear waters have produced eight of the 25 biggest bass recorded. He would sleep about three hours in his truck every night after work, parked at the reservoir gate, jockeying for position with the regulars, all of them after the Florida-strain bass that grow enormous on a diet of state-supplied trout.

Crupi's wife first threatened him with divorce in 1989, a few months before he caught a 21-pound, 1/2-ounce monster. He caught his 22-pounder March 12, 1991, a week after Mike Arujo landed a 21-pound, 12-ounce fish, also at Castaic.

Crupi is hardly alone. There is Mike Long, another Californian who Burke says is the best of the big-bass fishermen. And Porter Hall, who sank much of his inheritance into two small lakes in rural Mississippi where he lives in a small shack several months of the year so he can tend to the bass he hopes will produce a record.

And there is Texas, where taxpayers help fund a breeding facility known as the Lunker Bunker, whose implicit goal is to breed the record-breaker.

Mickey Owens, a Tampa real estate developer, and his buddy, car dealer Bill Currie, founded the Big Bass Record Club in 1998, offering members up to $8-million for breaking Perry's record. Members paid annual dues averaging about $15. Owens says that during its three-year run, the BBRC gave away about $500,000 in annual prizes for the biggest bass caught in each state and for the biggest nationwide.

Owens said "it was a big disappointment to us" when the insurance company that guaranteed the prize got scared by near-record catches and forced the club out of business in 2001.

Some of those whose lives are defined by the record doubt its authenticity. Perry caught his fish before records were formalized. His only verification was a few people who happened to be at the small country store where he weighed the fish on a postal scale.

Motivations vary for pursuit of a fish that may not even exist. The most obvious is money. But there is also something akin to addiction.

"I've thought a lot about this," said Burke, an avid bass fisherman. "Coming up with a concrete answer isn't all that easy. All humans want to reach the ultimate of what they do."

(NOTE: There will be a review of Sowbelly in the Books section of the St. Petersburg Times on March 20.)

Don McBride is a systems editor at the Times and can be reached at 727 893-8584 or dmcbride@sptimes.com