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Biggest Bass of All Time? By Jim Matthews

Everyone knows the bathroom scale lies. When those of us who are overweight watch the dial spin to 10 or 15 pounds over what we'd like to see, we're sure it reads a tad heavy. Skinny people, nurses and doctors, on the other hand, wink and suggest the bathroom scale actually reads light. So whether or not you're in sympathy with what you read may have something to do with the size of your gut.

On March 1, 1997, Paul Duclos of Santa Rosa, CA, was fishing 74-acre Spring Lake. The owner of Ph.D. Carpet Cleaning and Restoration, Duclos, 32, is certainly no professional basser, but he's no weekend warrior, either: An avid big-fish angler, he was throwing a massive, 6.7-ounce Castaic Trout lure when he landed the biggest bass he'd ever seen.

"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'I've got to show my wife this fish.' It never crossed my mind to kill it," says Duclos. "I wasn't thinking about a world record. I was thinking that, before I let this fish go, I just want an idea of how big she is."

So he called The Outdoor Pro Shop in nearby Rohnert Park, and asked Ken Elie, the shop's owner, to bring a certified scale to the dock. Unfortunately, there was no one to watch the store, so Elie had to refuse.

Duclos then called his wife, Shelly, and asked her to come down to the lake and to bring their scale-the bathroom scale, with its big dial. There on the dock he weighed himself -- 180 pounds. Then he gently lifted the fish out of the water and weighed himself with the bass -- 204 pounds.

Even casual bass fishermen know that the world record is George Perry's 22 lb. 4 oz. bass caught in Lake Montgomery, Ga., in 1932. If Duclos's fish was really 24 pounds, he didn't just break the record; he shattered it by almost two pounds. To break Perry's record, Duclos's fish only needed to weigh 22-6 (according to International Game Fish Association rules, a record must be broken by at least two ounces). Nevertheless, after a few photographs were taken, he quickly released the huge, egg-laden largemouth and watched her swim away.

Lest you think this is just another fish tale, consider that Duclos's entire story is corroborated by a complete stranger. Lou Skorupa, a Coast Guard commander from Petaluma, Calif., had met Duclos early in the morning on March 1 as both anglers launched their boats. Then Duclos pushed out in his eight-foot Swamp Scamper primed with its electric motor and began heaving the nine-inch Castaic Trout along the edges of the lake's weed beds.

"I thought he was throwing rocks in the water," says Skorupa. "It was pretty calm and I kept hearing these big splashes. You hear a splash like that, you think someone's catching a fish, but he was throwing this monster plug."

Duclos was fishing out in deeper water when the big bass hit, and the fish took the nine-inch lure so deeply that the lure was entirely in its mouth, one of the treble hooks pinning its jaws closed. With the fish's mouth held shut like that, Duclos fought it up quickly.

"When I saw her, I said to myself out loud, 'Holy Mary Mother of God.' Then I saw she was lip-locked and thought, 'I'm going to kill this fish if I can't unhook her quickly,' " he says.

Duclos propped his rod up and reached for the fish, but while he was lifting the bass, the rod and reel fell overboard. He slipped the fish back in the water and hand-over-handed the line to get the 8 1/2-foot Loomis rod and Shimano reel back into his boat. Then he corralled the fish again. "I have a live-bait well, but she wouldn't come close to fitting in there. I had an old stringer, and I put it through her bottom lip." As he headed for the launch ramp, towing the fish slowly along, Duclos waved Skorupa over and lifted the fish out of the water for his new acquaintance to see. Skorupa later witnessed the weighing and actually held the fish for one of the photos taken before it was released.

I said to him, "You are going to keep that fish, aren't you?" Skorupa says.

"He said, 'No, I got to let her go -- she's full of eggs.'"

"The world record is only 22 pounds," I said.

"'Yeah, Yeah, I know, but I'm gonna let her go.'"

"I just wish I could have talked him into keeping it, but he felt good about letting it go, and I watched that fish swim away," says Skorupa.

When they heard about Duclos's big fish, bass fishermen and outdoor writers across the country immediately began drawing conclusions and leveling claims for or against Duclos, without checking the facts. One Internet site posted a photo of the fish and said the weight was 24.1 pounds and that it had a 39-inch girth (a fish that fat would weigh over 30 pounds). Tom Stienstra, outdoor writer for the San Francisco Examiner, suggested that the bass was actually a mounted fish. Stienstra never contacted Duclos or Skorupa and never saw other photos that show the fish in different poses. Other small-minded bass fishermen leveled the usual accusations: The fish was caught illegally on live trout; it was snagged; its stomach was filled with lead or fish fillets; and on and on.

Duclos's wife was even harassed by some fishermen who belligerently questioned her about the legitimacy of the catch and why-if the bass was so big-it wasn't weighed on a certified scale. A handful of tackle-makers called Duclos to see if he would modify his story to say the fish was caught on their tackle.

"This is such a nutty industry. I'm happy I let the fish go. If I had kept it, my life would have been a living hell. Worse than it has been," says Duclos.

Many of Southern California's big-fish specialists, however, called Duclos to offer support against the accusations. Ironically, several of these same anglers have all but quit fishing for big bass since their attention-getting catches. Bob Crupi, a taciturn Los Angeles policeman who received worldwide fame for catching and releasing a 22.01-pound largemouth bass at Castaic Lake in 1990, now spends more time at his other passion-big-game hunting. And even those anglers who still fish for big bass are frustrated with the politics of bass fishing. Duclos listened to their tales even as the same problems unfolded around him.

If the catch pointed out all that was wrong about bass fishing, it also showed Duclos the other side of the coin. One Internet site posted a phone number for Duclos-a previous number that now belonged to someone else-and the household received over 200 calls before disconnecting the line. When Duclos found out about the posting, he dialed the old number.

"I called to apologize for the mistake, and the woman told me that almost all of the calls had been positive, people calling to congratulate me for the catch, and for releasing the fish," says Duclos."I have to say that most of the people I've talked with have been very nice."

Duclos and other Santa Rosa-area anglers feared that, once word got out about the big bass, their lake would be overrun with anglers trying to re-catch Duclos's fish. Spring Lake did attract a small crowd, but after seeing the small, weedy body of water, many anglers found yet another reason to be skeptical: They didn't believe the lake could produce or support a bass that size.

Biologists disagree. According to them, there are three requirements for producing a world record: 1) A newly filled lake with lots of nutrients; 2) Florida-strain bass planted as the lake fills (or after it is drained) so the first year-class of those super-gened fish faces almost no competition for forage; and 3) easy-to-catch winter chow (in the form of hatchery rainbow trout).

Spring Lake has all three requisites. It was drained in 1985, and a bulldozer scraped out the hydrilla. In 1986, it was filled again and 160 Florida-strain largemouth bass were planted. The lake is packed with small bluegills, and it is also planted heavily with catchable "bite-sized"-trout. As evidence for the claim that Spring Lake is capable of producing big bass, a 15-pounder was caught there just days after Duclos's fish was landed.

The largest bass, which usually are between 11 and 13 years old, are always from the first major year-class of Florida-strain fish spawned in a lake-or some of the original transplants. These fish have virtually no competition for food and grow to astronomical proportions. As an example, Castaic Lake began its prime for huge bass in 1989 and 1990. Crupi caught a 21-pound largemouth to set the lake record in 1990. Crupi's 22.01-pound fish, Mike Arujo's 21.74-pounder and Leo Torres's 20.97-pound bass were all caught the next year.

Castaic was created in 1971, and the Florida-strain fish were put in the lake in the mid-1970s. Many anglers now believe the lake is past its prime. Occasionally fish to 18 pounds are caught, but none over the 20-pound mark have been reported since 1991.

Spring Lake, however, is the correct age for a monster bass. But if anglers there ever hope to see another fish like Duclos's bass, they will need to release large bass-those from 10 to 18 pounds.

Larry Bottroff, an expert on Florida-strain largemouths, likes to use the example of Lake Casitas, Calif., to show the power of catch-and-release. Casitas received so much pressure after Ray Easley caught his 21 lb. 3 oz. bass (the former state record) in 1980 that the odds of a big fish surviving long enough to reach world-record proportions were virtually zero. Few fishermen were releasing 10- and 12-pounders back then. But that has changed, as anglers like Duclos prove.

Duclos's catch was no accident. He spends a lot of time on the water, and he specializes in big bass. Duclos believes in stealth, and he fishes areas where big bass ambush the hatchery trout. His biggest bass before the 24-pounder weighed nearly 15 pounds, and he released it, as well.

"I never went in quest of the world record, but I always thought that someday I might break the Northern California record. People are saying things about me, but when you know you're good at something, you don't care."

The real question about Duclos's bass boils down to this: How accurate is that bathroom scale? The IGFA is the body that will ultimately say "yea" or "nay" to that world-record status. Mike Leech, president of the IGFA, said he wouldn't speculate on how the record committee might react to the application, should Duclos submit one, except to say that "we've never certified a fish weighed on a bathroom scale. On a record of that importance, it will be examined very carefully. They will be very, very tough." Duclos took his bathroom scale to Total Scale Systems, which calibrated it and determined that it is accurate to the pound.

Does he have second thoughts about not getting the fish weighed on certified scales and measuring it as required on the IGFA record application?

"I wasn't looking for notoriety, or I would have killed the fish," says Duclos. "Whether it's a world record or not, I don't care. To kill the fish to have a world record, to have my name in a record book, that doesn't mean as much to me as becoming a poster child for catch-and-release. That's a reward because our fisheries will become better. That would mean more to me."

For the rest of the fishing world, it all comes back to that scale and how much you believe in it. Duclos believes.

"I'm not going to claim it's the world record, but, personally, I believe that it is," says Duclos. "I'm not a very religious person but I was blessed by catching this thing. I got to hold her and so did my wife. Someday, when we're old and gray, we'll have a fish story to tell. No one else in the world has held a bass this big, except for me and my wife, and Lou."

 

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