This was merely another day on Castaic Lake in Southern California in 1992. I wasn’t a pro who fished the lake every day. In fact, I had only recently heard about the record-sized bass caught in Castaic. I had been fishing for bass all my life, starting at the age of four with a stick, line, and hook. When I was six, my grandfather formally schooled me with a fly rod and popper on my aunt’s lake in Southern Illinois.
I had always dreamed of catching a world-record bass. After moving to California when I was 10, my friend Glen and I would ride our bikes to the nearest reservoir, Vasona, for our own big bass contest. We raced there with casting gear and tackle boxes strapped to the backs of our bikes. As I rode my bike down the path along the lake, I saw a fish swirl, so I paused right there to cast, with my bike still between my legs. The championship was mine as I reeled in the big bass of the tournament, yelling at Glen, “Hey, take my bike! I have a big one!”
“No way,” he said as he rode past. “What do you think this is—a charity tournament?”
I let the bike fall to the ground, scraping it into the paved path in order to land the bass. Two and a half pounds, the Zebco De-Liar Scale read. Tournament winner: Jay.
Glen wasn’t cheering as he handed me his tackle box to pick out the lure of my choice. The hurt: a $5 Rapala Shad Rap—a prize big enough to make a kid jump in the lake after a lost one, even in winter weather.
This trip to Castaic was the manifestation of those childhood dreams. With some time on my hands after graduating from college, I was still struggling with the question of how I was going to support myself through life. After only a few phone calls, I learned of a guy who had been a local Castaic tournament winner so many times that people cried foul. He had been kicked out of the circuit without even a fair inquiry into the accusations. He had figured out the pattern for winter trophy bass when no one else could. Later I would find out that he was going through a breakup with his wife. His construction job had some setbacks, and he had days off without pay.
I had not been fishing for a long time and was curious to see Castaic. I anticipated some action but never expected the fishing that day to be like the stock market rallies of the time.
During the drive, Brian told me that some heavyweight bass were still on beds. From his years of experience, he knew exactly where to go, and we launched the boat. We put on four-inch worms with 1/16 ounce weights, Texas-rigged. I marveled at the steep slopes of the banks and wondered where spawning flats would be. The sides of the hills were rocky and dry, despite average spring rainfall. We pulled in three or four bass, hooked in front of brush piles from the first flat. They were all two to three pounds but clearly were young fish. They felt like strong fighters on the six-pound line with ultra-light spinning gear.
Another boat idled by, and the fish at our spot spooked. Brian seemed to have a plan on where to go next: the back end of a cove with a flat. The spot was as fishy as could be. He anchored the boat parallel to the end of the cove so I could pitch into the back pocket, a peculiar shady spot with branches hanging over the water. I say “peculiar” because Castaic did not have many trees or shady spots. Most of the shoreline appeared dry and rocky, even in April.
The first cast did not hit the mark, but I fished it in anyway. Nothing. The second cast was perfect. The bank took the impact of my pitch, and the worm bounced gently into the farthest spot. I didn’t shake it more than a few times before I felt the bump and set the hook.
The fish didn’t have anywhere to go except straight at us. It swam like a torpedo under the boat past us. I reeled as fast as I could to keep up the slack and shoved my rod about four feet under the boat with my body hanging over in perfect timing. Nonetheless, I felt the snap. The limber rod and light line were no match for the sheer weight and strength of the fish, even with the reel’s drag set perfectly.
“Do you see what I was telling you?” Brian said.
“Yes,” I said, flabbergasted. I talked to Brian for a few minutes in an attempt to understand what had happened. Of course, I always try to figure out what I did wrong and what I could have done differently. This time, though, I was over-analyzing.
Brian calmly interrupted me. “There was nothing you could have done. They like the four-inch worm, but they won’t take it on heavy line or with a heavy weight. You won’t get bit.”
My mathematical mind recalculated. “What about a different set up? I want to land one like that!”
Brian started tinkering in the rod locker. He brought out a seven-foot rod, a casting reel, a jig box, and some pork. “Most people don’t throw them here, but for the bigger bass, they should work the same here as everywhere else. You can get away with 10-pound test. The rod can handle a bigger fish, too.”
I tied on a black jig and pork trailer, and he motored over to some other main lake spots.
Brian said, “These are some of the deeper spawning spots. They should hold some of the bigger fish. A jig fished slowly enough over one of the beds will trigger some strikes.”
We fished for a few hours without any results, and Brian could see my frustration. “You said you wanted a big fish. We’re after one fish now, not the numbers we would get with the split shot rigs and four-inch worms.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “You’re right. That’s what I’m after.”
Right as I said that, Brian slammed the hook into a big bass. I netted it as he pulled it up to the side.
“Six and a half,” he said. He didn’t need to weigh it. It was a common size for a female fish.
About 20 minutes later, I hooked one and reeled it in. Same size and shape. Brian took a picture of me and the fish, holding a white Poe’s Plug next to its jaw.
“That’s my secret that landed me in so much trouble,” Brian said. “I would always lie about what I caught my fish on in tournaments. Why tell everyone else your secret? If I told everyone my secret to catching suspended fish, I would no longer have an edge. That would be dumb.”
“After two times with a 50-pound stringer and saying I caught them on a Poe’s Plug, everyone knew I was lying, at least about what I was using. But why should I have to tell the whole league what I was using? I came up with the idea on my own.”
“What was it?”
Brian gave me a look of surprise. “I’m not telling. I spent two years figuring it out. I can catch suspended bass in the winter when nobody else can.”
“A vertical jig?”
I listed off about 10 other ideas.
“No. You’re not going to figure it out.” He continued fishing.
I focused back on fishing. The sun was high in the sky. Our chances for a big fish were probably over. Another boat idled by, and they yelled, asking how we did.
“A few up to six and a half,” Brian said. “Split shot rigs.”
“One eight,” a guy yelled back. “Split shot.”
With them motoring past and us out-fished, I counted the day as over and started to pack up.
Brian did not pay me any attention. He motored over to a point that juts out into the main lake. “Right there,” he pointed to a spot about 30 feet off the end of the point. (Continued)
Copyright 2012 Jason Covington
U.S. Library of Congress