Fishing Lines: Bass record survives the backbiting

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The Independent Online

Mac Weakley reckons he is one of the world's top poker players. But even if he won the world championship, the winnings would be far less than he could have earned from catching a fish.

Weakley, from California, has just caught a 25lb 1oz largemouth bass. It would have beaten a 70-year record that is the most sought-after target in freshwater fishing. But even though the fish would have been worth millions, Weakley won't be claiming a record.

The largemouth bass (technically not a bass but a sunfish) has spawned a huge industry, said to be worth $12 billion (£6.4bn) in the US alone. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (Bass) was sold in 2001 to ESPN for $40m, giving the sports network a club membership of 547,000.

Bassmaster magazine has a readership of 4.2m. There are around 2m bass-fishing-related websites, and even two fantasy leagues. Several of the sport's top anglers are millionaires, and competition prizes can be as high as $200,000. Bass Pro Shops' flagship store in Springfield, with 300,000 sq ft of retail space, is Missouri's top tourist attraction. The fish itself may not be that big, but its influence is huge.

That's why millions dream of breaking the record set by George Perry, a poor 19-year-old Georgia farmhand who went fishing when it was too wet to work in the fields, and caught a 22lb 4oz fish that he took home to feed his family.

The quest to eclipse Perry's record has consumed many anglers. Some have spent years, ruining their health, their marriages and their lives trying to do so. At one stage, there was an $8m prize for a record bass, though it was withdrawn in 2004 because of soaring insurance premiums.

Weakley, with his companions Mike Winn and Jed Dickerson, has been targeting Dixon Lake in Escondido, California, for some years, convinced that it holds a whopper. The day before his record fish, Weakley saw another angler fishing a spot that he knew held a monster. He offered the fisherman $1,000 and some fishing rods to move. His rival stayed put - but didn't catch the fish.

The next day, the trio were first on the water. An hour later, Weakley hooked a huge bass. Only when he brought it to the boat did he realise the fish had been hooked in the back, not the mouth. It was weighed, photographed and returned to the water.

The capture prompted huge debate across all those internet sites. About 50 per cent said that it had not been legally caught, though the record-keepers, the International Game Fish Association, said it would consider the bass because it had not been foul-hooked intentionally.

Weakley pre-empted further vitriol by saying: "I don't want to break the record with so many people doubting it. I want it to be 100 per cent, with no controversy. I'll be back with a record bass that everyone will get behind."

What would it have been worth? An immediate $1m, maybe a lot more, in endorsements. All the tackle he could want for the rest of his life. Probably his own TV show. It takes quite a guy to put all that back in the water.