Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bass Anglers Lament the Death of Dottie

On March 20, 2006, 32-year-old Mac Weakley of Carlsbad, California, was fishing on 72-acre Dixon Lake near Escondido, California, with his long-time fishing partners Mike Winn and Jed Dickerson when he caught a largemouth bass. This was not just any bass; it was THE bass. It weighed 25 pounds, 1 ounce on the men’s hand-held digital scale, making it a potential new world record. By all indications, it could have shattered the most legendary angling record of all time—the 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass caught in 1932 in Georgia’s Montgomery Lake by George Washington Perry. (Photo of Mike Winn holding Weakley's bass courtesy of Mac Weakley)

There’s little doubt Weakley knew this fish could be his ticket to fame and fortune. He and his two lifelong buddies, Winn and Dickerson, have been trying to catch a world record for years. In fact, Weakley and Dickerson already had been recognized for landing Dixon Lake bass that rank among the top 15 heaviest largemouths ever recorded—a 21-pound, 11-ounce specimen, the fourth-largest bass ever caught, taken by Dickerson in 2003, and a 19-1/2-pounder (tied for 13th on the all-time list) caught by Weakley the same year.

Unfortunately, the 25-pounder Weakley landed on March 20 had been unintentionally foul-hooked. The white jig Weakley was casting stuck in the fish’s side just below the dorsal fin when he set the hook. And because of this fact, Weakley quickly decided to release the humongous bass. He allowed only his companion Mike Winn to hold the fish in order to avoid stressing it. Three photos and some video were shot while witnesses watched the bass being weighed on the anglers’ scale. Weakley was behind the cameras, however, not in front of them. His primary concern was getting the bass back in the water unharmed. Very quickly, the largemouth of all largemouths was released back into Dixon Lake.

In the hours that followed, news of the catch spread like wildfire via the Internet, where anglers discussed the possible world record, a Holy Grail that has been pursued for almost three-quarters of a century. At first, breaking George Perry’s record had been a goal just because it was there—a mark to be broken, like the four-minute mile. But according to some analysts, the rise of tournament bass fishing and the bass-fishing industry made the fish worth big money, maybe a million bucks or more in endorsements if the right person caught it on the right tackle and knew how to promote himself in the right places.

In the 24 hours following Weakley’s catch, the question on everyone’s mind was whether or not Weakley’s bass could still be certified as a world record despite its hasty release. No one had measured the length or girth of the fish, and it had not been weighed on certified scales. The fact that the bass had been unintentionally foul-hooked also was a concern.

As it turns out, none of these facts would have disqualified the fish from record consideration. But nevertheless, a day and a half after boating the heaviest largemouth bass ever documented, Mac Weakley announced he would not seek to have the fish certified as a new world record.

“We want to let the 22-1/4-pound George Perry record stand, and we’ll break it another time,” Weakley told senior editor Brett Pauly.

The 25-pound bass Mac Weakley caught was the same 21-pound-plus bass caught and released by his friend Jed Dickerson in 2003. This is known because both fish had a black mark on the underside of the right gill plate. Locals dubbed the fish “Dottie,” and almost as soon as Weakley released Dottie in 2006, everyone from weekend anglers to Japanese fishing champions made their way to tiny Dixon Lake, hoping for a chance to catch her and perhaps establish a new world record.

That will never happen, however, because last Friday morning, May 9, an unidentified angler found Dottie floating dead on the north side of the lake. He netted the fish, then left her with the boat dock attendant. Park ranger supervisor Jim Dayberry said the huge bass “appeared to have died (Thursday) night. It was in a very good state, with little decay. The fish spawned out. There were no eggs left in it.” This time, Dottie weighed 19 pounds and measured 29-1/2 inches long.

Dayberry contacted Dickerson and Weakley who both came to see the fish they had pursued for years.

“That’s it – that's THE fish,” Weakley said when he saw the distinctive black mark on Dottie.

Although their pursuit of Dottie would seem to have come to an unsuccessful conclusion, Weakley and Dickerson said they were not unhappy it was over. Finding the big bass proved they had not killed her in 2006, and she had lived out her natural life.

To this observer, it seems like a wonderful irony that her ending came as it did. Dottie, perhaps the biggest largemouth bass to ever swim, spawned one last time and passed away—on the weekend of Mother’s Day. Her progeny will live on in Dixon Lake, and her legend will live forever.

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