I have a set of drinking glasses I inherited from my great-grandmother, and each glass is painted with a picture and stats of a world record freshwater fish. One glass has always sat at the front of my collection: the largemouth bass. Along with a rather generic picture of a black bass eating a mayfly (certainly a strange artistic choice of a meal for the T-rex of American freshwater) the glass reads:
WORLD RECORD CATCH.
JUNE 22, 1932.
MONTGOMERY LAKE, GA.
WEIGHT — 22 LBS. 4 OZ.
LENGTH — 32 1/2 IN.
ANGLER — GEO. W. PERRY
It’s the record of all fishing records in the US. I’ve been aware of the record for some time, but it’s never quite captivated me more than a fishing story that has morphed into a legend. I mean, that’s a big bass, who could forget it? I guess the fact that I’m normally happy enough to catch fish 20 pounds lighter that I’ve never had the opportunity to experience what the subjects of Monte’s Burke’s Sowbelly feel. All the men and women who have come close to the record seem to have been captured by the legend of George Washington Perry’s largemouth bass.
On a rainy morning in 1932, George Perry decided to go fishing with a buddy —Jack Page, whose existence is harder to verify than Perry’s fish—in Telfair County, Georgia. He ended up catching the world record largemouth bass, and didn’t even seem to care. After weighing his fish on a grocery store scale, he and his family ate his catch. And if he hadn’t bothered to mail in the weight and measurements to Field & Stream, we’d never know it had happened…that is, if it did happen at all. This story is at the center of the universe of all of the people Burke chronicles in his book.
The story begins in California, with the modern day big-bass legend Bob Crupi. Crupi is a L.A. motorcycle cop, the kind that could kick your ass but chooses not to because he’s got better things to do. What he prefers to do is catch a Florida strain of largemouth bass that have grown to the size of watermelons on a diet of rainbow trout. No one has come closer to breaking Perry’s record, legitimately, than Crupi, who landed a 22 pound fish in 1991. The obsessive quest that Crupi undertakes puts a strain on everything in his life, a familiar theme in the book.
The most serious contenders for breaking the record, now that Crupi has given up on the chase (or has he?) are two groups of men in San Diego. We have an old school group using fancy equipment and are the darlings of the big-bass universe. But these men have been challenged by a three-man team of young casino workers who started the chase to win a now defunct $8 million bounty on the world record. As you might expect the groups don’t get along and probably refer to each other as punks and has-beens. It’s a classic human quest for status, and the battle became personal long ago.
We also learn the history of Perry’s record. Many people think George Washington Perry’s fish is like his namesake’s cherry tree, a perpetuated myth that people just believe to be fact. It’s true that the circumstances of Perry’s record are a bit odd. No one knows who his fishing buddy was, there is no picture of the fish, and no fish near that size has ever come out of Georgia. As Burke points out, there is no way Perry’s fish would qualify for the record today. But, the arguments against Perry appear to just be speculation as well, as Bill Baab—the self-appointed protector of Perry’s record—likes to point out. A lot of people saw the fish, it was weighed on the best available scale, and Perry certainly didn’t seem to seek fame or fortune (beyond some fishing equipment he won). After reading Burke’s account, I believe that whatever Perry’s fish weighed, it was recorded to the best of the abilities of the parties involved. And like many things in life, we must make important judgments based on little information. Maybe I should say I have faith in the record.
Burke also chronicles some different methods to get the record. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is trying to grow the record through selective breeding. It’s a long shot, but something the nation of Texas wants. Texas is big, and the biggest largemouth bass should come out its “tanks.” We also meet a solitary man in Mississippi who’s squandered an inheritance and family in his quest to grow the bass in his own ponds. There are the men who make the lures designed purely for big bass. These hand-made rainbow trout imitations are quite life-like, expensive (up to $300 a piece), and big enough that a trout fisherman would be happy to butterfly a living trout of the same size. And of course, there are those who’ve caught big fish under mysterious circumstances. The world is full of “bassholes” who’d be happy enough to steal the record. Weighted fish, bribing witnesses, and uncertified scales are alternative tackle in the war on the record.
The story ends in Cuba, where there will be very little financial rewards if the record is broken there. But, as we’ve seen the quest is not about money. Even the Americans whose sole reason for joining the chase was money can’t stop their efforts even though the official $8 million prize is no longer offered. As Burke makes clear, it’s his education as a Religion major, not just as a fisherman, that makes him such a good storyteller of these events. The quest interesting and so human.
Like Moneyball, Sowbelly can be enjoyed by those who have no direct interest in fishing (baseball), which is just the backdrop of the story. This is an old story, about an emptiness—or is it a thirst?—that all humans feel. 22-4 isn’t a number to some, but a reason to live life they way they do. Burke eloquently states this in a personal conversation with a potentially record fish that swam several feet below.
You had a profound effect on the lives of a few passionate men and women. You filled them with overpowering desire, an impulse as mysterious as your urge to spawn a few years ago, or to swim here today. You made people do strange thing, like neglect both family and work, lie and cheat. But you also gave them hope, provided their life with meaning and direction. This quest for you helped them whittle this big, distracting world down to a manageable size, even as you stayed, as you are now, just beyond their grasp.
If you can’t tell by now, I really like this book. Burke is an excellent writer, and I hope this is just the first of many books he will write because I didn’t want this one to end. I read a lot of books, and I rarely post reviews here, but this one was just too good to keep to myself.