Landed by a novice angler using a Zebco 100 spincast outfit, that fish shook the world of bass fishing, generated a stringer full of conflicting stories, was featured on the cover of Parade Magazine – and in my opinion likely changed a man forever.
My point here is to tell the story as a somber Dave Zimmerlee told it to me in a rare moment of civility between us, and with a little bit of conjecture and opinion on my part, so here goes.
The first thing I will say is that there is an inherently dark cloud that follows just about every big bass that is caught, and for good reason, because so many of them have been a part of a scam for attention or an undeserved payday. I can say this with absolute authority because of the work I did behind the scenes to debunk claims that I felt were damaging the integrity of some things I hold in high regard – the ethics of sportsmanship and the integrity of the sport of bass fishing.
These efforts were rather far-ranging over the years. One of the most memorable occurred not long after I became Manager of the San Diego City Lakes in 1974, when I received a call from Elwood K. Harry, President of the International Game Fish Association which is the most respected keeper of world records for sport caught fish. According to Harry, they had received a claim for a new world record in the largemouth bass category that seemed very suspicious and was reportedly caught in an unnamed pond in the Poway area of San Diego County. I knew the angler whose reputation always preceded him, and I knew the fish which had been caught at Miramar, likely at night. Most remarkable to me was that in death, the bass which was short of 19 pounds when weighed by lake staff had grown to world record size in a matter of weeks! That’s not something you see every day.
Thanks to my friend Bob Burgreen who was a decade or so from becoming the Chief of the San Diego Police Department and a bass fishing detective by the name of Danny Angotti we eventually got to the real story amid claims from the angler in question of his intent to sue me for discrimination, harassment and libel for damaging his “good name.” In the course of a conversation about his promise to sue me I presented him with the information and evidence we had uncovered and would be sharing with the IGFA, at which point the angler hung up his phone. A few days later Harry called to thank me and advise that the world record application had been rescinded by the angler who submitted it. Even today, now many decades later I still have not received notice of the lawsuit promised to be filed against me. I’m told the wheels of justice sometimes turn very slowly.
Some time later while moonlighting as the outdoor writer for the San Diego Tribune I worked late into the night teaming with Daily Californian outdoor writer Ed Zieralski to get to the truth about a local landscaper and notorious “trout chucker” who after catching a number of big bass at San Vicente claimed to have caught a “state record” weight limit for five bass at Lake Castaic. We reached a verdict on that one after the angler provided me with the name of the market where the fish were weighed and a simple phone call to the manager of the market resulted in following memorable quote, “It’s not possible he weighed the fish here, we don’t even have a scale at this market.”
Those two are merely at the tip of a fairly large iceberg of false claims that include the rather notorious “catches” and claims made by Sandy DeFresco, Mike Long and others over the years. Because of that, there is the dark cloud of skepticism that comes with most of the big bass that are caught, not all of them of course, but enough that suspicion comes with the territory. If there is interest among SDFish members, I will dig out my file of old stories and retell them from time to time, but for now its back to Dave Zimmerlee, his big bass and a few facts.
Dave was an electrician who lived in Mira Mesa and an admittedly novice angler;
He was empty-handed when he left the dock in a rental boat and returned a short time later with a mammoth 20 pound and 15 ounce bass that he said he caught on a night crawler;
Chuck Garrison of Western Outdoor News arrived soon after and signed Dave to an agreement giving Chuck exclusive right to photos and the stories he would sell about the catch;
The “Zimmerlee Bass” became recognized as the largest bass caught in California, the second largest in the world and placed San Diego and its Florida-strain largemouth bass on the map as the epicenter for trophy bass fishing.
The issue of whether the bass was legally caught was a concern for many people and remains so for some, but over time became a moot point for most.
Even though the fish was caught a year before I began managing the City Lakes Program, I had some lingering concerns. After all, I eventually had the responsibility to try to answer inquiries about the angler and the big bass, a replica mount of which is the property of the city and accompanied me to our booth at various sports shows.
Most perplexing to me was the way in which I watched the persona of a seemingly shy and decent guy change because of a fish that he happened to catch on what many regarded as a child’s rod and reel combo. Instead of being a guy who got lucky – and there is nothing wrong with that – it seemed to me that as a result of being thrust into the spotlight Dave felt he had to live up to some standard as a fisherman that was not really him.
He became a braggart and insufferable pain in the butt to the lake staff and other fishermen. He hounded me with demands for special privileges on the basis that I somehow owed them to him on the basis of the notoriety and business the City Lakes Program had received as a result of his big bass. Since I could not in good faith deliver on any of those requests, he not only complained, but stated often and loudly his dislike for me.
Aside from regarding him as a minor pain in a butt with larger pains to address – I mainly just felt sorry for Dave. I figured he was at heart a decent guy who got caught up in something bigger than him as a result of a bass that he caught – or as many believe didn’t catch – and there was a single time when we sat down together with civility and talked about that.
We began by talking about the controversy that surrounded the catch, ranging from his lack of experience as a bass fisherman to the claims that a large bass had been floundering near the surface in the area where he had made his catch, and the belief by some that he had simply netted it. We talked about the ways it might have changed him and influenced the trajectory of his life which when we talked seemed to be in shambles. I talked about how I have never seen or heard of a sick or floundering fish striking a bait or lure. To the very best of my recollection I have paraphrased his comments as follows:
“I was goin’ across the lake you know, and I saw something boiling on the surface so I went over to it and cut the motor. There was this big bass and it was just kind of rolling around on the surface on its side and then it went down a little bit and was just kind of hangin’ in one spot, suspended I guess. So I dropped my line in. I had a night crawler on the hook and put it right in front of its mouth. After a few seconds I saw it go into the mouth and set the hook. It didn’t put up much of a fight and I got it into the boat and went straight back to the dock to weigh it because I knew it was a big one.”
Dave was somber and seemingly hurt as he told me the story. I was stunned that he acknowledged there was something wrong with the bass. Much time had passed, and in the course of it he had become a pretty decent bass fisherman and savvy enough to know that a sick bass floundering as he described is not going to strike a bait or lure of its own volition.
That said, I’m inclined to believe in the possibility of the story as he told it to me and here’s why. As a very young boy our family spent considerable time camped at Lake Henshaw where my fishing was limited to a long cane pole armed with a bobber and a small hook which was ideal for catching bluegill and the occasional crappie or small bass on meal worms.
There was considerable consternation among the adults fishing from shore near the boat dock due to the fact that the area was filled with spawning bullheads that absolutely would not bite. The water was shallow and clear enough that I could see the nearly motionless bullheads with no trouble, including the fact that water and even some bits of silt entered their mouths and exited their gills as they breathed. I removed the bobber so that all that was left was the line and the hook. I wrapped enough of the line around the cane pole until only a foot or two dangled from its tip, giving me enough control to place the mealworm directly in front and within an inch of lips of the bullheads. As they breathed, I watched as the mealworm entered their mouths and set the hook as soon as it did.
I caught a lot of bullhead that day and remembered it many years later as Dave Zimmerlee told me his story about how the nightcrawler dangled in front of the bass went into mouth of his bass, and he set the hook.
The stakes were far different, but the method and result was the same, so I’ll leave it up to you as to whether my little bullheads and his big bass were legally caught. Whadyathink?
* The replica of the “Zimmerlee Bass” that hangs on my den wall has its own story and came into my possession only a few months ago. After a mold was made of the bass by Lyons and O’Haver Taxidermy in La Mesa, the first casting from the mold went to Dave Zimmerlee who received a small “royalty” fee for any subsequent copies. Tommy Morgan who was the City Lakes Concessionaire at the time paid for several additional copies, one of which became the property of the city for promotional purposes and one which was given as a gift to Golf/lakes Division Superintendent Don Makie who a year later became my boss when I was promoted from my position at Chollas Lake. Several years ago I spoke at Don’s funeral and when it was over his son told me that his dad always wanted me to have that big bass. Then a few months ago he mentioned it again to a mutual friend who shared the information with me and after a call to confirm he showed up at my door with the big big bass which now hangs in my den.