How a catfish poacher lied, cheated, snagged, bribed and bullied his way to become the big bass king of the world
Mike Long was, and to some of you, is, widely considered not only the best big bass fisherman in the world, but one of its best anglers.
He has been featured on the cover of over 40 fishing magazines, he’s fished alongside Hank Parker and Shaw Grigsby on their popular TV shows and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournament winnings and big bass prizes along the way. Fishing companies lined up to throw money and product his way as he feverishly caught the biggest bass in the country, while at the same time dominating the local tournament trail in San Diego County. The fishing industry, particularly the craze surrounding swimbaits, wouldn’t be the same today if it weren’t for Mike Long.
In March of 2006, I was sitting in a folding chair eating a hot dog outside of an RV in a parking lot at the Del Mar Fairgrounds during the annual Fred Hall Show. To my right was a man who just eight months prior, had been named the second greatest angler in the history of bass fishing by ESPN’s Greatest Angler Survey — Roland Martin. For a 22-year-old angler like myself, a chance to share a lunch and talk bass fishing 1-on-1 with an icon like Roland Martin was a HUGE deal. I’ll never forget what Roland asked toward the end of the conversation, “Kellen, let me ask you something son, do you know Mike Long?”
That’s the moment I realized Mike Long was a really big deal. After confirming to Roland that I did indeed know Mike, he excitedly asked if I would introduce him and we chatted for the next few minutes about these giant bass in San Diego that Mike Long was always catching.
Back then Long was the undisputed heavyweight champion of big bass fishing. He caught the ninth heaviest bass of all time in 2001, a 20.75-pounder. He owned five local lake records for bass and made claim to having caught several hundred more bass over 10 pounds. “Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass” by Monte Burke had hit bookstores a year prior and Long was prominently featured in the book as the leader of the pack when it came to the chase for the world record. He was the guy that the other players in that quest chased. And he was annihilating San Diego’s other top bass anglers in local team (2-person) tournaments, many times doing it without a partner in the boat.
There was some controversy surrounding his success, particularly with his lake records and the tournament wins while fishing solo — but anyone questioning Long’s prowess at this point was met with resolute resistance from his supporters — myself included. I sincerely regret that.
Mike Long, big bass legend, is a fraud — he doesn’t even exist. He’s a fictional character that the real Michael Christopher Long, a lying, cheating, manipulative con-artist created to dupe us. And it worked, for a while anyway.
This article is nearly a decade in the making. I cut ties with Long in Feb. of 2010 when a mountain of suspicions and circumstantial evidence reached a point where a conclusion was impossible to suppress. A man I looked up to, that I was friends with, and on the verge of going into business with, was a complete phony.
When friends and family asked what I was working on, I would attempt to explain, but really had trouble putting it succinctly, especially for people that weren’t avid bass fishermen. The depth of this couldn’t be conveyed in a light response, but in the simplest terms, I was going to expose one of the world’s most notorious fishermen as a cheater.
I got the same follow-up question almost every time; “how does someone even cheat in fishing?”
Well, let me count the ways…
The Early Years: Catfish Poacher Discovers Trophy Bass
Larry Bottroff, one of the most revered figures in the Southern California fishing scene, owns the earliest story of Mike Long lore. It was the late 80s or early 90s, Bottroff, retired since 2006, can’t remember the exact year, but he remembers the encounter well.
Bottroff was a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game and was at San Vicente Reservoir that morning, standing on the dock talking with the reservoir keeper when they were approached by a few men who had come down from the parking lot. One of the men, who Bottroff would later get to know as Mike Long, asked Bottroff to come up to their truck and check out some catfish they had caught at the Colorado River. “When I got up there I immediately realized they were blue catfish, and those don’t occur in the river,” Bottroff said. “The other thing is that they were all fin-tagged [a process biologists use to mark fish that they survey], so I knew they came out of San Vicente.
Bottroff said the reservoir keeper made Long and his party purchase fishing permits for the lake as punishment, but suspected they had caught them overnight when the lake was closed.
Long’s first taste of publicity came later, in 1997. Long had submitted a photo of a large blue catfish to local outdoor writer Ed Zieralski. Zieralski penned an article, published on March 2, 1997 in the San Diego Union-Tribune titled, “He floats toward fishing glory: From a tube, Long subdues prize catfish” in which the very first line read, “He is the king of all Float-Tubers. That’s Mike Long, a super hero to all those who like to catch their fish while bobbing in a float tube.” The article goes on to talk about the large catfish estimated (by Long) to have weighed at least 78.75 pounds and caught at Vail Lake. It was also claimed to be the largest fish ever caught in a float tube. The photo showed Long with the catfish, but it appeared to be dark. Some controversy surrounded that article because Vail Lake was a private fishery, and because it is closed at night. Readers accused Mike of poaching (fishing illegally) though he claimed it was caught just before dark and the photo just made it appear darker than it was.
Within this first article we get a glimpse of a pattern that would reemerge repeatedly and more egregiously throughout the next 13 years — unsubstantiated claims of record or otherwise noteworthy catches. The article goes on to state, “Last year he caught a 55-pound blue catfish at Lower Otay, and a 61-pounder during the Midnight Madness celebration at Irvine Lake. He capped off the year with the 78 3/4-pound blue cat at Vail. And already this year he has a 31-pound channel catfish at Loveland, the lake record.”
Loveland, however, is a secluded hike-in reservoir without a lake staff or scale, and because of that they do not attempt to keep a log of lake records. There are no Loveland lake records, never have been. He is claiming to own a record that is impossible to verify because it doesn’t even exist.
The article spotlights Long as a do-it-all kind of angler, “He prides himself on being a sort of young Bill Dance of TV fishing show fame, a guy who will fish for anything that swims. ‘I mean, I’ll fish for anything — bullheads or bluegill in ponds, I don’t care,’ Long said. ‘One of my favorite things to do is fish for crappie.'”
Bass are barely mentioned at the tail end of the piece, where Long talks of taking his family to Lake Poway and renting a paddleboat where they witness a male bass courting a 10–12-pound female bass while spawning. But that observation cannot be discounted here, San Diego County has plenty of big female bass and in the clear-water lakes like Poway they are especially vulnerable during that spawning period in the Spring.
With this first experience of being featured in the local newspaper Long has just learned a big lesson; photos of big fish garner a lot of attention.
His second dose of the limelight came just a few months later in June of 1997 when Zieralski featured Long for the first time as a big bass angler in a Union-Tribune article ironically titled, “There’s nothing fishy in Long’s torrid bass run.” In that article, Long addresses being accused of fishing live trout as bait for big bass, and goes on to claim to have caught 20 bass over 10 pounds between Feb. 12 and June 4 of that year, 10 of which were credited to a 8″ trout-imitating swimbait made by Optimum. Tops on his list of claimed catches was a 17-pound 1-ounce bass from Lake Poway.
The bulk of that article consists of Long heaping praise upon “Lunker” Bill Murphy, who also from San Diego, literally wrote the book on big bass fishing in 1992 with “In Pursuit of Giant Bass.” This legendary paperback is considered the bible, still to this day, for trophy bass hunters. The article states, “He credits Murphy for his great spring, saying he wouldn’t have done any of it without Murphy’s book to guide him.”
In the article Murphy seemed appreciative of Long’s admiration, “It’s kind of like deja vu, man,” Murphy said. “I remember when I wanted it like he wants it. And I mean this kid wants big fish. He’s the new ‘Lunker Man’ coming up. He’s one of my disciples.”