Phil Jay’s Million Dollar Pitch… and a Host of Dirty Deeds

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part series about the author’s encounters with Phil Jay. If you missed the first part, you can find it here: Long Joins the Ranks of Local Angling Scoundrels.

Miramar = A Million Bucks

A few months after my initial meeting with Phil Jay, he called again requesting that I meet him at Lake Miramar to discuss a business proposal he had in mind.  Given the result of our first meeting, I thought it very gentlemanly of me not to mention his unexplained and rapid departure when I was in the process of arranging for him to speak to his friend the Mayor.

We met in the picnic area just east of the concession stand, sat down at a table that overlooks the lake, and I have to say that Phil was very friendly and enthused about his proposal.  In summary, it entailed assigning operation of the lake to him and operating it as a limited entry destination for anglers seeking the largest bass of their lives, including the chance to catch a new world record exceeding the 22-4 caught by George Perry in 1932.

He described himself as an expert on big bass and Lake Miramar in particular and believed that bass anglers, many of them famous pros he counted as friends would pay a handsome sum to have an exclusive crack at the lake’s big bass.  He envisioned cash flow coming from sponsorships by major tackle manufacturers, a fishing show, access to the restricted area along the dam and outlet tower and night fishing.  He was absolutely certain that the lake was home to bass larger than the 20-15 Zimmerlee bass from 1973.  With proper promotion he figured he could deliver annual rent to the city of “a million bucks.”

I listened to my new and very enthusiastic friend who used the terms pal, buddy and baby in the course of our conversation, and to be perfectly honest I thought of him as a very interesting, if not peculiar personality.  His enthusiasm was even likable, 

Once again, it was my duty to disappoint him.  I had to explain that there was an existing concession lessee (Tommy Morgan) and that there was no way I could recommend the lake be turned into an exclusive use facility.  He took the information remarkably well, and quickly pivoted to remind me that as a media member he still needed a key and access to help the city promote the lake and its big bass.  When I told Phil my position had not changed on that request, he took it fairly well and after some small talk on other topics we shook hands and he left.

As he departed, I began walking toward the boat house to talk to lake staff which on the morning shift consisted of the site supervisor (at that time the title was Lake Ranger II) and a Lake Aide who it turns out were already walking toward me.

An initial greeting was followed by an array of surprising comments from my staff:

“That guy has been telling us that you said he doesn’t need to pay for a permit because he is a friend of yours, also that you are arranging for him to fish on closed days, at night and in the restricted area.“

“We keep catching him fishing for the big bass under the boat dock which is closed to fishing.“

“He offered me $500 to give him a floater if one over 20 pounds turns up in good shape and to keep my mouth shut.“

And so on….

Over the course of the next year or so, I heard more about Phil Jay than from him.  Lake staff commented on how he hung around, always asking about big bass and other anglers reported that he bragged about the huge bass he was catching in the restricted area at night.  

A fellow lake manager told me that Phil Jay had requested permission for the same level of access and accommodation that I had provided to the San Diego City Lakes and asked why I would do that.  He was shocked when I told him that not only was the story not true, but that my staff as well as a local Game Warden were keeping an eye on him to some degree.

A Call From Augusta

When I was promoted from Chollas Lake to manage the San Diego City Lakes Program, they were part of the Park and Recreation Department’s Golf/Lakes Division which colleagues jokingly referred to as the Fish and Chips Division.  My new official title was Supervising Recreation Specialist, but my working title was Assistant Golf/Lakes Superintendent.

My boss Don Makie was clearly the golf guy and we overlapped when needed.  It was fair to say that Don’s duties were 90% golf and 10% lakes while mine were 90% lakes and 10% golf.  From 1974 until 1981 when the Park and Recreation Department was reorganized was the happiest period of my career which continued until 2003.  The reality of the situation as a general statement was that the Park and Recreation Department had the philosophy of public service, but not always the money while the Water Department had money and resources but not the philosophy.  That is why by council direction the City Lakes Program was wrested away from them in the early 1960’s.  

All of that is background as to why I thought an inquiry that came in one day from a sportswriter in Augusta, Georgia, Home of the Masters, would have something to do with golf.  I was surprised to find that it was about fishing, bass tournaments in particular and the caller wanted to know if I was familiar with a Phil M. Jay who lived on Neva Street in San Diego.

I said that I did, and asked why, only to get an earful about Jay’s role in a tournament scandal that would be pivotal in bass fishing history.  I will paraphrase to the best of my ability what he had to say.  The language is not verbatim, but the gist of his message was.

Two men down here (in the south) were battling to establish the first major bass tournament organizations.  One was insurance salesman Ray Scott who was in the process of forming Bassmaster, and the other was (sorry I can’t remember the name or the organization), and employed Phil Jay.

According to the reporter, a major criminal case involving a professional bass tournament had recently been decided, and the result paved the way for Scott and Bassmaster to take over tournament bass fishing with the elimination of their biggest competitor.

According to his account of the trial’s proceedings, the organization Jay worked for staged a big money tournament in which fish were staked out in advance of the tournament for one team and subsequently secured and weighed as their catch.  They received half the prize money with the other half designed as a kick-back to the tournament organizer.  

The middleman who conceived of and arranged the scheme was granted immunity to testify against his employer who was found guilty and knocked out of business competition with Ray Scott and Bassmaster.  The witness?  None other than one Phil M. Jay.

I was incredulous that the person who admitted to cooking up and facilitating the scheme by personally catching and staking out the bass beforehand, would be granted immunity.  The reporter agreed and subsequently sent copies of coverage of the case by two different newspapers describing what he told me.  I suspect the file containing the stories resides to this day in a forgotten storage box in the City Lakes offices.

Line Class Records “Set”

As I sat in my office one morning a call came in from the National Fishing Hall of Fame.  I was familiar with the organization because I’d seen photos of its headquarters, which were inside a building with the exterior of a giant northern pike.  The pike’s gaping open mouth served as the entrance.

In my view, the National Fishing Hall of Fame was a lesser version of the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) which had a much larger profile as the keeper of angling records, including higher standards for proof of catch..

The caller had seen my name in an article about San Diego’s big bass and wanted to know if I was familiar with a recent and very remarkable catch made in San Diego that was a pending line class world record for bass.

He proceeded to describe the catch (something like a a 12 pound bass on four pound test) and identified the angler as Phil Jay.  

When I told him of my skepticism and the story out of Florida, he added that this particular catch which was under review was merely the latest of several by Jay that had already been accepted and listed as World Line Class Records by his organization.

Clearly he was troubled by the information I shared, including referral to the stories that came out of Florida, and declared that he would decline the current application while discussing with his governing board the possibility of rescinding the earlier records.

A few months later he called to tell me that after notifying Jay of their intentions, a lawyer threatened to sue the Fishing Hall of Fame if the records were rescinded which his board reluctantly decided not to do to avoid costly and embarrassing litigation.

At that time, application for a line class record required no more than a statement from the applying angler describing the particulars of the catch (weight, location, date, lure and line or tippet weight), a section of the line or tippet used for the catch and a photo of the fish.

He lamented that their standards for certification relied almost entirely on the honesty and integrity of anglers submitting their catches for recognition.

Some, as learned then and we were painfully reminded this week don’t seem to have the qualities worthy of our trust.  Worse, they add a measure of skepticism to claims of significant catches, true or not, and this is particularly true with bass fishing where catches of big bass are typically accompanied by a dark cloud often that bursts upon scrutiny.

Hey Jim, Your Scales Are Off!

The next time I heard from Phil, – note that we were on a first name basis in addition to him often starting a conversation with “Hey Baby” – came soon enough.  

“Just wanted to let you know that your scales at Miramar are off, they weighed a bass I caught the other day at 19-2, but that didn’t seem right, so I took it to the market in Mira Mesa where the butcher weighed it for me and gave me a statement certifying it at 20 pounds (and a few ounces that I can’t recall now).  I just need you to sign an affidavit for me confirming the actual weight.”

Frankly, he had a point that always troubled me when the issue was a matter of certified weight of a record fish.  Although we had replaced old and rusted scales with newer models, they were still spring scales that took a beating on the docks and often out of date when it came to keeping them certified by the county’s Department of Weights and Measures. 

I asked my staff to check the scales at Miramar and as I recall, they placed a sack in the tray of the scale and gradually filled it with weight until it totaled 19-2.  They then took the sack to a certified scale which weighed the sack within a couple ounces of 19-2.  Our uncertified scale was off slightly, but certainly not by more than a pound.

I went to the market mentioned by Phil and spoke to the Manager, who checked but could find no one who remembered weighing and certifying a fish brought in by a customer, which he described was unlikely.  Admittedly, that is not to say it didn’t happen.

On the other hand, I had the comparison of our check of the weight and explained to Phil, over his protestations that I couldn’t attest on his behalf to a weight on a fish I’d never seen.  On the other hand I told him a 19-2 was a terrific bass, certainly in the top ten and something to be proud of, but he stressed the importance of 20 pounds being a benchmark of sorts, which I understand.

A New World Record for Largemouth Bass!

“Good morning Mr. Brown, this is Elwood K. Harry with the International Game Fish Association, and I‘m hoping you can help me with a claim we have received for a new world record for largemouth bass.  I have some concerns about it.“

“Sure,” I said, “but first let me guess, was the lucky angler Phil Jay?”

The line went quiet for several seconds.  “You know him?”

“To some degree, yes.”

“This is the most suspicious application I have ever seen.  It states the fish was caught in a pond near a Poway Road in your county, but the certification as a Florida-strain largemouth came from a biologist at a San Antonio State in Texas, rather than a biologist in California.  Is there any way you can help me with our investigation of the catch?”

I was pretty sure I could get some help and told him so with the promise to get back to him as soon as I had information.

I contacted Bob Burgreen who later became Chief of the San Diego Police Department.  We had become friends as adversaries when Bob led the fight to end our prohibition of motors over ten horsepower and I fought to keep the status quo which was a condition of our permit from the State Health Department and was enforced by the County Department of Public Health.

Bob was an avid bass fisherman and the detective he assigned to the investigation was an old acquaintance of mine and very accomplished bass fisherman.  Bob came back to me within a couple weeks with results that were startling to both of us.

The fish in question was located in the possession of a young and aspiring taxidermist who initially contended the bass exceeded the existing world record when presented to him by Mr. Jay;

Upon being advised that he could face serious charges as a result of possibly false claims associated with the fish, the young man relented, admitting what we expected, that the large bass did not really exceed the record.  He added that he was being paid to mount the fish and attest to the false weight which was well past the record.           

The information was shared with Elwood K. Harry who then confronted Phil with the results of our investigation and the IGFA’s pending denial of his application.  According to Harry, Phil agreed to withdraw the application he had submitted for a new world record.

Unbowed

I think a “normal” person caught conning people in a small sporting community as exists in local bass fishing would be inclined to be so embarrassed as to quietly go away, but it should be clear that Phil Jay would not be described by most as a “normal” kind of guy.  He could easily turn on an unusual sort of affable charm that is tough to describe.  There are those I respect in local fishing circles who can’t help but smile and describe him as a fun kind of guy with some great stories.

To go away would have meant defeat which isn’t something he was going to do.  Concurrent with these stories, Phil kept his fingers in the fishing business.  He trapped and sold mud suckers and was one of two competing local bait dealers to regularly drive to the south (mostly Arkansas I believe) and return with a tank loaded with golden shiners wholesaled to local bait shops.  It was in the course of such a trip a few years ago that I’m told he died of a heart attack.

At the peak of Lake Hodges’ heyday, he secured the lease of a small building across from the entrance gate and named it appropriately enough – Outlaw Bait and Tackle. 

About Author

Jim Brown

Jim Brown ran the San Diego City Lakes Program from 1974-2003, where he oversaw the operation of the fishing programs of the county's biggest and best fisheries. Over his 70 years as a native San Diegan, including 65 of them as an avid fisherman, Brown describes himself as someone who has fished most bodies of water in and around the county that hold fish, and all of those that don't.

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Paul Zoch
Paul Zoch

Thank you Mr Brown, love these insights

Jim Brown
Jim Brown

Writer’s Mea Culpa – The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame’s signature building is built to resemble a muskellunge rather than a northern pike as described in the story, and its gaping mouth serves as an observation deck rather than the building’s entrance. I regret confusing northern pike which I… Read more »

Robert Lehman
Robert Lehman

Really informative and eye-opening revelations about San Diego bass fishing.Also Thank you for all the good you did it Chollas lake for so many years, I moved out here in 78 and that was my home away from home until I turned 16. I learned a lot about bass fishing… Read more »

Bear Lawson
Bear Lawson

My girlfriend was Phil Jays accountant for a few months and yes Phil was an ass, but after he passed away I was able to go into his house and buy a couple of rods from his brother while I was there I found a couple of old signs in… Read more »

Greg Stotesbury
Greg Stotesbury

Jim-
Thanks for sharing another interesting tale of the San Diego bass scene. I had heard of Phil and I recall my dad and I buying bait from his shop back in the early 80’s (I think). Anyway, always enjoy and appreciate your perspective!

Rob Magaragl
Rob Magaragl

Great article. Many of us today wish you were still in charge at the City Lakes.

Bassmagnum
Bassmagnum

Another great read. When is the book coming? It would make for a good one.

Scott
Scott

Thanks Jim. Pretty crazy how some people just have no shame and will never learn their lesson.

Porter Hall
Porter Hall

I met Phil in 1992. He told me that before moving to California he had caught 12 bass over 18 pounds in Florida waters. I told him to his face that there was no way. The guy was a fraud.