The Zimmerlee Bass

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zimmerlee-bass-mount-jim-brown

Author Jim Brown with his mount of the 20 lb 15 oz bass caught by Dave Zimmerlee in 1973 at Lake Miramar

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  • Hanging on the wall behind my desk is a replica of  “The Zimmerlee Bass.”  It was caught at Lake Miramar on June 23rd, 1973.  At 20 pounds and 15 ounces it was the largest bass recorded since George Perry’s world record of 22 pounds and four ounces caught in Georgia in 1932.

    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;

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  • Based on reports that other anglers had seen a large bass floundering on the surface prior to Zimmerlee’s catch, Ben Massie a federal probation officer and member of the San Diego Bassmasters called for an investigation that stirred emotions, but went nowhere;

    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.

    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.

    34 Comments

    1. yep, I checked Dave’s permit that morning, and he asked me about catching “big bass”…I saw his rod and reel set-up, but didn’t have the heart to tell him, that even a non-fisherman like me coiuld see his rig wouldn’t work…I couldn’t believe it when I came in the next morning and heard the news! Over the years, we became “friends” (he called me Ponytail), but that didn’t keep him from being a complete pain in the butt, but like Jim, I felt sad for him more than anything, and always treated him like anyone else…of course, that was my job…

    2. Bruce Hartley on

      I remember that, I was fishing that day at Miramar using a rental boat. Been fishing Miramar since 1970.

    3. Jim Brown

      I’m glad that some of you liked the story and that Rick checked in with his comments. I’d guess that over time Rick had to deal with Dave more than anyone else and knew him better. Interestingly, Dave’s hanging out at the Miramar concession and incessant bragging had something to do with the DeFresco fiasco from what I was told and I will share that story as well at some point.

      • Robert Lehman on

        Great story! The bass with the divers weight inside came to mind after the WORLD record bass was only 19 lbs. Thanks for intriguing story Jim!

    4. Great story Jim, thank you! I was lucky to be involved with the Pisces Bass Club as a young boy thanks to a friendship my dad had with Harvey Naslund and other icons of that historic club. We lived up in Torrance at the time, but my dad would take me to one of the SD lakes nearly every weekend from Jan to June. Names like Sandberg, Murphy, Kast, Van Grouw, Patton, Wade and others were my fishing heroes back in the 70’s and 80’s. I’m fascinated with tales of those historic days at the SD lakes and would love to hear more about some of the greats…and some of the dubious characters from that era. I know there were many stories behind the legends who built the SD lakes bass fishing foundation in those days. I greatly appreciate hearing your recollections!

    5. I think it’s a legal catch. I believe the fish inhaled the worm as it was taking its last breath. I saw a guy catch a massive 20lbs rainbow trout from Corona lakes in the same manner. The fish was on its side but still gasping for air(water) and the guy kept pitching a fly lined crawler in front of it until it landed perfectly in front of the fish’s mouth and as soon as it disappeared he set the hook and simply brought in on shore to netting range, craziest thing I ever saw.

      I’d like to hear more about the other big one from Miramar that supposedly had a 5lbs diving weight in its belly.

    6. Jim Brown

      Thanks guys, and Greg I certainly remember the name Stotesbury and knew most of the others you mentioned, plus many more. When I was a kid, my dad and I were among the first in the area to figure out how to use plastic worms, so much so that there were often a few other fishermen waiting for us to arrive at the lake and follow us around. One of them was Bill Murphy who credited my dad in the foreword to his book. Bob Sandberg remains a friend since my dad kind of took him underwing when we were both in high school. Bob has always been very open and generous in praise for the way my dad taught him to find and fish structure with worms in particular. Bill Wade was a friend as well and as you know Pisces was an interesting collection of “characters.” While Pisces was the first local bass specific club in the form of clubs that exist today, I believe they were preceded by the San Diego Spoon Pluggers led by Jim Putney under the guidance of Spoon Plug creator Buck Perry. To the best of my knowledge and recollection the other clubs at the time like the Federal Employees Rod and Reel Club were general fishing clubs, although bass fishing played a big role. I appreciate your comments and will try to add a few more posts related to those good old days.

    7. Wow. Great read Jim Brown. I grew up on Miramar in the ’70s and that fish always had controversy around it and obviously rightly so. I know who you’re talking about with the false WR claim. So many other Big Bass stories out there that are false and hard to believe but true. I’m looking forward to you opening the book on some of these and sharing what you know…

    8. Rick McNary on

      Jim,
      Great story and made even better by the fact that I just saw the big-bellied beast hanging in your home office a few weeks back!
      Rick

    9. Actually got to fish with Dave on miramar in a military bass tournament. He told me all the fish we were seeing out on the 30-40′ breaks were crappie. After not catching anything I finally convinced him to try these spots and I proceeded to spank him all up and down his boat. It was many years ago but I will never forget how mr miramar king who knew everything got schooled by a 16 year old kid doodling bass out of all those “crappie” that were in the deeper water. 🙂

    10. Jim Brown

      Scott, I appreciate you comment and I’m glad you found Dave was always nice to you. My experience and that of lake staff, as well as the experiences described by other fishermen over many years were generally not as positive. The point of the story was to describe this particular event in the history of local fishing and the way it seemed to impact Dave Zimmerlee who I believe I described as a shy and decent guy, To do so, and as with any story I share I must rely on my experience, observations and perspective that admittedly may be unique to me – but I believe that is true of any writer.

    11. Jim, great report! it brought back so many memories of DZ I was working as an electrician and he turned out of the hall because we needed help. right around the time all that occurred and boy did we have to get an ear full from him every day. He drove that subaru little truck and we used to tease him about it. For a while at least till we heard more facts we thought he was the most famous bass fisherman that ever lived. A real character for sure.

    12. Vince DePalma on

      I had and always believe that the bass was snagged or just netted. The bass at Miramar were very smart and in that clear water would take off when they saw you, especially in a boat. THe bass was reported to be suspended and he dropped a nightcrawler down and the bass just ate it. Maybe a bluegill in suspended water would eat that worm but not a bass, especially of that size and with the boat right above him. I fished Miramar with my father
      from 1970 almost religiously each week and learned a lot from being there and there was no way in hell any fisherman with common sense that fished there would believe that story of how he caught that bass. I used to see him out there after he caught it and he would always just cruse up and nose into our spot if he saw me and my dad catching bass. Look guys, if he caught that bass on the bottom with a nightcrawler, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt, but the bass suspended and him pulling up over him and watching the bass just stay there so he could drop a nightcrawler down to him and the bass just open his mouth and eat it.
      It is just too unbelievable for this guy and anyone who has bass fished in the clear waters of Miramar.

    13. Great read Jim! After years and years of following stories of big bass catches, i firmly believe there’s very few, if any , legitimate catches of big fish that go without scrutiny. On the competitive side of bass fishing, it’s even more cynical. The unfortunate result of so many controversies with anglers is that legit catches are seldom given the proper notoriety and sadly fade with tainted history. May I say that your articles are great reads and I appreciate the effort you make in creating them with attention to proper form in writing. A seemingly lost art with so many authors! One thing for sure is that if you hang around fishing long enough, you certainly accumulate a long list of “characters” to write about!

    14. Vince DePalma on

      ps…As I rambled on and on(on May 26) about about how that whole story of how Zimmerlee caught that bass did not add up to me, I forgot to thank you Jim Brown for the great story you wrote. It brought back lots of memories. Although only in I believe 9th grade, I was in Pisces bass club and remember the guys like Bill Wade,
      Bobby Sandberg, Ed Steiner, Bill Murphy and others. Great memories!!! Years later l remember the shock of when the news came out on how Dave Z caught that bass and I knew there was no way in h*ll he caught it legally.
      Ok….again thanks for the great story down memory lane for us old timers especially.
      Vince

      • Jerry Burgreen on

        Jim,

        Great story, I wish BigWater Bob was still with us to make a reply too.

        From Old Pro’s member Jerry Burgreen

    15. Edward Porter Hall on

      Great read. Would love to hear more about the legendary San Diego lakes. I’ve never heard anything specific alleged about Mike Longs catches. The numbers seem almost too good to be true. I saw it written that he had caught over 75 fifteen lb + bass.

    16. Vince De Palma on

      I read that in Mike Long’s bio on his Mike Long’s Outdoor site. While catching 75 bass over 10lbs is amazing and quite remarkable…… somehow catching 75 bass over 15 lbs seems almost unrealistic. Of course if he did do that my hats off to him. There are some Mike Long stories out there that some fishermen know but don’t want to say anything, but SDFIsh went over one of them not long ago about Mike posing for a photo with a huge bass he did not catch. Anyway…Jim you probably have better things to write about.
      Things like addressing the issue of guys using bluegills for bait and then claiming they caught their huge bass on swim baits.

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