My "One That Got Away" happened on the second day of the 2008 Elite Series tournament on Lake Amistad — the cut day. I had a pretty good first day and knew I needed around 14 pounds to move on to Day 3. The first hour I caught four bass on a jerkbait and had around 10 pounds. The day before, on the way in, I found a 5-pounder on a bed that was close by where I was fishing. I decided to go see if it was still there, knowing it would give me enough weight to make the cut and leave me the rest of the day to upgrade my limit.
Lake Amistad is one of the clearest places we fish. I once caught a fish on a bed there in 21 feet of water. It's one of the few places you can really sight fish in 10-plus feet. However, this fish was in about 8 feet of water, so I knew even though it was early, I would be able to see it very well.
I got to the pocket, and the conditions were perfect for sight fishing. The sky was clear, and there was no wind. I eased up on the fish and saw that another fish had moved on the bed. The 5-pounder was the male, and the female was by far the largest fish I have ever seen.
I caught a 12-8 at Clear Lake in California and one close to 12 at Lake Toho in Florida, but this fish made those look small. The 5-pounder bit on my first pitch to the bed. He was aggressive, and I spent the next 30 minutes shaking him off after he would bite.
In sight fishing — if possible — it's better to catch the female first. If the male is caught, many times the female will leave. However, on a few occasions she will get more aggressive if he's not there.
After about an hour of playing cat and mouse with the 5-pound male, I decided I was going to have to catch him. When I did, it put me well over the 14-pound cut weight I felt I needed, so I went after the giant female.
She bit on my first pitch, and I laid back on her with everything I had with 65-pound test braided line. I was amazed that she hardly moved. She just started swimming away slowly. It's amazing how really big fish just do not swim well.
She started to swim to the surface, right at the boat, and as she got about 4 feet from me, the hook popped out. I think I was too much in shock at the length and girth of her to be upset that she had gotten away. She was only hooked for about five seconds, and I knew that if she went back to the bed, I still had a shot to catch her.
That's when the worst thing happened. She began making large, 10 to 20 foot circles around the area, looking for the male. This went on for about 10 minutes, and I knew there was only one thing I could do. I had to release the male back into the lake.
As I put him back, I was thinking how crazy it all was; the male was big enough that I would certainly have made the cut (and gotten a check for $10,000 in the process!). But the female was enormous! I knew I might never have another chance at a bass so large.
When I released the male, he went straight back to the bed, but it took a while for the female to rejoin him. After about an hour, she settled back into the bed. Luckily, the male was no longer aggressive, and the giant female was making little lunges and turning toward the lure when I put it in the bed, giving me every indication that she would bite at any minute.
Unfortunately, "any minute" turned into hours. She just would not take the lure. I was five hours into trying to catch her with nothing to show for my efforts. Then her demeanor completely changed. She started charging at the bait each time I put it around her. Eventually she took it and, once again, slowly started swimming toward the surface. She broke the surface about 10 feet away from the boat. As I was bringing her in, she started shaking her head from side to side.
Just as I was reaching down to lip her, the hook popped out ... again.
I fished for her for two more hours, but she never was in a biting mood again. If I had caught her, I would have had close to 25 pounds for five fish and moved way up in the standings. Instead, I released her male that would have put me safely in the cut.
But I have no regrets. In fact, there's a part of me that appreciates what happened. I went to battle with the largest fish I may ever see, and when you appreciate them as much as I do, well maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that she won.