Joe Everett's quest started on March 21, 2006. That's the day his friend and fellow Mission Viejo, Calif., resident George Coniglio caught a 19.7-pound largemouth from 128-acre Lake Mission Viejo, a private lake open only to community residents and their guests.
Coniglio's fish ranks as number 12 on the Bassmaster Top 25 list, an envied spot just a couple of pounds (or meals of stocker rainbow trout) below the world record of 22 pounds, 4 ounces.
"I set my sights on that mark — and George's fish — for more than two years," Everett said. "I just knew that in another year or two she'd put on some weight and be a world record."
In fact, that's what everyone thought. Coniglio's fish was a gorgeous specimen in the prime of life, 28 inches long and full of roe with a girth of 26 inches. Give a fish like that a little time and all the rainbow trout she can eat and she'll soon be bursting the seams at 22, 23 or maybe even 24 pounds, just like "Dottie," the Lake Dixon, Calif., fish caught by three different anglers over five years and weighing as much as 25 pounds before she was found dead in
May of this year.
Everett is no stranger to trophy bass. In addition to "George's fish," he caught 44 other largemouth weighing more than 10 pounds between February 25 and May 11 of this year. Ten of those weighed better than 12 pounds, and all came from Lake Mission Viejo.
"HUNTING," NOT FISHING
"Hunting giant bass like that will consume your life," Everett admits. "I'm not just fishing to catch fish but to get the world record, and I moved to Mission Viejo just so I could fish this lake."
A surfboard builder for PureGlass, Everett is quick to admit that the time and dedication required to target giant bass — and most especially a world record — are not there for most anglers. Jobs and families require too much time and energy for most of us to be on the water every day during the spring, when the giants are most vulnerable.
Despite the commitment, Everett has plenty of competition on the water. Lake Mission Viejo is small, and Coniglio's bass appeared on the cover of Bassmaster, so it gets lots of attention. While many of the best-known trophy hunters focused their attention on Dixon and other public waters, they never ignored Mission Viejo. In fact, some of them even slipped into the private waters illegally.
They converge on the little lake and other known trophy producers each spring during the spawning season to look for giants in the gin clear waters when they move shallow. They hope to find them locked onto spawning beds so they can be irritated into striking a jig, worm, lizard, tube, swimbait or other lure.
The best of these trophy hunters — like Coniglio and Everett — can tell you within a pound or so how much the trophies weigh before they hook them and put them into the boat. They target the "teeners" and leave the dozens of 8s, 9s and 10s to casual anglers and those who still get a charge from something less than a world-class fish.
A DATE WITH DESTINY
"It was a stellar day," Everett said of April 15, a morning that any angler would envy. "I saw George working one side of the lake so I went to the other side and had two 10-pounders in my first three casts."
Things got even better.
"By about 10 or 10:30 (a.m.), I had the whole lake to myself," Everett said. "I went over to the flat to the right of the dam and was looking real hard for George's fish when I saw one that would go about 12 pounds. Every time I cast to her, though, she would fade away into the depths for a while. Then the breeze rippled the water too much for me to see her, and I drifted off.
"I was just looking around when I saw her — George's fish — in about 15 or 20 feet of water. She was so big she didn't seem real.
"I forgot all about the 12-pounder."
Everett was fishing a green-and-white ProLine jig that he had customized for his bed fishing and made a cast past the giant into a moss bed that appeared to hold the bass' nest.
"As soon as the cast hit, she faded out to one side, but when I popped the jig hard she did a 180 and came back to it. I thought, 'Please, God, just let me catch this fish!'
"When I made my fourth cast, she moved away again. I popped the jig, and she bolted for it. When she was right over the top of it, I twitched it and she swallowed the whole thing!"
Everett set the hook and the fight was on. The bass made five hard runs before surfacing near his boat and jumping completely out of the water and into his waiting net.
Now "George's fish" was "Joe's fish."
THE TALE OF THE SCALES
"She was just massive," Everett went on. "I thought I had a new world record. My digital scales are broken — they don't show the first digit — and when I put her on the scale it read '2-7,' and I thought that meant 22 pounds, 7 ounces, a new world record. I was thanking God, my wife Lizzie, my mom, my dad, and just shaking with excitement."
When he calmed down, Everett put the fish on the scales a second time. Now the readout was "1-14" — or 21-14 on his broken scales. Not a new world record, but still an amazing fish. He put it back in the livewell and tried to collect himself.
When he spotted a lifeguard boat motoring through the area, Everett flagged it down and asked the lifeguard to look in the livewell.
"Is there a fish in there?" Everett asked, still not quite trusting himself.
"Yes," the lifeguard said.
"Is it the biggest fish you've ever seen?"
Again the answer was "Yes!"
So Everett and the lifeguard made a beeline for the scales at the Lake Mission Viejo marina — the same scales used to weigh the same fish two years earlier when Coniglio caught it.
This time they read 16.5 — nowhere near the 19.7 pounds of two years ago.
"I couldn't believe it," Everett said. "The first words out of my mouth were, 'That's wrong!'"
But the scales were right. The bass had lost more than 3 pounds over two years. She was no longer in her prime and no longer a threat to break fishing's most sought-after record.
"Part of me was devastated that she wasn't a record," Everett admitted, "but mostly I was proud to have accomplished my goal of catching that bass — no matter what she weighed. I've caught bigger bass (his best is a 17-1 from Mission Viejo in 2006), but this one will always be special."
TALE OF THE TAPE: EVERETT'S LUNKER
Angler: Joe Everett, Mission Viejo, Calif.
Lunker: 16-8 largemouth
Water: Lake Mission Viejo, Calif.
Lure: 1/4-ounce Phenix ProLine jig with Uncle Josh No. 1 Jumbo Frog
Rod: Phenix Ultra BMX 700H (7-0)
Reel: Shimano Chronarch 100
Line: Maxima 20-pound-test clear monofilament
THE QUEEN IS DEAD
In the chase to break George Perry's 76-year-old world record, no fish has had the impact of "Dottie," the mythic giant of California's Lake Dixon that occupies not one but two spots on the Bassmaster Top 25 list and nearly took the top spot two years ago.
The fish was found floating dead on Lake Dixon on May 9, apparently the victim of old age and the rigors of spawning. She weighed 19 pounds at the time of her death, just big enough to have made another entry on the Top 25 list.
Dottie first took center stage in April 2001 when she was caught by well-known trophy hunter Mike Long.
That's when observers noted the spot on her gills that earned her the nickname. She weighed 20 pounds, 12 ounces.
Two years later, in May 2003, she was back in the news, this time caught by Jed Dickerson and weighing 21-11.
But her third act was by far her biggest. On March 20, 2006, Mac Weakley, a longtime friend and fishing buddy of Dickerson, put Dottie in a boat for the third time. This time she weighed an astonishing 25-1, nearly 3 pounds heavier than the world record.
Unfortunately for Weakley, she had been foul-hooked, and he decided not to submit an application for record consideration to the International Game Fish Association. So Perry's catch had survived another close call.
THE SAME FISH?
To the uninitiated, one largemouth can look pretty much like another, but when you've targeted a single fish for two years, you tend to be pretty familiar with it. That was the case for Joe Everett, who studied the cover of the July/August 2006 Bassmaster Magazine and other photos until he could identify the George Coniglio bass even if it were wearing glasses and a fake mustache.
"She has a slightly deformed pectoral fin and some distinctive markings," Everett explained. "She's pretty distinctive."
After catching and releasing "George's fish," Everett showed his friend pictures of the catch. Though he didn't want to believe she had lost 3 pounds in just two years, the evidence was irrefutable even to Coniglio.
It was the same bass.