December 9, 2003 by Jeff Schroeder
Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, here's a question: If an angler catches a world-record bass and nobody's around to see it, does it count? That's the issue facing officials at the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) and National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame this winter. On Aug. 24, a woman named Leaha Trew of Santa Rosa, Calif., reportedly caught a largemouth bass weighing 22 pounds, 8 ounces out of Spring Lake, Calif. If authorities decide that this fish tale is true, it would apparently herald the end of an era for George W. Perry, the legendary Georgia angler who caught a 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth out of Montgomery Lake, Ga., on June 2, 1932, and has held the all-tackle world record ever since. Of course, there are a few details to be worked out first. Like other celebrated bass caught in California in recent years, Trew's potential record has an Olympic track meet's worth of hurdles to overcome. Perry's record, which represents the epitome of the most sought-after fish in America, has stood for so long and been pursued by so many millions of anglers over the years that the burden of proof in trying to unseat it is enormous. And that's where things get a little dicey for Trew. The biggest problem: She released the fish before anybody could examine it. Trews' story Trew, 45, landed the bass while fishing with her 21-year-old son, Javad. In a phone conversation with Javad Trew, here's what we've learned about the catch so far: On Aug. 24, Leaha and Javad Trew were fishing from a 13-foot inflatable raft on Spring Lake, a 74-acre lake in California's Sonoma County near Santa Rosa. Working near a weedline in about 15 feet of water, Leaha Trew made a cast with a 7-inch Storm Wildeye Swim Bait in mossback pattern. "I wasn't really paying attention to her," Javad Trew said. "She got hung up and, at first, she said it felt like a clump of weeds. But when she pulled back, her line just started screaming out of her reel. We were fishing from an anchored boat and that fish dragged my boat, anchor and all." After about a 10-minute fight, Leaha Trew pulled the fish alongside the raft where her son was able to net it after several attempts. At one point while he was trying to work the net over its head, Javad Trew said the big bass smashed headfirst into the side of the boat. He feared the fish would break off. "We didn't really realize how big it was," he said. "But when I put it in the bottom of the boat and saw the size of it, I said a lot of words I don't want to repeat." Javad, who said he has been fishing recreationally for about four years, and Leaha Trew knew it was a special fish, so they paddled back to shore to weigh and measure it. (No gas-powered motors are allowed on Spring Lake.) Since they had no livewell and were concerned about the health of the fish, they kept it in the net and held it in the water over the raft's side as they paddled back in. Once onshore, Leaha Trew weighed the fish using a Boga Grip handheld scale, which is certified for accuracy by the IGFA. The scale weighs in 8-ounce increments, and Trew's fish weighed in between 22 1/2 and 23 pounds. Additionally, the bass measured 29 inches in total length and 25 inches in girth. Witnessing the fish and its measurements were Leaha and Javad Trew plus a man named Charles Fleming, who was picnicking nearby. Javad Trew said they went to get Fleming, who is admittedly not a fisherman, when they brought the fish in so he could see it and observe its measurements. "He kept going on and on about how he had no idea that fish could get that big in (Spring Lake)," Javad Trew said. In addition to weighing and measuring it, Leaha and Javad Trew photographed the bass. Unfortunately, they were only able to take one snapshot. As Leaha Trew held the fish up, her son took the photo (shown above) using a disposable camera. After he took it, Javad Trew realized that it was the last shot on the roll. So Leaha Trew released her 22 1/2-pound bass back into Spring Lake. The one that got away? The decision to release the fish might come back to haunt Trew, at least in terms of laying claim to the largemouth bass world record. She has applied for record consideration with both the Fishing Hall of Fame and the IGFA. Both organizations say that her application and the steps she took to measure the bass seem to be on the up-and-up, including using an IGFA-certified scale. The problem is that only three people saw the fish and none of them was a biologist or any other kind of wildlife-management personnel. "I think these people are very legitimate," said Ted Dzialo, director of the Fishing Hall of Fame. "The issue is that the fish was not available for examination by a biologist, or a taxidermist, for that matter. It has to be examined internally to be an all-tackle record. In other words, the fish has to be killed for us to recognize it, which is unfortunate." As far as her releasing the bass, Javad Trew said there really was no question about it at the time. He said that he and his mother practice catch-and-release exclusively. Spring Lake sits in a regional park, and the Trews were concerned about a park rule against removing "animals, dead or alive," which they saw posted on a sign. Plus, he said they didn't even realize that a 22 1/2-pound largemouth would qualify for a world record until he looked it up later that night. However, it turns out that Spring Lake is not a catch-and-release waterway. "I just found out last week that it's all right to keep fish from there," Javad Trew said. "I don't get all the (fishing) magazines or follow the tournament trails, so I didn't know if it was a world record; I thought maybe it could be a line-class record. Besides, she's still pretty proud that she released it. There's something about catching a big bass like that. You want to release it if it's healthy." The Fishing Hall of Fame, however, isn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They decided, officially, to recognize Trew's fish - at 22 pounds, 8 ounces - as the 12-pound line class world record for largemouth bass. Also, they are unofficially acknowledging it as an all-tackle record while at the same time maintaining Perry's 22 pounds, 4 ounces as the official record. "We made up our minds and that's what we're going to do with it," Dzialo said. As of the first week in December, the IGFA was still considering Trew's record application, which she submitted in late September. "Obviously, this is a very important record. The largemouth bass is one of the most sought-after records of all," said Doug Blodgett, records director at the IGFA, adding that close to a thousand records applications for numerous fish species come through the IGFA every year. "As far as the information that I've received, there's nothing stated so far that brings up a red flag. All of the rules of the application were fulfilled. Still, we're not going to rush into this. We're not going to make a decision without being 100-percent certain about it." The main impasse at the IGFA regarding Trew's catch isn't the lack of physical evidence - the organization routinely awards records on released fish if the paperwork is in order and the story checks out with local officials - but the relative lack of visual proof. An official with the California Department of Fish and Game named William Cox identified Trew's bass and signed her application for the record based on the photograph and testimony of the three witnesses. That part of the application is by the book, Blodgett said, but the problem remains that just a single photograph of the fish exists. "There's no picture of it next to a measuring device or anything else to compare it to," Blodgett said. "Because of that, we have to look at it in a little more detail." "Yeah, we only got one photo. That's the sticky part with the IGFA," Javad Trew said. "I wish we would have taken a bunch more, but we didn't know what the hell we were doing at the time." When he realized that he was out of film, Javad Trew said they debated driving to a store to buy another camera. But his mother "was really concerned about the fish," he said, so they ultimately decided to let it go and hoped the one shot came out all right. "It's really embarrassing what happened with the camera," he admitted. In terms of its IGFA record status, Trew's fish is still "pending" and is listed as such on the organization's Web site. Understanding the potential impact of its decision, Blodgett would not say whether the IGFA was leaning toward or away from certifying it as the new largemouth bass world record, but he did hint that a decision could be coming soon. "Technically, is it a record-holder? Yes, but it's not officially recognized by us," Blodgett said. "Keep an eye on (IGFA's) Web site on a weekly basis. We will have a press release when (the decision) has been finalized." What's in the water? If Spring Lake, Calif., sounds familiar to record-class bass anglers, it is. In 1997, that was where Paul Duclos reportedly caught a 24-pound largemouth bass, which would have shattered Perry's record by almost 2 pounds. He weighed it on a bathroom scale, however, and only two other people saw the fish. Like Leaha Trew, Duclos released his fish before officials could examine it, so, while it made headlines, that fish never made the record books. At least one Spring Lake largemouth has made the record books, though. Eight days after his mother caught her storied bass, Javad Trew caught an enormous bass of his own. On Sept. 1, he reeled in an 18-pound, 8-ounce largemouth on a 3/8-ounce jig at Spring Lake, which has since been certified as a record in the 4-pound line class by the Fishing Hall of Fame and is under consideration for the 4-pound line-class record at the IGFA. Why are all these record-class bass apparently coming out of the little waterway in northern California? In the mid-1980s, the 74-acre lake was completely drained for hydrilla control. Then it was refilled and stocked with Florida-strain largemouth, which by the late `90s and early `00s would likely be at peak maturation age for monster bass. Plus, like many California waterways, Spring Lake is stocked with bite-sized trout on which bass feed. "I'm telling you, they found a honey hole out there," Dzialo said. Potential impact In the town of Jacksonville, Ga., at the intersection of highways 441 and 117 not far from where Montgomery Lake used to be, there is a roadside marker commemorating George Perry's 22-pound, 4-ounce world-record bass. Part of its inscription reads: "(Perry) received $75 worth of sporting equipment for his record catch. He was a modest man who never boasted of the record, which now has stood over 70 years. The next world record bass will be worth 8 million dollars, plus endorsements." Another roadside marker commemorating Perry on Highway 117 reads, in part: "The longstanding record is one of the reasons that the largemouth bass was made Georgia's Official State Fish." Whether Leaha Trew stands to make "8 million dollars, plus endorsements" remains to be seen. Indeed, the Fishing Hall of Fame's Dzialo said the most his organization offers for a record are a certificate and a little publicity. "As far as the money, they've got to work that out for themselves," he said. But Trew realizes the impact her catch would make on the fishing community and the legacy of George W. Perry if the powers that be decide it is, in fact, a record larger than Perry's. For that reason, she has shied away from speaking publicly about the fish until the IGFA hands down its ruling. However, she did talk to FLW Outdoors recently. "I'm just waiting because I'm being slammed," she said, admitting that she is a little taken aback by all the attention she has received, a lot of which has been negative. About her bass, Trew said: "Was it a magic moment or what? It's the biggest one I've caught, but I've caught some big ones before and every time it's magical." And whether or not the bass is ultimately given the world record, both of the Trews are hoping for the best, but they also just seem satisfied about the catch simply for its own sake. "I caught a 22 1/2-pound bass and that's all I know," Leaha Trew said. Said Javad Trew: "Yeah, I'm a little ticked off that she caught it, but I'm still really proud of her."