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Studying Pennsylvania's long-standing largemouth mystery

| Sunday, June 10, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
Donald Shade with the 11-pound, 3-ounce largemouth bass he caught in Adams County in 1983. It set a state record that still stands today, 30 years later. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission maintains state records for 32 species of fish. Only four others — those for bluegill, carp, walleye and musky — are as old or older that the largemouth record. Submitted photo
This is Oklahoma angler Benny Williams Jr. with the 14-pound, 12.3-ounce largemouth bass he caught in that state back in March. It broke a state record that had stood since 1999. Submitted photo

If you're a diehard bass angler, you've undoubtedly heard of George W. Perry and maybe even Manabu Kurita. But Donald Shade?

He's got a place in history, too, one that's lasted longer than even he expected.

Perry caught the world record largemouth bass, a 22-pound, 4-ounce behemoth, in Georgia in 1932. Kurita is the angler who tied the mark with a fish caught in Japan in 2009.

Shade? His biggest largemouth catch was only a little more than half as big at 11 pounds, 3 ounces. But the fish, caught from Birch Run Reservoir in Adams County, became the Pennsylvania state record almost 30 years ago this summer.

“I've never seen a fish jump so many times,” Shade, who died four years ago, said in a newspaper article shortly after his catch on June 21, 1983. “It looked like he was airborne more than he was in the water. I like to play fish, but after a half-hour of battling the monster, I was more than anxious to get him in the net. I knew it was the biggest bass I had ever seen.

“The truth is, if the fish had broken off, I would have sworn it would have gone 30 pounds.”

It's no wonder. When it comes to records, a little weight goes a long way, as the state's largemouth category proves. The record was broken three times within a three-year period from 1979 to 1982, with just six ounces separating the fish. The latest weighed 9 pounds, 7.75 ounces.

Shade's fish crushed that, besting it by nearly two pounds.

Today, that record lives on, remarkable all the more for being one of the oldest of its kind in the country.

Forty-nine states — Alaska is the exception — recognize a largemouth bass record. Only 18 are at least as old as Pennsylvania's.

Why Shade's record has proven so tough to beat is a mystery.

“If it had been caught during the spawn, that would be one thing,” said Jim Delesandro of Greensburg, president of PA BASS Federation Nation. “Otherwise, I don't really know. That's a big fish, but it's baffling.”

“Some records do stand for a little length of time, but that is a bit surprising,” said Bob Lorantas, warmwater unit leader for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “I don't have an answer for why that is.”

Theories abound, each with contradictions.

The problem can't be lack of effort. Pennsylvania had 416,000 bass fishermen who spent an average of 14 days a year on the water in 2006, said Richard Aiken, an economist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those numbers — to be updated this year — made bass the second-most sought after fish in the state, trailing only trout.

But all of those anglers — using better line, more realistic lures and fish finders, and often fishing in tournaments where the biggest bass are specifically targeted — might be hurting each other.

“Some of our lakes see an awful lot of fishing pressure, and that can be a detriment to them producing a record,” said Tim Wilson, a fisheries biologist in the commission's area 1 office in Linesville.

That pressure has changed bass, too.

Dave Philipp, senior scientist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, coordinated a 20-year study that showed some bass are genetically more aggressive than others. Such “high vulnerability” fish are three-and-a-half times more likely to be caught than their more laid-back brethren.

That trait is inheritable and passes from generation to generation, he added.

What that means is, over time, anglers have been removing the most aggressive fish from populations. Those left are genetically harder to catch, he said.

“I think the boom of record breaking is over, and now you just have to luck out and find a bigger fish,” Philipp said. “There are those few fish out there, but they will be fewer and farther between. It may take catching one of those big females at just the right time to do it.”

Then there's catch-and-release fishing.

There was a time when anglers kept almost all of the fish they reeled in. George Perry ate his world-record bass the day he caught it.

Today, many anglers release everything. To do otherwise is almost a sin in some circles.

“If you came forward and said you'd killed a 12-pound bass, you'd probably get as much hate mail as acclaim,” said Carl Richardson, state records program coordinator for the Fish and Boat Commission. “Attitudes have changed about keeping fish, even big fish.”

But catch-and-release can be carried to extremes.

It doesn't stunt their growth, as some have speculated, said Tom Cline, a graduate student at the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A long-term study there that involved capturing, marking and then angling for bass found they lose weight over the first one to three days after being caught. But they then feed so heavily that growth rates actually double for a time, Cline said.

“Basically, they eat a lot, and they catch up,” he said.

If those fish were caught and released 12 or more times in one summer, the stress would likely be harmful, he added. But that rarely happens.

“The vast majority of fish, from what we can tell, only get caught once in their lifetime,” Cline said. “Generally, we didn't see many fish angled more than three times in a summer, and probably less than 10 percent are caught more than three times.”

The downside to releasing every fish is that all bodies of water have a limit to how much food they can provide, according to research from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. If anglers never cull fish, especially from waters with large spawns and high survival, bass suffer.

“Some bass populations need to have a portion of the small fish removed to promote growth and allow for the remaining fish to reach the size desired by most bass anglers,” reads a report from the agency. “The result under a catch-and-release ethic is usually slow growth with few individuals getting larger than 12 to 14 inches.”

It could be, too, that anglers just don't care about records the way they once did, Richardson theorized.

“I'm positive larger fish are being caught. But people just aren't reporting it,” he said.

Shade did. He once held the state brook trout record, too. That eventually was broken, and Shade always figured his big largemouth would be topped, as well.

“I feel certain that there are bass out there that will break my record,” he had said.

None has turned up yet, so the chase goes on.

“There's always a chance, so you never want to say never,” said Ron Feits of New Brighton, tournament director for the BassCasters Bass Club of Butler. “But, gosh, an 8-pound bass in a tournament would be phenomenal. I don't know where a 10-pound bass in Pennsylvania would live.

“That record may stand a while, that would be my guess.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.

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