By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The whole story is recounted in Monte Burke's new book, Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass. Burke is a senior reporter at Forbes and a lifelong fisherman who spent a year following the people who chase after the world record--and the two men from Texas trying to breed it.
"I mean, it's just...it's just insane," Burke says of the two and their passion.
Their names are Allen Forshage and David Campbell. Both work for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's "Lunker Bunker," or, as it's officially called, the Budweiser ShareLunker program, since Anheuser-Busch recently endowed the program with $500,000 more. The bunker's located in the basement of the $18 million Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, built by grant money, the city of Athens and Anheuser-Busch for the exclusive purpose of engineering a world-record bass. (There's even a sign at the Lunker Bunker that reads "Operation World Record.") What Forshage, 55, and Campbell, 60, do is take calls from anglers across Texas who've just caught a 13-pound monster--anything less doesn't qualify for the Lunker Bunker program.
Wherever the fish is, Campbell drives to it, often without resting. Burke writes that Campbell once drove to a dam in the Texas Panhandle and back, some 1,000 miles round-trip, in a little less than 18 hours, stopping only for a 40-minute nap. Once back in Athens, the fish spawns with another big bass. And it must be big. "If the males aren't big enough, the females will eat them when we put them together to spawn," Forshage says in Sowbelly. "I've seen it happen."
But if all goes to plan, the female produces up to 50,000 eggs, which will hatch and, the breeders hope, grow to be bigger than their parents once they're released back into the wild. That's basically it. Mate big fish with big fish and hope the offspring will be bigger.
Yet it never works that way, and that's why Burke finds Forshage and Campbell's life pursuit to be, as he puts it, "insane."
Insane because the spawning success rate in Athens is only 20 percent. Insane because the largest catch in Texas was an 18-pounder in 1992, six years before the Lunker Bunker hatchery opened and four pounds lighter than the world record. Insane because the increase of the bass' weight in the last 30 years is mostly the result of the state of Texas bringing Florida bass to its waters. Insane because California, that bastard state, is home to 23 of the 25 largest recorded catches, mostly without trying. Its climate is more conducive to growing large bass. It has more hatcheries than Texas. The smaller fish--mainly the rainbow trout--eaten by the California bass have a higher protein count than the prey here.
Burke says the biologists there "are just very lazy. The Californians' philosophy is 'Just keep feeding these bass.'" And yet Forshage once drove to the Lunker Bunker every two hours for three days, worrying over a 17-pound girl in poor shape named Ethel.
Forshage laughs. "Texas needs the biggest and best of everything, doesn't it?" he tells the Dallas Observer.
This is the larger truth of Sowbelly. The swagger remains long after it's justified. "Texas is notorious for this kind of crap," says Jim Brown, the director of San Diego's city lakes, in Sowbelly. "Trying to grow this fish in a hatchery demonstrates a tremendous amount of self-absorption on the part of the people doing it."
Burke says quite a few people in the bass world have criticized the Lunker Bunker. What Forshage and Campbell are doing, many think, isn't pure.
Forshage responds: "All we're doing is breeding large fish with large fish" in the hopes of regaining what is lost. Fact is, Texas was once the self-described "bass capital of the world." Then California brought a Florida strain of bass to its own waters.
But some people think Texas could be king again. (Read: some people in Texas.) The Lunker Bunker season ends Saturday, and so far, 24 13-pounders have been caught, the highest count since 1996. What's more, nine of the fish come from Lake Alan Henry, southeast of Lubbock, a lake with the potential to match the output of the mightiest Texas lake of all, Lake Fork, near Alba, the home lake of 11 pro fishermen, including Takahiro Omori, the 2004 Bassmaster Classic champion. (See "Bass Fishing in America," Dallas Observer, September 16, 2004.)
"We've been tremendously successful this year," Forshage says. Lake Fork in years past was home to 60 percent of the Lunker Bunker's catches. With Alan Henry and a few other promising reservoirs, things are changing.
In Sowbelly, Burke compares the Lunker Bunker to the Alamo. It's fitting. Forshage and Campbell are outnumbered by the total of California's biologists, and the state's climate is better, as is its lakes, its hatcheries and the food its bass eat. Victory may not come in either of Forshage's or Campbell's lifetimes, much as it didn't in William B. Travis' or Jim Bowie's or Davy Crockett's, but victory may yet come to Texas.