Unintensional Frankenstein – The Start of the Record Quest

Dave Zimmerlee poses with his California State Record largemouth bass and his rinky-dink rod and reel. Photo from the cover of Bass master magazine 1973 Sept/Oct Issue.

The bass fishing world was rocked on June 23, 1973, when southern California resident Dave Zimmerlee caught the first bass weighing more than 20 pounds since George Perry set the record 42 years earlier at Montgomery Lake, Ga.

Tiny 183-acre Lake Miramar yielded the then-California record. Weighing in at 20-15, the fish dwarfed the existing record of 17-14 caught by James Bates out of Lake Murray one year earlier.

In 1959, the California Department of Fish and Game joined forces with the Florida Fish and Wildlife to transport and release 20,000 Florida bass fingerlings into San Diego’s Upper Otay reservoir. Upper Otay would act as the brood pond for the Floridas which would then be transplanted into area lakes. The Floridas were chosen because they exhibited a growth rate almost twice as fast as their northern brethren and City Parks officials wanted a fish that would offer a sustainable population for its patrons.

Little did they know what would happen in the near future.

By 1965, the 12-year-old state record of 10-03 had been broken with a 10-10 Florida. The record was again broken in ’66 with a 13-00, in ’68 with a 13-07, in ’69 with a 15-04 and again in 71 with a 16-11. San Diego was on the map as being a likely place for the world record to be broken.

The 1971 record fish, caught by Randall Danio, has some interesting information regarding the catch. He was reportedly fishing for trout at Lake Miramar with a spinner when the big fish ate.

Then, in July of 1972, James Bates caught the next state record, as mentioned above. This fish was the first of the last three state records actually caught by a bass fisherman – the others being caught by trout anglers. He caught his fish on a Grape Mann’s Jelly worm.

James Bates (left) gets help from California State fish biologist Larry Bottroff (right) weighing his new California State Record largemouth bass of 17-14 caught on July 26, 1972. Photo from Bass Master Magazine Nov/Dec 1972 issue.

California State biologist Larry Bottroff, who was instrumental in the planting of the Florida bass in California’s waters, shed some light on the explosion of trophy largemouth in the state in the Sept/Oct 1972 issue of Bass Master Magazine. Here is an excerpt from that interview with writer Chuck Garrison.

“I believe there are bass of 18 and 19 pounds in some of these waters now! I also believe bass of this size will be taken by 1975. Possibly sooner. The largest I have observed weighed 17-03 and was only 10 years old. The condition of some 12-year-old Floridas I have observed is good. It appears as though they will live four or five more years. If they do and remain in good condition, 20 pound plus bass might become a reality! Time will tell.”

Then came June, 1973.

Dave Zimmerlee had never fished Miramar before that fateful day. He had just relocated to San Diego from Missouri after being in school and the military for eight years. While in Missouri, he had become a bass angler having taken a 12-04 out of Bull Shoals reservoir. Little did he know his next trophy would cause such a stir.

Zimmerlee reported that he hadn’t had any luck fishing the shore in the morning and around noon decided to go rent a boat from the concession. Here are his words from an interview that was printed in the Sept/Oct 1973 issue of Bass Master Magazine, as written by Chuck Garrison.

“… I went up and got a boat and went and fished about three different spots. I got a few little bass but threw them back. Then I started to move up to another spot with the boat and I saw this big fish swimming in the water.”

He dropped the anchor and threw a live nightcrawler at the fish – and it ate it.

The rest is history.

Larry Bottroff was again interviewed for an article published in the 1974 Bass Master Fishing Annual, this time by writer Myron R. Fischer, called Quest for a SUPER BASS. This time Bottroff was again asked why he thought the San Diego lakes produced such giant fish. In Fischer’s words, here was the answer:

“An interesting sidelight, is the fact that fertility of both [Lake] Miramar and [Lake] Murray is low. Bass have attained their size and condition, due to their feeding on trout.”

An interesting fact considering Bottroff, only a year earlier, stated in an interview with Garrison the main diet of the San Diego Floridas was threadfin shad.


Mac Weakley’s 25-01 largemouth.

Since this time California has produced nine documented largemouths over the 20-pound mark. One of those fish, nicknamed Dotty, was caught at least 5 times by noted trophy hunters Mike Long, Jed Dickerson and Mac Weakley –of which three of those catches the fish weighed over 20 pounds. The last time, of course, Dotty weighed an astonishing 25-01 but was released because she was unintentionally snagged.

Although biologists and anglers predicted the world record bass would come from some San Diego lake in the 70s, it didn’t happen. Throughout the 80s and 90s the prediction was still being made. Many anglers got close but it wasn’t until 2009 the record would again be challenged and this time broken.

Manabu Kurita’s world record tying largemouth.

The fish didn’t get caught in one of the “usual” lakes guessed by experts, either. The record was broken 77 years to the day later by Japanese big-fish hunter Manabu Kurita from Lake Biwa, Japan. So much for the odds.

  • Jojo Norwood.

    I remember that….I always wondered where that dude got a LEFT HANDED 33 Zebco LOL

    • LOL. Yeah Jojo…..that’s what happens when you flip a picture!

  • Very interesting. The BASSMaster story that got the big bass juices flowing for me appeared in the May/June 1980 issue and was simply entitled “21-3 1/5!” It was the story about Ray Easley’s Casitas catch on 8# line and a live crayfish. Not sure if that fish started the “crayfish” revolution for chasing giant bass or not, but only later would I recall reading of the intricate details of Crupi and Kadota’s crayfish techniques. At the time it was said in the subtitle that it was the “heaviest bass in 48 years”, and brought the world record possibility that much closer. Interestingly, that story mentions that one of the first people to call and congratulate Easley was none other than Dave Zimmerlee, bringing this whole story full circle.

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for the post. I remember that day vividly. I went into the shop I worked at and the owner told my mom (she drove me to work), “You better hold on to Terry. There was a 21-pound fish taken out of Casitas today.”

      The Easley fish didn’t spark the use of crawdads in California -maybe the rest of the US. Prior to Easley’s fish, “dads” had been a favorite bait for bass in all of SoCal. Every tackle shop worth its salt sold them. Not only did they sell them, the sold them by size and whether or not they were soft-shelled (recently molted) or hard shell (red and ready to molt).

      I fished Casitas every week from Dec through April in the years 79-83. Back then they didn’t have a boat limit for the lake (it’s only 2000 surface acres in size) and the lake was closed sunset to sunrise. This meant that in the spring you’d get to the lake at 4am and wait in line for the gate to open. Usually there’d be 20-30 boats in line to get in. After Easley caught his fish, the lines were horrendous. I’m talking 500 boats and it’d take an hour to get through the gate. for two to three months after that, there’d be 2000 or more boats on the water, 7 days a week.

      What was really amazing was the number of boats from other states – and I’m not just talking the surrounding states like OR, AZ or NV. There were boats there from FL, GA, AL all looking to catch the next world record. Shortly after that, Roland Martin and a number of other guys with TV shows came out to fish the lake.

      As for the ways of Crupi and Kadota, they were masters at fishing crawdads. But they weren’t the only ones. Some of the early San Diego anglers were amazing at fishing bait. “Lunker” Bill and most of the Pisces Bass Club members were all adept at it and ‘dads accounted for a large number of “teener-size bass in the early days. Waterdogs were another favorite bait in SoCal – they were big and green, a lot like a trout. I knew guys that took the fishing of ‘dogs so serious that they’d actually roll them in silver glitter to make it look like they had scales so they mimicked a trout as they were falling to the bottom.

      Then there were the guys who fished live trout, which was completely illegal. But that’s another story for another time. There were also the “trout” anglers that fished FOR trout who hooked a trout that a big bass then ate. That was the consensus for how a number of the early state records were caught as alluded to in the article above.

      In a little side note, Easley reportedly caught his fish on very-well known ledge outside of a cove called Deep Cat. The ledge ran a good 500 yeards and went from a flat that was roughly 5-feet deep to over 60 feet. After he caught the fish, it was like bumper boats on that entire ledge for months.

  • Great follow-up details, Terry. Must have been pretty cool to have “lived” through that period of time out there, seeing everything go down, though I’d have to imagine that only now, in hindsight, can it be fully appreciated.


    • It was a cool time to be down there Brian. At the time it was a very historic event because no one expected it to come out of Casitas – San Diego was still the favorite – even though there had been a number of 16- to 18-pound fish taken out of there. From what I remember, San Vicente was the favorite. Maybe Bill Rice or George Kramer will chime in here.

      Anyway, we all realized how big a deal this was. It showed that any lake in southern California (NorCal didn’t have Floridas yet) could produce a World-Record class fish. At the time, Castaic was producing a lot of 10s (about 20 or more a week) but it hadn’t produced a really big fish yet. Then around the mid 80s it started putting out lots of high-teen fish.

      The sad thing now is these two lakes, Casitas and Castaic, don’t have much of a chance to produce a WR fish now. Five or so years ago Casitas closed its doors to trout plants due to zebra/quagga muscle fears and Castaic eventually got stripers (early 90s) that came through the California Aqueduct and that ruined the big bass population due to competition for stocked trout. This is what makes looking back so disappointing.

  • Look at that he caught that giant on a Zebco 33, and a few days before I was born at that

    • Yeah, pretty crazy, huh Dwain?

  • I grew up fishing in San Diego and have fished just about every body of water in the county. Some of my greatest memories and what really got me into Bass fishing are from Sweetwater & Barrett Lake.

    It was great reading your post. It brought back a lot of great memories. Many people don’t know about how all the Florida stain got into San Diego waters. I can’t remember when & where I learned about Upper Otay reservoir, but I lived in Bonita during Jr High and we fished Upper Otay often as kids,.. I can remember riding our Motorcycles out Proctor Valley, stashing them in the bushes and hiking into the north side of the lake. There were no homes even close! The only house was the one at the top of the hill over looking the lake and we avoided being seen by that house.

    My PB as a kid in San Diego was a 10lbr I caught out of my Float Tube at Lake Hodges, near the I15 bridge.

    Great read and thanks for publishing all the great historical information on Bass fishing for generations to enjoy.

    Thanks Steve