"What's on the hood, guys?" he asked through the window.
"A body," said McReynolds, leaning over from the passenger side.
"Oh, it's you, Albert. Go ahead. Must be a nice fish."
At Campbell's the sun was just casting light on the scene when the fish was carted to the scale. The three men had seen plenty of big striped bass, but nothing like this. Campbell phoned a few witnesses to attend the weighing, and the men waited, sipping coffee and struggling to comprehend the size of the animal in front of them. Once on the scale, the striper blew away all of their estimates. The scale's wildly bouncing arm finally stopped at 78.5 pounds. McReynolds's fish weighed two and a half pounds more than the reigning world record. That fish had been landed a year earlier by an angler using heavy tackle from a boat off Montauk, New York, the mecca of striper fishing. McReynolds landed his fish on light tackle during one of the year's worst nor'easters from a nearly featureless stretch of beach better known for winos and floating syringes.
The tackle shop was just off the highway, and a crowd quickly formed. As word spread, the shop received 25 calls an hour, some from as far away as Europe and Australia. "It became a huge party," says McReynolds. "People were pouring cans of Budweiser on my head and lighting cigarettes in my mouth." By the afternoon 1,500 people had visited the shop. Some, like worshipers at the Western Wall, touched the fish reverently. Many speculated about its live weight – its mass immediately after it was removed from the surf. Like a water balloon with a leak, a fish on land loses weight fairly rapidly. Most agreed that the striper would have pushed 82 or 83 pounds if it had been weighed just after it had been caught. The heaviest striper ever captured reportedly pushed 125 pounds. It was snared in a net near Edenton, North Carolina, in 1891. Another, rumored to weigh 86 pounds, was landed on a rod and reel in 1897. Both specimens, however, lack official documentation. If those estimates are accurate, nothing within even a dozen pounds of the lesser of the pair was officially recorded until a two-year run starting in 1980.
The first of the modern heavyweights to fall was John Baldino's 71-pound striper caught off Norwalk, Connecticut, in July 1980. Almost exactly a year later, Bob Rocchetta hammered a 76-pounder on a live eel while fishing the rips around Montauk. Tony Stezko's 73-pound striper, hauled from the Cape Cod surf in November 1981, was next. Then came McReynolds's pièce de résistance.
The giant fish were all born in the early 1950s, a period of optimal spawning conditions in the stripers' primary East Coast breeding ground, Chesapeake Bay. "The extraordinary number of fish born in those years meant that there were more chances for a Shaquille O'Neal," says Gary Shepherd, a research biologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Fishing pressure in the '50s was also fairly light, meaning those genetic mutants had a clearer shot at reaching maturity. During the late '60s and '70s they were strapping enough to survive the pollution that decimated many of their offspring, and, amid the diminished competition for food, they grew even bigger. By the early '80s, with fishing regulations still lenient, anglers were stacking enormous stripers on docks and beaches like cordwood. But large fish form the backbone of the breeding stock, and as these fish were weeded out so were their contributions of billions of eggs each spring. By the night McReynolds dropped his line into the roiling New Jersey surf, the species was on the verge of collapse. Though he could hardly have known it at the time, it was the high-water mark for a Greatest Generation of fish, the likes of which hadn't been seen in 100 years, and may never be again.
The party at Campbell's was still rocking when Nelson Bryant from the 'New York Times' called to tell McReynolds he could be eligible to win $250,000 in a sweepstakes run by Abu-Garcia, a tackle manufacturer. The rules stated that the first person to catch a world-record striper, salmon, or largemouth bass in 1982 would win. Even Campbell would receive $25,000, for weighing the fish. A few days later Edward Keating, a sports agent who worked with Dick Butkus and Arnold Palmer, phoned to offer his services. According to McReynolds, there was also a call from a lawyer representing a posh hunting lodge. The owner of the lodge was willing to match the $250,000 in exchange for the skin mount of the fish. Campbell took out a $100,000 insurance policy on the striper and locked it in his bait freezer.