As McReynolds matured he also found work as an Atlantic City lifeguard and joined the Teamsters, who were building casinos around the fading former resort town. McReynolds eventually married and had three children, but he had the reputation of a hard-partying man. Before the catch the family lived day-to-day, bouncing from one cheap motel to the next, followed by a growing mound of debt. His big striper seemed like a gift from Poseidon himself, but within a few days he was being dogged by those who believed he had lied about its capture.
An anonymous letter had been sent to the International Game Fish Association claiming that McReynolds and Erdman had found the fish floating in the surf. The letter, typed on an Atlantic City post card, also claimed that McReynolds was under investigation for welfare fraud and had cheated in past fishing contests. Others suggested that he had been given the striper by one of his commercial cohorts who had caught it in a net. Surf fishermen on the Jersey coast who had been out the night of the catch argued that there was no way McReynolds could have set foot on the jetty, much less landed a fish from it. The whole story just seemed, well, fishy.
The investigation included a review of photographs taken at the weigh-in and intense interviews of those close to McReynolds. Though the IGFA didn't require it, McReynolds and Campbell brought the fish to a local radiologist's office to prove it had not been stuffed with extra weight. (Although the fish was certainly a female, the radiology report listed it as "Bert Bass.") Four months later the association certified the catch.
Not long afterward, McReynolds was escorted to New York City in a limousine, and at a lavish awards ceremony at the Explorers Club, amid busts of admirals Peary and Byrd and a 12-foot-tall stuffed grizzly, he was presented the $250,000. As he stood on the podium next to a giant cardboard check, with spotlights from news cameras blinding his vision, McReynolds's life seemed on the verge of a major sea change. The fish's worth, including endorsement deals from tackle companies, was estimated at nearly $3,200 a pound. The Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the world's most valuable game fish.
McReynolds told the crowd his first purchase would be a "good secondhand car," and he planned to set up a trust fund for his children. But first there was a celebration to be had. The next day McReynolds withdrew $10,000. "We didn't see him for three weeks," says Corky Campbell. "He was buying steaks and chops. It was the biggest party around." He also wrote a check to Pat Erdman for $10,000.
Keating, the sports agent, had agreed to manage the funds and was pursuing endorsement deals. He set his sights on Wheaties. There seemed to be no reason why McReynolds couldn't be the first fisherman to grace a cereal box.
For more than a month McReynolds's mug was plastered on magazines and newspapers. The governor of New Jersey sent him a letter of congratulations. In no time he was a regular guest on the sports banquet circuit, rubbing elbows with Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, and Burt Reynolds. He was the most famous fisherman in the country.
Wearing the laurel wreath of world-record-holder, however, soon felt more like a crown of thorns to McReynolds. Hate mail from anglers flooded in. "I had people write me saying I had devastated the future of the striped bass, and others still claiming I found the fish dead," says McReynolds. He became mired in squabbles over money. To escape the brouhaha he and his family spent time in Cape Cod, Florida, and Hawaii, but they eventually returned to Atlantic City. There was no warm homecoming. He couldn't even find work. "Everyone acted like I was a rich guy," he says.
Fishing was the only constant in his life, so McReynolds loaded his wife and kids in the car and began an angling odyssey that continues to this day. When I caught up with the family they had just begun to follow the striped bass migration up the coast. It would take them all way to Maine, where they would spend most of the summer and then turn around and follow the fish south. When the stripers stopped at their wintering grounds off North Carolina the family would continue along the coast to Texas, pursuing whatever game fish swam within casting distance of shore. McReynolds's daughter left the backseat when she married a guy from the Midwest, but his wife Karen and two sons, Al Jr., 24, and Tom, 22, still travel with him.
When I met McReynolds he stretched out his hand: "Albert McReynolds, world-record-holder of the striped bass." I had seen only one photo of him and it had been 20 years old. He had not aged gracefully. His body was stooped and he was missing most of his front teeth. Life on the road, I imagined, was not easy. The family was traveling in a used Chevy Suburban that was loaded with rods and nets; a large bait tank, the type you normally see bolted to the transom of giant sportfishing boats, occupied most of the truck's rear storage space. Like jousting lances, half a dozen rods stretched toward the front seat, and numerous tackle boxes were stashed here and there. The sagging ceiling felt was pinned to the roof with an assortment of thumbtacks, giving the impression that you were looking up at one of those fishing nets that hang from the ceilings of cheap seafood restaurants.
For the McReynoldses, each day is a carbon copy of the one before. The four of them wake in a single hotel room, grab breakfast at the nearest fast-food restaurant, and go fishing. McReynolds says his pension plan from his lifeguard days provides the family with some money; selling bait and winning local tournaments generates a few dollars more. I'd been told by someone who knew him that stopping at churches to beg for money was a third source of income. Al Jr. and Tom claim they enjoy an idyllic lifestyle, but they have never been properly schooled, and life on the move has left them with no friends. It would seem their future is as bleak as their father's.
In the two decades since McReynolds pulled up to Corky Campbell's tackle shop with his fish on the hood, he has seen his fortunes skyrocket and as abruptly spiral into a tailspin. It's the spiral that gets to him. "When you break a world record, your feet leave the ground and you're on cloud nine with your achievement. You don't think people are going to be cruel or nasty or thieves. You're leading with good faith, and you expect them to. It doesn't work out that way. When money enters into it, it changes everything. We have family that refuses us for holidays. People that I thought were my best buddies tell us they have other plans when we visit."
McReynolds went through the last of the more than a quarter of a million dollars from the tackle company and various endorsement deals years ago. As for the other offer of $250,000 from the hunting lodge, McReynolds says it was rescinded after Corky Campbell told him eight months after the catch that he had thrown the fish away because it had freezer burn. McReynolds claims that when he pressed Campbell on the topic a few weeks later, suspicious that his fish had been sold, not tossed in the garbage, Campbell showed him his gun.
Still, even that was less galling to McReynolds than the way he has become a pariah along the Striper Coast. "I was at a bar in Maine once when a guy started talking striped bass. I said, 'Hey, man. I'm the world-record-holder.' He says, 'I know who you are, and you're a goddamn liar. If you open your mouth again I'll break your jaw.' I bowed out politely and left. That stuff happens all the time."
When I asked McReynolds about all those who say it was too rough that night to fish from a jetty, he threw up his hands. "It was rough, and I did get washed off. But the idea that you couldn't fish the jetty is just bullshit. Of course you're not gonna go out where a big mama is gonna break on your head and put you through the rocks. We just went out far enough to cast into the wash behind the waves. It's no big deal if the tidal surge breaks on your knees. I grew up on Vermont Avenue and worked as a lifeguard there. I knew that jetty better than anyone."
He took a deep breath; I could tell it wasn't the first time he had answered the question. "You know," he said, "I was just doing something I loved. I can't read or write, but if I could I'd publish a book called The Night I Hooked the Devil."