When I showed up unannounced at Campbell's current place of business, a marine repair shop in Somers Point, New Jersey, his wife told me to leave a card and maybe he would call me back. As I loitered by a rack of antifouling paint, Campbell, dressed in a blue jumpsuit, eventually appeared, holding a large binder. "It's all here. The whole story," he said. "Take as long as you'd like, but I don't have time to talk." The binder contained newspaper clippings of the catch, phone-call logs for McReynolds, contracts with Rebel lures, a copy of the anonymous postcard the IGFA received, the salvo of letters McReynolds's lawyers fired at Campbell, and much, much more. I was reading a copy of a letter from the agent Keating to McReynolds, threatening that their partnership would end if the "impetuous spending" didn't stop, when Campbell came back in the shop and to my surprise asked if I had any questions.
I started with the gun. "Let's just say there's a lot of revisionist history going on here," he said.
"Well, do you think this fish ruined McReynolds's life?" I asked.
"How can you ruin something that doesn't exist? He didn't have a life before this fish. It was an opportunity squandered. Maybe he had the wrong people leading him. But even if he had the right people I'm not sure he could have been led. It's like trying to manage Mike Tyson professionally."
Campbell's reaction was like so many I heard in the course of my reporting: McReynolds was a bum who blew a shot at fame and fortune. But did he? Could he have milked a single fish for a lifetime of opportunity? And if so, why the vitriol? Professional athletes crash harder than McReynolds every year. To this day, no one denies that McReynolds is a great fisherman, which is all he has ever aspired to be.
There is only one thing to do: go see the fish. Although the actual carcass is apparently by now completely decomposed in a New Jersey landfill, four foam mounts were made before Campbell cleaned out his freezer: one for Campbell, one for Rebel Lures, one for McReynolds, and one for the taxidermist. The taxidermist subsequently donated his to the obscure Marine Mammal Stranding Center's Sea Life Museum in Brigantine, New Jersey, where it still hangs. McReynolds donated his to the recently closed Gene's Beach Bar, four blocks away from the museum, to settle a bar tab. (Or so I've been told.)
It was at its perch in the bar that I first laid eyes on the fish. The Beach Bar is a low-slung structure just off the ocean, and the striper was hanging by the door in a backlit glass case. It was like that moment toward the end of Boogie Nights when the Mark Wahlberg character finally drops his pants for the camera. I'd heard how big this fish was, but I wasn't prepared for it up close. It struck a classic fish pose, bent in a slight U shape, fins erect, mouth agape. You could have almost stuffed a volleyball in the opening, and its girth, 34 inches, was the same as my own waist. Its tail was as wide as a straw broom. Its stripes, bold swaths of black and silver at the front, were mere pixelated dots toward the middle, as if they had been unable to stretch over the fish's entire body. Surrounding the fish were a few faded photos of McReynolds hoisting it up by the gill plate. The striper was nearly as long as McReynolds was tall.
Standing there as patrons filed past, eager to grab a beer, it seemed strange that this fish had been relegated to a dim bar where classic rock blared on the jukebox. The chaos it had created continued to swirl through people's lives 22 years later. Now I could understand why. This wasn't just a fish: This was the culmination of thousands of years of evolution, survival instinct, extraordinary genetics, and a whole lot of luck, both very good and very, very bad.
Late that afternoon the wind intensified to 25 knots out of the northeast. I decided to drive to the Vermont Avenue jetty, curious to see it in conditions that matched those that McReynolds had braved. From behind a dune I could hear a whomp as each wave met the end of the jetty. Two surfers scurried past with the hoods on their sweatshirts cinched tight. They had wisely left their boards on the roof of their truck. On the beach I watched as seven-footers rolled almost the entire length of the jetty, the surf zone a riot of whitewater. It would have been dangerous to drop a line in the foam – but not impossible. As a wave receded I focused my eyes on the approximate spot where two natural forces – fisherman and fish – are said to have met, and, as if played out on an ancient Greek stage with an ominous storm-tossed sea as the backdrop, brought each other down.