The Biggest Fish Story Ever Told

Mj 618_348_the biggest fish story ever told
Pete Barrett

The beast exists because it is stronger than the thing you call evolution. In it is some demon, driving it through millions of centuries. It does not surrender so easily to weaklings like you and me. –-William Alland, producer of The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Every angler is haunted by a certain fish. Mine, a redfish I hooked in the surf off a barrier beach in South Carolina, spooled my reel when I was 13 years old. I can still vividly recall the steady thumps of its powerful body as it swam seaward and the whine of my reel’s drag. The fish stopped briefly on its march to deeper water, tilted its head toward the shallow, sandy bottom, and inadvertently waved its massive tail above the surface. It gave me a second of hope – maybe I had turned it! But the redfish picked up speed again, and in less than a minute I watched the last of my line unwind. My rod, now feeling the full force of the fish, bent deeply and the line snapped, its parting marked by a sound similar to the report of a .22 rifle: pow. I dropped to my knees and wept, sure that I had lost the fish of a lifetime.

The wound never heals, but I apply salve by telling my story to other fishermen. They understand. And then they relay their own tales. That’s what’s happening on a small dock near the Susquehanna Flats of the Upper Chesapeake Bay. Albert McReynolds is telling me about his fish. It swims in his dreams and swallows the sinker of his thoughts. Twenty-two years after he hooked the creature, McReynolds still blames it for his gypsy lifestyle and the lack of anyone he can truly call a friend. In fact, McReynolds claims the fish ruined his and his family’s lives. The strange thing is, he actually caught the fish.

On September 21, 1982, McReynolds met his buddy Pat Erdman for a night of surf fishing. The first day of fall had arrived in bluebird fashion, but a nor’easter was now pinwheeling toward the coast. Thirty-five-mph winds, eight-to-10-foot swells, and lashing rain were predicted along the Jersey Shore by midnight. After plumbing a few spots without much luck, the two men pulled up to the Vermont Avenue jetty, at the northern end of Atlantic City’s fabled boardwalk. The jetty extends roughly 25 yards into the ocean and is made up of a jumble of large granite boulders capped with uneven concrete.

As McReynolds and Erdman watched from the beach, large waves roared over the entire structure with a force strong enough to lift a man off his feet and into the sea. But in the water the two fishermen could see thousands of silver flashes. Schools of mullet were rushing along the length of the jetty, their flanks reflecting the light from the Showboat Casino. McReynolds understood that striped bass had the mullet pinned against the rocks and were gorging on them beneath the cauldron of whitewater.

McReynolds and Erdman pushed out as far onto the jetty as they dared and took root. The wind drove rain into their eyes, and sea spray seeped through their foul-weather gear, soaking their heavy sweatshirts. Each time a particularly large wave broke on the rocks the men were inundated with a flood of whitewater swirling up to their knees. When it receded, dozens of five-inch-long mullet were left flopping on the jetty. After a feeble cast into the maelstrom, Erdman hooked the first of many nice stripers.

None of them would compare to the giant that swiped McReynolds’s lure, a five-and-a-half-inch black and silver Rebel swimming plug, at 10 p.m. The fish opened its mouth just beneath the lure, creating a hole on the sea’s surface. “It looked like someone pulled the plug on a bathtub,” says McReynolds. Then the fish’s head rose above the foam-streaked sea, the lure resting crosswise in its mouth. For a second or two the striper seemed to be “looking dead at us,” says Erdman. “It was really strange. Then it just sank straight back, tail first, like a submarine. It was the only striper I’ve ever seen that didn’t turn and run.” McReynolds reared back, driving the treble hooks into the fish’s mouth. The striper responded by ripping 150 yards of 20-pound test line from his reel. The striped bass fight of the century was on.

The battle began as a one-sided affair. The fish used its enormous size to bully McReynolds and his fairly light tackle. The rod was bent to the handle as the wind blew a haunting whistle across the tight line. More than once McReynolds looked down to see that he had just a few feet of line left on his reel, so he applied as much pressure as he dared, tempting the line to break, and turned the fish. “My back was aching and my forearms were locked,” he says. “I was just praying to God that I would get a look at the fish.” The struggle raged, each participant giving and taking, for an hour and 20 minutes before the striper finally surfaced on its side. Now McReynolds had to step down into the raging water to recover the beast. It’s a tricky endeavor when the weather is calm, requiring the agility of a sandpiper. When the weather is sloppy, it can be deadly.

McReynolds brought the fish in close to the rocks, timing his move with the passing swells, swung at it with a small hand gaff, and missed. As he readied for another shot he lost his footing and slid down the slime-coated rocks into the water. When he surfaced the behemoth was floating in front of him. “She was opening her gills, so I stuck my fist under the gill plate, and I bear-hugged her,” says McReynolds. “Then Pat came down and dragged me up by the hood of my sweatshirt.”

McReynolds literally collapsed on the jetty next to his fish while Erdman shouted congratulations. Then, above the roar of the breaking surf and the howling wind, the striper’s sides heaved, and it seemed to exhale in a loud whoosh. Neither of the fishermen had ever heard a fish do anything like that. But it did it again and again. Soon the men were staring wide-eyed at their quarry, not sure they had even caught a fish but possibly a sea monster in the shape of a striper.Reluctant to leave the fish biting, the two men put a blanket over the catch, strapped it to the hood of Erdman’s car, and continued fishing. Only as dawn approached did they head over to Corky Campbell’s tackle shop for the start of business hours. On the way, a cop pulled them over.

“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. Albert McReynolds was born in 1946 – as it happens, just a few years before his fish. He gravitated to the sea at an early age and, by his own admission, his proclivity toward fishing made him the smelliest kid in class. At seven years old he was selling minnows to bait shops; by nine he was waking at 3 a.m. to bait tubs of cod hooks for commercial fishermen before school; at 10 he was working on a charter fishing boat, where he once hooked a giant sea turtle. He was offered $500 for the catch and he accepted. By then a pattern had been set: Toss a hook in the sea and pull out money. “I’ve always had a relationship with the sea,” says McReynolds. He dropped out of school at age 13 (without learning to read or write) when a bunk opened on a commercial scallop boat out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. His education would come on the decks of fishing boats and at the hands of old salts who whiled away hours patching holes in nets. By all accounts, he had an otherworldly talent for finding and catching fish.

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.” Corky Campbell has a less sympathetic view of McReynolds’s situation. That may have something to do with the fact that McReynolds has sued him numerous times. Ever since Campbell reported that the fish had been ruined by freezer burn, McReynolds has insisted he’s owed the $100,000 from Campbell’s insurance policy. All of the suits have been dismissed.

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.

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