(Editor's note: In a week where a 25-pounder is the top story, a 15-pounder might not sound that big. But it is. It's a fish of a lifetime for everyone, except maybe those willing to brave the hypercompetitive nature of SoCal lunker hunting. So enjoy the story.)
How many times have you had a chance to catch a 15-pound largemouth? If your name is Tim Horton, the answer is three. Check out this story about what happened to him at the Bassmaster Elite Series opener on Texas' Lake Amistad.
"I was catching them pretty good there, but my bite was late in the day," he said. "I was catching them flipping trees."
His pattern was decent, and he was at a decent place in the standings – 33rd, with a 21-03 limit – after the first day.
On day 2 he had about a 12-pound bag by 8:30, and knew he'd cull a couple later in the day when his bite improved. In the interim, with the wind that blew on day 1 dying down, he decided to run to the other end of the lake and fish for a 5-pounder he'd seen on a bed.
Why so far away? "I really didn't look much (for bedding fish) in practice," he said. "I was having so much fun fishing in practice, and I felt like it could be won other ways."
He got there and the 5-pounder "was still sitting there. It was a pretty hot fish." The bass clamped down on Horton's bait, but on the hookset the bait came out of its mouth and he hooked the fish on the outside. "I foul-hooked that 5-pounder, so I unhooked it," he said.
Because the pocket was pretty calm, he decided to see if any other fish had moved up. A few feet down the bank and saw a 4- to 5-pounder on a deeper bed (8 to 10 feet).
'No Way That's a Bass'
"When I spun the boat around to fish for that fish, that's when I saw the female sitting behind him," Horton said. "In my mind I'm thinking, No way that's a bass. It was about 30 inches long." He was thinking it was a carp, but noted: "I could see the markings on it."
It was so big he was momentarily taken aback. It was a Jaws-like moment, only instead of "we're going to need a bigger boat" it was more like "I'm going to need some tuna rods."
Horton said: "I didn't know what to do. So I spooled up bigger braided line before I started fishing for it.
"The first couple of pitches in there, the male bit it every time. But I could tell (the female) was a really dumb fish. What I mean by that is you can tell when a bass is going to bite (when sight-fishing). It doesn't run off (when you drop a bait on the bed). It just looks at it. But the male was so aggressive that every time I pitched in there, he ran and got it."
After about 30 minutes of that, Horton said he "finally figured out" that if he let the male bite his jig and swim off with it, he had enough time to pull the jig out, reel back up and drop the jig down on the bed before the male got back. So he did it.
He thought the female went for it, but the bed was deep and the water had a little ripple on it. Still, he wasn't taking any chances. He set the hook – and hooked up with the male, which ended up being about 4 1/2 pounds.
His heart sank. "That's the kiss of death," he said, referring to the fact that when the male is taken away, many times the female gets squirrelly and won't bite.
The First Time: 'Almost Grotesque'
He dropped the buck bass in the livewell and culled a little fish. That meant he was up at about 15 or 16 pounds, enough to make the Top 50 cut and take home a check. But he didn't think about that. Not yet.
Quick as he could, he dropped his jig down again – and the female sucked it in.
"I hit her with everything I had, and she came off the bottom only a couple of inches," he said. "She hardly moved. It was like nothing really happened at all.
"Then she opened her mouth and (the jig) came out." Horton almost couldn't believe it – and he finally got a sense of her size.
"I saw how deep (in the belly) she was. It was almost grotesque-looking. By now my partner is saying it's a 15-pounder and I'm half-believing him because he lives (near the lake)" and has seen fish that big.
The Second Time: 'A Whole 'Nother Universe'
Even without the male there, the monster bass went back down to the bed and Horton kept fishing for her. Some time later – maybe 15 or 30 minutes – he got her to bite again, and once again he put everything he had into the hookset.
This time she stayed on the line until about 3 or 4 feet from the boat, when she came off. Again. Horton didn't know if he was going to have a heart attack or dive in after her.
"That time I got a real good look at her," he said. How good a look? "I caught an 11-08 at Toho on a bed a couple years ago, and this fish was a whole 'nother universe."
The Third Time: 'A Fish Worth $10,000'
It's been about 2 hours by now. Let's pause here to see what Horton was trying to set the hook with:
> A 7 1/2-foot All Star flipping stick – "It's a frog rod, and it's so stiff you can hardly bend it."
> 65-pound braided line
> A 1/2-ounce white Booyah jig
After losing the whale the second time, he changed to a "bigger jig with a lot bigger hook" – a 3/4-ouncer with a 5/0 hook in it.
He dropped it down on the bed and "she's spinning on it, looking at it, doing everything to make you think she's going to bite." But she didn't. Then she started to change. He said: "She's getting up on the bed once every 3-4 minutes, and then it's once every 8-10 minutes, and then it's once every 15 minutes."
Horton has at least 15 pounds in his livewell, enough to make the Top 50 day 3 cut and get a check for 10 grand. So what does he do? He walks to the back deck, reaches into the well, grabs the male and drops it over the side. Why? He hopes the male will run back to the bed, reassure the female and get her to lock on again.
He said he'd done that successfully before, "but not with a fish worth $10,000."
But it wasn't lost on him that the female could be the biggest bass ever caught in a BASS tournament. And aside from the tournament, he knew he might never get a chance to catch that big a bass ever again. So "the points, the money, didn't matter. That fish had me consumed."
After he dropped in the male, both fish disappeared for 3-4 minutes. "I thought I had completely messed up," Horton said. Then they came into view, and "it took about 15 minutes for them to start acting normal again."
Fifteen minutes after that, "the female starts getting aggressive on my bait again," he said. Half an hour later, he had her on the line for the third and final time.
It looked like he'd done everything right, and once again she was making it easy: Even with flooded trees all around, she came straight at the boat – with Horton reeling hard the whole time.
And wouldn't you know it, she came off again, 3-4 feet from the boat. "The bait just pulled out," he said.
He started fishing for the 15-pounder (or was it bigger than that?) at around 9:30 or 10:00. Now it was about 2:30. In that time he'd foul-hooked a 5-pounder, caught a 4 1/2-pounder and let it go, and lost a 15-pounder three times. That's about 25 pounds of fish not in his boat within 10 feet of bank.
He had four fish, not enough to make the cut or a check. So what did he do? What any red-blooded American bass fisherman would do: He fished for her rest of the day. But he never got her on again.
Before heading to check-in, he caught a 14-incher to round out his limit. He ended up tied for 65th place with 33-10, 3-06 out of 50th.
"It was about as grueling a day as I ever had," Horton said. "It was amazing that that one fish completely got to me. It just wasn't my day to land her for sure."
And what if he could do it over? "I don't think I'd change anything. As grueling and gut-wrenching as it was, it was one of the neatest things I ever saw – seeing a fish that size. It was a rare deal."
> He's thought about his failure to hook that bass "at least 100 times," and said: "The only thing I can think of is that her jawbone was so wide that the hook didn't have time to hit anything else (to penetrate). The hook wasn't driving in."
> Kelly Jordon, who lives on Texas' Lake Fork, is a well-known big-bass fiend. He's caught double-digit bass more times than he can remember. Horton took him out the next day to show him the fish (Jordon also missed the Top 50 cut), and "Kelly's first words were, 'Oh my gosh.'"
> Horton said: "What blew me away about it was that it looked like a blimp down there. You know those big fake fish that are pillows? That's what it looked like."
> The biggest bass caught in BASS competition was a 14-09, by Mark Tyler at the California Delta Western Invitational in April 1999. The biggest bass weighed at a tour-level BASS event was by Mark Menendez in March 1997. That was a 13-09, from Richland Chambers Reservoir in Texas.
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