As a kid, I’d travel to Florida each year with my dad to fish for bass. It seemed like a long way to go, especially for friends and family who would routinely ask why we’d spend two days in the car to catch fish available back home. “The chance for the fish of a lifetime,” Dad would answer. Nowhere else was it better.

Now Dad was set on lunkers being the ultimate prize. “Five-fish limit” wasn’t in his vocabulary. He’d already secured his lifetime achievement by the time I came along, catching a 12-pound monster on Florida’s Lake Griffin in the late '60s.

Actually, the fish weighed 12 pounds, 1 ounce. I know this, and the importance of that distinction, as a result of hearing my father tell the story of his big catch all throughout my life. I mean, I’ve memorized every detail of this event. The way Dad’s buddy instructed him to cast over by the channel marker, how the fish picked up the blue Fliptail worm, and how it jumped once hooked. Dad always points out how his buddy’s eyes were as “big around as ping-pong balls” when he first saw the leviathan clear water.

For over 50 years the mounted version of that fish has hung in my father’s office, where the story is recounted to anyone who cares to hear it. It remains, today, the fish of his lifetime.

I recently pondered mine. I’d caught big bass, too. But they hadn’t defined me.

Immediately I remembered another fish story. I’d somehow wandered into an old bait shop in central Florida when cosmic force pulled me to a 14-pound bass mounted on the wall. The shop owner verified the fish was from the same generation as Dad's. But circumstances were different, and far from a vacation.

The guy told me how he’d just come back from Vietnam. The country was a mess, as was his head. With no future in sight, the man discovered a renewed flame for bass fishing, the adventure and purity leading the way through his fog. I’ll never forget how he looked to the fish, then to me, stating “That bass saved my life.” Literally.

I’d say that qualifies as the fish of a lifetime.

And I think back to a time when the bass fishing universe was focused on the world record. Californ-i-a is the place you oughtta be, as the song goes, and that’s where it all went down. It seemed like every week the world was getting closer to crowning a new king. George Perry’s benchmark, seen as folklore by modern bassers, would finally get the boot it deserved. Twenty, 21, then, finally, 22. Record-hunter Bob Crupi had caught the fish of a lifetime, but it wasn’t enough. Falling four ounces short of the record, Crupi would be known as the guy that came up short. I remember reading what significance that had on his life. The dark cloud that hung over the catch.

And then, of course, there were bass that didn’t make it in the boat, and cost tournament anglers everything. There was even one that did, but somehow still slipped away, leaving the angler a place in history simply for that feat. I hope that wasn’t the fish of his lifetime, as the bass fishing media has so willfully tried to make it.

And, on the other side of the coin, I recall hearing the story of David Fritts, and how his mother took him fishing as a young kid. They’d caught a few bobber fishing from the bank, but then someone gave Fritts his first lure. I’m sure you can guess what kind of lure that was. I can remember Fritts telling the story at a sport show years ago. “And I threw that crankbait out there, and I caught a bass. And I thought, now this is cool.”

After all Fritts has done with a crankbait, I’d argue that was his fish of a lifetime.

I wonder if we all have one we could pin down?

Maybe it was your biggest. For some, it may have been your first. Mine was neither.

At the age of 27, I’d somehow found myself still in contention on the final day of the biggest tournament of my life. Things hadn’t worked out back home on my path to responsibility and adulthood. The career in fishing that I had longed for since those early trips to Florida was quickly replaced by rent and a 401K. But I still had a chance.

Catch rates being absurdly low, I had nothing left to lose when I tied on a deeper-diving plug than I’d thrown all week. The 4-pound bass that ate that plug, and would be responsible for a champion’s check and trophy, taking me on a wayward path through a lifetime of fishing that still goes on today, qualifies. That’s my fish of a lifetime.

Funny how fish define us.

(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)