Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

January 31st, 2005

The Pilgrimage
By Dave Micus

Atlantic City is Mecca for striped bass fishermen. It was there on September 21, 1982 at 10 pm, fishing from the Vermont Ave. jetty during the front end of a Nor'easter, that Albert McReynolds hooked a giant striped bass. The fish, a whopping 78 lbs. 8 ounces, has reigned as the world record for the past 23 years.

Much has been written about McReynolds and his giant bass. The time it took to land the fish varies from story to story (1 hour and 20 minutes seems to be correct), and one recent story had McReynolds fishing by the lights of a casino that hadn't yet been built. Still, it's a story that bears repeating. When McReynolds brought his catch to Corky Campbell's tackle shop for the weigh-in, word of his catch was already circulating. New York Times writer Nelson Bryant contacted McReynolds to tell him he was in line for a $250,000 prize offered by Abu-Garcia for a world record fish. A wealthy lodge owner also contacted the angler and offered another $250,000 for the skin mount of the giant bass. Then came invitations to dinners at the Explorer's Club and appearances at sporting shows and banquets. With one fish, the 36 year old McReynolds, a school dropout who never learned to read or write, had garnered celebrity and wealth unimaginable to a sport fisherman.

Unfortunately for McReynolds, the story doesn't end there. Primitive hunters, according to Joseph Campbell, believed you only caught game you were worthy of capturing, and there are plenty who argue that McReynolds wasn't worthy. He was informed by the owner of the freezer where the fish was stored that it was not frozen properly, and ended up in a dumpster along with $250,000 from the lodge (though McReynolds suspects the fish was sold). He received a barrage of letters accusing him of fraud and worse. And even though he hired an agent and financial manager, the money flowed out faster than endorsements flowed in. In a bizarre case of reality imitating art, he had become Santiago.

McReynolds now lives on a small pension earned from his days as an Atlantic City life guard. All of the money from the fish is long gone, as are any hopes for endorsements or speaking invitations. When asked what he would do differently, McReynolds answers "I wish I'd cut the line." Yet for the past 20 years McReynolds has searched the coast from Virginia to Maine, driving a battered car and living in cheap motels, a fishing Ahasverus who follows the striper run in search of the one that didn't get away.

But what of the fish?

A 78 lb 8 oz striped bass is a female and over 20 years old. It has spawned for 15 years, and, in her later years, produced in excess of 4,000,000 ova. McReynolds bass was likely a Chesapeake striper, traveling the coast northward toward Maine in the spring, returning to the Chesapeake in the fall. This bass had made the trip at least sixteen times. I determined to make a pilgrimage to Atlantic City to see McReynolds' bass and the site of its capture.

I'd read that a mount of the fish hung in a bar in South Jersey, providing the opportunity for me to mix business with pleasure, but a subsequent story said the bar had since closed. It mentioned, though, that a small maritime museum in Jersey housed a foam mount of the fish. Small maritime museum is a rather vague reference, but a search of the web yielded other clues. The museum was located in Brigantine, just east of Atlantic City. Further exploration determined that the facility was not a maritime museum at all, but the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, an odd final resting place for a fish. A concluding web search lifted all doubts; not only was there a site for the center but within the site was a photo of the monster fish.

I expected the Center to be a seasonal enterprise, but called anyway and, luckily, was told they would be open briefly the following weekend, so I began making arrangements for what is definitely an off-season trip. For while I'll ten times girdle the unmeasured globe; yea and dive straight through it to feel a striper on the end of the fly line, I'm unlikely to drive six hours during striper season to see one mounted on a wall.

The stranding center would only be open from 10 to 2 and I can't risk being late, so I leave Massachusetts at 4 am, an appropriate time for a fishing expedition. I arrive in Atlantic City at 10 am, and head immediately to Brigantine and the Center. The Marine Mammal Rescue Center is a bit obscure and I drive right past it. Backtracking, I notice the small octagonal building and pull in to its parking lot. The reception center is one room and the walls are covered with fish mounts donated by taxidermist Walt Hires; mako and tiger sharks, dolphin, and, occupying a good part of one wall, the foam mount of McReynolds' world record striped bass. The bass is colossal, and my head could easily fit into its gapping mouth. I stand and stare at the fish once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's most valuable game fish, the fish that without malice poetically ruined the life of the man who killed it. Though it's been a long trip to get here, I'm not disappointed.

I'm told by Maurice Temblay, the Aquarist at the Center and an authority on McReynolds' fish, that Corky Campbell's, where the catch was recorded and my next stop, is no longer in business, so I just head for my hotel. A favorite cousin, a player in Atlantic City, secured for me gratis a suite on the 31st floor of a complex overlooking the ocean and the Atlantic City skyline, much nicer digs than a poor fishing writer is used to.

In a karmic coincidence, I can look down from my balcony onto the Vermont Ave. pier where McReynolds took his fish, and I leave the hotel and walk the two blocks to the jetty. It is January, unseasonably cold, and the bass are long gone. But as I gaze at the water I see something; there, a big swirl. Is it the progeny of Reynolds' bass, now 22 years old and even larger than the record fish? I stare at the dark Atlantic but nothing stirs. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.


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