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Fishing with the Master
Part I
Al McReynolds - IGFA Striped Bass World Record Holder
by Bob D'Amico

Originally Published 1998

he appointment with Al McReynolds had been scheduled for about a week; we were to meet at the offices of L. B. Huntington Company, the manufacturer famous for the original saltwater spoon, in Norfolk, Virginia. During the previous days I think I came up with about a thousand questions for Al and wondered if he would get annoyed being asked questions, he has probably answered about ten thousand times.

Well that's not Al, he's 52 (1998) now and its been seventeen years since he landed the IGFA All Tackle World Record Striped Bass and although it has changed his life it has not changed him into an arrogant, egoist. He is still the simple down to earth guy who fished the Vermont Ave jetty in Atlantic City with his friends every night he could. They had formed a "club" of their own called the West Ghost Striper Club, a group of men who came in the night and were always gone by sunrise.

The night of September 21, 1982, he went to fish the jetty on the same street he lived on most of his life because he knew that his chances of breaking his personal best record of 39 pounds were good. A Nor'easter had blown through, churned up the water and he and his friend Pat Erdman knew that big bass would be lurking near the jetty feeding on any bait fish that were slammed against the rocks by the surging water. He had hooked big bass there before but had never managed to get the fish under control, a few times he had been “spooled” by bass and he was determined to stick out the bad weather, waves and wind, to get a 50 pounder.

Plugging with a black over silver Rebel he hooked THE fish and fought it for one hour and forty minutes before it was beaten and he and Pat could pull it clear of the rocks. The rest of the story perhaps will never be told but it is not all happiness and joy. It’s a story of corporate greed, enmity, jealousy, new best “buddies” who may best be described as “vultures.”

[Continue Reading Here from World Record page]

Yes, he received a $250,000 prize from a major international tackle manufacturer but this did not happen right away. In fact, he did not know about the prize money until the New York Times, which helped him claim his prize, picked up the story. Probably no fish has undergone more analysis, scientific testing and multiple examinations than this one. The day following the news of the prize money Al, who was actually a union laborer couldn’t get a job working any of the conventions. The "rich boy" didn’t need to work. Hate mail started arriving from North Carolina, Maryland, New York all over New Jersey and most of New England. Fishermen in the area began mumbling that it was impossible, he must have paid off a commercial fisherman to give him the bass. Nearing Christmas, Al and his wife Karen weren’t rich, they were down right poor, but on Christmas Eve the IGFA had completed all their tests and certified the fish as the new World Record.

There is much more to tell but that’s for Al to write. There were castings made of the fish but the real fish, that disappeared, claimed to be thrown in the dumpster because it was so badly damaged. Al thinks it might be hanging in some rich guy’s den in the Midwest.

The family eventually moved to Cape Cod and settled down but Karen developed severe asthma and the doctors told them that the climate was not good for her. Rather than move to Arizona where they don’t have an ocean they moved to Hawaii where his brother was living. Since then Al and Karen with, daughter Katy, and sons Albert Jr. and Tom have spent parts of each year in Hawaii and the warmer months fishing much of the southern US. He no longer has any "obligations" to any tackle manufacturer, which is good, because they are notoriously "thrifty" and now he can speak freely. Since I don’t need a lawsuit, I’ll just say that my perspective of a few major American and international tackle manufacturers has been jolted by his experiences.

One of his good friends is Lev Huntington of L. B. Huntington Company, whose grandfather designed and sold the first saltwater spoons back in 1909. Huntington’s spoons, called the Drone Bait is the most copied lure of all time. I had a chance to look at their facility and see the original designs of the spoons hand hammered and shaped by Lev’s grandfather. Now I know why those cheap $3.00 spoons only last a short time and why it’s worth the bit extra to buy the original. Solid stainless steel bodies, forged, hollow point cadmium plated Mustad hooks, solid nickle silver rings and silver soldering make a big difference. Lev showed me a Drone spoon that had been in the ocean for four years and although it was no longer super bright and shiny it was in perfect condition.

Leaving Huntington’s facilities later than planned we headed to the hotel in Virginia Beach where we would fish for a few hours before calling it a night. Al mentioned that he didn’t like fishing with guys who weren’t ready to fish, guys who needed to fool around with their tackle or just talk about their big fish. As we headed east, I frantically tried to remember if I had already replaced the mono leader on my casting rod after my last bluefish expedition. We skipped dinner, and headed directly for the beach but we had missed the tide and the water was slack. Two hundred yards south of us was a jetty with several fishermen trying to work the rocks, "No fish there now, they’re just wasting their time". We plugged a section of the beach in the lights from the hotels but switched to bait because there was nothing going on. We talked for hours, ate a pizza, which Al’s son Tom delivered to us and Al Jr. kept me abreast of the Yankees – Padres score. I caught an unidentifiable fish, not even the locals knew what it was. Tom took a couple of short striped bass on a gold Bomber and I enjoyed the conversation and tried to learn as much as possible about THE fish and how to fish. I may be 50 and have a eaten a few thousand sand encrusted sandwiches in my time but learning about striped bass fishing is a never ending quest for me. It's too bad most guys don't openly share their knowledge, successes and failures!

Al called it a night and I got to see the 9th inning of the World Series and the Yankees sweep the hapless Padres. Hopefully they will be recognized as one of the best baseball teams of all time (I lived in Cincinnati and had season tickets during the era of the awesome "Big Red Machine," of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan, the 1998 Yankees are better).

The next morning we met at 6:00 AM and hit the beach without breakfast or even a cup of coffee, the teacher was ready, the student was anxious and the lesson began immediately. I swear that Al McReynolds can not only smell bass but he has x-ray eyes that allow him to identify a fish in the water as well as its size.

"Don’t cast there, those are blues", "No those are only shorts, there’s bigger fish over there", "Don’t let your plug splash down like that", "Cast to your left, there’s a big’un." "Slow down, now speed up, STOP, crank, HIT IT!" For every bass I hooked, Al hooked and landed three. As we worked the beach and the light increased I realized that we were being followed by a string of local fishermen who finally got between us and then ahead of us. They were frantically casting everything they had and trying to get as close to Al as possible. He switched back and I was "in the lead" as he yelled out, "on your right, now , now!" I cast and hooked into a good fish, it ran out more than half of my line before I could turn it. As I got it into the first wave I made the two dumbest mistakes possible, the first was "Pride", I would land this bass without help and two, the bass was still "green" she hadn’t turned on her side, the signal that she was beaten. I tried to force her into the wash as she raised her head above the wave thrashed and rolled, brought her head up again and spit the lure into the air. I was stunned beyond words, ashamed of myself and again reminded that a bass will use every trick that nature has given it to battle for its freedom. A few words of wisdom long lost in my memory banks flashed into the frontal lobe of my brain, "Big bass are smart bass." I won’t say how big that fish was, it wouldn’t have broken my personal best but it would rank right up there and its been a long time since I battled a "big momma" in the surf.

I would have cried except that there were too many people around and they must have thought I knew what I was doing because, I was fishing with Al McReynolds, I was with the champion. I just walked quickly back up to dry sand and started casting again like "I do this all the time, no big deal". In retrospect I really can’t complain, it was a good battle, fairly fought and although I would have released her, you can’t drag a big fish out of the water, spend minutes taking photos, weighing and measuring it without doing some damage. I’m glad she won and I hope she avoided the porpoises that had been hunting in the area all week.

We both took several more fish, shorts and two pair of bass in the 30 to 32 inch range. We released them all, Al and the family was headed for Georgia in the afternoon and I was going home. But the main reason was that local fishermen were keeping anything they landed. Virginia has three or four different length schedules based on the time of the year and location. These guys were ignoring their own laws with impunity. When I remarked to Al that they were keeping shorts he said its best not to say anything, in their minds they were keeping "their fish and we’re outsiders, worse still we’re damn Yankees."

We switched to bait fishing when a front came in from the Northeast and again Al out fished me 3 to 1 but I didn’t mind. It was another opportunity to talk and learn more. Although he has fished for nearly every species of fresh and saltwater fish its striped bass that he loves the most. The man should be a spokesperson for the CCA the way he can go on and on about protecting bass from commercial interests, dumb politicians and the universal claim of "Our Beach, Our Fish, Get Out."

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