I answered a call in mid-May from Al Q’ my friend for many years. I assumed he was calling to talk about his recent projects — maybe the “One Surf Fly” that had been held a few weeks before, or perhaps the upcoming “Carp Throw Down” — the popular event he and Conway Bowman host every year at Lake Henshaw.
Instead of his usual excited voice, his call began in quivering, hushed tones. “I had an epic morning on the fly this past Saturday. First, I landed the largest calico ever caught on 12-pound tippet– a 9.23-pounder; then I landed a cruising white seabass on a small squid fly that went 36 pounds on 20-pound tippet — two pending IGFA World Records in a single day! Want to do a story?
As his story unfolded his voice dripped with the passion of the moment and it became clear that his remarkable story as he told it couldn’t be improved!
So here it is, in his own words . . . Gary
The Day Lightning Struck Twice…
By Al Quattrocchi
It was May 14, a day I will not soon forget.
We were in for an early wakeup call that Saturday morning when my fishing bud, Dr. John Whitaker, and I left the dock at “0 Dark 30.” We had one thing on our minds: A large female calico bass on fly we called “Big Bertha.” Call it Walter Checker Pants, Sport Coat Annie or anything you want.
We were fly-fishing big fish water and I made sure I had my 10-weight Sage Xi3 rod and Sage 4200 reel ready. I was fishing 12-pound tippet and a very simple articulated sculpin head fly. The sculpin heads I use come courtesy of my friend Martin Bawden of Flymen Flyfishing Company. I believe I had a small brown sculpin head straight out of the package on a #2 Gamakatsu B10 Stinger hook.
We started fishing in the dark, working some nice structure on a falling high tide. Things looked promising – water temps were good and, most importantly, we had a consistent weather pattern in our favor.
As luck would have it, we didn’t get a touch for the first hour — maybe hour and a half.
We looked at each other like, “what is going on here?” A ten-inch fish would have been welcomed by either party. Little did I know, it was the calm before the storm. I was fishing big, dark-colored flies, 6- to 8-inches in length. I wanted to feed a big bass a steak dinner. As we entered the grey hour or false dawn, and the light was slowly becoming visible, I was able to see a little better and decided to change my fly. I went to a smaller one, same style.
We drifted over to a defined area with some nice boiler rocks and began casting; still no love. All the morning I kept telling myself, “be ready, don’t day dream, be ready.” Playing out the scenario of what to do if I get an eat, what is my routine, like a shortstop with nobody on base and two outs knowing that a ground ball is going to first.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a very small piece of underwater structure, only present by the slight variation of swirl movement on the surface. I launched a cast and let it sink. On my third strip, Big Bertha ate. This is where it got interesting.
Had I not played the scenario in my head I would have choked!
I immediately pointed my rod at the fish and clamped down on the line and rod with both hands — knowing a fly rod has very little leverage, lifting the rod on the eat gives all the advantage to a big fish, it would have been game-over.
Now, we were in a tug of war – she wanted to go home and I wanted my fly back. We stood at this position for an eternity, probably 10-15 seconds, we were in a standoff, and then I started to use my body and turn her with side pressure, moving her maybe a foot. This is where I made my move. I quickly got two strips in and clamped down again with two hands on the line and rod. I moved her enough to where there was now space between her and the safety of her destroying my tackle. Her spirit started to break. I again got a couple of quick strips, never allowing any line to slip. This was key!
She started to come my way and over my left shoulder I could see John was ready with the net. She surfaced like a deflated beach ball and just fit into the net.
When she landed on deck, we looked at each other and knew she was a new IGFA world record!
A few high-fives and choice words later, I put that rod down to take the pics need to record this monumental catch. We didn’t know it, but we were staring down at the largest calico bass ever on fly! She weighed in at 9.23 pounds on 12-pound tippet, eclipsing the current record of 5.4! But this is where things got even more insane.
Prior to this morning’s adventure, like only two days earlier, Dr. Whitaker had nailed a white seabass on one of my small sculpin flies that went 27-pounds on 16-pound tippet, a little short of the IGFA world record 38-pound fish. It was a beauty! Apparently, there were a few in the area. So John tells me, “Q, put down that Sage rod. You are done with it for the day after landing Big Bertha. Grab your other rod!”
My other rod was a vintage G Loomis 10/11 and a Seamaster Tarpon reel with a #10 clear intermediate Cortland Liquid Crystal fly line that was spooled on the night before … an outfit that my good old friend, Jerry Pierce used to fly-fish the Florida Keys for tarpon back in the 1970’s. I really wanted to someday honor this magical outfit for Jerry, especially since he recently had to retire from fishing due to some health issues. The stick had serious mojo! Little did I know that was going to be a reality. So I started to throw some surface poppers, hoping to entice a bass on the surface.
John continued to fish calicos. Once the light was up and the bass bite subsided, John said, “OK, reel ‘em in and put on a white sea bass fly.” I pulled out a few big bucktail deceivers, asked John which color, and decided to go with a pink and white.
Scanning the distant horizon, John looked back at me and said, “Do ya see them?” At first I didn’t know what he was referring to; then I looked and said “yep.” I saw movement on the surface which turned out to be a school of white seabass cruising with backs and tails cutting through the surface. We cut the engine and drifted towards them. We cast at them for a half an hour or longer. Nothing. I was frustrated and told John I was going to take photos of this usual activity. It was National Geo time.
Then I had an idea; maybe size-down the fly?
I looked through my box and grabbed a go-to small Shady Lady brown squid fly. It was one my buddy Bob Popovics taught me to tie more than 20 years ago. I said to John, “If this doesn’t work, nothing will.” I tied it on and began casting. On the third cast I had an eat; it pulls some line, but doesn’t feel like a sea bass. I strip in the fish and it’s a four-pound calico — nice, but not the target species. I shake him off and continue casting at the school. On the fifth or sixth cast I see a side flash and watch my line peel off the reel. I tell John, “She either ate or I fouled her, but she is on!” We start the boat to recover some line. The old Seamaster is a direct drive and hard to maintain pressure unless I button down the drag, so I am literally at the mercy of the fish. I continue to short pump and use side pressure to get line back and start to get my fly line on the spool … she is coming my way. Finally, I see color and begin to turn her towards the boat; she comes up, sees the boat and doesn’t like the view, and off she goes peeling line with ease. I continue to put pressure on her and she turns, coming at me. At first I think she’s gone, then she changes direction and I feel her weight. Whew, thought I lost her.
We work this ballet until I see color once again and turn her. As she starts to surface, glimmering purples and greens, I slide her down towards John, He readies the gaff but misses, bopping her off the head. She bolts deep and I let her go. I slowly regain my fly line — she is weary and slides up towards the surface; John makes the perfect head shot and we lay her on the deck.
Another pending world record!
She weighed in at 36-pounds on 20-pound tippet. The current record stands at 18.2-pounds on 20. With no rods left to fish, we headed back in with big smiles; I personally had a sick feeling in my stomach … it hadn’t all set in!
Lightning had just hit me twice and it would take a whole week to process the achievement. Call it luck, being in the right place at the right time, or maybe just being prepared for that magical moment in your life when everything comes together and is perfect. Whatever it is, I owe my buddy, John Whitaker, for being there with me, taking me to productive water and I thank God for knowing how much time I put in and allowing me to experience the magic we all dream about.
Al Quattrocchi is an outdoor writer, photographer, pro fly tier and educator of saltwater fly fishing. Though programs and events like the One Surf Fly, Double Haul Ball and Carp Throwdown, Al continues to inspire many to pick up a fly rod and fish saltwater. He resides in Los Angeles. His blog: www.alquattrocchi.wordpress.com