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September 21, 2007

78 Pounds 8 Ounces

The story behind the largest striper ever taken on rod and reel, told by the man who caught it.

It's Albert somebody, at the front desk. He says he caught the world-record striped bass and wants to talk to you."

I knew right then who Albert was. No question. It would have to be Al McReynolds, the guy who caught that 78-pound striped bass from a New Jersey jetty during a Nor'easter back in 1982. As a dyed-in-the-wool striper addict myself, I had to meet him.

As large as he had loomed in the magazine and newspaper articles I had read at the time, I figured he would stand about six-feet-eight. So I was surprised to find a pleasant-looking 60-ish guy a foot or so shorter than that, with close-cropped hair, dressed in shorts and carrying a manila envelope. We exchanged pleasantries and I ushered him into my office.

"You know," he said, "there have been lots of stories written about me and all that happened after I caught that fish. There was the money, the friends and family members who turned against me, and the people that said I never actually caught it. But I've always wanted to tell the story in my own words, and I finally have." With that, he dug into the envelope and handed me a CD. "Here it is."

We chatted for a bit, about stripers of course, and then shook hands. I promised I'd read his story when I got a chance. When he left, I printed it out and tossed it on the windowsill where a number of other documents and manuscripts languished. But as I was packing my briefcase for the day, I had second thoughts, and tossed it in. I read it on the train, and found it to be a helluva story, too good not to share with readers. So here's Part I, which details the famous catch. Part II can be found here. - Barry Gibson.

PART ONE

The story begins in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1982. The day is September 21 - the first day of fall. I am living in a summer rental a couple houses from the beach, near the boardwalk. It is the right time to start fishing for striped bass. The finger mullet are in the surf, swimming in the breakers along the beach. I am filled with emotion, saying, man, this could be it. This could be our night. This is the right time.

My friend picks me up in an old Jeep and we head down to the beach. When we pull up to the beach it is around 7:30 p.m. We sit there for a few minutes and look out at the water. All we can see are stripers splashing, their tails coming out of the water and their bellies rolling in the breakers. And the finger mullet are jumping and running for their lives, running up on the beach and jumping up on the rocks. I turn to my friend and tell him, "This is it."

We get out of the truck and work our way onto the jetty, the same jetty I fished as a kid, on the street where I was born and raised. We get out there and within moments my friend hooks a nice fish. I keep casting but can't do much.

My friend lands his fish, casts again and gets another one, but I still haven't gotten a hit. I wind my lure in and check to see if it's okay, 'cause one time I was fishing with a lure and saw that it had an eye missing on it. And I remember that a fish won't hit a lure if one of the eyes is missing, for some reason. So I think about changing the lure, but then I say, no, my lure's all right, and I start casting again. By this time my friend has landed another fish and is fighting a third. I lob my lure out, with the wind at my back. As I wind in real slow, the water erupts and my rod jerks down and line starts coming off the reel.

And I have my Florida white boots on and my rain pants on. The wind is coming north-northeast and the weather is getting real ominous. And the waves are picking up and it's starting to get dark. I fight my fish and land it. It's a 15-pound, nine-ounce weakfish, just off the state record of 17 pounds. I unhook the weakfish and go back to the same spot and start casting again.

The water is a beautiful green with white foam, lit up by the lights from the boardwalk. It is chilly, that fall temperature where you need a hooded sweatshirt or a jacket. It's the greatest time of the year to be surf fishing.

As the fish start to mount up, I look south along the beach. I can see the casinos of Atlantic City with everybody inside, gambling, going to see the entertainment, the shows - Johnny Mathis or whoever else is in town - and people are having buffets and trying to win money in the casinos on the slot machines. And here we are, out here fishing. A lot of people said to us, "Are you crazy? Are you nuts?" 'Cause we fish in bad weather, when it's storming or raining. It doesn't matter to us.

Now the waves are starting to splash up on top of the rocks, and we're casting. I throw the lure out and it hits the water and I take about two or three turns. I feel something stop it, and it's shaking its head, jerking it. I pull upand it doesn't even move. I pull again and its tail comes out of the water. I see a silver swirl and the silhouette of a fish, and it goes straight down to the bottom. My friend says to me, "You got 'im?"

And I say, "Yeah." I tell him it seems like a nice fish, but nothing out of the ordinary.

All of a sudden the reel starts turning slow and the fish is going away, heading for deep water. I'm standing there trying to get leverage on the fish, trying to stand on the rocks and the moss and the slime. The fish isn't running fast. It's just running deep and slow. And the rod is bending all the way down to the grip. I have the rod locked in my hip, one hand on the foregrip and the other on the reel handle. And the fish gets out there until almost all the line is off the spool. I can only see a couple of wraps. So I grab the spool, which is the worst thing you can do, to try to stop it. The rod keeps bending and bending. Then I turn the rod to the left and the fish turns and starts coming right at me.

I start winding for all I'm worth because the fish is putting slack in the line and you don't want slack when you're fighting a fish 'cause they can shake the lure. So I'm winding, and my friend says, "What's happening man? What's going on? When you get done playing with that one, man, let me know if I can help you."

Here I am, 36 years old, been fishing since I was eight. It was like the Good Lord had me go through a period, tutoring me, grooming me to fight this fish, which is the biggest fish I ever had in my life on a rod. Years of fishing experience, all the tricks I knew, all the things I was taught and told, were going to come into play this night.

It's after 8:00 and the battle hasn't begun yet. This is just leading up to the fight of my life. The fish swims right up in front of me, but down deep, and stops for a second, then turns around and starts going back out again, real slow.

I'm using one of the finest reels ever designed, a spinning reel. Ten years of research and development went into this reel. I call it "the old workhorse." It isn't the fanciest reel, but I would put it up for strength against any other reel. The rod is a brand-new 9 1/2-footer. The lure is a Rebel, what was made to look like finger mullet: 5 1/2 inches long, and silver. It has three sets of treble hooks on it. I put an oversized hook on the tail to make it wiggle more in the water. The line is 20-pound Ande Tournament Green. It's the greatest fishing line in the world. It has taken more world records than any line ever developed or manufactured. Later, some people tried to say that I was using the pink Ande, but I didn't use that. That's not sanctioned by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA). The green line is.

78 Pounds 8 OuncesI get excited when the fish starts going away from me again, out to sea. I yell to my friend, "I don't even think this fish knows he's hooked!" Here I am, I think, no boat, no 50-pound test, no tuna rod, no big gear. I've got a light spinner with 20-pound line and I'm fighting a fish I can't do anything with.

The fish gets the line down to where there's only a couple of wraps left, then it stops out there. It's just laying there. With each surge of the waves, line clicks off the reel - click, click, click - click, click, click. The rod bends and comes back up. I'm standing there trying to figure out what to do, what's going to happen next. And then the fish turns and circles back toward me again. This time he comes by me a little faster and goes all the way in to where my friend is fishing and turns in front of him. And my friend yells, "Oh my God, man! He can't be that big!"

I say, "What are you talking about?"

He shouts back, "I just had something come by me about six feet long. It looked about the size of a torpedo!"

Then the fish goes in towards the beach and turns and starts heading back out. It goes about halfway out this time, not like the other two times. And it stops. Dead stop. I have pressure on him. I can't do nothing, and the fish is laying there. I'm getting pretty exhausted. Now it's about 9:00. I've already been into this fish for over an hour. The waves are starting to come up around my ankles, almost up to my knees. And it's starting to spit rain. The wind's blowing so hard it's blowing the rain sideways. When it hits me in the face, it stings. I'm wearing a hooded sweatshirt and pull the hood up to try to block the wind and rain is still hitting me in the face. I start switching the rod from one hand to the other to give my arms a break because I'm starting getting cramps and spasms.

My friend hooks into another fish, and it's a monster. But I'm concentrating on my fish. Neither guy can help the other guy. We don't know if my friend's fish is as big or bigger than the one I have on, but he loses it. From all the yelling I can tell it shook him up because it was a monster.

Next thing I know, this wave comes, and it's pretty big, the biggest one of the night. It comes roaring up on the rocks and almost takes my legs out from under me and fills my boots with water. Now I'm soaking wet and it's starting to really rain. And I'm worried about seaweed building up on the line and breaking it. Or having the fish go into the rocks and cut the line, 'cause I had no leader on.

The fish is working its way out, taking the line slow again, trying to head out to the open ocean. I'm trying to apply pressure, and I'm thinking about all the other battles I've had with stripers. Before this one, my biggest one was around 39 pounds, which is a nice fish in Jersey. The fish gets out there and stops. And I say, well thank God he stopped. I can take a break here.

All of a sudden, something scares the fish. It takes off, really screams this time. It almost runs off all the line and I have to cup the spool again. I turn the rod and the fish turns left and comes back toward me again. Now it's about 9:30, getting on to ten o'clock, and I'm saying to myself that I don't think I can land this fish at all. The fish is just too much fish.

I get the fish coming towards me again and it comes about halfway in and stops. And I say, I don't know, man. I don't know what's going to happen here.

My friend comes walking out to me with a flashlight. He says, "When he gets up here this time, or one of these times, let me shine that light on him. I want to get a look at him."

"Yeah, man," I say. "I'd like to get a look at him too, just to see him. Is he really as big as what you said he was?"

My friend looks at me and says, "He's big, man. He's big. I couldn't really get a good look because he was down deep, but what I seen of him, he's huge. He's the biggest fish I think I ever seen."

Then I start thinking that maybe I should work my way off the jetty and try to fight him from the beach, but my friend comes over and says, "No man, don't give up what you got. Just stay where you're at and take what he gives you, and try not to give him but a little."

So about a half hour goes by. The fish ain't moving. He's just laying there. And now the rain starts pouring. It's pouring so bad that I can hardly see. And the waves are coming up. I have to brace myself against a rock, a tall rock in front of me, because the waves are coming up almost to my waist and surging. It's getting dangerous now. It's getting really scary.

It gets to 11:00, maybe later, I'm not sure. It seems like I've been fighting this fish for an eternity. And I say to my friend, "I'm going to try to start applying pressure to him. Maybe I should tighten the drag a little more so I can gain on him."

And my friend says, "No, don't touch the drag. You got him where he's stopped for some reason and he can't go. Try to work him to the right or to the left or something and apply pressure."

By now the wind's blowing so hard that the line is whistling in the guides. That's how intense the storm has become. It's turning into a full-fledged Nor'easter, and here I am with the biggest striper in the world on the end of the line.

All of a sudden the fish takes off, but it goes in a different direction this time. Instead of heading out to sea or into the beach, it swims south, heading "down beach." It's taking drag and taking drag, and then it turns and goes in towards the breakers, toward the surf. It didn't do this before. And I'm working the rod and watching everything with my hand on the reel handle. Then I bend and lower the rod - what we call bowing to the cow - and come up, and I actually feel the fish turn over. And I get three, four, five, six wraps. I wind again and get five, six, seven, eight more wraps. I'm picking line up now.

The fish is coming towards me now, heading to where my friend is standing. My friend says, "Is he close?"

And I say, "Yeah he's close."

And my friend says, "How close is he?"

"He's right in front of you. He's down right in front of you there, maybe five, six feet out from the rocks."

My friend shines the light in the water and he sees him. And he actually says, "Oh my God! Albert, he's unbelievable! He looks like he's about three feet round his chest, his belly. He's longer than I can reach my arms lengthwise. I even seen the lure. It's on the side of his face. It looks like you've got him hooked in the corner of the mouth. And the other hook looks like it's up near his eye, and your line's feeding off one of his eyes."

I said, "Well that's good. Maybe that's what's stopping him. When I apply pressure to him, he'll stop or I'll pull his eye out."

Now I have a decision to make. The fish is in toward the breakers, to my right, and it's out off the rocks about six feet. I figure I got to make my move. I gotta drag him towards me to get him to roll over belly-up so I can get a gaff shot at him. I sit down on the rocks, and it's all green moss and purple moss. I start sliding a little bit and get the gaff. Then I reel and pull on the rod. I'm gaining line inch by inch, a couple inches at a time. I tell myself it doesn't matter that I'm only getting a couple inches. If I get anything on something like this it's beneficial.

The fish starts to come right up in front of me, then it turns and goes to the right. I grab the gaff and take a greenhorn shot, and hit the fish in the tail. The fish takes off and takes almost half the line again, all the way back out into the deep water. I say, "I'm stupid! I'm dumb, man. I shouldn't have touched him with the gaff unless I can get a clean shot."

Now I have to fight him all the way back in again. The fish is going to the right, going to the left, staying down. I'm winding and winding. Now it's almost 12:00. The fish is coming, and I holler to my friend. "I got him! He's coming! I think I broke his back! I think I got him beat!"

The fish is coming towards me, and it's down deep and I'm gaining an inch of line at a time. One inch, two inches, upward, upward. All of a sudden the fish comes up in front of me. I can't believe there's a fish like this. The tail on it is humongus. Its back looks round as a beer keg.

I try to get into position to land the fish and I hit the moss. The next thing I know, I'm sliding feet-first into water up to my chin. I'm in the water in a Nor'easter, at night, with a big fish right in front of me. My friend comes over and tries to grab me with the gaff hook or whatever he has to do to save me. He grabs the hood of my sweatshirt and pulls. At the same time the fish is laying in front of me and a wave pushes it right towards my face.

I have to go for it or forget it. I reach my hand out to grab the fish's gills, and my hand goes through his gills and out his mouth. My friend has me, and I have the fish. And here we are, with the waves surging and splashing. I'm swallowing water. A wave goes over me and I go under, but I'm still hanging onto the fish. I pop to the surface and get one hand on the rocks, and start pushing with my feet. Inch by inch, I manage to get up the rocks to the top of the jetty.

I collapse on top of the fish. My friend is standing over me, sucking air, exhausted. He says, "Al, get off of him. Let me see him."

My friend comes over and shines the light on this fish. I'm laying on the rocks, soaking wet, beaten, exhausted, hurt, cold, shivering. And when the light hits the fish, it's the most beautiful fish you ever seen in the world. It is almost too big to believe.

The fish is laying there, looking around, the lure stuck on its face, opening and closing its gill plate. I look at my friend and say, "I got 'im."

My friend says, "I don't know, Al. I don't know who got who, man. But he's beautiful."

I say, "Is he 50 pounds?"

"Albert, I read all the fishing magazines, and looking at this fish, he's the biggest striper in the world. He has to be a world record."

Now I say, "Get me a knife and I'll gut him. He'll be easier to carry."And my friend says, "No, no, no, man. We're going to weigh him."So now we have the task of getting all the other fish and this fish off the jetty, so my friend gets the Jeep and brings it close. We carry some fish up to the Jeep. Then we come back and get our rods and tackle bags and put them in back. Next we get an old army blanket out and carry it down to the jetty. We put the fish in it and carry the monster up to the Jeep. We climb in and have some coffee, and we're so excited that we're laughing. We can't believe this. This is greatest night of our lives.

I get a five-gallon bucket and fill it with water and pour it all over the blanket. My friend comes down and helps me lift the fish, and we lay it on the hood of the truck. It stretches from one side of the hood to the other.

We get back in the Jeep and put some music on and sit there drinking coffee. We can just about see out the window of the truck with the fish laying on the hood. We're talking about still fishing, maybe making a few more casts. Then our favorite tape comes on, and we're listening to Lynard Skynard's "Freebird" and having a smoke. My friend starts the engine and we drive down the beach and over the boardwalk. And then we're driving up the street right past my apartment where my wife and kids are sleeping, but it's too late to wake them up, so we keep going.

We get to the main avenue in Atlantic City, Atlantic Avenue, and make a left. A police car pulls up and the cop says, "Okay, what do you guys have in that blanket there? A body?"

Then the cop recognizes my friend, who says, "No, Al here just caught a huge fish, man. You ought to see it. It's unbelievable."

The cop says, "Yeah, I figured two nuts like you would be out on a night like tonight."

We drive to my friend's house, get some dry clothes, some more hot coffee, and take a couple pictures of the fish. We're thinking about which tackle shop in the area will be opening the soonest. Then my friend says, "I know a guy who's gonna be opening pretty soon. He usually goes in earlier than anybody else. I used to work for him as an outboard mechanic. He should be there, and we're gonna go down there now."

We drive down to this marina and tackle shop. It's really raining. My friend goes up and knocks on the window, and the guy's in there. He's a weighmaster for the IGFA, a certified weighmaster, and he unlocks the door and says, "What's up?"

My friend tells him what we have, so the guy gets his jacket and comes outside. They unfold the blanket and he looks at the tail of the fish and he goes, "Oh my God! What a fish! Then he walks around and looks at the belly of it. He says, "By Jesus, man." Then goes around to the other side of the Jeep and looks and sees the head of it. He says, "This fish is unbelievable. Now look, there's my scale over there. You guys get a hold of the fish, drag it over there and put it on. I think the record for New Jersey is 69 pounds. I'll set it at around 65."

He sets the scale at 65 and the scale bangs down. He takes the scale and moves it up to 67, 68, 69. The scale won't move. He goes to 70. He says, "Well I think you got one record here, the state record. But I have to stop. I'm gonna have to call the proper authorities and the proper people to witness this weigh-in. I know how to do the procedure with all the paperwork. It's going to take a while. If this is what I think it is, this is going to be exciting. I'm gonna call a sportswriter and a couple other weighmasters to witness this. I'll explain everything to ya, Al. Now come on inside and tell me about the story."
Part Two can be found here
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