When George Perry caught the world record bass in Georgia in 1932, he knew what he had - 22 pounds four ounces of dinner for his large, hungry family and a good story to tell.
Time change. Bass fishing, once the province of poor folks down South, is big business today. Entrepreneurs make fortunes off tournaments, equipment, guiding and a good dose of plain old American gimmicky.
Millions of Americans pound the water for bass, but in 36 years no one has broken Perry's humble record.
John McClanahan wants to change that. He is convinced that the angler who lands a 22-pound five-ounce bass this year will be a millionaire next. Or better.
"Don't get me wrong," said McClanahan, who runs a guiding outfit here called Trophy Bass Unlimited. I'd stand a better chance of making a million going to Las Vegas with a dollar than I do going after the world record bass."
But people still go to Las Vegas with a dollar and McClanahan still chases giant bass.
His principal territory is the old flood plain of the Oklawaha River southeast of Gainesville.
Fifteen years ago it was just another choked and aged stream bed, running east to the St. Johns River. Then the federal government came in with dredges for the trans-Florida barge canal. They dammed up the Oklawaha near Orange Springs. When environmentalists made more noise than the heavy equipment that was tearing up the marsh President Nixon stepped in and closed the show on the half-finished canal.
That left behind Rodman Dam and Rodman Reservoir, an 11-mile stretch of flooded Oklawaha that is full of lily pads, water hyacinths, grass shrimp, crayfish, shiners and the monster bass that McClanahan is staking his future on.
"This Florida bass is sub species of the black bass - the biggest sub species," he said. "We're right in the heart of the big-bass belt, which runs from Lake Seminole in the north to Lake Kissimmee in the south."
McClanahan has his own theories on how the biggest bass will be caught. He built a 30 foot swimming pool with an underwater window where he keeps captured lunkers and watches them operate. He knows what they strike, when they strike and how.
His research has led him to favor one kind of big-bass fishing over all others. He uses golden shiners, giant bait fish that run as big as 12 inches.
"Only one out of thousands of fish ever gets above 10 pounds," said McClanahan. "He didn't get there by eating wood or plastic."
McClanahan's equipment is straight forward. An aluminum John boat and an Evinrude 35 get him over the fish and stout tackle and 30-pound test line put him next to them. Then it is up to fish.
Trophy Bass Unlimited is dedicated to putting the biggest bass they're ever seen in the hands of clients from less fortunate waters.
I fished two mornings with Rick Hefner, McClanahan's No. 1 assistant, and an afternoon with the boss. Hefner went straight to his favorite honey hole on Rodman's a little clearing he had raked out of the water hyacinths and lilies.
"Ready for the first hit?" he asked as he put the first shiner overboard. Salesmanship being what it is, it was taken as a joke.
Bang. Line spun off the reel, Hefner handed over the rod, I clicked the reel into gear and lashed the stick over my head to set the hook. Twenty quick truns on the oversized reel and a 2 1/2 pounder was in the boat. No. Joke. In the course of four hours fishing the hole we landed close to 10 fish, the biggest running over four pounds. The technique is to swim the shiner under green cover, agitating it with gentle tugs on the line. When the little fish starts bouncing and bobbing it's a good sign there's a big fish after it.
That afternoon McClanahan took over. He powered us way up the Oklawaha, scaring up great flocks of coots and ringneck ducks, egrets herons, prehistoric looking anhingas and other mystery birds as we shot along through the old riverbed past cypress and royal palms.
He fingured the bass were high upstream, getting closer to the warm water that flows in from Silver Spring after two days of cold weather. We fished in the brilliant, cool sunshine of the afternoon but no fish were there.
I told him about Hefner's honey hole and we decided to give it another try.
We found the spot where Hefner had anchored in three feet of water. McClanahan rigged a seven-inch shiner, the biggest we had left, and swam it up under the cover next to a tall cypress tree.
He handed me the rod. The shiner dodged around for a minute or two then stopped. I tugged on the line to wake him up and wham, something hit and line spilled. I gave the fish two seconds, set the hook and cranked like mad, but nothing gave. Then came a sharp tug, then another. I cranked again and in 10 seconds the dark shape of a bass dragged out from under the greenery. A big bass.
McClanahan netted the fish, pulled it aboard and put in on the scales. Eight pounds even.
"You'll keep him, won't you? McClanahan asked with a grin?
I took a picture and laughed. "No, let him go. He's a beauty."
It was more than McClanahan could handle. He balked. The fish went into the shiner tank, where it thrashed and thundered nad finally settled down.
The big fish is back in McClanahan's pool today, ruling the roost and feasting on giant shiners.