Even as fish stories go, which is generally a lot further than you are obliged to follow, Curtis Backus tells a long, tall one. Backus, a 70-year-old fisherman who lives in a 240-year-old house near Fredericksburg, Va., claims to have a pet bass. Says he trained the 15-inch, two-pound game fish, which comes from a notoriously wary family, to jump out of his farm pond and eat bait from his hand.
"People don't believe it," says Backus, who concedes his credibility is not much helped by the fact that he is a retired politician. "I've been a fisherman all my life and I've never seen anything like it, myself."
Fish stories are a folk art whose quality seems to vary according to the amount of time the teller and told have spent under a hot sun, staring at the sky's reflection on water. Trusting types will hear tales from sun-scorched anglers that will make them believe there is magic in the world. Listeners smart enough to remain skeptical can only be disappointed.
Backus' fish story began last spring while he was watching the bass in his quarter-acre pond spawn in shallow water. First the females used their tails to fluff out a nest on the bottom to lay their eggs. Then the males fertilized the eggs and took up three-week-long sentry duty to protect the young from other fish.
"I figured they weren't getting much to eat, so I started throwing them food," says Backus, a former member of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors and a person who believes paternal devotion should be rewarded wherever it is found.
When the bass were big enough to fend for themselves, all the proud papas except one retreated to the deepest part of the pond. Soon he was rushing to shore whenever he saw Backus approach. Backus now can make him come out of the water like a trained porpoise to snatch food from his fingers. And he has witnesses and pictures.
"I'd like to see him get big," says Backus, who has banned fishing in his pond to protect his pet. "The first person to put a lure in here would catch him."
Earlier this year, some Virginia fishermen landed a fish that looked too ugly for even a mother to love. It had a bulldog head, small beady eyes and a white, flabby body that would make a catfish look dashing.
"This one is entirely new to science; it doesn't even have a name yet," said Eric Anderson, one of two graduate students who caught the fish while doing research for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The fish, which belongs to a group known as ophidioids, was pulled from the Caribbean Sea at a depth of over 15,000 feet, where there is no light or plant life.
"Any food that arrives down there has to come from . . . dead animals or fecal pellets falling to the floor of the ocean," biologist Jack Musick told The Associated Press.
The ophidioid, which will be officially named later, excited both scientists and story tellers. It was proof that there still is much room beneath the sea for scientific discovery and narrative hyperbole.
"There's a lot more down there than we know about," said Anderson.
This summer's most popular aquatic creature was Chessie, the legendary sea serpent of the Chesapeake, which made another alleged appearance on the bay at the end of May. The beast was described by witnesses as a 40-foot serpent as big around as a watermelon, with a head the size and shape of a football. A 40-year-old computer salesman from Kent Island made a videotape of Chessie, but experts have so far refused to issue any official judgment on what the tape really shows.
While Chessie was being resurrected this summer, a sea monster in India was being buried. Five hundred fisherman pulled a five-ton creature from the Bay of Bengal that was described as having the ears, eyes and mouth of an elephant and a 27-foot tail.
Scientists, photographers and thousands of curious Indians converged on the isolated beach to see this sea monster that turned out to be a badly decomposed sperm whale.
Robert Weismuller encountered his monster in the Atlantic, 35 miles off the coast of Ocean City, Md. The Herndon physical education instructor, 31, was fishing for the first time in his life when something that felt as big as a nuclear submarine grabbed his line.
After four hours of fighting, and a few wild minutes when the 20-foot boat was pulled across the surface like a bathtub toy, Weismuller brought the 627-pound tiger shark to bay. It was the third-largest fish ever caught off the Maryland shore and the largest ever on a 50-pound test line.
Dean Martin's fish was a minnow compared to Weismuller's. But considering that the Alexandria angler was at the Occoquan Reservoir, fishing for bass, his 52-pound catfish was a beast.
"All he wanted was some bass, and he ended up with Moby Dick," said state game official Jack Randolph. Martin had the fish weighed, then released it into Occoquan Creek.
For the last word on odd catches this summer, we turn to Charlie Taylor, a Potomac River fishing guide. Taylor has seen clients snag tires, rubber boots and submerged grocery carts from his bass boat. The worst catch of the year, though, went to a man who caught the back of his father-in-law's head with a very sharp hook. While Taylor removed the hook, the father-in-law sat quietly, then turned to his new in-law and said, "Son, remind me not to go hunting with you."