It was 1981 when the editor of Outdoor Life called and told me he wanted me to go on a little fishing trip. I was all ears, and when he explained the details, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to accommodate him. However, since I’d been with the magazine full-time for only a few years and I was expected to accept editorial assignments, I agreed with masked enthusiasm.
He wanted me to accompany Fishing Editor Jerry Gibbs on a 40-day escapade. Joining us would be Ray Easley who had just caught a 21.19 pound largemouth bass, the second biggest ever caught (at that time). He caught the fish in Lake Casitas in Southern California on March 4, 1980 on a live waterdog. The editor coined the trip, GABE - Great American Bass Expedition. It was a marketing strategy to promote the magazine and create good will among our major fishing advertisers. The plan was to invite the top dogs in the fishing industry to fish for two or three days on Lake Casitas with Gibbs and Easley. It was thought that the lake would give up the new world record bass. At the time, California was kicking out monster bass, and many believed it would produce the new #1 record. As it turned out, the idea was readily accepted by fishing industry leaders and well-known musicians. Forrest Wood joined us, who was founder and CEO of Ranger Boats, as well as Darrell Lowrance, CEO of his famous sonar device, and Corey Wells, lead singer for the group Three Dog Night, among many others.
My initial hesitation to go was the length of the trip. Almost six weeks away from home was a stretch, and my role wasn’t exactly a ton of fun. My job was to be the PR guy, the taxi driver to pick up celebrities at the airport, and the one who made dinner reservations every night, as well as a bunch of other little chores. Maybe if it was a safari somewhere I’d have been more enthusiastic.
The adventure began with us picking up a motor home in the Bay Area and displaying it in an exhibit at the San Mateo Sportsmen’s Show. The vehicle was festooned with huge letters saying GABE all over it, and Jerry, Ray and I obligingly chatted with show attendees.
When we went to fish Lake Casitas, the three of us stayed in a small motel in Ojai (Oh-Hy). Very importantly, the motel needed to have a fax machine that I could access regularly since I had to send press releases to the New York editorial offices every day. There was a fax in the office, and the friendly lady who ran the joint told me I could use it any time, as long as it wasn’t being used.
Jerry Gibbs and I were old buddies, and we’d taken several fishing trips together on magazine assignments. Ray Easley was an affable guy, and not in the least affected by his instant celebrity status which made his name a household word wherever bass anglers lived. Catching the second biggest bass in the world was a monumental triumph. A very big deal.
According to the plan, the boss editors in New York would invite the guests, and the three of us would take it from there. I expected to do zero to little fishing, because I had plenty to keep me busy on dry land, and three in the boat was pretty much max, leaving no room for a fourth (me).
“Your boat is on fire,” the man told Jerry on the phone. It was the day before the first guest arrived, and Jerry had the Ranger boat in a shop where it was being checked out and batteries charged. We rushed over to the shop and saw that many of the wires were burned to a crisp, evidently caused by a malfunction of the charging batteries. A quick repair job put the boat back in shape. Luckily there was no more damage.
As the guests arrived, one by one, two or three days apart, I picked them up at the LAX airport and drove them to Ojai. I quickly learned that dinner was easiest at a nearby French restaurant, since the guys came in from fishing late in the afternoon, and the restaurant offered a nice selection of food. As it turned out, we went to that restaurant several times a week. Now then, I’m a big fan of escargot, but there’s such a thing as enough. To this day, escargot is no longer a big deal for me as it once was.
The “expedition” proceeded along nicely, with a couple events worthy of noting. At one point, there was room for me in the boat since Ray decided to take a break and went home for a couple days. The guest was Corey Wells, lead singer for the group, “Three Dog Night.” As we fished, I had a hard strike on a live waterdog. It was a heavy fish, and I fought it for 10 minutes when Jerry rolled his eyes and grinned. “Zumbo,” he said, “ you’d better not have a monster bass on. What would our readers and guests think?” He was right, of course. I was the go-fer boy. Go-fer this, go-fer that. I was the peon. “ I don’t think it’s a bass,” I said. “It’s staying deep, hugging bottom.” Ten more minutes and I finally got it to the surface. A catfish. Thank God. We weighed it before releasing it. Fifteen pounds.
Since Ray caught his huge bass on a live waterdog, we had plenty for bait. We’d also learned that big bass in Casitas were hitting live crawdads. Bait shops didn’t have any, so Jerry and I decided to embark on a little mini-adventure and catch our own. We went out at night with flashlights and waded a shallow creek that ran through the neighborhood. That really wasn’t a wise thing to do, because we got dogs barking here and there, but no homeowners challenged us and we didn’t get shot. Our mission was successful and we were able to capture a big bunch of crawdads. We kept them and the waterdogs in buckets in the bathtub. Imagine the maid’s surprise the next day when she went into the bathroom to clean it. According to the motel owner, she let out a shriek and fled the room, vowing not to return until the critters were removed. Unfortunately, we weren’t there to witness the fun.
But the biggest notable incident was during Darrell Lowrance’s trip. Darrell, a super nice guy and much fun to be around ( who tragically passed away very recently) was CEO of the company that invented the first sonar device used by anglers to “see” fish underwater. Ray wasn’t with us on one of the days that Darrell was there, and I took his place in the boat. As we fished we saw two people in a cigarette boat speeding recklessly around the lake. Suddenly, when the boat sped through its own wake, it split in two. We heard the noise and cries for help from the two occupants who were in the water. A closer boat got to them first and rescued them quickly. The water was very deep, I recall it being about 90 feet deep. Soon the authorities arrived on the scene and asked questions to witnesses. Darrell said to one of them, “I can mark the locations of the two sunken boat parts if you’d like.” The man was skeptical. Darrell explained his sonar device, which was relatively new in those days, and the man told him to give it a try. Darrell easily spotted the boat on the bottom, and we tossed out marker buoys.
Our team never caught a very big bass on that adventure, but it was nonetheless much fun for me. I got to meet many of the VIP’s in the fishing industry, and I had enjoyed enough escargot to last me a lifetime.