Illinois’ smallmouth bass record: In Lake Michigan for the chase

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Ryan Whitacre with his 6.15-pound smallmouth bass, ounces short of the Illinois record; it was released after weighing.
Provided by Carl Vizzone

4.6 ounces.

That’s how close Ryan Whitacre came Wednesday to the Illinois record for smallmouth bass, the most storied long-standing mark in the state.

And he phoned it in.

“Fight was pretty wild,” Whitacre said. “I am embarrassed to say I was on the phone with Pat [Renwick] when I set the hook.”

Whitacre, a digital technician by employment but in reality more truly a fisherman, was dragging a tube from shore by the point at the jetty at Diversey Harbor.

Fishing is Whitacre’s life. He fished 37 tournaments last year and is a tournament director. He skateboards with a fishing rod on the lakefront. He and JayPee Hey founded TightRope Fishing in Chicago. He and Renwick are part of “Stray Casts’’ YouTube television show.

Whitacre would’ve loved to say he was fishing a TightRope jig, but he was using a 3-inch watermelon tube he pulled from clearance at Henry’s Sports and Bait. At least it was on a TightRope jighead poured by Whitacre. He was using a 7-foot, 2-inch Shimano Zodias rod with a Shimano Caenan reel with 12-pound Berkley fluorocarbon.

The previous two times he had fished the lakefront in recent weeks he caught nothing. But Wednesday he caught a 3-pounder, then came the one.

“Set the hook and I am pulling against the dead weight,” he said. “You know, the old cliche: `Thought I was snagged.’ It felt like fishing line down there stretching.

“Then this yacht came out of the harbor and drove right over the fish. It started slowly moving away from me, then towards me. I thought it might be a sheephead [freshwater drum]. Then I got some head shakes. I said, `Pat, I got to go.’

“Then, down, straight below 12 feet, I am expecting to see a sheephead. It went sideways and I thought, `Hey, that’s brown.’ When I saw it. I thought it might be an 8-pounder.”

The big fish came up, but there was no net. He finally walked the fish down to the rocks, then sat there about five minutes trying to figure out what to do.

File photo

File photo

Mark Samp(right) caught the Illinois record smallmouth (6 pounds, 7 ounces) on March 26, 1985 from a Fulton County strip pit.

Many of us expected Samp’s record to be broken on Lake Michigan in the last 15 years, but the record has stood more than 31 years.

Whitacre knew his smallmouth was at least 6 pounds, but he didn’t want it to die. Finally, holding the fish in the water, he called me on his cell phone. I asked for two minutes. I found Ken Schneider, but he was at 87th Street with Tom Palmisano. They started back toward Henry’s to pick up a certified scale and a cooler with treated water in case the fish hit the record.

Ryan Whitacre, keeping alive his smallmouth bass, by holding it in Lake Michigan until a certified scale arrived.<br>Credit: For the Sun-Times/Carl Vizzone

Ryan Whitacre, keeping alive his smallmouth bass, by holding it in Lake Michigan until a certified scale arrived.
Credit: For the Sun-Times/Carl Vizzone

I found Carl Vizzone fishing spawn at Belmont Harbor for Chinook. He was able to pull his lines and fight traffic quicker than the two coming from the South Side. Meanwhile, Whitacre, bent over, kept holding the fish in Lake Michigan to keep it alive.

He had enough experience with big smallmouth to know he had at least a 6-pounder and possibly the state record.

“It is the biggest one I ever caught,” Whitacre said. “My next biggest was 5.8 pounds, not on Lake Michigan, but from Pewaukee Lake [Wisconsin].”

His biggest previously from Lake Michigan was a 23 1/4-inch smallmouth, weighing 5-9.

“I had about 10 around 5 1/2 in the 13 years I have been fishing down there,” Whitacre said. “I knew right away this was different. Definitely an old fish, huge tail, humongous head.”

As he sat there on the rocks holding the fish in the water, he said, “I kept going back and back forth in my head, `Is it really that big?’ Kept pulling it up and thinking, `Yeah, it is that big.’ ”

Vizzone arrived first and took photographs.

Meanwhile, Schneider and Palmisano were, well, hauling ass from the far South Side.

“He`s blowing red lights, zigzagging in and out of traffic,” Palmisano said. “It was wild, just to keep a fish alive. I love it. Just to keep a fish alive.”

A couple times when I checked in with Whitacre he was close to releasing the fish, before they arrived with the certified scale, just to keep it alive.

“It’s the human element that I like,” Palmisano said. “He was shivering. He had to be holding that fish in the water for close to an hour.”

When Palmisano and Schneider arrived, the fish went on the scale and the 22-incher came to 6.15 pounds. For the math impaired, that’s 6 pounds, 2.4 ounces.

“It has been almost 14 years I have been targeting that record,” Whitacre said. “My body has never shaken so hard after a fish. That fish means more to me than anything. All the tournaments, I would give them up to get that record.”

Still to come.

Ryan Whitacre, with his 6.15-pound smallmouth bass, before releasing at Diversey Harbor.<br>Credit: For the Sun-Times/Tom Palmisano

Ryan Whitacre, with his 6.15-pound smallmouth bass, before releasing at Diversey Harbor.
Credit: For the Sun-Times/Tom Palmisano

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