That really big Illinois smallmouth bass record has history, backstories and notes

Joe Capilupo’s Illinois-record smallmouth bass is the fulfillment of a quest of many.

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Is it possible that Joe Capilupo’s Illinois-record smallmouth bass, caught at Monroe Harbor, is the same near-record fish that Ryan Whitacre caught almost exactly three years ago at Diversey Harbor? Both photos embedded at the bottom of the article and particularly compare the tails.

Dale Bowman (Capilupo), Carl Vizzone (Ryan Whitacre)

As Lake Michigan slopped over the concrete Wednesday morning, Joe Capilupo knelt and released his Illinois-record smallmouth bass on the Chicago lakefront.

It reminded me of baptisms. I don’t use religious analogy lightly. But the Illinois’ smallmouth record on Lake Michigan brought on religious quests over the decades.

“Back into Lake Michigan, she goes,’’ Capilupo intoned. “Thanks buddy. Great fight. Great fish. Seven pounds, 3 ounces. Smallmouth bass.’’

Earlier, he had picked the fish up from Henry’s Sports and Bait, where it had been weighed on certified scale and certified by fisheries biologist Vic Santucci, Illinois’ Lake Michigan program manager, the day before. It rested in a special tank at Henry’s overnight Tuesday.

“He’s one of the classiest fishermen in the world,’’ said Tom Palmisano, a proprietor at Henry’s. “His buddy was sitting in the back tending the fish like a newborn being taken care of on the way home from hospital. I can’t think of a happier moment in my years in the business.’’

When Capilupo put the smallmouth in the water, it swam off.

To be caught again?

I have no idea. But there is an interesting side to that question.

Actually, there are lots of tidbits in Capilupo catching the Illinois-record late Monday at Monroe Harbor on a a Z-man Ned rig (California craw). He broke the oldest standing significant fish record in the state, the smallmouth Mark Samp caught March 26, 1985 from a Fulton County strip pit.

Let’s start with Capilupo’s regular fishing partners. He’s been friends with Jonny Pitelka since kindergarten and with Myles Cooke since third grade.

Pitelka posted to Illinois Fishing Addicts Facebook page and people such as Dave Holmquist and Matt Bach stayed up all night to suggest ways to get it weighed on a certified scales and seen by somebody from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Holmquist called me well after midnight, but I was out cold recuperating from covering the Chicago Marathon. When I awoke, I saw his call and Messenger notes from Bach and Bob France. When I reached Pitelka, I suggested Henry’s, which has experience in high-profile fish records. A few hours later they were there.

The rest is history, a big piece of history for a lot of us.

First to come close to Samp’s record was Joe Egan.


Joe Egan with his 6-5 smallmouth bass, just two ounces short of the then Illinois record, caught April 25, 2009 off a Chicago breakwall.


To this day, I can hear the Oak Lawn man, say, “I thought I had the record,’’ when I reached him late on April 25, 2009. Earlier that day, he caught a smallmouth, he knew was record-size, on a Fat Free Shad crankbait off a Chicago breakwall. But until he got his boat back to the launch and the fish to Henry’s, it weighed 6-5, two ounces short. Forage coughed up in the livewell was probably the difference.

Then came Doug Busch, strangest of all. On May 14, 2014, he and a friend, Mike Zagar, came from Will County to fish virtually the area as where Capilupo caught his record.


Doug Busch with a 23-inch smallmouth bass caught May 14, 2014 near Buckingham Fountain; through a series of bizarre events it was never verified.


While drop-shotting a Gulp! Minnow on a 3/8th-ounce weight, he caught a 23-inch smallmouth. A neighbor realized Busch might have a record and they weighed it at 4 kilograms (8 pounds, 9 ounces). The IDNR found the scale accurate. The story grew really odd. The fish ended up in a friend’s freezer, then was left out and turned to mush. No fish to certify.

I’ve done hundreds of big-fish stories and have a good gut sense. I think Busch caught the record. I believe him when he said, ``Oh my God, I almost need counseling. It has emotionally drained me. It ruined a friendship.’’

The record smallmouth is that kind of fish.

Next to come close was Ryan Whitacre.

On Oct. 19, 2016, Whitacre caught a smallmouth at Diversey Harbor he knew was close to the record on a 3-inch watermelon tube on a TightRope jighead poured by Whitacre.

He had no net, so he walked the fish down the rocks. He knew it was at least 6 pounds and held it in the water. Finally, he called me. I reached Ken Schneider and Palmisano. They rushed to Henry’s for a portable scale. Meanwhile, I found Carl Vizzone, who reached Whitacre first and took photos.

By the time they got there, Whitacre was shivering from holding the fish in the water. It weighed 6.15 pounds (6-2.4), short of the record.

When he saw that Capilupo had the record, he rushed to see it.

“It is a freak, biggest one I have ever seen in person, that is for sure,’’ Whitacre said.

He thought the markings are identical. What do you think? Same fish? (Compare them below.)

With a belly of eggs in spring, she will easily top 8 pounds.

“This is conservation angling at its best, a state record released,’’ Santucci said after certifying Capilupo’s fish.


Joe Capilupo with the Illinois record 7-3 smallmouth bass he caught Oct. 14, 2019 at Monroe Harbor.

Dale Bowman


Ryan Whitacre with his 6.15-pound smallmouth, caught Oct. 19, 2016 at Diversey Harbor. (Compare with Capilupo’s, particularly the markings and tail).

Carl Vizzone

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