By David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
This is a story about a big fish. But this one didn’t get away. It’s a woulda, coulda, shoulda tale of a largemouth bass, one of those that people deem a whopper, a jaw-dropper when they see the mount.
Since 1987, Thomas Burgin’s 16-pound, 8-ounce bass that was caught at Mountain View Lake in Shelby County has reigned atop the Alabama Freshwater Records Book.There may have been a fish as big or bigger caught in Clarke County earlier this year, but inquiring minds will never know.
Branson Linder, a 15-year-old who attends Clarke Prep in Grove Hill, Ala., caught the fishing bug when he was about 12. When Linder showed a great deal of interest in bass fishing, his father, Darrell Linder, got interested as well.
“I just love the challenge of finding the fish and figuring out how to catch them when you do find them,” Branson said. “It’s fun just fighting and then looking at them. I like everything about it.”
Branson mows lawns during the summer to buy his fishing equipment, and his knowledge of tackle and lures rivals that of experienced anglers. That quality equipment made a big difference this past spring when his grandmother, Carolyn Powell, asked him if he wanted to go fishing at Camp Maubila, located about halfway between Jackson and Grove Hill. She had a friend, Phillip Harrell, who had access to the lake at the Boy Scout camp. Harrell told Linder the lake was overcrowded with bass and needed some fish taken out.
“We didn’t get to the pond until about nine that morning,” Branson said. “I got in a boat and put on a life jacket. I started paddling around and when I got to the first tree I didn’t get any bites. I got probably halfway around the pond and I saw a pocket with stumps everywhere. I saw a tree hanging over the water and I cast under the tree. On the second cast, I felt a little bump.
“I let him hold it for a minute, and then my line started leaving. I set the hook, and I had no idea what would be pulling for the next few minutes. Then the fish started pulling the boat around faster than a trolling motor.”
Linder was afraid the big fish was putting too much pressure on the 15-pound fluorocarbon line and reached up to loosen his drag, but he went a little too far on the adjustment.
“I thought I had lost him, but I tightened my drag back up,” he said. “My drag was pretty tight but he was stripping it like it was nothing. Then he headed for deep water. He went up under the boat, and I thought he was going to break my rod. He almost bent it double. I was really scared I was going to lose him. He went toward a stump with limbs sticking out of the water next to it, but I managed to get him stopped before he got there.”
The big bass finally headed for the surface to try to dislodge the Texas-rigged Senko plastic worm. The bass was so big it couldn’t clear the water when it tried to jump.
“The first time I saw him my heart just about stopped beating,” Linder said. “I didn’t have any idea he was that big. Then he went back down and didn’t come back up until I brought him up to land him.”
Then came Branson’s next challenge. He didn’t have a landing net in the boat.
“When he came up, his mouth was open,” he said. “I had my rod in one hand and leaned over the side of the boat and grabbed him. I tried to pick him up with one hand, but I couldn’t do it. I had to put the rod down and grab him with two hands.
“I laid him down in the bottom of the boat. I never paddled so hard in my life to get back to the bank to show my grandmother.”
After taking “tons” of photos, Branson called his dad and Harrell to come look at the fish. The elder Linder asked his son if he wanted to get the fish mounted, which got a quick affirmative from the youngster who already had one big bass hanging on the wall.
The Linders headed to KC Outdoors in Jackson to leave the fish for the taxidermist. Branson had already tried to weigh the fish on some hand scales and it had bottomed out past the scale’s 14-pound limit.
“Branson called me and told me he caught a big fish,” said Kenny Clark of KC Outdoors. “I told him to bring it to the store. We photographed it and laid it on my digital scales. It read 13.7, which is a monster fish. I put it in the freezer, and my taxidermist, Jerry Cochran, came by and picked it up.
“A couple of weeks later, Jerry called me and told me I needed to get my scales fixed. He said he got a 14-pound mold for the fish, and it was entirely too small. He said he had to get a 16-pound mold and it still was still a little too small. He had to add some putty to fill it in to make it look right. Jerry has been mounting fish for a long time. He said it was the biggest bass he’d ever seen. He said there was no way that fish was 14 pounds. He said it was at least 16 and maybe more.”
Clark knew exactly how big the state-record bass was in terms of weight and size. He was astonished when he compared dimensions.
“For a taxidermist who’s been mounting fish for 30-something years to tell me it’s the biggest bass he’s ever mounted, and that a 16-pound mold was too small, that raised a flag right there.”
Clark had a replica made of Burgin’s state-record fish to display at KC Outdoors. Branson’s bass has also been on display at the store.
“Just looking at these two fish, everybody says Branson’s is bigger,” Clark said. “But we’ll never know. It is a good conversation piece. Everybody loves to see a big fish.”
Clark certainly never expected to see Branson with a fish larger than the one he’d had mounted a few years earlier. That fish weighed 10 pounds.
“Mr. Kenny said I’d never catch one bigger than the one I brought in the first time,” Branson said. “I caught that fish in a pond near Gilbertown. It was on a Sunday, and we’d gone to my grandmother’s to eat. My cousin and I went to fish after we got finished. We usually didn’t catch anything bigger than a pound or so. There was a stump with grass around it. I threw a Texas-rigged Zoom Speed Craw and it got up on top of the grass. I was reeling it over the grass, and he came up and ate it.”
Branson fought the drag-stripping bass but he wasn’t able to stop the fish from getting back to a stump. The youngster wasn’t about to give up, though.
“It was probably waist deep, so I waded out there and got him,” he said. “On my way back, I stepped on a yellowjacket nest, and they ate up my cousin. That took up a little time to get all the yellowjackets off him. Then I put the fish in a cooler because my dad said we needed to get it mounted because it was my first double-digit bass.”
Although he gained some notoriety after the first fish, the bigger fish this year cemented his position as one of the top up-and-coming anglers in the area.
“People are calling me Kevin VanDam or Bill Dance now,” Branson laughed.
Because Clarke Prep doesn’t have a high school fishing team, Branson said his choice of colleges will be determined by the availability of a fishing team.
“Being on a college fishing team would be a lot of fun,” he said. “But my dream is to fish in the Bassmaster Elite Series. That’s my goal.”
For someone who was told he’d never catch a bass bigger than his 10-pounder, Branson has proven that underestimating what this teenager can accomplish might not be a good idea.
But he’ll have to do it with a different reel.
“The next time I tried to use it at Miller’s Ferry, it started all these clicking noises,” Branson said. “That big fish destroyed my Shimano reel.”
PHOTOS: The monstrous size of the largemouth bass caught by 15-year-old Branson Linder of Jackson, Ala., this year is evident when compared to the 10-pounder he caught several years ago. Although Linder held the big bass by one hand on the shore, it took two hands to pull the giant into the boat.