Caleb Salzman was just as open-mouthed and shocked as the Wyoming record largemouth bass he hooked.
“It was crazy,” Salzman said.
In a desperate dash to save itself and spit the hook lodged firmly in its mouth, the huge bass sliced through the water of Kleenburn Ponds toward Salzman.
After the first few tugs on the line Salzman knew the fish on was bigger than all its friends he had previously met at the pond outside Sheridan over the previous hour-and-a-half on the May evening. But he had no idea how big.
“It was a pretty big fight and then it came at me,” he said.
Salzman, 18, of Meeteetse, who just completed his freshman year at Sheridan College, kept the pressure on, reeling steadily. His eyes bulged when the bass broke the surface.
“Oh yeah, this is a big fish,” he realized.
Largemouth bass’ mouths seem perpetually frozen wide. For a moment, Salzman was likely a mirror image.
This was just the beginning of a head-spinning adventure that was wilder than the actual catch. The fish, whose life had been consigned to this one pond, took a little bit of a farewell tour.
Salzman’s first-glance assessment of size was accurate, but the true immensity of the largemouth shocked Salzman, Wyoming Game and Fish officials and the fishing world once the measuring tools came out.
Weighing in at 11.51 pounds, measuring 24.5 inches long and with a girth of 20.75 inches, Salzman established a new Wyoming largemouth bass record.
The size of Salzman’s largemouth is preposterously huge for Wyoming, where trout are king and large largemouth are rare.
“This fish was a freak,” said Paul Mavrakis, the Sheridan fisheries supervisor.
The old record of 7 pounds, 14 ounces was set in 1992 in the same area by a 15-year-old Sheridan boy named Dustin Shorma. Shorma is now a G&F game warden stationed in Dayton, though by coincidence he was present in the office when Salzman brought the fish in.
“That was my 15 minutes of fame when I was 15,” Shorma said. “It came full circle.”
Salzman’s 15 minutes of renown are just beginning, and from May 10 and May 11, when this all began on a whim to just get out of the house, it may endure for the next 15 years or 50.
“I would have bet a year’s salary there wasn’t a bass over 10 pounds in the state of Wyoming,” Shorma said. “That fish is ginormous. That record will never be broken in this state.”
Quite an achievement
Salzman played basketball for the Longhorns in high school and baseball for the Cody Legion baseball team, but no matter what he does in other sports the rest of his life, he is unlikely to top this achievement.
“I am 37 and I expect to be retired and the record will still be his,” said Cody fisheries supervisor Sam Hochhalter.
School was wrapping up for the semester when Salzman and friend Johnny Morgan decided to make a short drive to the ponds about 7 p.m.
The duo caught about nine bass in the 1 1/2-to-2-pound range before Moby Dick struck.
Salzman was fishing with a plastic green worm that had worked for bass before and this big boy fell for it.
Morgan said, “Dude, this might be a state record.”
They researched the record and thought this was a definite maybe. Committed to dinner plans with more friends at the Pony Grill and Bar, Salzman telephoned friend Wes Short and asked if he could find a small scale. Short zipped to Walmart and purchased one for $9.
The group balanced the scale on the end of the truck bed in the restaurant parking lot to weigh the fish.
“We weighed it two or three times,” Short said. “We were pretty shocked.”
The fish weighed about 12 1/2 pounds, way more than the existing record. The bass was bundled into a garbage bag and left in the back of the truck when they went to eat. Salzman ordered a barbecue brisket sandwich.
“I don’t even like fish,” he said. “I just like fishing.”
The longer fish are out of water, the more they shrivel, losing weight. This one was going to shrink, but lacking an iceberg’s worth of ice as a preservative Salzman and Morgan filled a bathtub with cold water and put it to bed for the night.
Crushing the record
The next day, Salzman called the Sheridan G&F office, saying he caught a big bass and was bringing it in.
This set off a flurry at the office. For ages, Shorma’s coworkers teased him about the likely end of his reign as record-holder.
“All the time,” Shorma said. “‘We’ve got a bass that’s going to break your record.’ Now my colleagues say they can’t make fun of me anymore.”
In a somewhat surreal development, Gordon Edwards, Shorma’s fishing partner the day he caught the record, is now a fisheries biologist who was transferred to the Sheridan office about a month before Salzman brought in the fish.
When someone in the office said he had to come out and see this fish, Edwards was skeptical.
“I thought it was a prank [on Shorma],” he said. “People had been ribbing Dustin about his fish forever.”
When Edwards gazed upon the size of Salzman’s fish he let out an expletive with a modifier.
“It was a momentary lapse of professional composure,” Edwards said.
Salzman, who caught a 9-pound carp two years ago, felt the same way.
“It’s the biggest fish I ever caught,” he said.
And that was after it shed about a pound before the weigh-in.
“It would have been over 12 pounds and he still crushed the record by over four pounds,” Shorma said.
Trophy beyond trophies
Helped by the 1967 creation of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society to promote the sport and fish, and the Bassmaster tournament circuit, bass fishing became fashionable and there are an estimated 10 million bass fishermen in the United States.
For perspective on why Wyoming officials are so astonished by Salzman’s catch, as of the summer of 2016 his fish was large enough to be a state record in 18 other states.
Salzman’s catch would have also set a new record for Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In eight other states, the record is only a few ounces more than Salzman’s.
“No matter where it’s caught, 11 1/2 pounds, that’s a trophy beyond trophies,” said Chauncey Niziol, an ESPN outdoors show host in Chicago who has worked on 17 Bassmaster Classics with the pros. “The further you work your way north the smaller the bass are.”
Georgia’s state record of 22 pounds 4 ounces, caught by George Perry, has been the world record since 1932. It has long been the Holy Grail of fishing records. In 2009, Manabu Korita caught a largemouth bass in Japan announced as a 22-pound, 5-ounce catch. However, the International Game Fish Association certified it at 22-4, a tie with Perry.
No experts believed a bass could grow as big as Salzman’s 11.51-pound largemouth in Wyoming because of altitude and water temperature. In the Cody area, a 5-pound bass caught in a reservoir is classified as a large one.
“Pure amazement,” said Sam Hochhalter, the Cody region fisheries supervisor of his reaction when he learned the size of Salzman’s catch.
There are a handful of reservoirs in the Big Horn Basin stocked with largemouth. Five-pound bass are sometimes caught in Mayland Reservoir south of Emblem. Sometimes during electroshocking fish for scientific work, Hochhalter said, G&F personnel see bass in the 7-pound range.
“I kind of had it in mind the (old) record might be broken from there,” Hochhalter said. “There’s no way I could say that anymore.”
Largemouth need time and warm water to grow, and the summer is too short for them to get much larger in this region, he said.
Mavrakis said the ponds where Shorma and Salzman caught their records near Sheridan are located at 3,700 feet of altitude, much lower than Cody’s 5,000-plus elevation and it can reach 100 degrees during Sheridan summers.
“It’s a growing season thing,” Mavrakis said. “It warms up faster. Our snow goes away faster.”
Salzman’s fish was weighed at G&F, but still had to be checked on a certified scale. He found one at a meat market.
After filling out paperwork back at the agency, Edwards and Shorma gave Salzman some advice.
“I told him, ‘You have to get that fish mounted,’” Shorma said. “I don’t know if he knew what he had. It was a fatty. It’s ridiculous.”
Salzman brought the fish to Angler’s Creation in Cody and doesn’t expect to see it again for eight months.
Edwards said he is glad Salzman is an avid fisherman and not some toddler who broke the record on a fluke cast. He also told Salzman, “You’re going to get a lot of attention for this.”
Edwards said this is all good for fishing and Salzman said he hopes his success encourages young people to do more fishing and generally just get out and play in the outdoors while leaving TV sets behind.
Back in Meeteetse and working at his summer job for the U.S. Forest Service, the attention for Salzman was spreading.
His mother, Ashlea, said once the catch appeared on Facebook, people around the small town of 325 people began mentioning it. Salzman said he is getting more congratulations.
But also once the news went public some killjoys began picking at the record, Shorma said, claiming it was a hoax, the fish couldn’t really be from Wyoming, and that Salzman is a poseur.
“A kid does things right,” said an angry Shorma, who added he knows the background in the photo Salzman showed him of the catch site. “This gets under my skin. “It’s just this slinging mud on social media.”
Salzman’s stepfather Zeb Hagen, can envision a larger forum for Salzman recognition.
“I think he definitely deserves to go to the White House to meet President Trump,” Hagen said.
That seemed a bit much for Salzman, who thinks the president has enough on his plate to visit with a teenager who caught a big fish in Wyoming.
Still, Caleb Salzman is starting to realize he might be high-fiving people for years.
“I know that it is a once-in-a-lifetime fish,” he said.