Meet the GOAT of bass fishermen

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There are many L.A. sports GOATs.
Kobe Bryant.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Wayne Gretzky.
Butch Brown.

Butch Brown?

It’s a name spoken in hushed tones of reverence in the bass-fishing community. For most anglers, catching a largemouth bass weighing over 10 pounds would be the fish of a lifetime, an achievement demanding selfies with the bass, a call to the folks back home (please pick up, Dad!) and humble bragging on Instagram.

Brown has caught well over 1,500 — repeat 1,500 — of these elusive double-digit giants, including many “teeners” (13 pounds or more). His personal best, a 19.3-pound Goliath, just shy of the world record, was caught at Castaic Lake Lagoon, 40 miles north of Los Angeles.

Butch Brown holds his personal best largemouth bass, weighing 19.3 pounds, that he caught at Castaic Lake Lagoon on March 2, 2008. Brown was fishing with an 8-inch Huddleston Deluxe Rainbow Trout Swimbait (shown with the bass).
(Butch Brown Collection)
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Friday, 5:33 p.m.

Professionally, he’s a drywall contractor, but in the trophy bass-fishing world, Butch Brown is the Greatest Of All Time.

No one compares.

No one comes close.

But on a recent Friday, even the GOAT needs a little help.

Brown lights a sage stick to bless his boat. It’s been a while since he’s landed a big bass, a really big bass, and he’s feeling the need for a little extra anything for tomorrow’s trip.

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As the smoke wafts over his scuffed-up boat, he envisions the scene: He casts a favorite oversize lure, engages the reel, and slowly retrieves the lure back to his boat. Suddenly, a freight train smash on the bait. Adrenaline jolts as he swings for the fences to set the hook and maybe, just maybe, land the biggest largemouth bass ever caught.

But first he needs to focus on the details. More specifically, his details. A Friday night prep is the same as always. Re-spool his custom Shimano 400B reel with fresh line. Recharge the batteries on his boat’s electric motors. Recharge the GoPro to record his every cast and catch.

Good-luck golden Buddha and garlic scent spray stowed in their usual places? Check.

He calls up the lunar chart to make sure the moon isn’t in the daytime sky.

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“If the moon is out, I have better things to do,” Brown will say.

Now it’s time for one of Brown’s signature moves — making his own lure. He corrals his three wiener dogs scurrying under his feet as he heeds an impatient chirping microwave that signals some melted plastisol is ready to be poured.

Butch navigates his broad shoulders through the maze that is his cramped garage, past his freshly blessed boat, a freezer filled with bluefin tuna steaks, a 1966 Volvo up on blocks and two more boats. In the farthest corner sits his mad scientist fishing lab.

Brown finishes off the piping-hot liquid with a recipe of black glitter and a few drops of green pumpkin coloring. A quick stir and he methodically pours it into his bluegill lure mold.

“Now to catch a big fish at my lake, you’ve got to think out of the box,” Brown says. “What I’ve done is gone to imitation bluegill baits. That’s my own creation. Not on the market. You gotta match what they’re eating. That’s the best way to trick a trophy fish.”

He sets his alarm for 4 a.m. All systems go.

Butch Brown demonstrates how he “smudges” his boat with sage before fishing. Butch purchased this 14-foot Alumacraft on a San Fernando Valley street corner when he was 16. Total cost: $400.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Envious millions have watched his YouTube videos showcasing his fishing mastery. There’s his emphatic shout, “Dude! Look at the size of that one!” while he holds up another giant; hispatient explanation of rigging your bait “my way”; and his grateful release of double-digits back into the lake.

But with all his fishing rock star status, the self-proclaimed “Harry Homeowner” is still humble and approachable. Even when it’s raining, he happily offers a “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” as he launches his boat and suggests an insider tip to nearby shore anglers.

Butch Brown fishing at Castaic Lake Lagoon.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

People often approach the GOAT for a photo at the launch ramp, perhaps hoping he’ll bring them a little double-digit magic. Brown is happy to oblige.

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Fellow trophy bass hunter Ben Dehnadi operates the Low Down Customs shop in Tustin. He recalls when Brown first hit his radar. “I started hearing about this local legend. I would see his pictures from the lagoon and he was just a normal guy. He had some drywall dust still in his hair and you could tell he went to the lake after work because the bite was hot.”

Dehnadi was inspired. “Hey, man, that guy is doing it. If I put my time in, I can do it too.”

Saturday, 4:15 a.m.

Even though the ride to the lagoon is only four minutes from his hilltop house in Castaic, Brown prides himself on being first in line at the gate. First to launch means first to the best fishing spots. He was even first in line when Castaic Lake Lagoon opened to the public in 1974.

It’s still two hours before launch as Brown watches a pink moon slip behind the silhouetted hills. He settles into his Ford F350, sips his coffee and replies to followers’ questions on his Instagram feed. What fishing line do you use? What knot do you tie? Can you super-tune my bait likes yours?

Slowly the sleep-deprived weekend warriors line up behind him, and by the time the gate opens there are 14 cars in tow. The morning gray light offers perfect conditions for camouflaging the heavy line and large treble hooks needed to land giants.

“Most of the time they like a nice big meal,” he says, explaining why he uses a lure 8 or 10 inches long. “If I get bit, it’s usually a pretty good-sized fish.”

Largemouth bass fishing is a $60-billion-a-year industry, and the obsession for taking a selfie with a double-digit will have anglers trying new baits, old baits, new fishing holes, old fishing holes, checking the weather app, checking the moon app and basically tossing every penny they have into the Tacklewarehouse.com wishing well.

Our California lakes receive a lot of fishing pressure, which in turn makes our trophy bass a persnickety and downright hard-to-hook quarry. Big bass have big eyes, and they see every hook, line and sinker.

No wonder they’re leery of artificial lures, but Brown has mastered the art of getting this class of fish to bite. He confides, “It’s time on the water and observing what’s going on around you. I’d take the time to tweak my bait and make it look anatomically correct. I’d paint my hooks to match the baits. A stealth presentation is key.”

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One of Brown’s most impressive days at the lagoon came on May 9, 2010, when he landed five bass all weighing over 12 pounds, including an 18-pounder. A heart-palpitating day for any fisherman.

Butch Brown with five largemouth bass all weighing over 12 pounds. The giant bass in the middle weighed 18.5 pounds. All were caught and released by Brown on May 9, 2010.
(Butch Brown Collection)

Brown, who eschews pro bass tournaments, has instead pioneered the practice of videotaping his trophy catches. With his office shelves overflowing with hundreds of tapes, no one can question the authenticity of Brown’s heavyweight bass.

His prowess has inspired a generation of trophy hunters to craft their own baits and document their own triumphs, including Mike Gilbert, creator of big bass lures at Working Class Zero, whose personal best is a 17.45-pound teener.

“I always thought that when Butch talked there was extreme value to it,” Gilbert says. “If he says he’s doing something, he’s actually doing it. So how can you apply that to your fishing and maybe even take it a step further?”

Matt Paino of Optimum Baits, who produces Brown’s Thumper Tail bait, agrees. “He’s the one that put cast-to-catch video on the map. It’s right there in front of you. There’s no deception.”

So, he’s asked, is Brown the GOAT? “Hands down. He’s been there from the start and he’s still here now.”

A selection of Brown’s trophy largemouth bass, weighing clockwise: 14.12 pounds, 15.10 pounds, 16.40 pounds and 15.40 pounds.
(Butch Brown Collection)

6:25 a.m.

Brown has several boats, but his favorite steed is a 14-foot Alumacraft he saw for sale on a San Fernando Valley street corner when he was 16. Cost: $400.Amazing, considering that today a fully equipped bass boat can reach six figures. Brown’s 1966 model is leaky, scratched up, patched up and painted black numerous times over, yet it serves Brown’s needs to a T.

“It doesn’t spook the fish as it sits low in the water,” he says. “That keeps me out of their sightline as they follow the bait back to the boat. They’re not afraid of my boat. It looks like a beat-up log.”

This morning Brown fishes several locations where he feels giant females are lurking. Bulked up with spawn eggs, they have transformed from summer slim to a possible world record Rubenesque. They take every opportunity to carb up for the exhausting spawn, devouring bait fish, crawdads and, if lucky, a related family member, the bluegill.

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Swimming lazily by, a bluegill looks like a tempting Snickers-size snack and any bass big enough will certainly have a go at making it the next meal, wrapper included.

Brown is the U.S. face of Deps, an international lure company based in Kyoto, Japan. In 2012, when Deps Chief Executive Kazumasa Okumura saw the footage of Brown’s mega catches with their Slide Swimmer 250 bait, they struck a deal to hire him on the spot.

“To see that bait in the water and to see how many giant bass followed it to the boat, was absolutely amazing,” says Brown, describing the 250’s alluring action. “The first fish I landed was 12 pounds and it was only within 10 minutes of throwing the bait.”

Brown has helped Deps craft 12 custom colors that “match the hatch” of bass forage in American waters, and these namesake lures sell out instantly at trade shows and tackle shops. “Butch has a complete understanding of the forage in his water and works with our production team to get the color perfect,” Okumura says. “He will not substitute for perfection.”

Okumura adds: “I truly respect his style of fishing for only trophy fish. He truly is the honmono [real thing] big fish hunter.”

Big baits catch big bass. Trophy bass fisherman Butch Brown holds a 10-inch Deps Slide Swimmer 250. This “Mirror Trout” pattern is a collaboration with Tackle Warehouse.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

9:04 a.m.

Ten boats, four kayakers and three float tubers make for a crowded little lagoon, but Brown knows it like no other. The California native kicks off his flip-flops as the sun peeks over the hills. He’s wearing his usual: camo shorts, black hoodie, sun-bleached trucker cap with his Instagram name, Swimbait247.

He taps the trolling motor pedal and weaves his way around the other anglers. His fish finder shows him depth, water temperature and what lies beneath. A patch of milfoil sprouting in 18 feet of water. A pod of baitfish following the shadow of his boat.

He finds a favorite spot vacant and uses his extensive catalog of shoreline landmarks to align a perfect cast. The yellow handrail next to the dead palm tree. The third column of the bridge. The left inside corner of the spillway wall. He sends the bait flying.

Brown prefers to keeps it simple on the deck of his boat, with three big rods and a selection of giant baits. He uses his trolling motor and fish finder in search of his next “double digit” bass.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

9:54 a.m.

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It’s been a slow morning and the lake isn’t playing nice.

No bites yet.

Nothing.

Brown leans back, loads up the 8-foot rod to cast and hurls his custom bluegill bait 70 yards. It pancakes the water loudly, then quietly descends. Brown surveys his waterscape: hatching mayflies being devoured by dive-bombing swallows and ever-present coots nibbling on the budding hydrilla.

As the bait touches bottom his line goes slack. He slowly turns the reel’s handle and starts a steady crawl back to the boat. Then suddenly … thump!

But before Butch can even swing, it’s over.

“Too fast,” he says. “It was probably a small male guarding a nest. If it was a bigger one, it would’ve crunched it pretty good.”

He hits a few more spots and, again, nothing. No world record today. But, hey, even Kobe missed the rim now and then.

He decides to call it a day, but the ever-confident Brown continues, “Being as I like to throw the big stuff, I know I’ll have my days. By the end of the year, I’ll have more big fish than all of them.”

According to the International Game Fish Assn., a world record must be at least 2 ounces more than the previous one. The current largemouth bass record is shared by Manabu Kurita’s 22.5-pounder caught in 2009 at Japan’s Lake Biwa and George Perry’s 1932 record weighing 22.4 pounds from Georgia’s Montgomery Lake.

“When I first started, I didn’t even think about that kind of stuff. But then I started catching bigger ones. I got into that 15-, 16-pound range and I said, ‘Man, you know I might have a shot at this,’ ” says Brown.

Over the years Brown has hooked and lost three fish he’s confident were over 20 pounds. In 2005 Brown had an unprecedented 128 double-digit largemouth in nine months’ time, but it also included a gut punch when he lost a possible world record boatside.

“The one I shouldn’t have lost was on a Huddleston swimbait,” he recalls. “I’ve seen 20-pound fish, so I knew this was a big one. I could tell by the features, the big head, the size of the eyeballs, the big body. I had the heavy rod and I kept her coming.”

He had the fish ready to net, “but giants like to dig down and — bam! — she snapped me right off. I was sick to my stomach.”

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Brown’s perspective on the chase has shifted over the years. A world record would be great, but there are other joys to fishing.

“It’s in my mind,” he says of a world record fish, “but it’s not an addiction anymore. I just wanna go out and catch big fish and have fun. So that’s what I’m gonna do.”

You’ll never shoot hoops with LeBron James or volley with Serena Williams. But fishing is different. Butch Brown is out there on a public lake hoping for a big one, just like you.

You’ve just got to wake up in the middle of the night, sit in your car in the dark for a few hours and hit the water when there’s no moon. Then you can have a front-row seat at watching the GOAT catch a giant or two. Or maybe even the giant.

Brown has several namesake baits, but he often prefers to throw his own custom-designed lures. Here he casts one of his bluegill imitation baits at Castaic Lake Lagoon. “That’s my own creation. Not on the market. You gotta match what they’re eating. That’s the best way to trick a trophy fish.”
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)