Ethel, the Largemouth Bass. Undoubtedly the most famous bass in history. She changed an industry as well as a sport.
Prior to Ethel, bass fishing was very much a catch and eat rather than the catch and release that it is today. Fishermen would celebrate a good day on the water with a fish fry for family and friends and that was just the way it was and everyone was happy.
But in November of 1986, a 17.67-pound largemouth bass was caught by Lake Fork Texas angler Mark Stevenson, and the sport of bass fishing began to change.
Named Ethel for reasons still not yet completely understood, she became the first bass (#001) entered in Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s ShareLunker Program; she went on to become the featured attraction at the original Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri.
Ethel was unique. Caught by Mr. Stevenson who lured the giant fish to bite on a jig and craw-worm combo, hooking her as he reeled the lure through a deep brush pile. The fish, destined to become a legend, was the shape of a huge football, measuring 27-1/2-inches and sporting a 24-1/2-inch girth.
Ethel was born in 1975 in Lake Fork, Texas where she spent 11 1/2-years teasing and frustrating many anglers who tried to catch her. She was brought to Bass Pro Shops on May 5, 1987, where she lived to twice her normal life expectancy.
Ethel became the “poster fish” for catch-and-release fishing and was viewed by an estimated 20 million people before her death in 1994. Her memorial service was attended by an estimated 1,500 people and made national news. Donations were made in her memory to various fishing conservation groups and the National Wildlife and Fisheries Center in Washington, D.C.
At Ethel’s eulogy, it was noted that not long before her death she weighed over 20 pounds, was 32 inches in girth and 28 inches in length. Ethel was known throughout the world as the largest largemouth in captivity. She was survived by her relatives, 17-pound Wanda Bass, 16 1/2-pound Gerty Bass and 15-pound Lily Bass, now among the largest bass in captivity.
Unquestionably, Ethel led the life of royalty, and was hand-fed large goldfish by divers each day. She wasn’t very active in her autumn years as she would generally let the other, younger and more aggressive fish feed first and then venture out of her den to politely ask the diver for her meal. She was the star of the show that those estimated 20 million visitors to the Bass Pro facility in Springfield could attest.
With Ethel’s story, catch and release discussions began. Capture, photograph and release was the talk of early morning meetings at the marinas around Lake Fork. Too precious a resource to waste. Catch and kill will never fade from the sport as the legal limit taking of smaller fish is not thought to negatively impact the trophy bass opportunities. But the appreciation of trophy fish took hold and has flourished to the betterment of the sport fishing communities.
Guides began talking of the practice and soon it became the norm to appreciate the fish for what it is an experience that can be relived through several seasons and, potentially, through the next generations.
Boat manufacturers listened and added livewells and aeration systems to their new products to encourage the healthy handling of fish. Stringer tournaments began to fade and live release boats were designed and demanded at many national bass tournaments.
Had it not been for Ethel, visitors from around the country would not be able to enjoy the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, TX. Her story was instrumental in the construction of that $2.1 million conservation center.
The story of Ethel continues in conversations today, not just at Lake Fork but at bass factories across the Lone Star State and elsewhere. Will there be another Ethel-sized bass? Probably. Will she come from Lake Fork, possibly? Will there be another bass as famous or as sport altering as Ethel – probably not.