Bagging the Big Browns : An Exclusive Group of Anglers Stalks the Largest of the German Trout, and the Membership Requirements Make Little Allowance for Luck

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a Brownbagger's kind of weather.

Miserable.

First there was rain. Then thunder and lightning and, finally--they seldom had it so good--snow, as the thermometer flirted with freezing and they relentlessly trolled Stampede Reservoir for their freshwater idol, the German brown trout.

Big German browns. Nobody gets into the elite Brownbaggers unless they have caught two browns weighing 10 pounds or more. You can't buy your way in. You can't marry your way in. And they won't simply take your word for it.

The Brownbaggers are so exclusive that two men who have held the California record weren't eligible because they hadn't caught another over 10 pounds.

About a dozen of this illustrious lot, including some from Utah plus a couple of children and guests, gathered in Northern California last weekend for a special little tournament. The weather was delightfully rotten, because Brownbaggers, like many fishermen, are convinced that the worse the weather the better the fishing.

"Isn't this wonderful?" they kept saying, as rain and snow ran down their necks and filled their boats and their boots.

But something--someone--was missing: Bob Bringhurst, Brownbagger No. 1. In 1976 at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah, he caught the then-world-record brown: 33 pounds 10 ounces.

Last December, while leaving a Moreno Valley restaurant with his wife, Bringhurst, 49, was shot and killed by a robber in the parking lot. Suspects have been arrested, but there is a terrible void in the lives of his family and friends.

So Allan Cole, the Lancaster painting contractor who founded the club in 1974, organized the tournament at Stampede as a tribute, and even the weather cooperated.

Bringhurst's younger brother, Jim, of Apple Valley, is a Los Angeles County fireman, as was Bob. Jim remembers every detail of that fine day in '76.

"It was just like this . . . snowing," he said as he trolled along the shore with his son, Greg.

"It was about 6:10 in the morning. I think it was March 6 or 7. We had just gone out and fished maybe 20 minutes. The first time we saw the fish was when it came into the boat.

"I gaffed it and dropped it in the bottom of the boat and thought, 'That's a big, big brown.' My little 29-pound (hand-held) scale just hit bottom. So we thought we'd better head for town."

Cole had declined an invitation to join the Bringhursts on that trip.

"It was cold and snowing up there," Cole said. "Then Bob called and said, 'I just caught the world record!' I was gone that night."

The generally accepted record was 31-9, also from Flaming Gorge. But old, unverified claims clouded the issue for years until Bringhurst's fish was recognized by the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, Field & Stream magazine and, ultimately, the International Game Fish Assn.

The current record is 34-6, set by Robert Henderson at Bar Lake, Mich., in 1984, although some recognize a 35-15 by Eugenio Cavaglia in Argentina in 1952.

Copies of Bob Bringhurst's prize have been mounted several times in fiberglass and have been displayed at Jack's Waffle Shop in Bishop and at Ken's Sporting Goods in Bridgeport, familiar haunts of the Bringhursts and most Eastern Sierra anglers.

Jim Bringhurst said it was the best fishing trip he and his brother ever had. Including the record fish, that week they caught seven browns totaling 106 pounds, he said.

Bob Bringhurst eventually caught six 10-plus browns, and Jim went on to collect 25, a total second only to the 34 by Richard Reinwald of Sandpoint, Ida., who caught a former California-record fish at Crowley Lake.

"Once (Bob) caught the record, he got involved in bass fishing," Jim Bringhurst said. "He got a Ranger boat (and) did a lot of work for Bottom Line, seminars for Berkley."

Jim also tried other kinds of fishing. "I've caught everything but a boot and a tire," he said.

But he always came back to the browns. His largest is 26 pounds. "I had one trip by myself when I had a 20 and the 26," he said.

And his big brother never lost his touch.

"Yeah. He got three 10-pound browns at Lower Twin Lake (near Bridgeport) one year, and I sat there with none," Jim Bringhurst said. "That was in the spring. In the fall, I caught an 18-10. I got even."

There is nothing casual about the Brownbaggers' methods. They work the shallows from first light until dark, trolling at a swift three to four knots while constantly tugging their rods to keep the lures active.

It began snowing hard, and Bringhurst has a canopy he could have put up over the cockpit, but he said: "We'll keep the top down so we can fish better."

He realizes it's a little nuts, but the fishing bug bit him and Bob hard when they were boys and his father piled his five children into the '49 Nash for a trip to the Sierra every summer.

"I don't know what makes a guy want to fish for big browns," Jim Bringhurst said. "Usually when we'd leave home on Friday night to go to the Sierra, we'd stop at Herron's Sporting Goods in Bishop. Here's these big browns (mounted) on the wall.

"From that time on, when we'd go trout fishing, we'd try to catch big browns. And one day we did, in '73.

"Then we got pretty good at it. It seemed like we could catch rainbows anytime we wanted to, so we tried to catch something harder."

Conditions were marvelous. The air temperature was in the mid-30s, the water temperature 40 to 41.

"The ice broke two weeks ago," Cole said, "and it's really good after the ice breaks. In late April or May they go deep, and it's tougher to get them."

That, then, explains this well-timed insanity.

As the snowfall increased, the thousands of Canada geese nesting in an island refuge on the east side of the lake were hunkered down, easing their honking for a while. Dave Smith, who runs Culver's Sporting Goods in Bishop, had only one concern. "I just hope the (launching) ramp doesn't ice up," he said.

It already looked like a speed-skiing run, and the locals were nervous because, knowing the Brownbaggers' expertise, they feared the fishery would be devastated, like a pack of the old Hell's Angels storming a town.

Not to worry. In three days, 16 anglers caught more than 60 browns and released all but five, which they were unable to save.

Most were shorter than the 24-inch minimum established for the tournament, which may have been too tough. The first two days nobody qualified, although several were close.

"We talked about making it 20 inches," Bringhurst said, "but didn't think that was big enough."

Jim and Greg Bringhurst caught four longer than 20 inches, weighing from four to five pounds, the first two days. But there would not be any 10-pound browns on this trip.

On the final, snowy morning, Bringhurst also was certain he had hooked the winner, "but he chewed me off."

Then word got around by CB radios that Danny Stearman of Bakersfield, who holds the state record at 26-8, had taken two qualifying fish. But when Stearman reached shore, it turned out that one of the fish was only 23 1/4 inches, while the other was 25 1/2 but caught by Stearman's guest, John Winterset, also of Bakersfield. It weighed 5 pounds 10 ounces.

Another Brownbagger, Ron Lane of Olancha, holds the Pleasant Valley Reservoir record of 22 pounds 12 ounces and watched his 12-year-old son Brandon take a 21-inch brown as the tournament ended.

"There's no explaining what can happen," Cole said. "A few years ago, one of our members, Bob Kite of Burbank, caught his two in 15 minutes . Then he said, 'Gimme my patch!' "

Cole, third on the Brownbaggers' all-time list with 21 10-plus fish, had worse luck. Skunked the first two days, on the third he ran his boat aground in the fog.

But he did catch the biggest fish of the tournament. There was only one problem: It was a mackinaw.

Cole took a lot of teasing, such as, "Get that skinny, ugly fish out of here."

Bob Bringhurst would have been laughing with the rest.

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