The Story of Georgia’s No. 3 Bass

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Nickie Rich's legendary Cobb County bass from 1965.

When George Perry caught his immortal world record 22-lb., 4-oz. largemouth in a backwater slough near Montgomery Lake in Telfair County on June 2, 1932, he unwittingly caused Nickie Rich and a handful of other singular Georgia bass anglers a great disservice. By setting such an imposing and seemingly unbeatable record, many of the exceptional bass caught in Georgia in the years since, including a real monster caught by Nickie 33 years later in 1965, never received the kind of recognition they truly deserve.

Nickie never set out to break any records. He simply wanted to land one of the big fish in Chastain’s Lake in north Cobb County that kept breaking his line. At 25, he was already a veteran bass fisherman. He came from a family of avid outdoorsmen. Along with his dad Escoe and younger brother Danny, the trio had enjoyed many years of catching large bass all over north Georgia. They were also dedicated deer hunters.

Escoe had a small cabin at Lake Allatoona, and the family fished with the seasons. When crappie were hot, they brought home their limit day after day. As soon as the white bass started running, it was the same story. They caught bream by the dozens. In their spare time, they chased lunker bass.

By 1965, both boys had caught their share of wallhangers. Nickie’s largest bass had been a 9-pounder, but he had caught numerous fish in the 7- to 8-lb. range. Although the boys often fished Lanier and Allatoona for bass, they loved fishing many of the numerous smaller lakes and ponds that dotted north Georgia just north of Atlanta. They knew many of these small, fertile lakes were capable of growing some bragging-size fish.

A Dollar a Day to Fish

You could still find plenty of dirt roads in 1965-era Cobb County. A one-lane steel bridge crossed the Chattahoochee at Johnson Ferry Road, and much of the county was still rural. This made for some great fishing in small ponds. Although most of the land holdings were private, permission to fish many of the farm ponds was relatively easy to obtain. Sometimes you didn’t even have to ask. It was nothing like today where everything is posted.

Just east of the historic town of Kennesaw sat two adjoining lakes owned by the Chastain family. For the grand sum of $1, Mrs. Chastain would let you fish either lake for the entire day. Today, both lakes are still there in all their glory, only now they’re surrounded by subdivisions. I often wonder if any of the current residents have a clue about the size of the fish that used to lurk in those lakes.

Nickie had become such a regular customer that Mrs. Chastain had started allowing him to use his small 7 1/2-hp motor while fishing her lakes. The use of outboard motors was usually forbidden, but Nickie had developed a special trust with Mrs. Chastain.

In April 1965, Nickie and a close friend, Hershel Lovell, got skunked after a day of hard fishing in the lower lake. It was not unusual for Nickie to get skunked. When you fish as much as he did, it was bound to happen, but the way it happened was particularly maddening. The two men had been using a variety of large plastic worms, including Big Daddy fliptails and some other 6- to 8-inch black and purple worms. Nickie and Hershel had hooked at least 12 large fish between them that day, but every one of the fish had broken off.

“There were a lot of underwater stumps and limbs in the cover where we were fishing, and every time we hooked a big fish, it would get tangled and break off,” Nickie remembered. “But these were no ordinary bass. They were huge fish, and they went exactly where they wanted to go. All we could do was stand there and say a few choice words. I think we made up some new ones that day!”

Nickie had been using a Mitchell 300 reel with 10-lb. test line. All week long after his disappointing experience, he thought about those monster fish that had broken off. He came to the conclusion that he and Hershel had pretty much done everything right—they simply had not been able to control such large bass. They had been way under-gunned. The following week, Nickie planned to take some vacation time from his job at Lockheed-Georgia Company. He vowed to get his revenge.

 

Round Two

April 27, 1965 was cold and windy for a late-spring Georgia day. It did not appear to be the ideal day for bass fishing, but Nickie was determined to follow through with his plan and take on the “devil fish” of Chastain’s Lakes.

“Back then, I had an old Ford truck and a home-made 12-foot wooden boat. I carried that thing all over north Georgia,” Nickie said. “With that little 7 1/2-hp engine, I could go anywhere. I left home early that day. By daylight, I was out on the lower lake.”

Nickie’s trusty Mitchell 300 outfit had remained at home. Instead, he rigged a heavy-duty saltwater surf-casting rod and reel—a Mitchell 302 spinning reel with a 7 1/2-foot rod—and extra-tough K58 17-lb. test line. Whatever swam in the dark waters of the lake was not going to get another chance to break off.

“Right off the bat, I caught a 5- or 6-pounder on a black plastic worm,” Nickie said. “Then I caught a 3-pounder. A little while later, I caught another big one. He went about 7 pounds.”

Several hours went by, and nothing else happened. Nickie had caught all three fish on plastic worms, and he decided to change over to live lizards.

“I rigged up a big lizard with no weight… no nothing… just the lizard on a weedless hook. I often had good success with fishing lizards that way, just letting them sink slowly to the bottom and swim around. About that time, I had to get out of the boat for a minute, so I pulled up to the bank and stepped out. I threw the line out a few feet in the water and put the rod down in a bush. As I walked into the woods to answer nature’s call, I happened to glance back at the line and something had grabbed the lizard and started running with it. Luckily, I made it to the rod a split second before it would have been yanked into the water.

“I waited a second to see what would happen. Whatever it was had grabbed the lizard, run about 10 yards out and then put it down. I waited for what seemed like five minutes, but nothing happened. Just when I decided the fish had probably killed my lizard and left the area, he picked it up again. This time, he slowly moved out about 6 more feet. That was it for me. I set the hook, and boy, I really set it!

“The rod immediately bent over double, and I thought I was hung up on something. The fish ran straight out into the lake for about 20 yards with the drag whining. The heavy-duty rod was bowed up, and all I could do was hold on. Then he turned and started coming back toward me. That’s when he jumped for the first time. He must have come 2 feet out of the water. He looked like Moby Dick. It was a sight to see, and one that I’ll never forget. His gills were spread out. It was unbelievable.

“He took out more line. Then he came back and jumped again. About 8 yards from the bank, he jumped for the third time. In all, it seemed like it took 10 to 15 minutes to get him in, but I really don’t know. I was too excited. He kept hugging the bottom along the bank, and it took him a long time to tire out. Finally, I got him in knee-deep water. Just as he rolled over onto one side, I jumped in from the bank—shoes and all—and tried to grab him. He started flopping and almost got away. After a moment or two, I was able to get my fist inside his mouth, and I grabbed him for all I was worth.

“A few moments later, when I took the weedless hook out of his mouth, the wire was bent all the way around the shank of the hook. He might have easily yanked loose with another few pulls. I was very lucky to get him in!”

(Note: The “he” Nickie refers to was most certainly a female bass, which grow much larger than males.)

By now Nickie was operating on pure adrenalin. He placed the goliath fish in the bottom of the boat and caught several more bass. Finally, after he had regained his wits and could think clearly again, he knew it was time to do something about his fish. Mrs. Chastain ran a tiny grocery store out on Bells Ferry Road. Nickie took the fish inside to be weighed. He was stunned when it weighed in at 17-lbs., 14-ozs. And this was after it had been sitting in the sun for an hour or so. Believing that Mrs. Chastain’s scales must be wrong, Nickie next took his fish over to Johnny Blackmore’s Bait and Tackle Shop on Roswell Street in Marietta, about a half a mile east of where the Big Chicken now stands.

Johnny weighed the big fish and arrived at the same weight—17-lbs., 14-ozs. Still skeptical and now somewhat in a state of shock, Nickie took his fish to a nearby convenience store to have it weighed for yet a third time. Once again, it tallied exactly 17-lbs., 14-ozs.

It wasn’t long before Nickie’s bass was the talk of the town. Unbelievably, Danny had been out fishing with a friend that same day, and he too brought home a large stringer of bass. His biggest fish tipped the scales at 9 pounds, but it looked like a minnow compared to Nickie’s big fish. Nickie’s record bass was later recognized by both Field & Stream and Sports Afield magazines as being not only the second-largest ever caught in Georgia, but also as being one of the largest bass ever caught in the U.S. At the time it was caught, Nickie’s bass would have been a state record in most states. When he took his prize to a local taxidermist to be mounted, the taxidermist almost fell out of his chair.

Today, Nickie’s 17-lb., 14-oz. bass ranks No. 3 on Georgia’s all-time list.

On Sept. 15, 1987, Ron Petzelt landed an 18-lb., 1-oz. largemouth on Lake Margery in Marben Farms. The Marben Farms lakes were then part of a private fishing club and were known for producing some exceptional largemouths, including the No. 6 Georgia largemouth of all-time, according to records kept by GON. They are now part of the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center and Marben Farms Public Fishing Area.

For years after catching his big bass, Nickie’s freezer was always full of fish. I became good friends with Nickie in the mid 1980s, and we fished together several times on Lake Allatoona. We always caught plenty.

Sadly Nickie Rich died from a heart attack on May 5, 1988, after having struggled with heart disease for several years. He was only 47. By that time, he had worked for the Cobb County Fire Department for a number of years and was highly thought of by his fellow firefighters. He left behind a wife and three beautiful teenage daughters. I attended his service, and it was one of the saddest I’ve ever been to. His family loved him dearly, and his wife and daughters were absolutely devastated.

Nickie departed this world way too soon, but he left behind a fishing legacy that will always be remembered, and one his grandchildren and family will no doubt be proud of for a long time to come.

Georgia’s Biggest Bass of All-Time

Rank    Weight   Location   Angler   Date
1. 22-lbs., 4-oz. Montgomery Lake, George Perry 6/2/32
2. 18-lbs., 1-oz. Marben Farm(Lake Margery), Ron Petzelt, 9/15/87
3. 17-lbs., 14-oz. Chastain’s Lake (Cobb County), Nickie Rich, 4/27/65
4. 17-lbs., 9.6-oz. B.T. Brown Reservoir (Coweta County), Keith Watkins, 3/30/15
5. 17-lbs., 9-oz. Lake Lanier, Emory Dunahoo, 12/19/65

 

The complete list of the Top-50 Georgia largemouth bass of all-time appears in the September issue of GON magazine. To subscribe to GON, please click here or call 800.438.4663.

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