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New Illinois State Record Smallmouth Bass

Most of Chicago’s 2.7-million residents were fast asleep. But for avid angler Joe Capilupo, the night of Monday, October 14 provided the perfect opportunity to cast for Lake Michigan smallmouth bass. The payoff, as it turned out, would more than justify a little loss of shut-eye.

Working their usual Chi-town fishing turf, Capilupo and two friends had cast and moseyed their way from the Shedd Aquarium, south toward Buckingham Fountain without much action. Twenty minutes before 11pm, a police officer strolled by to remind the anglers the Monroe Harbor lakefront park would soon be closing. At 10:50pm, Capilupo felt something crack his Ned rig. 

“Soon as I set the hook, the fish started pulling really hard, stripping drag,” recalls Capilupo, a Cook county corrections officer. “Figured I had probably hooked a drum or maybe a bigger bass.” Darkness prevented Capilupo from getting a good look at the fish until he worked it slightly closer to shore. “When the fish finally flashed in the water, I thought, my gosh, I’ve got a huge smallmouth bass! But even then, I figured it couldn’t have gone more than 5-pounds, which had been my goal for several years. “I reached for the net and hollered for my buddies Jonny Pitelka and Myles Cooke to come over and help.”

The bait that captured Capilupo’s record bass, a Z-Man Finesse TRD (California Craw pattern).
The bait that captured Capilupo’s record bass, a Z-Man Finesse TRD (California Craw pattern).

New Illinois State Record

As Capilupo stretched out to maneuver the smallmouth bass into his net, the fish woke up and tail-walked clear of the water. “It was an incredible jump, but it almost gave me a heart attack,” he laughed. Fortunately for the LeGrange, Illinois angler, the big bass’ head-shake didn’t dislodge the Z-Man jig and Finesse TRD from its jaw.

“When we finally got the fish to shore, I got a better look at her and thought she might go 6 (pounds). The bass was so big my buddies had to help me lift it.”

After a handheld scale displayed a weight of 7-pounds 5-ounces, the anglers realized the smallmouth bass might eclipse the state record. Capilupo and friends started dialing friends, outdoor writers, Illinois fisheries officials or anyone who might help register the bass on a certified scale. “We couldn’t reach anyone at first. Nobody believed us, so I went on social media and someone told us to go to nearby Henry’s Sports and Bait. Meanwhile, another friend had brought big garbage bags which we filled with water. My mom delivered a large cooler and another buddy had returned from Wal-Mart with an aerator. We stayed up all night and made sure the fish stayed in the water and regained its strength.
St. Croix Mojo Bass Spinning (MJS71MHF)

“Eventually, a co-owner and store employee met us at Henry’s,” noted Capilupo. “Their reaction was incredible; they were blown away by the fish, and helped us take good care of it in one of their special bait tanks.”

By 1:30 pm on Tuesday, the bass had at last been certified by a Department of Natural Resources biologist. Officially, the bass weighed 7-pounds 3-ounces, measuring 22-1/4-inches in length and 16-1/2-inches in girth. The previous Illinois state record smallmouth weighed 6-pounds 7-ounces, caught in 1985.

Recalling some of the misfortunes he faced earlier that Monday, Capilupo said his favorite St. Croix rod had gone overboard while kayak fishing. Somehow, his friend Pitelka managed to snag and save the outfit—a St. Croix Mojo Bass rod and Daiwa Legalis reel. “It just didn’t feel like my day,” recalls Capilupo, who had up until his big bite, landed only a small rock bass. “I’d also lost A 15-incher (bass) and had a good-sized drum break my hook. It was an old, rusty hook, and I should have switched out.”

Ultimately, having tied on a fresh 1/5-ounce Z-Man Ned Rig jighead onto which he threaded his favorite bass bait— a California Craw pattern Finesse TRD— Capilupo made the cast that reversed his fortune. “The Z-Man Ned rig is the only bait we throw for smallmouths,” he said. “It’s our go-to, never-fail bait, for sure.”

Capilupo described the fateful cast, which occurred not far from the Shedd Aquarium. “I had just put on a new California Craw TRD and cast out about 20 feet. That longer 7-foot 1-inch St. Croix is the perfect rod for shorecasting. I let the lure drop to the bottom and gave it a little twitch. I picture the retrieve as a frog hopping. Right after that first hop, I felt a big jarring hit and set the hook.”

More than twenty-four hours later, the trio of anglers huddled in Henry’s back-rooms to discuss the planned release of their prized smallmouth bass. As Henry’s Sports and Bait co-owner Tom Palmisano told Chicago Sun Times outdoor columnist Dale Bowman, “He (Capilupo) is one of the classiest fishermen in the world. His buddy was sitting in the back of my store, tending to the fish like a newborn baby on its way home from the hospital. I can’t think of a happier moment in my years in the business.”

“We knew we wanted to release the bass back into Lake Michigan,” noted Capilupo. “And there’s no question, the bass was in beautiful shape when we did.

“Back into Lake Michigan, she goes,” Capilupo recited in a YouTube video documenting the release. “Thanks buddy. Great fight. Great fish. Seven pounds 3 ounces. Smallmouth bass.”

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