GAY - With practiced ease, Mike Smith reached over the gunwale of his little johnboat and grabbed the lower lip of the bass he'd just hooked.
It was the 931st bass Smith had caught.
Not in his lifetime; not even in the last decade or the last year. No, the bass Smith plucked from the murky green waters of Elk Fork Lake was the 931st he had caught - and released - in less than five months.
"This is what I spend my time and my money on," said the 51-year-old lawn maintenance worker. "I don't have a fancy bass boat and I don't go out of state to famous lakes that have a lot of bass in them. I fish in lakes and ponds near my home and I do alright."
A lot of anglers wish they could do as "alright" as Smith.
Not only has the Roane County resident managed to catch that many bass, he has also caught more than his share of whoppers.
Forty-nine of the bass he's landed since New Year's Day have weighed more than 5 pounds apiece. Many West Virginia anglers fish their entire lives and never catch a 5-pounder.
Skeptics might suspect that Smith travels extensively to the bass-rich lakes of the Deep South to rack up those gaudy statistics. Skeptics would be wrong. He fishes almost exclusively in West Virginia, and spends the lion's share of his effort on lakes and ponds in Roane, Jackson, Wirt and Wood counties.
Smith, who has kept meticulous records of each fishing trip he's taken since 1991, said 2012 is shaping up to be a pretty good year, especially for big bass.
"I've caught three bass that weighed more than 9 pounds, and one that weighed a little more than 10 pounds," he said. "Those are huge bass for West Virginia. For whatever reason, the really big ones seem to be even bigger than usual this year."
To catch that many bass, and to catch bass that large, an angler needs to spend a lot of time fishing. Smith does.
"In a bad year I'll spend about 115 days on the water," he said. "In a good year, I'll get to fish about 135 days."
And when Smith says he fishes that many days, he means it.
"I don't often go fishing just for an hour or two," he said. "I like to get to the lake early, fish all day and go home late."
Some days the fish bite eagerly and some days they're finicky. Even so, Smith averages more than 16 bass every time he wets a line.