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Feature Article: Mike Gardner

‘Big Mike,’ equally at home on salt or fresh

BY RICH HOLLAND/WON Field ReporterPublished: Jan 19, 2018

Guide and pro angler Mike Gardner, an early champion of saltwater bassin’

LONG BEACH — For many years, one constant has been present in the Southern California fishing community, the Fred Hall Shows and in this writer’s career: Mike Gardner, the larger-than-life bass pro, saltwater bass guide, seminar speaker and ultimate professional known to many simply as “Big Mike.”

FISH HAVE NO HANDS — A fixture at the Fred Hall Shows in Long Beach and Del Mar, Mike Gardner was always glad to meet old friends and make new ones. He also sold a lot of books and plastic baits.

These days, it is common to see saltwater bass tournament fishermen wearing logo-laden jerseys and jockeying everything from tin boats to Florida-built center console powerhouses in pursuit of cash and glory.

There is a long history of competition and innovation in the roots of both freshwater and saltwater bass fishing, and the list of those who used freshwater techniques to hammer big calico, sand and spotted bay bass decades ago is pages long. Yet in his unique way, Big Mike was the first to bridge the gap between the two by bringing the connection into the spotlight as a professional.

Mainly, Mike talked about saltwater bass fishing; loud and clear, with sponsor logos neatly stitched on his shirt.

Mike Gardner’s story starts with a thread common to all the best fishermen – they simply can’t remember when they weren’t fishing. Mike and his brother Pete spent their early days in a part of Long Beach known as Naples.

“We grew up fishing,” recalled Mike in recent conversations. “We lived on Saint Irma Walk and at the end of the street was the canal. My brother and I had frog gigs and we would walk to the estuary and spear halibut and stingrays. The lifeguards would give us a nickel per stingray and we ate the halibut and gave it to our friends.”

Pier rats, the brothers switched from the Belmont Pier to the Santa Monica Pier when his father moved the family to Los Angeles.

“My dad would drop us off at the pier and go to work,” said Gardner. “We got our bait tickets sweeping up around the bait shack. They had a barge and we used to go out on the barge and load bait on the party boats. For that we got a free hamburger and got to fish on the barge.

GARDNER ON THE gaff with a nice flattie.

“One day a boat, I think it was the Lenbrooke, pulled up,” he added. “A deckhand didn’t show, and the skipper told me to get on. I thought I was going to get to fish as a pinhead; instead I cleaned the heads. I did that for a while, then was a pinhead and then a deckhand.”

Not long after, Mike caught another fishing bug: chasing the green ones.

“Pete was bass fishing Irvine Lake and he said you’ve got to come on down and try this,” said Gardner. “One day he took me. It was an overcast day with fog on the water. There was a stick poking up out of the water, a stickup. He said cast to that stickup. I threw a Rapala and a 2-pound bass came on up, blasted the lure, jumped and I was hooked for all time.”

At this point, bass fishing took over, with Irvine and Cachuma lakes his usual haunts and Mike’s natural competitiveness kicking in, well balanced by a need for more and more information on how to catch fish.

Big Mike used his irrepressible personality to get to know and fish with the best in the game.

Mike said he met Buck Perry at Cachuma and was able to get the “spoonplugging” legend to tell him about structure.

“Buck came up with the nomenclature of structure fishing,” noted Gardner. “He took me fishing at Cachuma and drew me a map of the hot spots. All we used were his spoonplugs. He told me how and why fish relate to structure; he changed the way I fished for everything. I started looking for structure everywhere: docks, gravel, drop offs, rocky cliff faces.

Mike was a founding member of the Rio Hondo Bass Club in the ‘70s as the Bassmaster craze swept the bass fishing nation.

“We had so many guys who were good sticks: Mike Tomaselli, a really cool guy who was an ex-Hells Angel, Ron Spencer, Al Hensen, Rich Dutzi, Johnny Sprick, Paul Cormany, Jay Hoffman… I wish I could remember them all. We also had the best parties. On Saturday nights, you wanted to be around our campfire.

“We had a lot of fun, were always in the Big Six, and beat pretty much every club. We lost one to Saddleback, when Larry Hopper beat us with some deep-water fish. I won a lot of our club events and usually at least finished second or third.

FISHING BY THE DOCK OF THE BAY — Phil Friedman, founder of 976TUNA, and Mike Gardner show off a Newport Bay double hookup during another great day on the water with Gardner. Photo RICH HOLLAND

“We had a rule that I put into effect when I started the club. The first, second and third place guys had to get up at the next meeting and say how they caught their fish, what kind of structure it was on and where. Our club was about learning to fish.”

Gardner said a trip with Charlie Brewer that allowed him to watch Brewer’s famous “Do Nothing” technique opened his eyes to light-line fishing.

“Charlie had this 4½-foot rod with big stripper guides, a big saltwater spinning reel with 6-pound test and these short little worms and a big split shot up the line and he knocked the snot out of the fish,” remembered Gardner. “I ran down to Sabre – I knew Mike Stocker well – and grabbed a 196 rod and wrapped it with big guides and put on a spinning reel and light line and won my next club tournament. That’s when I started finding out about light line and little grubs.”

In response to the demand for an organized circuit, in the early ’70s Dave Coolidge founded the California Lunker Club and Pete Gardner and his brother Mike were there from day one.

In fact, Mike was the first to cash in on the club’s Lunker Insurance policy. Every California Lunker Club member paid $10 a year and if they caught a trophy fish, a true lunker, they got a free mount. Gardner caught his big fish while fishing alongside probably the best big fish expert in California history, San Diego’s Bill Murphy.

“I was one of the first guys to get on a pro staff. In those days we used to wear cream jumpsuits with our patches sewn on,” said Gardner. “I was taking out the Zebco rep — I think it was Jerry Webster, and I wanted to learn more about stitching a crawfish, so I called Bill and asked him if we could go with him.

“We went to El Capitan and anchored bow to bow off a point. Bill had Walt Weisberg with him. Now you have to know that Bill would take 10 to 15 minutes to set his anchors. I was in my aluminum boat, the Tintanic,” Mike recalled.

“Well, I threw out a crawdad right away and looked over and Murphy was eating a sandwich. I said why aren’t you fishing? He said they aren’t biting yet.

“Finally after a while he started fishing. Then he said something that changed the way I looked at fishing the rest of my life, wherever I fished. He said, ‘Look around you and tell me what you see.’ I said, well I see water and rocks. He said, ‘No, what else?’ and I said well, I see birds flying and cows coming down to the water to drink. He said to me, ‘When the animals start moving, the fish start biting.’”

They started biting that day in April of 1972 and Gardner caught a 13-pound, 4-ounce largemouth. Dave Coolidge expanded his idea into a full-blown money circuit that drew clubs from as far away as San Luis Obispo.

“The Lunker Insurance was one of the things that drove California Lunker Club close to bankruptcy,” remarked Mike, who became the CLC Tournament Chairman. “For guys like Murphy, and there were plenty of them in San Diego and elsewhere, catching an 8-pound Northern or a 12-pound Florida was easy. And mounts were expensive even then.

lightlineflattieLIGHT LINE FLATTIE —Mike Gardner shows off his light line expertise on this halibut caught with Bob Hoose when both were promoting Berkley's Gulp! baits. Gardner credits bass pro Charlie Brewer with showing him the potential of light fishing and Mike could be found fishing 6-pound test both in the bays and along the coast. Of course Mike went to braided lines and fluorocarbon when that revolution took place. Photo courtesy Bob Hoose

“Dave Coolidge was way ahead of his time – he was the first to do on-the-water weigh-ins – and he always wanted to have nice trophies and do everything right.”

Wayne Cummings and Jerry Abney soon started the Western Bass Fishing Association and by 1974, Western Outdoor News publisher Burt Twilegar decided it was time for his publication to get in the game. He bought Western Bass and later picked up the California Lunker Club.

Gardner remained active in the tournament scene, both as an advisor and a fisherman. To keep his skills honed, he would often fish the coastal bays and shorelines, particularly the spotties of Newport Bay.

That’s where he would often see Jim Emmett, another top stick and a Saddleback club member. Emmett poured leadheads (California was a hotbed of leadhead jig innovators), and Mike worked with him to develop a light-line head that was a hybrid of a football jig with tapered sides and flat bottom (not far from Brewer’s slider). He would also hook up with Tony Paino at AA’s Worms and develop a grub akin to Bobby Gonzales’ Bobo.

The combination was deadly on the spotted bay bass. Gardner had always guided freshwater lakes, and moving his operation to the saltwater had only one hitch – he had to get a captain’s license. The money came in handy, since his Modern Woman clothing stores had gone out of business.

Meanwhile, in 1980 at Lake Powell, Mike had his big breakthrough on the Western Bass circuit, which thrived with the Western Outdoor News team.

“That was the first tournament I knew I was going to win,” said Gardner. “I got into some fish on the buzzbait the year before near the marina, and Pete told me he had found fish in an area close by there. I was sponsored by Lindy and I was using a Lindy Clacker, which had an offset blade that hit the head of the bait once each rotation.

“My first day of practice, I tuned the lure and made a cast to see how it would swim. I caught an 8 pounder. My only worry was that I only had two baits. I put something on the tip of the hook and found all the fish I needed. I lost one of the baits the first day, but the Lindy rep Oscar Barella brought me more. I won easily and I remember my wife Jeanette jumping up and down on the dock when I came in.

“That was the highlight of my fishing career.”

Right about then, Burt Twilegar sold Western Bass to Rich Schultz and Don Doty. Schultz, a charismatic showman who frittered away millions, gets the credit for pushing bass tournament payouts into the big time range, offering $50,000 in cash to the winner (Greg Hines) of the first U.S. Open in 1981. He also hired Gardner as general manager.

The job of running the 1982 U.S. Open fell to Gardner.

“Jimmy Houston was our emcee for the awards and it was time for me to get the $50,000 cash to bring out in a wheelbarrow on the stage to give to the winner (Rich Tauber),” said Gardner. “I went to the cashier’s window at the Tropicana and asked for the money. The gal told me there was no money. I said there has to be. She said that Mr. Schultz had taken the money and was at the gaming tables.

“I found Rich at a table by himself playing all the hands. He was down to $9,000. He told me not to worry about it. I ran upstairs to get my wife, telling her we had to get out of here. When we got downstairs, Rich had $90,000 dollars on the table.”

By the time this writer went to work for what was soon to be named U.S. Bass, Gardner had instituted a mobile fishing school in a fully painted (old school wrap) RV. I accompanied him to an event at Santa Margarita Lake. We went out in his Ranger bass boat and he put me on a great bite on No. 11 FT black and silver Rapalas. The key was to twitch the bait once and let it sit until all the ripples disappeared.

I also got to watch him give a seminar for the first time and then realized I was watching a master. There was a good reason he had so many sponsors during his career, which was really about to pick up another life. Schultz, on Mike’s advice, had purchased both Angler and South Coast Sportfishing. When Schultz moved the show to his home state of Arizona, Gardner stayed put and he and a partner bought the saltwater book.

“I ended up getting cheated out of the magazine, but in the meantime, I got to fish so many great saltwater trips,” Gardner said. “I really started guiding hard, fishing Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and running my kitchen remodel business. Guys would head out to Catalina and catch 25 fish and I would be having 200-fish days in the bay.”

Modesty has never been a stumbling block for Mike Gardner.

OLD SCHOOL ROOTS — Born and raised next to the saltwater, Gardner worked his way up to a deckhand before he discovered bass fishing thanks to his brother Pete. Mike says the lessons he learned fishing the freshwater with the top sticks of the time changed his entire perspective on fishing. Image courtesy of

By 1986, I was on the saltwater beat at Western Outdoor News and started fishing with Mike again for On-the-Spot reports from Newport Bay, Long Beach Harbor, Mission Bay, San Quintin and, best of all, Huntington Harbor/Alamitos Bay under a collection permit with Dr. Larry Allen of Cal State Northridge. It was there that we saw a corbina crawl up a mud bank and eat a sidewinder crab, one of many things (and stories) I will never forget from trips with Mike. He is the best light-line fisherman I have ever seen or been around.

Every year at the Fred Hall Show I would see my old friend and talk stories, for many years at the AA’s booth and then at the Berkley layout Bob Hoose put together. And I would make sure to catch one of his seminars at the Saltwater Tank stage, a stage practically built for Mike Gardner. He wrote a book, “Fish Have No Hands,” that he would sell at the show.

“I have had so many great sponsors through the years – Stren, Zebco, Cotton Cordell was one of my first sponsors, and of course over most all of the years, Tony Paino at AA’s and Optimum,” Gardner noted. “Then, when I was with Berkley promoting Gulp! with Jimmy Decker and Bob Hoose, they owned most of the companies. Hoose gave me my first bag of Gulp! Jerk Shads and I told Decker the trick of fishing them on dart heads. Jimmy and I made Gulp! famous out here on the West Coast.”

Mike has gone through a lot of tough medical conditions. Still he made it to every Long Beach and Del Mar Fred Hall Show, even if he had to be wheeled in with a full neck brace bolted to his shoulders. He took part in the first Salt Water Bass Association tournaments even though by then he needed a deckhand to run the latest model of the Big Mike.

Gardner’s words influenced many young anglers and I have had quite a few pros tell me they patterned their seminars after his when they first had to get up on a stage and earn their sponsorship dollars.

“Ben Secrest and Greg Stotesbury came up to me after a seminar when they were in their mid-20s and just starting in the industry,” Gardner said. “They told me they had seen me doing a seminar at Jerry’s Tackle in Redondo when they were youngsters and that they learned things that changed the way they fished.”

Mike Gardner has definitely left his mark, both in the lore of Southern California sportfishing and in the minds of all those who have been lucky enough to have known him.

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