June 02, 2022
On a wet early summer day in South Georgia 90 years ago today, George W. Perry had a decision to make.
A farmer, Perry saw angry skies and too-wet-to-work fields and wanted to go fishing to catch supper.
So, on June 2, 1932, Perry and his pal J.E. "Jack" Page made an executive decision and by day's end, they would be linked to a mysterious (and somewhat controversial) world-record largemouth bass that still captivates lunker hunters almost a century later.
Though the record has since been tied in the International Game Fish Association record book, Perry’s 22 pound, 4-ounce largemouth caught at tiny Montgomery Lake remains the bass-fishing benchmark.
Here’s an inside look at that early summer day so long ago that tells the story of George Perry and his largemouth bass catch heard round the world.
The Big Bass Catch
To understand the context of what happened that famous fishing day, note that angling in June 1932, not even two years removed from the infamous Black Tuesday crash of the stock market on Sept. 4, 1929, wasn’t just a recreational pursuit, it was a means of putting food on the table. And since time and equipment were scarce, fishing wasn’t the fun, games, and money-winning opportunity that it is for many today.
Also understand that this was an era without social media, smartphones, e-mail and the Internet. If Perry’s record had been caught this millennium, it surely would have gone viral in less than 24 hours.
Over the many years since Perry’s catch, the legendary story—or whopper of a fishing tale, in the minds of some—has been told and retold by fishing-industry veterans like Ken Duke and Jeff Samsel in the Bass Fishing History Vault book; by retired Augusta Chronicle outdoor scribe Bill Baab (who authored the book, Remembering George W. Perry; by current Augusta Chronicle outdoor writer Rob Pavey; by Game and Fish Magazine contributor and International Game Fish Association Marketing Director & Chief of Staff Jack Vitek; and by Game and Fish contributor Jimmy Jacobs.
Perry also told his story to outdoor writer Vic Dunaway in a Sports Afield magazine story back in 1969, just a few years before Perry—a self-taught pilot—died in a plane crash on a hillside near Birmingham, Ala., in 1974.
For the most part, the details are basically the same in each retelling of the story:
The lure was a Creek Chub Fintail Shiner in natural scale finish. The water body the fish came from was Montgomery Lake, a one-mile long slough, or oxbow lake, laying off the Ocmulgee River, and a body of water that was reportedly 400 yards at its widest), and the location was approximately five miles south of Jacksonville, Ga. in Telfair County, a spot lying about halfway down a line running from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Fla.
And, yes, the huge fish was later consumed by the Perry family for dinner.
But some of the details told down through the years also have been slightly different in the accounts of the big bass, something that could easily be chalked up to the passage of time and fading of memory about an event that occurred when incumbent President Herbert Hoover was battling challenger Franklin D. Roosevelt for the White House.
One such discrepancy example is the number of meals that the fish provided, some accounts saying two nights, another saying three. Another storyline wrinkle was the bait that Perry reportedly used—marketing copy from the Creek Chub Bait Company apparently said for years that the bait was their best-seller, the Wigglefish, while Perry reportedly stated in a 1973 recorded interview that it was indeed a Fintail Shiner, a bait that Augusta Chronicle outdoor writer Rob Pavey says was discontinued in the 1930s.
One of the most detailed accounts of Perry’s catch comes by way of a story that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department uncovered as TPWD prepared to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1998. The story, Lost and Found: True Story of George Perry's World Record Bass, was written by Joe Stearns of Georgia Game and Fish, who had tried in vain to find Perry. After nearly giving up and deciding to print that the big-bass tale was a hoax, Stearns finally stumbled upon Perry and had the details confirmed.
Perry would have been in his early 40’s at the time of this retelling, a story that he recounted to Stearns in the early 1950s. Not long after it was rediscovered, the Texas agency in Austin republished the Stearns story in its own magazine in the 1950s.
Years later, near the end of the 20th century and long after Perry had died, TPWD would rediscover it and republish it again for modern-day anglers in the bass-crazy Lone Star State with this explanation attached: "We discovered this article while researching archived articles for the upcoming 75th Anniversary of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. The text of this article was printed in Texas Game and Fish magazine in September 1953. (The name of the magazine was changed circa 1963.)."
In that story resurrected by TPWD, Stearns wrote in the descriptive rock ‘em, sock ‘em journalistic style of the day and told the tale of a fishing trip heard round the world:
"The day they selected, June 2, 1932, went against all rules and signs. The sun, moon and barometer charts said no. Angry rain clouds were in the sky. As the hours rolled by absolutely nothing happened. They ﬁshed in shifts, ﬁnally gave up, and headed in.
"As they neared shore, George half-heartedly ﬂipped his one and only lure out for a last cast. A bass gobbled it up but almost immediately turned loose. It was the shot in the arm the pair needed. They decided to continue until at least one ﬁsh was caught. They refused to be “skunked.”
"At 4 o’clock the discouraged pair again headed in. On the way, they agreed to check up on a ripple by an old cypress log. George sent his precious lure sailing through the air to drop just inches away from the log. George lifted the rod tip to give the lure a convulsive jerk and then it happened. It was as if somebody had ﬁred a mortar shell from under water. Instantly, 50 yards of the 24--pound test black-o-reno line whirled off the reel as George’s heart beat a staccato rhythm against his ribs.
"For ten minutes it was give line and take line. It was a sore thumb that tried to brake the powerful dashes that time and again took all but a few feet of the line off the reel. One more lunge would have ended the ﬁght a half dozen times.
"When George reeled his record smashing ﬁsh up to the boat for their ﬁrst look, both men began to yell at once. The bass roared to the bottom looking for a log to tangle up the line and gain freedom.
"Again George brought the bass to the boat. In a last powerful surge, the monster cut through the water headed for an old tree top. George halted the drive with the bass just a couple of feet away from trouble. The old cannibal had shot his last bolt of lightning and came in as limp as an intoxicated jelly ﬁsh. Moments later it rested in the boat ﬂopping its huge tail against the bottom like a small boy beating a big drum."
And just like that, George Perry had landed what would eventually become a world record bass, although he didn’t know that yet. Instead, he and Page knew they had caught a largemouth bass the likes of which neither man had ever seen. And as it turned out, that was true of nearly everyone else in the world too.
The Bass Benchmark
At this point, divine providence or angling fate stepped in, since without a certified weight, measurements, witnesses, and a fishing contest in Field & Stream magazine, the Perry bass was a fish tale that wouldn’t have stood a chance of being believed through the years since anglers are a skeptical lot many times.
Here’s where Duke and Samsel pick up the tale in their great Bass Fishing Vault volume:
"But before the bass got to the filet knife, Perry and Page stopped in nearby Helena and took the fish into J.J. Hall’s General Store. Once inside, Hall pulled out a tape and measured the bass at 33 ½ inches long and 28 ½ inches in girth. Then they took the bass to the post office and got it weighed on a set of certified scales, where it registered 22-4. Along the way, someone told Perry about the Field & Stream contest and located an issue with the rules and an entry form. Perry filled it out, got it witnessed and notarized, and mailed the entry."
Thanks to the annual fish contest put on by the outdoors magazine—and a notary public in the Helena, Ga., general store—the bass that weighed 22-4 began a journey toward world-record status. Perry won the Largemouth Bass Southern Division with the fish, claiming a $75 prize package that included a shotgun (possibly a classic American side-by-side), shotgun ammo, and clothing. According to Duke and Samsel, he also appeared in a series of advertisements over the next couple of years, one for the Hiram Walker whiskey and another for the Creek Chub Bait Company.
Two years later, Field & Stream decided to review its contest records over the years, creating the idea of a world’s record list and placing Perry’s bucketmouth at the top of the ledger as the first officially recognized world-record largemouth bass. Keep in mind that there had been a handful of 20-plus-pound bass reported previously, but those stories were never verified and certified weights were never obtained. Also note that curiously enough, Perry also won the magazine contest’s big-bass division again (in 1934) with a 13-pound, 14-ounce bruiser from Georgia’s Altamaha River.
Later that decade, the first meeting of the International Game Fish Association took place on June 7, 1939, setting the wheels in motion for Perry’s bass to eventually become the IGFA world record when the organization took over the Field & Stream records in 1978. As the benchmark for the All-American freshwater fish species, it has stayed atop the IGFA list ever since.
The Controversial Photos
If there was a valid criticism from naysayers down through the years, it had to be the absence of photos of the fish. Although photos weren’t as commonplace in 1932 as they are today, Perry’s story never had much photographic support to drive away skeptics. And in the "Pics, or it didn’t happen!" mentality of modern times, it was easy to understand skepticism about a world-record largemouth pulled from a muddy slough in south-central Georgia.
Or, thanks to the tireless work of George W. Perry historians Bill Baab (the former Augusta Chronicle outdoors writer) and Duke (formerly of B.A.S.S. and now editor of Fishing Tackle Retailer magazine), maybe there were some photographs of the fish, after all.
Take, for instance, the correspondence that Duke has collected between Perry and the Creek Chub Bait Company. In a letter that Duke included in the Bass Fishing Vault book, the mid-1930s letter shows that Perry told the Garrett, Ind.-based fishing tackle company the following:
"Gentlemen; - You will remember that in 1932 I landed the present worlds record Large Mouth Black Bass that weighed 22 ¼ lbs. You will also remember me sending you a photo of the 22 ¼ lb. Bass. The photo was, however, not a real good photo. I now have a real good picture of myself and the big Bass together, so if you would like to have a copy of the photo, I will be pleased to let you use it for your advertising. In return for the photo I would like to get some of your good Baits."
For years, bass fishing enthusiasts and outdoors history buffs wondered if there might be photos somewhere in an attic or old, musty filing cabinet.
Or maybe, even in an e-mail Inbox file, as it turned out.
That’s where retired Georgia Sportsman editor Jacobs—and author of the book Bass Fishing in Georgia—comes into play with the Perry story more than 70 years later.
Here’s how Jacobs recounts the fateful autumn day when photographic proof of Perry’s world record bass catch may have finally surfaced:
"There was nothing out of the ordinary about the morning of Friday, Nov. 19, 2004. Over a cup of coffee I began sorting through the last of the pile of recently delivered mail. As usual, the envelopes addressed to the Camera Corner had been set aside and were the last ones opened. I knew that those never threatened to create problems for the rest of the day. Rather they often provided some entertainment as I browsed the photos of trophy bucks or big fish that readers submitted.
"When I opened the one from Jerry Johnson postmarked from Waycross, Ga. however, a long chain of events was set in motion that solved one of angling's long-standing mysteries. Inside was a photograph of a man and boy in front of what appeared to be a couple of palmetto palms. The black and white photo and its subjects obviously harkened to a past era. Framed between the two individuals was a largemouth bass of eye-popping proportions!
Reading the accompanying letter from Mr. Johnson provided scant background on the enormous fish. He had found the photo among a collection of pictures inherited from a deceased aunt. Unfortunately, there was no indication of who the people in the picture were or where it was taken. Jerry simply wanted some help in estimating the size of the fish.”
In Jimmy’s great story-telling ability, he relates the investigation into the mystery photo by himself and others, an evidentiary trail that led the group through genealogical research and records, newspaper appeals, and the realization that the two palmetto trees in the photo were still in place at the Helena Post Office so many years later. With one Telfair County woman recognizing the young boy in the photo (although the octogenarian reportedly couldn’t recall the young lad’s name) and others remembering that Jack Page did indeed smoke (and because George Perry reportedly didn’t), there are many who contend that the photo is likely very real, even if Perry isn’t in it himself.
"I'm 99.99 to 100 percent convinced it's the fish," Bill Baab told Jacobs. "The photo was probably one of many shot that day. It was Helena with its small-town atmosphere and I'm sure when they brought the fish in everybody came out with their Brownie cameras."
Perry's son, retired Delta Airlines pilot George L. "Dazy" Perry, also believes the photo is real.
"I'm convinced, yes," he stated emphatically in an interview with Jacobs. "Family records and those two palm trees prove the connection."
For Duke and a few other observers, there was a bit more skepticism, but also an admission that the photo was likely as not to be authentic and real.
Even more skepticism greeted the next photo that suddenly appeared, this one chronicled by many including veteran outdoors writer Frank Sargeant.
In his June 23, 2013 story Photo of World Record Bass—or Maybe Not, Sargeant wrote:
"Bill Baab, author of the book Remembering George W. Perry and probably the leading living authority on the long-recognized world-record largemouth, got a curious photo via email on the 81st anniversary of the catch June 2. It's purported to be a photo--formerly thought non-existent--of the world-record catch, allegedly taken by Perry's fishing buddy, J.E. Page."
Sent by Jacob Page, a man who identified himself as J.E. Page’s son, the photo shows an unbelievably enormous largemouth bass with its bucketmouth gaping wide open and being held by a young man wearing overalls and kneeling in some grass next to the water. Scribbled onto the photo is the date, June 2, 1932. And in the e-mail, the message written was simply this: "Happy anniversary."
As noted above, Perry claimed that he had sent two photos of the bass to the Creek Chub lure making company in Indiana, one that was not so good (perhaps because it didn’t contain Perry in the photo?) and another one of himself and the fish. Were these two photos in the 21st Century modern day photographic proof of Perry’s world-record largemouth bass so long ago in the 1930s?
Some say yes, others say no and point out potential problems in the photos, including the fact that Perry apparently didn’t wear a hat and that the jaw is locked wide open for no apparent reason (there isn’t a visible stick propping it open).
Others believe that perhaps, at long last, there is a real photo of George W. Perry and the bass catch heard round the world.
The Perry Bass Today
With some believing that the Perry bass is a world-record fish tale, and others not so sure, it’s important to note that the only group that really matters in world-record talk believes that the Perry bass catch is real.
Who is that? The IGFA, of course, the keeper of world records in both freshwater and saltwater venues for more than four decades now. To this very day—as of this writing, at least—the Perry bass remains at the top of the IGFA world record leaderboard, albeit in a dead-heat tie now with the Manabu Karita largemouth bass pulled from Japan’s Lake Biwa on July 2, 2009.
While Kurita’s bass appears to have weighed more than Perry’s bass—according to Jimmy Jacobs, "…Kurita said he put the bass on a set of certified scales and it weighed 22 pounds, 5 ounces, which was an ounce heavier than the world record…”—however, the IGFA has a rule that record fish under 25 pounds must beat the existing record by at least two ounces.
Because of that rule, the IGFA certified Kurita’s bass at 22-4, making for co-world records.
There have been other challengers to the bass world record throne since at least 11 largemouths weighing more than 20 pounds have been caught through the years according to a "Top 25 Largemouth Bass" list maintained by Duke during his Bassmaster.com days. That list includes four bass weighing more than 21 pounds, and one weighing just more than 22, a near world-record fish from Castaic Lake when Robert Crupi pulled the contender from the California lake on March 12, 1991.
The list also contains what may have been the one fish capable of breaking the world record, a huge largemouth known in southern California as Dottie. When Jed Dickerson hooked the fish at Dixon Lake near San Diego in June 2003; it weighed 21-7.
Almost three years later, on March 20, 2006, Mac Weakley—a friend of Dickerson’s—put Dottie in the net, promptly had her weighed at 25.1 pounds on a hand-held digital scale, and stared in disbelief at a stunning weight that was nearly 3 pounds better than the Perry bass. Details soon emerged and a story that rocked the bass-fishing world was written by outdoors scribe Brett Pauly.
In the end, partly because Weakley had unintentionally foul-hooked the big bass with a jig and partly because of California’s regulation concerning such fish, Weakley decided not to pursue the IGFA world record. Two years later, Dottie died and was discovered floating by anglers at Dixon Lake, ending a curious chapter in the ongoing nine-decades long race to catch and surpass Perry and his legendary Georgia largemouth..
And that means, after all of these many years and a slew of challengers coming and going, the George W. Perry world record largemouth bass remains king of the fishing world, in many more ways than one.
So, if this 90-year anniversary day happens to find you driving down Hwy. 117 in Telfair County, Georgia, stop at the roadside historical marker indicating that not far from this spot on June 2, 1932, a state record bass, an IGFA world record bass, and a fish of almost mythical proportions, was caught by a young man named George W. Perry.
And as you do, listen to the winds whispering in the Georgia pines, and look around a few corners near the old slough, and perhaps you’ll catch the ghostly, smiling grin of a young Georgia farming lad turned world renowned angler, one whose long ago bass catch was literally heard round the world.