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World Fishing Records That Almost Weren't

In some cases, proof that the biggest fish really are the biggest has been intriguingly elusive.

World Fishing Records That Almost Weren't

Landing a world-record fish isn’t enough. Carefully certifying the fish’s size is necessary for wide-spread acceptance. (Shutterstock image)

A fishing world record is a record, right? Usually, but it’s not always as simple as weighing a fish, as some of the freshwater-fishing world-record holders have discovered. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, walleye and musky represent what are arguably the most famous freshwater records in fishing history, but even they weren’t clear-cut for one reason or another. The controversies and disputes that surrounded them are interesting history, whether you’re a diehard record-chaser or just an angler with big dreams.

two men fishing
Although there are anglers who devote their lives to chasing records, many record-book fish come as a fortunate result of simply being in the right place at the right time. (Shutterstock image)

PICTURES CAN LIE

You might say that for a long time, the world-record walleye literally didn’t measure up to its place in fishing lore. As the tale is told, the 25-pound fish was landed Aug. 2, 1960, by a Tennessee angler who was night-fishing the upper reaches of Old Hickory Lake near Hartsville, Tenn. Mabry Harper’s record was one of those happy accidents, because he was fishing for catfish from the bank on that hot night in early August and using catalpa worms for bait. After he landed the big walleye, Harper put it on a stringer and went back to fishing.

The next day, the walleye was weighed and measured at a nearby bait-and-tackle store. Local wildlife officer James Spurling was contacted, witnessed the process and signed off on the fish’s size: 25 pounds, 4 ounces in weight, 41 inches long and 29 inches in girth. He also noted that Harper, a local plumber, caught the fish near an Old Hickory landmark called Cedar Bluff. Based on Spurling’s measurements and the weight of the fish, it qualified as a new world record. The Harpers celebrated the catch by chowing down on the walleye at supper that evening and the next.

world record walleye
Mabry Harper and his world-record walleye. (Photo courtesy of FWFHF)

The story might have ended there, but before long doubts began to surface. Naysayers began to dispute Harper’s catch, mainly on the premise that photo analysis suggested it didn’t have the length and girth measurements to be a 25-pound walleye. Besides, Old Hickory Lake, a Cumberland River impoundment, wasn’t known for its big walleyes anyway so detractors had a valid argument. Through stocking, fishery managers were trying to develop a thriving population in reservoirs and feeders of the cold Cumberland River, but they were a long way from accomplishing their mission.

Then, in 1996, the controversy went national. An article by writer Dick Sternberg appeared in Outdoor Life magazine and claimed the photos of Harper’s walleye just didn’t measure up. It looked more like an 18-pounder, noted the Midwestern scribe. Sternberg wasn’t the only doubter, and within a few fishing seasons anglers from Arkansas to North Carolina joined the chorus of the dubious.

Eventually Harper’s catch was disqualified by the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame (FWFHF) in Hayward, Wis. The organization supported Sternberg’s contention, and a 22-pound, 11-ounce fish landed in 1982 by Al Nelson at Greer’s Ferry Lake in Arkansas became the Hall’s new world record. Harper’s allies rallied to his side, but record purists stuck to their guns, mainly because his walleye wasn’t weighed on certified scales, as Nelson’s was.

Enter Hartsville, Tenn., historian John Oliver, who chronicles all things past and present that happen in Trousdale County, through which the Cumberland River flows. Oliver got involved in the controversy late in the game, but he was essential to Harper’s case. Oliver unearthed more supporting documents and photos of the fish that had not been seen by the public before. One key photo showed the head of the walleye after Harper cleaned the fish. Someone had placed a ruler on top of the fish’s head to show exactly how big it was.

Oliver also found photos of Harper’s wife holding the walleye, including one taken in front of the door of a 1959 Plymouth.

In a clever gambit, Oliver came up with some important evidence through photogrammetry, or the science of establishing sizes through the examination of known measurements. Oliver had a photo of Harper’s wife holding the fish blown up to actual size. Because her height was known, the walleye’s actual size in the photo was more or less accurate as well. The fish measures 41 inches long in that jumbo-sized photo.

“I interviewed the man who weighed and measured Mr. Harper’s fish,” recalls Oliver. “I interviewed the family, flew to Duluth, Minnesota, then rented a car and drove to Hayward, to the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. I showed them all the information I had assembled and went home. Pretty soon after that Mr. Harper was the [walleye] record holder again.”

Spurling proved to be the final ace in the hole for Harper. He had tested the scales used to weigh Harper’s fish later and found it to be 4 ounces too heavy. Harper’s walleye actually weighed 25 pounds on the button, Spurling attested in two separate affidavits. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA), which never suspended its recognition of Harper’s walleye as the true world record, reiterated its support for the “photo fish.” The FWFHF eventually came around as well in 2019. Ironically, its conclusion that Harper’s fish was indeed a record was based on photographs taken of the fish and its head that Oliver had provided. Harper’s fish will remain in the record book unless someone comes along with a bigger walleye whose size is scored in accordance with IGFA standards.

world record smallmouth bass
David Hayes' world-record smallmouth. (Photo courtesy of IGFA)

A WEIGHTY MATTER

It was on a warm July morning in 1955 that 30-year-old angler David Hayes of Leitchfield, Ky., boated the world-record smallmouth bass at Dale Hollow Lake on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Hayes’ smallmouth was weighed in front of witnesses at local marinas and hefted 11 pounds, 15 ounces—a new world record. Thus began the application process to have Hayes’ fish authenticated. At the time, Field & Stream magazine still served as the unofficial fish-records keeper and acknowledged that Hayes’ fish was the new world record for smallmouth bass. When the magazine turned over record-keeping responsibility to the IGFA, all the current records went along.

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About a month after Hayes’ smallmouth received recognition, a bombshell exploded. A local marina employee, Raymond Barlow, filed an affidavit with the local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office charging that Hayes’ smallmouth had been stuffed with about 3 pounds of motor parts and fishing weights by Barlow’s nephew John, a resort employee. Its actual weight had been 8 pounds, 15 ounces, according to the affidavit. The Corps, which manages the 27,000-acre Dale Hollow, ignored the charge and filed away the document.

Decades passed, until the mid-’90s when the affidavit surfaced again after being discovered by an assistant principal at a local Tennessee school who knew of all the parties involved. John Barlow, who said he witnessed weights being added to Hayes’ bass, underwent a lie-detector test and passed. Nobody disputed the fact that the fish weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces when put on the scales, but rather its true weight minus the sinkers and parts that were allegedly stuffed down its gullet.

Once the information and circumstantial evidence was forwarded to the IGFA, it eventually struck Hayes’ name from the record book in 1996 and replaced it with that of John Gorman, who had caught a 10-pound, 14-ounce smallmouth from Dale Hollow in 1969. More disappointment for Hayes was forthcoming. Though he caught the bass on the Kentucky side of Dale Hollow, both the Bluegrass State and Tennessee claimed it as a state record. When the Barlow story made the rounds, Kentucky joined the IGFA and FWFHF in removing Hayes’ name from its records book. Only Tennessee continued to recognize the fish as its state record.

Oddly enough, Hayes didn’t know the record had been rescinded until this writer, under assignment for Bassmaster magazine, contacted him in 1996, told him of the IGFA decision and asked for his reaction. Hayes was surprised and disappointed, but he was in no position to challenge the IGFA’s move.

Others were, however. Ron Fox, assistant director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) at the time, was the person mainly responsible for reversing the IGFA decision. His conclusion, which was eventually accepted by the IGFA, was that John Barlow had a case of sour grapes and made up the story to spite a previous employer who had fired him from a guiding position at the lake. Fox, who retired in 2009 after 37 years of service with the TWRA, found evidence that the fish had only been out of Hayes’ sight once, and that was when it was first weighed at a resort on the Tennessee side of Dale Hollow. The tampering occurred then, according to Barlow.

However, though Barlow and others weren’t aware of it, the bass already had been weighed at a Kentucky marina as Kentucky Water Police Officer Oral Burtram watched. All there agreed that the smallmouth weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces. So if Barlow added sinkers and outboard parts to it later on the Tennessee side, why didn’t its weight increase from 11 pounds, 15 ounces? Nobody had a good answer, and in 2005 Hayes’ standing was restored, both in the fishing community and the records books.

Most of the principals in the story are dead, including Hayes. His life as a fisherman was a roller-coaster ride of triumph and despair, glory and dejection. In the end, however, the memory of his fishing achievement overwhelms everything else. He passed away on July 7, 2020, at the age of 95, still the humble angler who caught the biggest smallmouth bass of all.

world record largemouth bass
Manabu Kurita's world-record largemouth (tie). (Photo courtesy of IGFA)

QUESTIONS REMAIN

In 2009 Japanese angler Manabu Kurita came within an ounce of settling a dispute that’s simmered in the fishing world for more than six decades. When Kurita caught a 22-pound, 5-ounce bass from Japan’s Lake Biwa, he unofficially beat the current world record by 1 ounce. “Unofficially” because according to IGFA rules any fish under 25 pounds has to weigh at least 2 ounces more than the current record to be scored as a new record.

Compared with the smallmouth and walleye records, the various stories surrounding the world record for largemouth bass have more holes in them than a sieve. Most of what we know about it and the era in which it was caught have been thoroughly researched by several writers. Most notably among them were outdoor editor Bill Babb of the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, who retired in 2022 after a writing career that spanned 60 years, and Ken Duke, an outdoor magazine editor and writer (who sometimes appears on these pages), and respected bass-fishing historian.

In February 1936, Georgia angler George Perry was “officially” recognized as the new record holder for a 22-pound, 4-ounce bass he caught June 2, 1932. Presumably, it was a Florida bass (Micropterus salmoides floridanus) as they tend to grow larger than other subspecies. Yet Field & Stream, which conducted an annual fishing contest and gradually morphed into the official records keeper, had previously listed a 24-pound bass purportedly caught from the Tombigbee River by Alabama angler George J. Nicholls in 1926 as the world record. The bass was 35 inches long with a girth of 24 inches. Information about it was published in the magazine’s February 1933 edition. Not only did Nicholls win the annual contest, but his fish also became the world-record holder. Then, for some reason lost in time, Nicholls’ fish was disqualified. Oddly enough, in the same issue a 14-pound smallmouth bass allegedly caught Feb. 9, 1932, by Walter Harden from a lake near Oakland, Fla., was mentioned as the new world record for that subspecies. In time, it, too, disappeared from the listings, presumably because there are no native smallmouth bass in Florida.

Even before Nicholls came along, a bigger bass whose reputed weight was noted by a famous fisherman was caught in Florida. James Henshall, who wrote Book of the Black Bass and More About the Black Bass, mentioned in the latter that “Mr. H.W. Ross, when in Florida, caught, in a ‘clear, deep, lily-bound lake,’ near Altoona, in that state, a large-mouthed Black Bass which, he states, “weighed twenty-three and one-eighth pounds, and measured, from tip of nose to tip of tail, thirty-seven and one-half inches, and in girth, twenty-nine and one-half inches.”

Henshall’s connection with Ross, if there is any, is unclear. The author gave some credence to the catch, however; otherwise it’s doubtful he would have mentioned it in his book. Apparently, the bass was caught in the 1880s, though that’s not set in stone either. Ross purportedly sent the head of the bass to Forest and Stream magazine in New York, a then-competitor of Field & Stream, and it was accepted as legitimate based on measurements. It was the de facto record at least until Field & Stream started its fish contest from scratch in the 1920s. Why didn’t the magazine continue to accept Ross as the record holder? Perhaps because there was no firm evidence that it was a record, and no known mention of it other than Henshall’s remarks. The weight wasn’t recorded on certified scales in front of witnesses.

George Perry Bass
George Perry's world-record largemouth bass (tie). (Photos courtesy of Bill Babb and IGFA)

If the catch was genuine, the Ross fish weighed almost a pound more than the Perry bass, but indisputable proof is unlikely to be found. In all fairness, the facts surrounding Perry’s record aren’t completely indisputable either. Though the fish was apparently weighed on certified scales in front of witnesses, the circumstances of the catch have been questioned through the years. There is no unimpeachable photo of the fish, and the witnesses are long gone.

One photo was produced that showed a young man in overalls kneeling in a wet field and holding a large bass. “June 2, 1932” is scribbled on the right side of the black-and-white photo. Reputedly, the photo was found in a Florida barn by a Perry descendent. Another famous photo shows a little boy and an adult holding a huge bass that some contend is the world-record largemouth. There are palmettos in the background, and the clothes worn by the pair would indicate a warm day.

However, the belly of the bass in the photo appears to be swollen with eggs, which would have added a few pounds to its weight. In south Georgia, bass typically spawn in early spring, beginning in late February or early March. Perry caught his fish in early June from Montgomery Lake, an oxbow of the Ocmulgee River east of Fitzgerald, Ga. It’s not impossible that the bass in the photo hadn’t yet spawned by the first of June, but it is improbable.

The controversy will continue until some lucky angler provides unequivocal evidence that he’s caught a bass heavier than those of Perry and Kurita. A few fishermen have come close, but the record still stands.

world record musky
Louis Spray's former world-record musky. (Photo courtesy of FWFHF)

BEST EVIDENCE

The world record musky weighed 67 pounds, 8 ounces. Or 69 pounds, 15 ounces. Or maybe 69 pounds, 11 ounces. It all depends on who you want to believe. The 67-8 is the current record as recognized by the IGFA and was caught from Lake Court Oreilles near Hayward, Wis., in 1949. The 69-15 was allegedly caught from the St. Lawrence River in 1957, and the 69-11 purportedly came from Wisconsin’s Lake Chippewa, also in 1949.

The New York Department of Conservation goes with the St. Lawrence musky as its state record (and concurrent world record) while the FWFHF and the conservation departments of Illinois and Wisconsin stick with the 69-15. The IGFA has locked in the 67-8 as the true record.It’s a snarled mess. As was the case with Mabry Harper’s world-record walleye, photographs were the catalysts that caused the ruckus.

After current record-holder Cal Johnson caught his 67-pound, 8-ounce musky in July 1949 on a chub-pattern South Bend Pike-Oreno, he made sure he had weigh-in witnesses and photographs aplenty. Before Field & Stream (the unofficial records keeper at the time) could verify Johnson’s record, however, a fisherman named Louis Spray came forth with a musky purported to weigh 69 pounds, 11 ounces. It became the record, and Johnson’s fish was relegated to second place.

Eight years later, in 1957, Arthur Lawson showed up with the 69-pound, 15-ounce fish from the St. Lawrence and was proclaimed the new record holder by Field & Stream. Problem solved, right?

Wrong; the FWFHF, which also served as a cheerleader for fishing in the Hayward area, asked the IGFA to review Lawton’s fish because the photos of it didn’t seem to measure up. It was a legitimate request, because sometimes muskies are long and skinny and sometimes they’re shorter but beefier. The IGFA consented and, after having the photos examined, agreed with the FWFHF that the New York musky didn’t weigh what it was supposed to weigh. Doubts were raised about the veracity of Lawton’s claim.

In 1992 the FWFHF restored Spray’s record, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The IGFA also had a couple of beefs with Spray’s fish. For one thing, Spray’s fishing companion shot the musky a couple of times to subdue it so the pair could wrestle it into the boat. It was a common practice in the Chippewa Flowage, but shooting fish is a no-no as far as the IGFA is concerned. The IGFA also decided that there just wasn’t enough evidence—including photo evidence—to support Spray’s record claim. It was backed up by a group called the World Record Muskie (sic) Alliance (WRMA), which commissioned a photo analysis of Spray’s fish.

world record musky
Current world-record musky caught by Cal Johnson. (Photo courtesy of FWFHF)

The 69-11 thus was disqualified by the IGFA, which left Johnson’s musky next on the list. In 2008, the WRMA challenged the weight of Johnson’s musky, again through photo analysis, or photogrammetry, but the IGFA would have none of it. In 2009, the IGFA reaffirmed Johnson’s 67-8 as the record. The FWFHF and various state conservation departments demurred from the IGFA’s decision, and that’s where it all remains. Moral of the story: always carry a good camera with you when you go fishing, and take lots of photographs if you’re fortunate enough to catch a whopper. Also, make sure you know where the nearest certified scales are, and weigh the fish. You’ll need all the evidence you can get.


  • Note: This feature was published in the February 2024 issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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