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Smallmouth bass world record turns 50

Anniversary is golden for milestone that's endured its share of controversy

By Taylor Wilson

Special to ESPN Outdoors.com

On July 9 it will be 50 years since D.L. Hayes caught the world-record smallmouth bass, weighing 11 pounds and 15 ounces, while trolling a pearl-colored Bomber at Dale Hollow Lake that lies along the Tennessee-Kentucky boundary.

D.L. Hayes with his world-record smallmouth bass.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission is slated to honor the Leitchfield, Ky., angler, his 1955 feat and his fish at its July meeting.

Of course, this record, as with most that survive such a test of time, has been contested. (It also has been largely overlooked by the more famous world record of its bigger cousin, the largemouth bass.)

I guess in our modern, every-day-should-be-bigger-and-better line of thought, we kind of question any record that stands the test of time.

In fact, author Monte Burke brought this up in his recently published book "Sowbelly," where he details the chase for the even older largemouth world-record belonging to George Perry, who took his 22¼-pound bucketmouth Georgia's Montgomery Lake in 1932.

Today, many people doubt Perry's accomplish simply because it has never been matched, much less broken.

Yep, today Americans inevitably find long-lived records hard to swallow after all, we're supposed to be bigger and better everyday, right?

Perhaps this mind-set started another big fish brouhaha in the mid-1990s, with D.L. Hayes' smallie as the eye of the storm.

It all began when Hayes allowed the mount of his world-record smallmouth to be shown at a local boat show. (There is no mount, or even photos, of the world record largemouth, by the way.)

I am convinced that most will continue to regard the Hayes' fish as our world record.

  Ron Fox, assistant Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency supervisor  

It seems someone at the show said, "It doesn't look like a world record to me." And like the game of gossip, it snowballed from there.

Someone supposedly stuffed the fish with various materials to reach the record wait, and Hayes allegedly knew about it. There was even an unsigned affidavit that surfaced from a deceased guide and dockworker who allegedly inserted weights in the fish without Hayes knowing about it.

Then the tale really grew into a whopper, and before long it was stripping line. The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, the International Game Fish Association and state of Kentucky all tossed the record out. (Since Dale Hollow straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky line, both states once laid claim to the record.)

I was working for a daily newspaper at the time and remember calling Hayes when the news broke about him losing the title.

"That's what I heard," Hayes told me over the phone.

"You mean no officials have even called you to let you know of this decision?" I remember asking.

Hayes' bassing milestone has stood up to a lot of challenges and a state investigation.

"No they haven't," Hayes said.

That alone said a lot to me. At the very least, it wreaked of being "reel" rude. I remember calling various organizations and having people tell me, "That's basically the ruling the way it is."

"Have you called Mr. Hayes?"

"No," was the common answer.

To the state of Tennessee's credit, and especially the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, a thorough investigation began.

Ron Fox, assistant TWRA supervisor, headed the fishing expedition.

"I later found out a real issue with a group that initially questioned the record was the claim that there was no way the fish came from Dale Hollow because the (mount's) color did not match smallmouth from that lake," Fox said.

Considering the taxidermy work was done in Illinois, the classic response from Hayes was, "The fish came from Dale Hollow, but the color came from Chicago."

Fox spent many hours investigating the record and he says even the initial claim about the mount not appearing to be large enough to set a record is erroneous.

"Even the size of the mount is impressive," Fox said.

"Over the course of a year following the IGFA's disqualification of Mr. Hayes' fish, I reviewed every record I could find regarding the smallmouth," he said.

"After that review I felt very comfortable that the disqualification had been made in error. The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame immediately agreed and reinstated Mr. Hayes' fish. Even though I have contacted the IGFA on several occasions, they have yet to reinstate the fish."

Instead, the International Game Fish Association recognizes another Dale Hollow Lake smallie - John Gorman's 10-pound, 14-ouncer from April 1969 - as the all-tackle standard.

Nevertheless, Fox said he is still trying to convince the IGFA to adjust its record book.

"I have made them aware that this is the 50th anniversary of Mr. Hayes' catch and it would be nice if they followed the lead of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame organization. So far that has not worked," Fox said.

"Regardless of what the IGFA does, I am convinced that most will continue to regard the Hayes' fish as our world record."

"The fish that IGFA recognizes is one caught by Mr. John Gorman at Dale Hollow, so from a Tennessee perspective we have two fish from Dale Hollow that are in the world-record category," Fox added.

"Regardless, we (Tennessee) will honor Mr. Hayes' feat in July. And, who knows, maybe it will be broken in the future. If it is, most think that fish, too, will come from Dale Hollow."

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In order to have a legitimate chance of breaking a world record, the general population of fish in any river or lake must have a base that supports many large fish. Big fish don't just pop out of nowhere. To produce the next world record smallmouth, the water system, be it river or lake, must occasionally produce 10+ lb smallmouth. Dale Hollow certainly qualifies and that would be a good bet.

The main reasons smallmouth in the Midsouth grow so big is two fold. Number one, this is the northern most range of the threadfin shad (yellowtail). These fish provide a food source that is enormous.

Second, smallmouth in this region of the country never become dormant, they feed all year. Whereas 5 lb smallmouth in northern lakes may be fourteen years old, southern bass only live to be eight or nine years old on average and can grow to 5 lbs in four or five years.

The Tennessee River and Pickwick Lake in particular, have the potential of producing a 12 lb smallmouth. My fishing partner caught a 10lb monster in November of '03. If that fish is still alive, it could be the next world record.

I hope to find out this fall!

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Big fish don't just pop out of nowhere

Let me direct you to the World Record Largemouth.....that popped out of nowhere, even though I dispute its authenticity due to the times. Granted the area produces some 10lb fish but a 22+.....I doubt it. In my mind Bob Crupi's 22-1 should be recognized as the all tackle World Record.

The most coveted record in fishing was was set almost 73 years ago - right here in Georgia . Despite the best efforts of 60 million anglers nationwide, it has weathered the challenges of time.

George Perry was just 19 years old that morning - June 2, 1932 - when he cast his only lure into a blackwater lake in remote Telfair County - and landed a place in history.

Fatter than a fully inflated basketball - and 32 1/2 inches long - his 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass eclipsed the previous world record by more than two pounds.

Perry, a poor farmer, went fishing that day only because the fields were too wet to plow. His fishing spot, Montgomery Lake , was little more than a flooded oxbow off the nearby Ocmulgee River .

In a 1969 interview with Sports Afield magazine, Perry recalled the famous strike: "All at once the water splashed everywhere. I do remember striking, then raring back and trying to reel, but nothing budged," he said. "I thought for sure I'd lost the fish, that he'd dived and hung me up."

The mammoth bass must have been quite a sight as it sloshed toward the homemade boat Perry and his companion paddled among the cypress and tupelo trees that dotted the dark, tannin-stained water.

"I had no idea how big the fish was, but that didn't matter," Perry said. "What had me worried was losing the lure. It was the only one we had between us."

The lure, a perch scale Wiggle Fish, or Wigglefish, manufactured by the Creek Chub Bait Co., survived the battle, and the squirming bass was hoisted aboard.

Later that day, Perry and his companion, Jack Page, took their catch to the general store in nearby Helena , where the proprietor - a notary public - weighed and certified its dimensions and weight.

A customer mentioned a Field & Stream magazine bass contest, and encouraged Perry to enter his fish, which also was weighed and measured on certified scales at the town's post office.

Needless to say, the George Perry bass easily won the contest - and its $75 in prizes that included a rod and reel, and a new shotgun.

Perry's modesty prevented him from the incessant bragging that could have accompanied a bass half the size of the one he caught that day. In fact, he never even bothered to photograph the fish.

Instead, he did what most Depression-era anglers did with their catch: he took it home and ate it.

Perry later moved to Brunswick , Ga. , where he became a self-taught pilot and businessman. He died in 1974, at the age of 61, when the plane he was flying crashed into a hillside near the Birmingham , Ala., airport.

With him died many of the details we'd like to know today about the famous catch, which is memorialized today in fishing displays and museums from Texas to Tokyo .

Today, sportfishing occupies the throne of American recreation, and has evolved into a $40 billion-a-year business.

Outdoor writers have speculated for seven decades over when - and where - the next world record will emerge.

In 1991, a 22-pound bass from Castaic Lake , Calif., almost toppled Perry's record. But it made only second place. Perry's record stands.

Biologists everywhere insist there will be a new record, and perhaps the winning fish is out there now, just waiting. A new world-record bass would be worth millions to anyone lucky enough to catch it.

But so far, no one has.

Today, Montgomery Lake remains available to public fishing as part of the 8,500-acre Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area. It is partly filled with mud now, and offers few opportunities for trophy bass.

Despite intense trophy management programs in states such as Florida and California, John Biagi, Georgia's assistant fisheries chief, is optimistic the new record still could appear here in Georgia.

"If we can set this record, we certainly have the potential to break it," he said. "We have the habitat, the long growing season, the genetics, everything we need, so why not?"

In the meantime, visitors traveling the lonely stretch of Georgia Highway 117 between Jacksonville and Lumber City still pull onto the dusty shoulder to see the historical marker erected there in 1984.

The bronze marker recounts Perry's feat, to make sure it is not forgotten.

Regardless of who catches the next world record bass, anglers everywhere will always cherish the memory of the barefoot farm boy in a leaky, wooden boat who made the cast of a lifetime one morning long ago.


In 1984, this historical marker was erected on a lonely stretch of Georgia Highway 117 in Telfair County to alert passers-by to the area's international significance. Research for the wording was done by Bill Baab, former outdoors editor of The Augusta Chronicle. (Rob Pavey Photo)

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Another Mystery: Were There Photos?

There is a new mystery brewing over the world's most famous fish, caught 73 years ago this June 2 by George Perry.

   In the decades since, no one has published a photo of the fish, and Perry received nothing more than $75 in merchandise from Field & Stream magazine - and a place in history.

 But documents that surfaced in 2004 from the Creek Chub Bait Company, which corresponded with Perry after learning one of their lures was used to catch the fish, indicate the record fish might indeed have been photographed.

 "These documents certainly imply that he photographed the fish," said Ken Duke, a former Georgia Game & Fish magazine editor  who now works as senior publicist for BASS.

 Duke, a self-professed Perry bass aficionado, bought the envelope of letters and other material off eBay for $380. The seller had acquired a quantity of old paperwork from one of the heirs to Creek Chub Bait Co.

 Within those letters and photos was correspondence between Perry and the company, along with a signed, original photograph of a 13-pound, 14-ounce bass Perry caught in 1934 and entered in a Field & Stream contest.

 One letter in particular, dated June 3, 1935 , caught Duke's eye:

 "You will remember that in 1932 I landed the present worlds record Large Mouth Black Bass that weighed 22 1/4 pounds," Perry wrote to Creek Chub. "You will also remember me sending you a photo of the 22 1/4 -pound bass.

 "The photo was, however, not a real good photo," Perry continued. "I now have a real good picture of myself and the Big Bass together, so if you would like to have a copy, I will be pleased to let you use it in your advertising."

 All Perry asked for in return was a handful of Creek Chub lures to fish with. In a response dated later that month, Creek Chub accepted Perry's offer.

 "We would like to have a picture of the big bass you mention for our filed and will be glad to reimburse you for it," the company wrote.

 To date, no such picture has ever been found, although - with Perry's world record remaining intact today - it would be an important bit of angling history if someone could locate it.

 Bill Baab, who retired in 2000 after 35 years as a sports writer and outdoors editor for The Augusta Chronicle, interviewed Perry in 1959 and has authored numerous articles on the Perry bass.

But he never heard Perry mention any photos of the record fish.

 "I'd also talked with his widow, two daughters and a son - and none were aware of a photo of the big fish," Baab said.

Perry spent his adult years in Brunswick , Ga. , where he became a self-taught pilot and businessman. He died in 1974, at the age of 61, when the plane he was flying crashed into a hillside near Birmingham , Ala.

 With him, perhaps, died the details we'd like to know about his famous fish.

Perry later moved to Brunswick , Ga. , where he became a self-taught pilot and businessman. He died in 1974, at the age of 61, when the plane he was flying crashed into a hillside near the Birmingham , Ala. , airport. With him died many of the details we'd like to know today about the famous catch, which is memorialized today in fishing displays and museums from Texas to Tokyo . (Photo courtesty of Bill Baab)

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The Next World Record: Anybody's Guess....

JACKSONVILLE , Ga. -- The decades have not been kind to Montgomery Lake, the legendary site in Georgia where George Perry landed the world record largemouth bass. But visitors still ask Ed Van Otteren to take them there. And he always does, knowing they won't stay long.

''People are always surprised to see there's not much to it,'' said Van Otteren, who manages the state-owned Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area that surrounds the blackwater slough. ''Usually, they just take a couple of pictures. Then they leave.''

 But year after year, like pilgrims to a shrine, wandering anglers are drawn from a lonely stretch of Georgia Highway 117 into a dense swamp where history was made one summer morning long ago.

 The day was June 2, 1932 . A farmer named George Perry cast a lure into the Telfair County lake and landed a place in history: a 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass that is still the official world record.

 Today, the shallow sliver of swamp is nothing like the lake Perry fished in 1932.

 ''When it's really low, you can just about walk across it,'' Van Otteren said.

 Flanked by the dark Ocmulgee River and studded with the angular, nodding trunks of tupelo trees, today's Montgomery Lake is filled with silt -- a haven for alligators and rooting wild boar -- but no bass.

 Though the lake has lost its luster, Perry's feat 67 years ago is still the *** of the fishing community across the nation -- and the world.

 Measuring 32 1/2 inches long and 28 1/2 inches in girth, the monster of monsters was unbelievable -- even then. Today, such a fish would be worth millions to anyone fortunate enough to land it by legal means.

 Mr. Perry's fish was taken to a general store a few miles away in Helena , where its weight was affirmed through certified scales at the nearby post office, according to news accounts of the day.

 At the urging of friends, the lucky angler entered the fish in Field & Stream magazine's Big Fish Contest, which he won. In addition to winning $75 in prizes, Mr. Perry became the world record holder. And Georgia earned an honorable distinction that is memorialized in museums and exhibits from Texas to Tokyo .

 Seventy-three years later, bass fishing has ascended to become one of the nation's primary pastimes, hooking 60 million Americans, according to the 600,000-member Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.

 Fishermen and women, the organization claims, even outnumber the nation's golfers (24 million) and tennis players (1.7 million). The resulting $40 billion industry grows stronger each year.

 And so do the desires from other states that want Mr. Perry's record broken by a bigger largemouth from their waters.

 In Texas , for example, fisheries biologists have been working diligently since the mid-1970s to breed a master race of largemouths in efforts to topple Georgia 's enduring record.

 ''We like things big here in Texas ,'' said Allen Forshage, director of the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens , Texas . ''Ultimately, our goal is to have the new world record right here.''

 But so far, it hasn't worked.

 In the interim, the fisheries center has a nice display devoted to Mr. Perry, complete with a life-size replica of the famous Georgia fish.

 ''We also have the biggest bass from Texas right next to it, but (Mr. Perry's fish) dwarfs it,'' Mr. Forshage said.

 If Mr. Perry's record is eclipsed, the state from which a new record is caught will certainly benefit from the recognition.

With growing interest in trophy management and catch-and-release programs, the likelihood of a new record increases each year, said Mr. Schultz, a veteran of the B.A.S.S. pro tournament circuit, the PGA of fishing.

 '' California , for example, has received tremendous acclaim and produced some incredible specimens,'' he said. ''A guy came within a half-pound of the record a few years ago. There could be a new record. In fact, it's probably swimming around somewhere right now.''

 Although a world-record catch for a tournament professional would be comparable to winning the lottery, average anglers could cash in as well.

 Georgia's fisheries professaionals would love to see a new record hoisted from Peach State waters. But as the years tick by since Perry's 1932 catch, the record remains unbroken - for now.

Georgia , meanwhile, is content to enjoy its acclaim, despite the not-so-subtle efforts in other states to make sure the record falls.

 ''I know they like things big in Texas . But here in Georgia, we feel like the environment (Perry's) fish was in had a lot to do with its size,'' said Beth Brown, communications director for Georgia's Department of Natural Resources.

 "So we're not actively trying to produce larger bass. We feel like the right mixture's already in the Georgia population,'' she said. ''Our record has stood for decades now. It was the great catch.''

 Meanwhile, back in Telfair County , visitors still pull their cars onto the sandy shoulder of Highway 117 to read the bronze marker placed in 1984 by the Georgia Historical Society honoring Mr. Perry's enduring feat.

 Besides being a world record, Perry's catch is also '' Georgia 's Official State Fish,'' according to the inscription.

 Residents of the middle Georgia county 130 miles south of Augusta are proud of their community's place in history.


 Here is the complete TEXT of the George Perry Bass historical marker:

World Record Bass Marker Near Jacksonville , Ga.

World Record Bass State Historical Marker

Located on Ga. 117 four miles east of Jacksonville , Ga.

Approximately two miles from this spot, on June 2, 1932 , George W. Perry, a

19-year old farm boy, caught what was to become America 's most famous fish.The twenty-two pound four ounce largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)exceeded the existing record by more than two pounds has retained the world record for more than fifty years. Perry and his friend, J.E. Page, were

fishing in Montgomery Lake , a slough off the Ocmulgee River , not for

trophies but to bring food to the table during those days of the great

depression. The fish was caught on a Creek Chub Perch Scale Wigglefish,

Perry's only lure, and was 32 1/2 inches in length and 28 1/2 inches in

girth. The weight and measurements were taken, recorded and notarized in

Helena , Georgia and Perry's only reward was seventy-five dollars in

merchandise as first prize in Field and Stream Magazine's fishing contest.

The longstanding record is one of the reasons that the largemouth bass was

made Georgia 's Official State Fish. Montgomery Lake is today part of the

Department of natural Resources' Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area.


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Well, earthworm77, that's kinda my point, too.

The world record brown trout is officially recognized as being caught a few years ago on the Red River near Heber Springs, AR. No one catches 10 lb fish on that river and to my knowledge, no one has ever caught a 20+ lb brown.

The story is that a resort development coincidently was having their grand opening a couple of weeks after this 40 lb monster was caught. Would you believe this fish was caught right at or very near the development?

Another version of this story that was told to me FIRST HAND, was that a breeder was released in the White River to see if it could survive. Since this fish had NEVER lived in the wild, it didn't go anywhere. The story continues that the fish was electroshocked and mysteriously ended up in the Red River.

Here's my point and I think the point earthworm77 is making: You just have to question how a record fish can come from water that doesn't produce NEAR RECORD fish.

Dale Hollow produces near record smallmouth bass. As a matter of fact the "official" IFGA record (10 lbs 14 oz) was also caught at Dale Hollow.

11 lb 15 oz? Yes, I think that is probable. I am sure that a 10lb smallmouth could eat two, 1 lb skipjack. So, if you caught that 10 lber at exactly the right moment in time, she would be the new world record!

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roadwarrior, my wife used to work at the bull shoals state park trout dock. a game warden there told her they caught the fish in the white river and transported it to the little red river. i don't know why they would have done that, but it might be true.

my dad goes to the little red river alot and he said they told him there is a world record brown that frequents one of the holes they fish, but no one has been able to catch it.

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Do you think that fish, the new potential record, is a recent plant from breeder stock at the fishery? I don't fish the Red River so I haven't heard this new story before. However, the last year or so all the guides out of Bull Shoals Boatdock have been talking about a world record they have seen and fish for on their own on the White River. I haven't seen it but the general area has been pointed out to me on several trips.

The White supports 20+ lb Brown in numbers, I've seen many. Whether they were once stocked or actually born wild I don't know. I haven't caught one (yet) but I know that's possible. 40+? I think that would have to come pretty much full grown from the breeder stock. I guess that still counts.

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i don't know how well browns reproduce in the white river, i know at the park they close fishing up by the dam when the browns are spawning, so i guess they do ok.

but i was told they don't breed in the red river because they like to spawn by the bank when the water is running. so when they turn the generators off, the water goes down and leaves their eggs high and dry. i would think this would be the case at white river too, but i guess they do ok, if they close fishing for them to spawn.

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Regarding the Smallmouth record.  I beleive I read in July/August Bassmaster a duo caught what should have been a new record or very close.  This fish wasn't weighed until the next day!!

The downside is since two people (father hooked the fish & the son retreived it) caught this fish it does not qualify.  What difference can this possibly make?  One fish caught on one hook & one rod should equal one record.  Being a parent I know I would have also done the same thing the father did for his son, give him the excitement of his life, regarding fishing.  Although they may not go down in history, the memories of a father/son outing is worth far more than money.

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