STORIES FISH RECORDS By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton, WorldFishingNetwork.com 3 Rare World-Record Fish Stories Sometimes what lurks beneath the water's surface is a lot larger than we know They say records are made to be broken, but some fishing world records, like this 11-pound, 15-ounce smallmouth bass caught by David Hayes, may hold a place in the record books forever. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton) There are two types of fishing world records: those that get broken and those that don’t. Take the blue catfish record, for example. A 97-pound Missouri River blue caught in 1959 stood as the record until 1991 when a 109-¼-pound fish was caught in South Carolina. Since 1991, the record has been broken five more times, and though it currently stands at 143 pounds, it could be broken yet again. Few records get broken that many times in such a short period, but many – perhaps most – benchmarks eventually fall. This is not a story about records that might get broken, however. It’s about record fish so big, it’s quite likely we will never see the likes of them again. These all-tackle world records have stood the test of time, and most experts would be enormously surprised if some lucky angler hits the jackpot and lands a new record-setter even bigger. The Biggest Crappie Ever There are only two crappie species: white and black. The primary record-keeping organizations – the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame (NFWFHF) – both recognize a 5-pound, 3-ounce white crappie caught in 1957 as the all-tackle world record. However, they differ in their listings when it comes to black crappie. IGFA lists a black crappie weighing 5 pounds even caught in a Missouri pond in 2006. NFWFHF’s top black crappie is an even 6-pounder taken from Westwego Canal, Louisiana in 1969. That Bayou State slab is the biggest crappie ever recorded. Louis Bignami, in his excellent book, Stories Behind Record Fish, relates the story of the latter crappie through interviews with people involved in the fish’s certification as a state and world record. “The Moby Dick of Crappie,” as Bignami called it, was caught by Lettie Robinson, a girl of 12 or 13, on November 28, 1969. She was bank fishing with a battered cane pole, wine-cork float, rusty hook and yard-dug worms for bait. Westwego Canal, where she caught it, sits adjacent the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish. It was constructed to provide a landing place for seaplanes. Bignami couldn’t track down Lettie to interview her but got a first-hand account from Denny Fantaneau, the Louisiana Inland Fisheries Department chief who weighed the fish. “The fish was huge,” he said, “at least two pounds bigger than I ever expected a crappie to get … landing it on that gear must have been a real circus.” At the time, Fantaneau didn’t classify the fish as either a white or black crappie. Louisiana didn’t separate the two species in its record book. But Lettie came back later with paperwork to file for the records, and Fantaneau examined the fish in a snapshot she had. “I checked the photo carefully and, from the spine count, it was clear the fish was a record black crappie,” he said. “I know it was a black crappie. I can’t imagine why the IGFA doesn’t recognize it as a record.” Bignami queried IGFA on that and was told by Representative Mike Leech, “That was back before we took over the records from Field & Stream. I guess the reason the fish wasn’t allowed was the time elapsed between catch and record application, or the fact the fish wasn’t identified by a fisheries biologist.” The fish was examined by fisheries biologist Howard Rogillio, however. And Rogillio backed up Fantaneau’s claim. “I saw the fish,” Rogillio told Bignami. “And I remember thinking it was a huge black crappie ... I looked at the photograph, too. It was a good one and showed the fish to be a black crappie. You can’t miss that identification based on fin rays and other factors.” Based on the evidence, it would seem certain Lettie Robinson caught the biggest black crappie ever recorded – in fact, the biggest crappie of either species. While the IGFA chose not to recognize it, her incredible catch is still documented by the NFWFHF as the biggest crappie ever caught. The only crappie caught in recent years that even approaches Lettie’s record is the 5-pound Missouri black crappie recognized by IGFA, and that fish, though a monster, was still a full pound lighter than Lettie’s catch. Chances are slim – very slim – we’ll ever see another crappie the size of the one caught by a young girl on a cane pole and worms. Valverde’s Gar In a 1972 issue of Boy’s Life, writer Dick Pryce shared the story of the rod-and-reel world-record alligator gar as related by Guillermo “Bill” Valverde, the man who caught it. It happened December 2, 1951, a day that started poorly for Bill Valverde, his father and Rev. Josue Gonzalez. The trio hiked to a fishing hole on the Rio Grande River, but upon arriving they realized they had left their bait at home in nearby Mission, Texas. The men had planned on catfishing, so they dug some earthworms Bill used to catch mullets they cut up for bait. “For some reason, the alligator gar were hitting,” Valverde told Pryce. “We caught four big gar – about 75 or 100 pounds each – when a real monster got on the end of my line.” Normally, a big gar would have broken the line or thrown the hook, “but I was able to turn the gar,” Valverde said. “I tried to work him in close enough so we could gaff him. But each time he got near shore, the gar would swim off, taking more line. I don’t know how long it took to get that gar tired enough we could gaff him, but we finally did.” The three men struggled to beach the giant. It was huge compared to the others they caught. As it flopped, its mouth opened and Bill’s hook fell out. “The gar wasn’t hooked at all,” said Valverde. “I was able to bring him in because he was holding onto the bait with those big teeth.” That wasn’t the only fortunate circumstance that day. Bill wanted to leave the gar where it lay, but the reverend insisted they take it home because of its incredible size. When they tried loading it in their car trunk, however, they couldn’t. They had to trade the four smaller gars they’d caught to nearby workers in return for assistance, but soon they were headed home with the fish’s tail dragging in the road. The enormous gar was propped on a swing set in the Valverde yard. Scores of townspeople came to see it. One remembered a state biologist was visiting nearby, and they called him. The Texas Parks and Wildlife employee measured and weighed the fish. It stretched 7 feet 9 inches and weighed 279 pounds, an all-tackle world record recognized by both IGFA and NFWFHF. Almost 66 years have passed, and Valverde’s record still hasn’t been broken. Alligator gar, almost extirpated in some parts of their range, are making a comeback in many areas. In Texas, for example, one can now hire gar guides to help you catch these gigantic fish. But while 100-pounders are common, fish even close to the size of Valverde’s are unheard of. Odds are a gator gar that size will never be seen again. The Smallmouth That Was and Wasn’t a Record It was July 9, 1955, a sultry summer day on Dale Hollow Lake straddling the Tennessee/Kentucky border. For several years, the lake had been down 15 to 20 feet from its normal levels. But to David Hayes, an avid angler from Leitchfield, Kentucky, that just meant the fishing would be better. He took a day off work and carried his wife and six-year-old son fishing. Because he had his family with him, Hayes decided to troll where he often caught spotted bass, walleyes and largemouths. He never expected to catch a smallmouth bass, which he rarely caught there. But the pearl-white Bomber crankbait on his line caught the attention of a bronzeback the likes of which no one had ever seen. When the fish first took the plug, Hayes thought he was hung. “I got down off the seat and loosened the drag on my reel in case I was hung,” he told Louis Bignami. “About that time he came up out of the water. He only jumped that one time, but he went about three feet.” The bass ripped one set of treble hooks from the lure when it jumped, and the only connection between angler and fish was one hook embedded near the bass’ gills. Hayes played the fish carefully, though, and finally landed it. “I knew I had a big fish,” he said, “but I didn’t know it was that big.” Several hours passed before the Hayes family arrived back at the dock, and one can only speculate how much weight the smallmouth lost before it was put on a scale. A notary public certified its weight at 11 pounds, 15 ounces. A Tennessee Fisheries biologist verified it was a smallmouth and took a scale that showed it was 13 years old. Within weeks, Hayes received an official notice from Field & Stream, the keeper of freshwater fishing records at the time, that his fish was the new world record. The smallmouth also was recognized as a state record in both Tennessee and Kentucky. “I caught it so close to the state line that I decided to let everyone have it,” Hayes said. That might have been the end of the story, but in 1996, a Tennessee school teacher discovered a 41-year-old affidavit filed at a Corps of Engineers office on Dale Hollow. In it, a local dockhand alleged that the Hayes’ bass had been stuffed with sinkers and motor parts, and its actual weight was three pounds less than claimed. The IGFA, NFWFHF and Kentucky rescinded Hayes’ record that year. Tennessee kept Hayes’ catch in their books, however, and for good reason. An investigation by the state’s Wildlife Resources Agency determined that the dockhand’s allegations had been falsified, and the man wasn’t even present the day of the catch. Despite these findings, however, it wasn’t until Bassmaster Magazine brought the story to light in 2005 that amends were made. Later that year both IGFA and Kentucky reinstated Hayes’ record catch. (The Hall of Fame had reinstated Hayes’ fish in 1999.) Fortunately, Hayes, then 80 years old, lived to see his smallmouth bass reestablished as the undisputed world record. Only six other smallmouths exceeding 10 pounds have ever been caught, and Hayes’ fish still outweighed the largest of those by more than a pound. It is quite likely this storied record will never be broken.