The Quest for a Record Smallmouth

Smallmouth world record chaser Paul Archer hoists three Dale Hollow smallmouths in December 1988. From left to right, 7, 8, and 6 3/4 pounds. 

As far as most bass fishermen are concerned, the number to beat is 22 pounds, 4 ounces. To smallmouth bass fishermen, it is 11-15.

In talk of world record bass, several unavoidable names exist: George Perry, Mac Weakley, Bob Crupi. Rarely do you hear about David Hayes, John Gorman or Billy Westmorland. All have caught world class fish, so why is there such disparity between the two camps?

The answer lies in the species of fish they caught. Fair or not, it is undeniable that largemouth bass receive infinitely more attention than their brown counterparts, for several arguable reasons.

First, largemouth bass are far more pervasive. They can be found in almost every ditch, stream and pond in 49 states. Size may also have something to do with it. A world-class smallmouth is eight pounds — a size which very few anglers will ever see — while many have caught largemouth bigger than that. Last, a largemouth bass that eclipses Perry's fish is said to be worth $1 million or more. A retired trophy smallmouth hunter thinks a world record brown bass may be worth a tenth of that.

Among biologists, anglers and guides, not everyone agrees that a smallmouth larger than David L. Hayes' 11-pound, 15-ounce record even exists. However, they do agree that if it is alive, it is swimming in America's Southland, specifically Dale Hollow Lake, which straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky line. Hayes' record fish was caught in July 1955 while he was trolling a pearl-colored Bomber 600. Since then, Dale Hollow has yielded several more of the top fish on Bassmaster's Top 25 Smallmouth list. But has the famed reservoir run dry?

The right stuff

If you could create a lake to grow a world record smallmouth, it should end up looking a lot like Dale Hollow — an exceptionally clear canyon reservoir, with plenty of quality habitat and forage and a long growing season, traits Dale Hollow has in spades. Stephen Headrick, the "Smallmouth Guru," a long time Dale Hollow angler and guide and proprietor of Punisher Lures, believes that Dale Hollow houses such a fish. (Check out the Smallmouth Guru's Bassmaster.com blog, Think Smallie.)

"Dale Hollow is just right for another world record fish," he says. "They can grow a lot bigger here because the growing season is longer here than anywhere else, and there's plenty for them to eat."

Headrick also thinks that there is more to Dale Hollow's fish than just good water.

"The fish here are so much better than anywhere else, there's got to be a gene or something that isn't anywhere else."

Bill Reeves, Fisheries Chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, disagrees.

"We've sampled smallmouth from all over the state when we were looking to export some of them to Oklahoma and Texas, and there is no biological difference in Dale Hollow's fish."

Headrick fires back, "When they (TWRA) shock fish for sampling, they don't go far from shore. They get a lot of two- and three-pound fish, but no five- or six-pounders. The bigger fish that may have the gene are out in the open water below the baitfish that they use for cover. All you have to do is look at how many fish Dale Hollow has on the Top 10 list and you can see the obvious difference."

There are, however, several plausible explanations for Dale Hollow's propensity for producing giants. What makes Dale Hollow stand out from the likes of Pickwick and other trophy lakes is its grass. The grass not only oxygenates the lake, it also gives fry a place to hide. Bill Reeves mentions the diverse forage that is available to bass there.

"In addition to the shad, there are alewives, and I'm pretty sure some of the trout we stock in there end up in bass' mouths. However, I think that the number one reason for Dale Hollow's big fish is the high slot limit (bass between 16 and 21 inches in length must be released). It takes harvesting and good growth to make something like that work, and it really has there."

Conservation efforts have also become very popular on Dale Hollow, all in the name of preserving its reputation as the premier trophy smallmouth fishery. The slot system allows anglers to keep one bass measuring less than 16 inches and one measuring better than 21 inches. But limits don't seem to matter to many of the lake's anglers, Reeves claims that they want to see more restrictions put into place to protect the already fruitful waters.

"The anglers have really taken this issue to heart," Reeves says. "I get guys telling me we need to go up to twenty three inches and permit only barbless hooks on the lake, all to keep Dale Hollow as good as it is."

However, "good" is a relative term, especially since a good fish today wouldn't be considered so two decades ago.

The unusual suspects

Billy Westmorland is generally recognized as the only man to catch a largemouth and smallmouth weighing more than 10 pounds each. Westmorland's 10.06-pound smallmouth came from Dale Hollow Reservoir in March 1972. The 10-pound mark has been eclipsed just once since then, with John Gorman's 10-pound, 8-ounce fish from (where else?) Dale Hollow. While Gorman was casually trolling for a meal, other men have made it a mission to catch the next record fish and cash the checks that come with it, no matter how small. In earlier days, catching fish was a way of feeding your family, or to gain bragging rights, and if you hooked into a monster and got your name in a magazine, great.

Paul Archer, now 66 and retired, moved from southwest Ohio to a house on Dale Hollow for the sole purpose of chasing the reservoir's famous fish. He was convinced in 1987 that an 11-pound smallmouth bass was swimming in the lake after he caught a famous stringer that ranged from 6 pounds, 4 ounces to 8-8. He was certain it was just a matter of time before he put his Pedigo Spinrite in front of a world record fish. Now he says the only record being broken is the number of fisherman on his beloved reservoir.

"I was catching 12 to 15 six-and-a-half-pound fish and better between December and January in those days," recalls Archer. "Now, in the last six years I've only caught one six-pounder. I used to be able to get out before the sun and have at least an hour on the lake by myself. Now I get up at 3:30 and there are 50 or 60 boats already out there! When I do make it out now, there are so many boats within my favorite 18-mile stretch of water, I can't find a single place to fish."

Seeing the quality of Dale Hollow's fish dwindle has gradually taken Archer's drive away. He has no desire to fish every day, let alone target a record smallmouth that he's certain doesn't exist anymore. He says that after being spoiled on such large fish, catching "small" ones just isn't as much fun.

"So many guys took the big fish years ago that the gene has been wiped out. It's like taking all the seven-foot-tall people out of the world. Once you get rid of them all, there won't be any more of them."

Whether or not David L. Hayes' record will be bested remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. Fishing is like any other sport, there are always people looking to break records. At the same time, fishing is different. The opportunity to score NASCAR Cup titles or Super Bowl victories will always be available, but there is no way of knowing whether or not a 12-pound smallmouth even exists. While Dale Hollow is still the best known trophy smallmouth fishery, chances are David Hayes' record will be around for a long time.