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Hatchet Job

It has been said that the next world record largemouth bass could be worth $1 million. What, then, would the next world record smallmouth bass be worth? No one knows for sure, but if you ask Steven Grail of Arnprior, Ontario, he will tell you that the last one was worth nothing more than heartache.

On July 14, Grail and his friend Andre Bissonnette were out for a day of pickerel fishing on the Upper Madawaska River when a big fish yanked on Grail's line. "This fish just stayed down," Grail said in a phone interview from his home in Arnprior. "It seemed to have super strength. I first thought it was a large rainbow trout, but when it jumped, I knew it was a large bass."

The smallmouth Grail hooked took more than 10 minutes to land — and it was a monster.

He later said he had known what would happen following the catch, he would have returned the behemoth to the river, and never mentioned it.

The men didn't have a camera, so after landing the trophy smallmouth, Grail phoned his father and went to his house to take pictures. Impressed with the size, and with "no scales about," they measured the fish. "The bass was 22 inches long, and had a girth of 25 inches," Grail recalled. He then retired to his house where he filleted the fish, put the head and the fillets in the freezer, and threw the remains in the trash.

"I knew it was a large smallmouth, but I am not a smallmouth fisherman," Grail said. "I fish for pickerel and trout. It was not until I was back at home and was telling a friend about the size of the fish, that he looked online and found the current world record was from Tennessee — and only weighed 10 pounds, 14 ounces."

He was still not aware the world record was actually the Hayes smallmouth from Tennessee, reinstated after a decade-long controversy, and stood at 11 pounds, 15 ounces. Still, the Canadian record is only 9.84 pounds. Many fishermen say that Canada will never produce a world record smallmouth, because the growing season is not long enough to support such a fish.

Grail refutes this, pointing to his own fish as evidence. If only he'd known what he had on his hands before he pulled out the fillet knife.

Even with the fish in pieces, Grail thought he might have a chance at the record. "I knew there was a formula the scientists at the Ministry of Natural Resources use that would give us the weight from the measurements we had taken prior to my cleaning the fish," he said. "I thought this would be enough to prove the size of the fish. We had witnessed everything.

"I went and got the head, the filets and the entrails and weighed them on a high-end Rapala scale. The bass weighed 12 pounds, 6 1/2 ounces. The formula works out to within an ounce of the actual weight of the remains."

If accurate, that weight would make his fish the largest ever recorded, and more than 2 full pounds bigger than the previous Canadian record-holder. So Grail called the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), which sent him the proper forms and allowed him to submit an application for the Canadian record, even though his cleaned fish didn't meet the usual requirements. With signed affidavits in their possession, the biologists for the Ministry of Natural Resources determined from the remains it was a true smallmouth, and Grail filed for record consideration.

Then he made his second mistake.

Before the government had certified the potential record, he told the story of his trophy bass to the Ottawa Citizen. "They didn't get the story right," he complained. "They were just trying to sell papers. I thought the measurements would be enough to determine the weight. I had a witness to the catch, witnesses to the measurements, and even a witness to the weight.

"I wanted to share my story with a few local fishermen. Everybody likes to read a good fish story," he continued. "I would have never told about it had I known what would happen." His haggard voice betrayed the ordeal he had faced because of this fish and his decision to fillet it.

Immediately Grail's phone started ringing. Everyone wanted to know about the smallmouth bass and the true story behind it. "I couldn't even walk down the street," he said. "People kept asking me why I cut it up. I couldn't sleep. I lost 11 pounds that first week. The phone rang day and night. I had to have my phone number changed, so I could not be contacted. I even left town and went to the capital for a few days and couldn't escape it there either. Everyone wanted to talk about that fish," Grail reported in a phone interview from his home in Arnprior.

From the sidewalks to the bait shops to Internet chat boards, the story was everywhere. The snide remarks started on the "Sound Off!" section of the Ottawa Citizen Online, where people pelted Grail, pointing to the photo as evidence of his gross overestimation of the true weight. Out of 35 remarks on that website alone, only three were in Steven's defense, with one simply stating that maybe Grail overestimated the weight, and people should "give him a break."

Others called Grail a moron, a tool, a bonehead, and a fool. Some people dismissed Grail as an attention hound, while others said he was trying to exploit a large bass for money. People wondered why he would make such a claim over a fish that he had already destroyed. Others accused him of destroying it to conceal its true (smaller) size. It seemed the only people who took Grail at his word were his friends and family, who describe Grail as "honest," "trustworthy," and "a true outdoorsman."

At Field & Stream's Web site, a family friend named Shannon Parks defended him, writing, "I've known Steve for years, my father has fished with Steve many times and I'll tell you one thing, he doesn't care if it's 2 pounds or world-record. He goes to have a good time and catch something to have for supper. What more can you say?"

Grail's sister, Kathy McGrath, also joined the fray.

"Enough people saw this fish prior to his filleting it to dispel any negative opinions on its weight and size," she wrote. "He has signed statements from witnesses verifying weight and measurements. Biologists have verified this to be a true smallmouth bass. Steve fishes for sport and eats what he catches. He is not a trophy hunter. He simply wanted to share his story with fellow anglers... I KNOW WITHOUT A DOUBT THAT THIS IS TRUE WORLD RECORD BREAKER. Another nice catch, Steve. Too bad it wasn't a pickerel, eh?"

His sister spoke highly of him from her home in a recent phone interview. "I remember when I was a little girl and Steve would take us fishing," she said. "He always caught supper for us to eat. We had such good times.

"It's unfortunate what has happened with this story. People can be so nasty about things. Steve is a good man. He would never lie about a fish like that."

To most, it seemed unbelievable that a man who had caught a 12-pound smallmouth could fillet it for the supper table.

"He definitely had a Canadian record — and maybe even a world record," said Mark Cousins, a spokesman for OFAH. "But we can't consider it for the Canadian record, because the fish has to be whole. It's very unfortunate. I have seen the pictures and it is a very nice fish. There is no way I would have filleted a bass that big."

Said Grail: "I am not a trophy fisherman. I fish for the sport of it. I got so much grief over this fish, I wish I had never caught it."

Everybody becomes a fisheries biologist when a claim for a record is made. Even when the facts surrounding the fish are airtight, people say that photographs were rigged, or the fish was "salted" or any number of accusations against the catch. You let a fisherman cut up a trophy bass, and you might as well cut him up, and throw him to the sharks.

Grail has advice to anyone who catches such a fish. "If you are a trophy fisherman and you want the record, get a witness, take a lot of photos and measurements, a certified weight, and freeze the fish whole immediately," he said. "If you decide to tell your story, take it to the television station and show the fish, and let people look into your eyes, and see that you are telling the truth.

"I know that fishermen tell fish stories and that they are not always true," he continued. "I just have to remember that, and remind myself that the people who really matter to me know I am telling the truth."