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Smallmouth bass world record turns 50

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.

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.)

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 weight, 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.

"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."

Taylor Wilson is a free-lance writer and editor for Bill Dance Publishing in Brownsville, Tenn. He can be contacted at taylorwilson@billdancefishing.com.