Lost to History: H.W. Ross

Forest and Stream supposedly had evidence of Ross' giant bass, but when the magazine merged with Field & Stream in 1930 and began publishing a list of world records, Ross was forgotten or ignored.

Forest and Stream supposedly had evidence of Ross’ giant bass, but when the magazine merged with Field & Stream in 1930 and began publishing a list of world records, Ross was forgotten or ignored.

[Editor’s Note: Today we have a great piece for you by Ken Duke on a fish that time and a number of people have forgotten. It was a fish mentioned only briefly one time in James A. Henshall’s book More About the Black Bass, published in 1889. The fish of interest was supposedly caught by an H. W. Ross and weighed in at 23-1/8 pounds a weight that would still be the record. Ken Duke, in his usual fashion, disects what we know of this fish and the man, and brings up more questions than answers. We think you’ll enjoy this very early history of record-class bass.]

“Mr. H.W. Ross, when in Florida, caught, in a ‘clear, deep, lily-bound lake,’ near Altoona, in that state, a large-mouthed Black Bass which, he states, weighed twenty-three and one-eighth pounds, and measured, from tip of nose to tip of tail, thirty-seven and one-half inches, and in girth, twenty-nine and one-half inches. The head of this fish was sent to the office of ‘Forest and Stream,’ in New York, and its dimensions were given by the editor as follows: ‘Its maxillary bone measures four and three-fourths inches; the head is seven and one-half inches from the tip of the upper jaw to the end of the opercle, and the lower jaw projects one inch. The greatest girth of the head is sixteen and one-half inches.”

That passage is from James A. Henshall’s More About the Black Bass, his 1889 sequel to Book of the Black Bass (1881). It is the only reference I’ve seen to H.W. Ross or that fish.

Why Should We Care About Ross?

Tales of big bass — even bass exceeding 20 pounds — are not that rare. What makes the Ross story compelling are all the details and that it was Henshall doing the telling. Less detail or a lesser narrator would relegate Ross to the compost heap of history, but a single paragraph written by bass fishing’s greatest scribe elevates Ross to one of the sport’s great mysteries.

Every angler knows that if you want to be soundly derided by your peers you claim to have caught a 15-pound bass. If you want your audience to buy in, you tell them it was 15 pounds, 3 ounces, measured 30 3/16 inches long, was blind in its left eye and he nearly straightened your hook. Then, of course, you show them a twisted hook.

Details sell the story, and Ross’ claim, though brief, swims in details — the weight, the location, the measurements, other authorities and more. The entire paragraph is just 124 words, but you’d be hard-pressed to cram more detail into a passage of that length.

Of course, the most compelling detail is the weight — twenty-three and one-eighth pounds.” That’s almost a pound heavier than the current world record largemouth bass, and that’s why we care.

Ross vs. Perry

Before you say that Ross’ claim is too sketchy to be considered for world record distinction, know that it’s at least as well documented as George W. Perry’s 22-4 from 1932. Let’s break it down.

Photo: None … for either. (Don’t believe the hype about Perry’s photo. None have surface that have been duly substantiated or subjected to even the lightest scrutiny.)

Weight recorded: Yes.

Length and girth measurements: Yes.

Perry filled out a form to enter the annual Field & Stream big fish contest. It required a witness or two and a notary (the records have been lost). There was no Field & Stream contest when Ross caught his bass. Nevertheless, he took his case even further than Perry. He sent the head of the fish to the editor of Forest and Stream magazine (perhaps to Charles Hallock, who founded the magazine and was its editor from 1873 to 1880), and that editor reported his own findings about the fish based on the remains. The provenance edge here goes to Ross.

And when you consider that Forest and Stream was purchased by Field & Stream in 1930 when the publications merged, it makes it even stranger that Ross was ignored when the magazine started to take note of records in the 1920s. Field & Stream anointed Perry’s catch as the world record in 1934 despite the fact that at least two bass in its files (Ross’ 23-2 and a 24-0 from 1926) were reportedly larger.

Who?

Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about Mr. H.W. Ross. In fact, we know just four things: (a) his name — H.W. Ross, (b) his gender; (c) that he was in Florida — near Altoona — when he reportedly caught the fish; and (d) that he didn’t live in Florida at the time Henshall wrote the passage. Maybe he was vacationing in the Sunshine State at the time or maybe he relocated from Florida. Either way, we have very little to go on.

Altoona, by the way, is in Central Florida, north of Orlando. “Clear” and “lily-bound” lakes are everywhere in the region, though “deep” is a relative term. If Ross’ lake had water down to 12 or 15 feet, virtually every Florida bass angler would agree that it was “deep” indeed.

No one has jumped to the fore just yet in the search for H.W. Ross. If we knew a place where he lived or his date of birth or death, we might be able to identify him through census records. Unfortunately, Henshall left us with little to go on.

There is one famous H.W. Ross, but he’s clearly not our man. Harold Wallace Ross founded The New Yorker magazine in 1925, but he wasn’t born until three years after Henshall published More About the Black Bass.

When Did It Happen?

When did Ross catch such a bass? Henshall doesn’t say, but Forest and Stream magazine was founded in 1873. Since Henshall’s second book was published in 1889, we can put the catch between 1873 (when Ross sent the fish’s head to the editor) and 1889 (when the book came out). But can we narrow it down even more?

Why didn’t Henshall mention the catch in Book of the Black Bass? The most obvious explanation is that Ross had not caught the fish when it was published in 1881, but it’s just as possible that Ross didn’t know of Henshall until after the first book and therefore didn’t contact him until after it came out. It would be nice to narrow our search to the period from 1881 to 1889, but it’s not a safe assumption.

No less an authority than James A. Henshall referenced H.W. Ross and his 23-pound bass, but did Henshall believe the story he passed along?

No less an authority than James A. Henshall referenced H.W. Ross and his 23-pound bass, but did Henshall believe the story he passed along?

The Case Against Ross’ Bass

Should we believe the numbers Ross provided? Maybe not. While it’s true that big Florida bass in their native state tend to be longer and leaner than their cousins growing fat on trout in California, a 37 1/2-inch specimen stretches credulity. And when you apply the two popular formulas for calculating bass weight to the dimensions of the Ross fish, you get a number that’s not in line with the reported figure of 23-2.

The first — length X length X length ÷ 1,600 — gives us 32 pounds, 15 ounces. That’s 10 pounds off Ross’ claim. The second — length X length X girth ÷ 1,200 — is even more unbelievable at 34-9.

Did Henshall buy Ross’ story? We know that Henshall believed largemouth bass of 20 pounds and more had been caught. In fact, he wrote in 1920 that he caught a 20 pounder himself, noting “In Florida I have taken it on the fly up to fourteen pounds, and up to twenty pounds with natural bait.” (Bass, Pike, Perch and Other Game Fishes of North America, Stewart & Kidd Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1920, p. 33.)

But Henshall is clearly not endorsing the Ross fish. Look at the passage again. He says Ross caught a fish “which, he states, weighed twenty-three and one-eighth pounds, and measured, from tip of nose to tip of tail, thirty-seven and one-half inches, and in girth, twenty-nine and one-half inches.” He didn’t say the fish definitively weighed that much or measured those dimensions. He’s just passing along what he was told. That becomes even clearer in the next sentence when he mentions the head of the bass being sent to Forest and Stream. At that point he quotes the editor on the dimensions of the head. At no point does he take a stance on the veracity of the weight or measurements.

If Henshall knew Ross, it appears he didn’t know him well or have any special reason to trust him regarding the fish. More than 30 years later, when Henshall was publishing his autobiography in Forest and Stream (27 installments from May 1919 through July 1921), we get an indirect look at his attitude toward Ross and his catch.

In the May 1920 issue of Forest and Stream, Henshall wrote of his 1878 trip to Florida. While fishing a bay at the mouth of the San Sebastian River, Henshall and his fishing companions found excellent fishing, including “black bass of enormous size.”

The next paragraph tells us something about Henshall’s attitude toward Ross without ever mentioning him. Henshall writes, “It was my natural ambition and fond wish to capture a black bass that would exceed the record…. Then my wish was gratified when I landed a colossal black bass that weighed twenty pounds.”

Henshall wanted to catch a world record, and he felt he had done it with a 20 pounder — not a fish weighing 23-2 or more. In his autobiography — written more than 40 years after his catch — he tells us very clearly that his fish was the record. He makes no mention of Ross having the record before or breaking the record later.

Do I believe that Ross caught a largemouth bass with the weight and measurements passed along by Henshall? No, I do not. I can believe a 23-2 from that part of Florida, but not a 37 1/2-inch fish with a 29 1/2-inch girth that weighs 23-2. The numbers don’t make sense. A fish of those dimensions would weigh much more than 23-2. Even Henshall seemed skeptical, and his account is all we have.

BFA APB

One of the great things about a resource like BassFishingArchives.com is the opportunity to put out an “All-Points Bulletin,” just like the TV cop shows!

Have you seen H.W. Ross lately? Do you know his whereabouts? Is he a neighbor? Maybe you’re related. Maybe he was your great, great grandfather. Whatever the case, if you have a lead on this 19th century angler, it would be great to hear from you so we can shed some light on this mystery man of bass fishing.

If you have information to share about Ross, please send me an email or post a comment below. My address is kenduke2204@aol.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

  • Paul Wallace

    Excellent read! I’m pretty sure I’ve met this Ross fellow!! He was catching 13″ bluegills by the five gallon bucket. Didn’t own a camera..poor fella…
    Paul