[Editor’s note: The following is a two-part analysis of the history of the world record largemouth done by former Bassmaster Magazine editor and veritable bass fishing historian, Ken Duke. We welcome the piece with open arms as Ken is one of, if not the foremost authority on bass fishing and its long storied history. We thank Ken for this well thought out piece – one that uncovers a lot of questions that may have never been asked before.]
If you’re a bass angler and a history buff, you know the story of George Perry’s world record largemouth bass. You know that Perry caught his giant bass in 1932, and that he held the top spot in the record books until his mark was “tied” by Japan’s Manabu Kurita in 2009. You know that 22 pounds, 4 ounces is a magic number in our sport.
But did you know that the number might just as easily have been 23-2 or 24-0? Did you know that instead of chasing George Perry, we very nearly chased H.W. Ross or George J. Nicholls?
It’s easiest to start this story in the middle — in South Georgia during the depths of the Great Depression.
Thursday, June 2, 1932, was a wet one in Telfair County — too wet to work the fields. And whenever it was too wet to work, 20-year-old George Washington Perry and his friend Jack Page liked to go fishing. Between them, they had a rod and reel, a few baits and access to a wooden johnboat on Montgomery Lake, an oxbow off the Ocmulgee River.
With just one rod and reel, Perry and Page rotated between fishing and paddling the boat. When it was Perry’s turn to fish, the story goes that he caught a giant bass — by far the biggest either had ever seen. They fished for a while longer with little to show for it and eventually took the fish into town (Helena) and weighed it at Fowler Grocery … or the post office … or maybe both.
While they were there, someone must have mentioned that Field & Stream magazine held an annual big fish contest and offered some nice prizes to anglers fortunate enough to catch the largest of several species, including largemouth bass. Surely George would win. A magazine and entry form were located and filled out. George’s affidavit was witnessed and notarized. Within a year, Perry won the contest’s Large-mouth Black Bass Southern Division class and along with it $100 worth of merchandise of his choice. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1,723.72 in 2014 dollars.
Field & Stream is essential to the Perry story and record for several reasons. Without their annual “Prize Fishing Contest,” Perry’s catch would have been lost to history. With no need to certify or memorialize the catch in some fashion, it would have disappeared. Perry took the bass home and his family ate it.
And it was Field & Stream that first recognized some value in freshwater fishing records. They would be the unrivaled source for such things until they turned over their files and the responsibility for freshwater records to the International Game Fish Association in 1978.
But how did Perry gain the throne on the most important and sought-after fishing record in the world? If you think it’s because he had the biggest catch known to Field & Stream at that time, you’d be wrong. There was at least one larger bass of equal credentials known to the magazine and another that should have been known … yet both were passed over in favor of Perry.
And now we can start at the beginning … chronologically.
The Ross Bass
What we know about H.W. Ross comes to us directly from James A. Henshall’s More About the Black Bass (1889), the follow-up to his classic Book of the Black Bass (1881).
“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.'”
Henshall doesn’t offer a date for this catch, but since the story made it into his second book on bass fishing and not the first, we might guess it was made in the intervening years (1881-89). Forest and Stream, however, was first published in 1873, so the catch could have come quite a bit earlier.
If there’s more out there about the Ross fish, it’s difficult to find. Three things, however, are clear. First, it allegedly weighed 23 pounds, 2 ounces — 14 ounces more than the weight claimed by Perry. Second, the editor and staff of Forest and Stream had access to the actual head of the fish and measured it with some care. Finally, the editors of Field & Stream, which began publishing “world’s records” in the 1920s, knew or should have known about this fish because Forest and Stream was purchased by Field & Stream in 1930 and had been one of its chief competitors for many years before that.
Had Ross’ catch grabbed the attention of Field & Stream editors, he might have been listed as the largemouth bass world record holder. And if he had taken the top spot then, he might still have it today. Much more than a century later, no one has ever legally caught and certified a largemouth heavier than 23-2.
But Ross was never lifted up on that pedestal. Anglers didn’t think in terms of such records then. It’s also possible that although Ross’ 23-2 was a giant, he and Henshall thought it likely that other, larger bass had been caught. In the paragraph after the one referencing Ross’ catch, Henshall wrote, “Since the publication of The Book of the Black Bass, I have killed, with the fly, the large-mouth Bass of Florida up to fourteen pounds, and have seen larger ones taken with bait and trolling spoon, one weighing fully twenty pounds.”
And in Henshall’s autobiography (serialized by Forest and Stream between 1919 and 1927), he wrote, “I caught one on live bait in the Sebastian River (Florida) that weighed twenty pounds.” What’s undeniable is that bass fishing success was most often calculated in numbers of fish since all them were destined for the frying pan.
Part Two will be posted Tuesday and will cover two other record-class fish from the past caught by Fritz Friebel and George Johnson Nicholls. It’s a bit of history that will leave you scratching your head for sure.