Record Largemouth Bass: Angling's Million Dollar Prize

by Louis Bignami

The most valuable fish in the world?

Bob Kutz, when Director of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, said, "The next world-record largemouth bass, if it ever comes, will be worth a million dollars. Prizes, endorsements, outdoor shows; it could be incredible." Stu Tinney, when publisher of Striper Magazine, once noted, "A million? I could make more than that the first year. If you could keep the bass alive there's no telling how much you could make." Times do change. George Perry caught his fish on a shared rod and reel that cost $1.33 with a $1.35 lure. This with some 25-pound test waterproof silk line from a row boat built from 75 cents worth of second-hand lumber scraps. It was 1932. The depression raged. Perry took his fish home and ate it. His bass was so big it took his family two days to finish the fish.

THE PERRY RECORD

Mr. Perry's wife, now deceased, and daughters holding a replica of his record fish.

PHOTO: Bill Baab

As Perry noted, in interviews before his 1974 death in a plane crash:

"We were out to catch dinner. We only had one lure, so we shared the rod and the rowing. When it was my turn I tossed the lure back into a pocket between two fallen trees and gave the plug a couple of jerks.

"All at once, the water splashed everywhere! I do remember striking, then raring back and trying to reel. But nothing budged. I thought I'd lost the fish -- that it had dived and hung me up. What had me really worried was the lure, it was the only one we had between us."

As Perry remembered it, the fight wasn't much. It rarely is with really huge bass. After the fish was landed, Perry toted it over to the J. J. Hall and Co. General store. In a Sports Afield article Perry said, "It was almost an accident that I had it (the fish) weighed and recorded." A buddy mentioned the Field & Stream Contest with its $75 merchandise prize. So Perry took his fish to the post office where, several hours after it was caught, the big female weighted 22 pounds 4 ounces and measured 31 inches long and 27 inches around.

As Perry remembered it, "It created a lot of attention that day in Helena. The old fellow in the general store weighted it. He was also a notary public and made the whole thing official."

Perry's family remembers the story a bit differently, According to Baab's report in the February, 1989 Bassin',

"Someone at the store mentioned the (Field & Stream) Big Fish Contest and urged Daddy to enter it. He had the fish weighed on a set of certified scales at the post office. According to the contest rules, he had the fish's dimensions and weight notarized. The fish weighted 22 pounds four ounces."

"Then Perry took his fish home and his mother, Laura, fried one side for supper, along with onions and tomatoes from the garden. They ate the other fillet later. Nobody took a photo, but the family does have a replica of the record bass and the lure Perry used."

There does seem to have been much confusion about the lure. According to Baab's Bassin' article -- he is the top authority on Perry and other bass record holders -- "The lure was a Wiggle Fish in perch scale manufactured by the Creek Chub Bait Co." For a time, few could agree on the lure's identity. It was variously identified as a Fantail Shiner, Jointed Wag-Tail, Creek Chub Minnow, Creek Chub Wiggler and Creek Chub Wiggle Fish. Baab discovered a letter from the son of one of Creek Chub Co. co-founders that, on the basis of conversations with George Perry, identified the lure as a # 241 jointed perch Wiggle Fish. Even today the makers of the line, rod and reel used by Perry remain unknown.

Perry, except for his name, remained relatively unknown too. He never seemed very impressed with his record. Such shouldn't be a surprise. Perry, according to George Baab, then Outdoor Editor of The Augusta Chronicle, "Was a quiet, modest, but confident man."

In 1932, when Perry caught his big bass, he was a poor youngster of 20 whose father had died the year before. Perry had to help support his five brothers and sisters. With only an eighth grade education, and barely literate, he educated himself and worked his way up to owning Perry's Flying Service at the local airport. He eventually died in an air crash.

Naturally, he won the Field & Stream contest with his 22-pound fish. He took his $75 prize out in a Browning automatic shotgun, a rod and reel, shotgun shells and some outdoor clothing. Prices have gone up! At the time this seemed to Perry like all the gear in the world. Then, just to show his first fish was not entirely an accident, he won the Field & Stream Contest again in 1934 with a 13-pound 14-ounce largemouth.

Today there is a commemorative marker next to Georgia Route 117 just 2 1/2 miles from Montgomery Lake, a side channel wide spot in the Ocmulggee River near Perry's home in Helena, Georgia. Perry might not have understood that. Like most brought up in the depression, he knew the difference between the necessary -- shelter, family, food and job -- and the merely nice, like record fish. He did understand the changing economics of recreation. In 1973, when interviewed by Baab just before his death, he mentioned that the record, if caught then, might be worth $10,000. Today, the record is clearly worth 100 times that. Even so, his daughter noted, "If Daddy had been a different sort of person, he could have made a pile of money doing public speaking about his record." Another friend, Dr. William F. Austin of nearby Brunswick noted, "George was never very impressed by the fish, or interested in impressing anyone about it."

THE LOST RECORD

Most bass fishermen know, and many lust after, the Perry Record. Almost nobody every wondered about the record Perry broke. Bill Baab did wonder. While the old Field & Stream records -- from days before IGFA and NFWFHF handled this chore -- had been destroyed, Baab turned up a 20-pound 10-ounce largemouth. It was caught by Fritz Friebel and had held the record for nine years prior to Perry's fish. It reportedly came from Moody Lake in the Florida panhandle. Friebel's brother claimed the fish came from nearby Big Fish Lake though. This record is listed by Florida, but is considered "uncertified" under the Sunshine state's new, tough rules.

In any case, Friebel, a traveling hardware salesman who always toted fishing gear, fished Sunday morning in May of 1923 with a couple of friends. Friebel took his fish with a Creek Chub Straight Pikie Minnow. It measured 31 inches long with a 27 inch girth. The girth might have been off. Friebel's daughter, in a later interview, noted, "A fellow accused Daddy of loading his fish with lead sinkers. So daddy cut the fish open and let the fellow feel inside." Like the Perrys, the family ate the fish soon after.

RACCOON FISH, WEIGHT EATING BASS AND "MAYBE "RECORDS

When Baab researched bass records, he discovered an account in an Indiana newspaper of a 24-pound 12-ounce fish caught from Lake Tohopekaliga near Orlando, Florida in April of 1974. This suggests DisneyWorld visitors who skip the fishing might be missing out!

Raymond Tomer reportedly caught the fish on a dark plastic worm. His fishing partner and two witnesses testified to the weight, and that it measured 39 1/2 inches long and 30 inches around. Tomer put the fish in his cooler, but the cooler lid wouldn't shut. So when he filleted the fish to cook it, it had spoiled. So he threw it out. He did nail the head on a post, but raccoons ate the head that night. Without the fish, its head and supportive photos, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, and others, refused to recognize the record.

While all of these records are in the Southeast, you can make a case that the next world record bass will come out of a Southern California Reservoir some time between December and April.