The World Record Smallmouth Bass That Wasn’t (For 10 Years)

 

Sixty one years ago, a gentleman named David Hayes from Leitchfield, KY took his wife and six year old son out for a morning of fishing on Dale Hollow Lake. Dale Hollow Lake is a manmade lake that borders Kentucky and Tennessee that is known for its quality smallmouth bass fishery. David happened to have a reputation locally for being one of the best smallmouth bass anglers in the area. It was no surprise that among the thousands of eager anglers to drop lines in Dale Hollow Lake every year, he would be the one to catch a world record smallmouth bass.

Armed with an old steel rod from Tru-Temper and a Penn 209 reel, David Hayes fought the fish of his life for several minutes. Relying on his trusty twenty pound test line to not break way, David scooped up the smallmouth bass with his net as he maneuvered the fish to the side of his boat. In an interview conducted in 2005, David told the interviewer, “I had no idea it was a world record.” After placing the fish in his cooler David reset his tackle and continued trolling around for another smallmouth. As the day wore on and the action slowed, David made his way to Wisdom dock to gas up.

The mounted trophy. Picture by Ed Harp of theohioriver.com
The mounted trophy. Picture by Ed Harp of theohioriver.com

At Wisdom dock, David was met by Granville Madison, locals called him “Lightnin’.” Lightnin’ asked David if he had any luck that day to which David replied, “I’ve got one pretty good smallmouth.” Madison asked to weigh the beast and David obliged.  Once the scale settled, the weight read 11 pounds, 15 ounces. A true giant, which was not unheard of in Dale Hollow Lake. Officer Oral Burtram was inside the marina and witnessed the fish being weighed on the scale. While David had witnesses, the scale used at Wisdom dock was not certified. That was the beginning of the bizarre twist that marred David’s record for nearly a decade.

Back in the late 1930’s, the Army Corps of Engineers devised a plan to flood a section of the Obey river into the Cumberland river, all in accordance with the Flood Control Act of 1938. The lake was completed in 1943 and by 1948, 49, and 53, the lake produced hydroelectric power. Prior to the lakes’ forming, this area was well known locally for producing quality smallmouth bass. Both the Obey and Wolf Rivers regularly produced larger, heartier smallmouth due to perfect conditions and great genetics. Once the lake was created, conditions greatly improved for the health and growth of an already strong smallmouth bass population. It’s no surprise that the world record smallmouth bass was caught on Dale Hollow lake, as several of the top 25 recorded catches have all come from Dale Hollow.  Dale Hollow sits perfectly on the southern edge of the smallmouth bass range and the northern edge of the threadfin shad range. Because this is warmer water, smallmouth have opportunities to feed year round and with plenty of forage, large smallmouth bass are found regularly.

David took the fish and his family back to Cedar Hill Resort, where he kept his 21 foot family cruiser. There, the fish was weighed again, this time on a certified scale in front of several witnesses. Once again, the scale registered 11 pounds, 15 ounces. Resort owner Dick Roberts took care of the certification and within a few weeks David Hayes received a letter certifying he was the holder of the world record smallmouth bass. With the legend and record now born, it was fact for 40 years until a Tennessee school teacher discovered an affidavit in the old Army Corps lake office that would change everything.

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On the affidavit, John Barlow, sworn to his uncle Raymond Barlow, claimed he and his brother Ira shoved three pounds of motor parts and lead into the belly of the smallmouth and closed its gullet with a treble hook. John swore to this, stating the fish actually weighed only 8 pounds, 15 ounces, but was asked by Cedar Hill Resort owner Dick Roberts to “fix it up good.” When Raymond submitted this affidavit to the Army Corps of Engineers in 1955, they made a copy of the record but gave back the original as they had no authority in keeping fishing records. The matter seemed over and the record stood.

World Record Smallmouth Bass holder David Hayes (right)
World Record Smallmouth Bass holder David Hayes (right). Photo by Ed Harp at theohioriver.com

In the mid 90’s an assistant principal of a school in Livingston, TN invited David Hayes to bring his record breaking mount to an outdoors show. David obliged and that’s where Eldon Davis and a few others attending examined the size of the fish and concluded, in their minds, the fish was not big enough to weigh 11 pounds 15 ounces. Bothered by this, Eldon and the others began their own investigation into the fish. That’s when they stumbled upon the old affidavit, implicating fraud on David Hayes’ fish. Eldon Davis ended up reaching John Barlow and subjected John to a polygraph test administered by a private firm, using questions Eldon created for it. John Barlow passed the test, and the results of Eldon’s research were sent to the Internation Game Fish Association (IGFA) and others to dispute the record. Despite the fact that no one from the IGFA bothered to follow up this research and investigate David Hayes’ claims on their own, within a few months of the outdoors show David’s record was wiped from the books. It took a call from a writer at Bassmasters in 1996 to alert David of what happened.

Ron Fox, assistant directory of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, investigated the claims in the summer of 1996 to either confirm or refute the findings of Eldon Davis. Fox expected his investigation to be brief with a swift conclusion that the weight was a hoax, but as he dug deeper into it, he found the investigation anything but standard operation. Fox spoke with Bobby Clark, the night clerk at the Cedar Hill Resort at the time who had taken several photos and was there when the fish was weighed. He was convinced the fish was not tampered in any way. Then there was Lightnin’ Madison, the clerk at Wisdom dock who also emphatically denied the weight was anything other than 11 pounds, 15 ounces. Finally, and most importantly, Fox spoke with Ira Barlow, brother of John. Ira denied any wrongdoing, despite being implicated in the affidavit, and stated his brother was upset with Dick Roberts who fired him from Cedar Hill. John, upset at what happened, used the record as a means to get back at Dick. Ira was given the opportunity to take a polygraph from a licensed examiner and passed.

It took some convincing, but the efforts of Ron Fox and an investigation from the IGFA helped overturn their original decision and in 2005, the David Hayes smallmouth was once again recognized as the World Record Smallmouth Bass. What does any of this mean for David? Not much, according to reports. He always felt his fish was legitimate, and knew in his mind that he had the record despite the nearly 10 years of being off the list. Record or not, the truth is David caught one heck of a fish. And if you’re in the Dale Hollow Lake area, take a trip and try your luck. You never know, you just may end up with the next world record smallmouth bass.

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