It seems as though no sport is free of some sort of controversy these days. Which horse really won the Kentucky Derby? Should the Saints really have gone on to play in the Super Bowl instead of the Rams? It’s becoming all too common, but competition and controversy have always gone hand in hand.
In the fishing world, one of these controversies started when a plumber named Mabry Harper headed down to Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee to try to catch a catfish or two for supper back in 1960. He carried a stout rod loaded with 75 pound test line. No ultra-light stuff when dinner is on the line for Mabry.
His rod bowed down and instead of the big flathead or blue cat he expected, something long, green and scaley emerged from the depths. It was a walleye.
When the TVA lakes and other impoundments were built in America’s mid-south biologists didn’t know exactly what sort of fish would prosper in the lakes. So they dumped in everything from bluegills to bass and muskies, including walleyes.
Walleyes prospered in many of the lakes, still do, but few of them have ever become popular walleye destinations. Old Hickory is such a lake.
Walleye were there, but few people targeted them and even fewer actually caught them. Mabry recognized what he’d caught and also realized it was a whopper. So instead of just hauling it to the chopping block, he stopped by a lake side tackle shop to get it weighed, measured and photographed.
Here in lies the beginnings of the controversy. First, the scale used to weigh the fish wasn’t “certified” so perhaps it was off a few ounces or a few pounds. A Tennessee game warden was summoned and later attested he’d checked the scale personally, shortly after the weigh-in and found it to be spot on. He also attested to watching the fish being measured and the reported 41 inch length was correct.
How much does a 41 inch walleye weigh? A couple ounces past 25 pounds said the scale. That’s way past the 22 pound record at the time and for 35 years or so, the Mabry walleye reigned as the all tackle world record.
Then in the middle 1990s a writer for Field and Stream magazine started a controversy based on the lone photo thought to exist of the Mabry fish. There’s no taxidermied specimen to examine. Mabry stuffed himself with the walleye for dinner the night it was caught. There’s hardly a better meal than a freshly caught walleye, regardless of whether it’s a world record or not.
The F&S article attacked the veracity of the claim to the title based on the photo which accompanied the world record entry. The author measured the width of Harper’s hands holding the fish, then based on the average finger-span of an average man, extrapolated the claim of the fish to measure 41 inches couldn’t be true. He further claimed if the 41-inch length was false, so was the weight. Besides, in truth, the fish just doesn’t look all that large in the photo.
Evidently, the record keeping committee at the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame thought the F&S article cast enough doubt on the record to have it expunged from the record list. Now it’s back at the top.
Additional photos of the Mabry walleye were found recently and in those photos, with Mrs. Mabry holding the fish in a different pose and against an identifiable background, the fish looks huge. The fish looks every inch a 41-incher and based on the known dimensions of the car in the background, it probably is 41-inches. The clincher was a photo of the fish’s head with a measuring stick showing clearly the length of the head from the nose to where the body was cut off when the fish was being butchered.
A recent release by the current governing board at the FWFHOF stated, “So let the record be known in the walleye world that the world record walleye of 25 pounds which measured 41 inches in length was caught by Mabry Harper in the great state of Tennessee in 1960.”