WORLD RECORD WALLEYE

World Record Walleye from Greer's Ferry LakeThe walleye at the top of this trophy case was caught in 1982 by Al Nelson of Higden during a tournament sponsored by Pepsi Cola and Fairfield Bay on Greer's Ferry Lake. The weight was 22 pounds 11 ounces. A new state record, it replaced a 21 pound 12 ounce runt caught in 1979 on the same lake. And by the way, that runt is the fish in the lower part of the display. It looks to me like the 14 ounce difference in the weights of these two fish could be attributed entirely to roe.

More than ten years later, Al Nelson's fish became a world record. Here's how that happened.

Since 1960 a 25 pounder from Old Hickory Lake, Tennessee, held the world record, and the International Game Fish Association still regards it as such. However in the mid 1990's Ted Dzialo of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and publisher of the Official World and USA State Freshwater Angling Records was informed of a photometric analysis that cast some doubt on the validity of the claim of the Tennessee fish.

Here's a simple example of how such a photometric analysis might work. You've got a picture of the fish lying on a picnic table and surrounding it are all kinds of miscellaneous things, a pocket knife, a pack of smokes, a soda can, a stick of gum. You pick out something that is the same distance from the camera as the fish and then you use that to measure the fish. Once you mark out that the fish is so many sticks of gum long, you can apply that high school algebra that you never thought you'd use and figure the length of the fish in inches. Then you go to tournament records and find all the officially verified fish that were that length and you see how much they weighed.

When the photo analysts did that, they found that all the other fish of that length were in the 16-18 pound range. In order for the Tennessee fish to be as big as claimed it had to be 30% fatter than the next fattest fish of the same length. From other photo measurements it didn't look like the Tennessee fish was that much broader than the other fish of similar length. On top of that there was no confirmation of the weight by official sources on officially calibrated scales to offset the doubt created by the photographic measurements. Mr. Dzialo found the evidence persuasive enough to disqualify the Tennessee fish in his publication not because it was proven to be underweight, but because there was no longer enough evidence to support the claim that it weighed 25 pounds.

Mr. Dzialo wrote to all the state wildlife agencies and to the IGFA informing them of his decision. Some states list the Tennessee fish as tops, others list the Arkansas fish as tops.

Too bad for Al Nelson that this didn't happen before 1982, because although the tournament paid him $10,000 for setting a new state record, the prize for setting a new world record would have been $25,000. There's no way he can hold the tournament responsible for that kind of cash fifteen to twenty years after the fact, but I'm sure it crossed his mind.

I spoke with Tim Churchill at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and although he was aware of the controversey based on photographic evidence, he was unaware that one of the recordkeeping organizations had disqualified the Tennessee fish. They still claim the world record.

I had a notion that the controversey could be settled by Archimedes. Assuming that walleye are neutrally buoyant, just fill a plastic trash can with water and then immerse the taxidermist's mount. The weight of the water that spills out over the side is equal to the weight of the fish. There might be some error introduced by the taxidermist, but not seven pounds worth. I called the marina at Old Hickory Lake, TN, to find out if the mount had been preserved. The guy that answered the phone said he didn't even know if the fish was ever mounted.

That just seems odd to me. I can not imagine a southerner catching a world record anything and not having it mounted.

Walleye tournaments in Arkansas take two forms. The type of tournaments held on Greer's Ferry run 24/7 for four to six weeks. Prizes are given weekly for big fish and sometimes for the biggest stringer of smaller fish. Because it's such a marathon the entries are practically all local. This year's tournament runs from noon on 12 February to noon on 12 March. For information call the Fairfield Bay Marina at 501-884-6030.

Nelson caught his fish at 10pm on March 14 during the fifth week of a six week tournament on a rainbow trout colored magnum bomber near the mouth of Pee Dee Creek on the South Fork of the Little Red. The fog on the lake was so dense that it took him four hours to get back to the Marina and it was two more hours before a tournament official (Carl Perrin, state fisheries biologist) arrived to weigh it in. (Note: AGFC literature says it was caught on the 12th, but I went with the date reported in the C.C. Times.)

Nelson's won a thousand bucks as tournament champ plus the ten thousand for boosting the state record.

Second place, Jesse Finch caught a 19lb-15oz and won a graph recorder.

Third place, Irma Windorff caught one 19lb-5oz for a MonArk boat.

Three other weekly winners weighed in at 10-8, 10-12 and 18-8 and each claimed a classy assortment of tackle.

Willie Bradley of Shirley caught an 18-2,but he picked the wrong week and lost out to Richard Bryer of Roe, who turned an 18-8. Irma Windorff's 19-5 was caught on 6 pound test line.

This year's tournament runs from 12 February to 12 March. For details call Fairfield Bay Marina at 1-501-884-6030. Prize money is not so big any more, but Don Brader (Hatchery Manager/Warm Water Coordinator of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission) tells me that we're unlikely ever to see another 22 pound-plus walleye come from Arkansas waters. In the olden days before the big water projects of the 1950's and 1960's, Arkansans didn't fish for walleye at all. Walleye thrive in colder climates. There were a few around in the rivers struggling to survive among species better adapted to the warm southern waters, but local populations were just hanging on.

Then came the construction of huge flood control impoundments, giant deepwater lakes like Bull Shoals, Ouachita and Greer's Ferry. Suddenly there was an abundance of deep cold water suited to walleye and less suited to the species that had heretofore outcompeted it. On top of that, Arkansans had never fished for walleye since they were not a significant species in the warm rivers.

As a result, the populations of walleye grew for years without significant fishing pressure in a new and peculiarly benevolent environment. Until the locals discovered them in the late 1970's, these fish became numerous and large. The secret has been out for thirty years now and the glory days are over. The giants are all gone and the trophy hunters take the rest before they reach that mythic size.

I called the Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock (1-870-445-4424) to ask about their tournaments. They've got two this year (the FLW in April and the PWT in May), and the guy on the phone told me that a spear fisherman will occasionally bring in a 15 pounder. In their first walleye tournament last year the big fish were running in the 8-9 pound range and that over the three days, some 120 boats weighed about a thousand fish.

If you want to view the taxidermist's mount of Al Nelson's World Record Walleye, go to the visitor information center at Fairfield Bay. Take highway 16 north from the town of Greer's Ferry.

Incidentally, Greer's Ferry Lake is filled by the waters of the Little Red River, from which Rip Collins pulled the World Record Brown Trout in 1992. Must be something in the water.

RTJ--2/1/2005


SOURCES:

Cleburne County Times: 3March82 9A:1, 24Feb82 6B:1, 10Mar82 3C:1, 24Mar82 4B:1, 31Mar82 7A:1.

Arkansas Gazette: 16Mar82 2D, no article - photo with caption

UPDATE

I ran across the articles below while looking for material on the world record hybrid striped bass. Here are some of the new facts.

Nelson always claimed in the 1982 articles to have caught his fish in the South Fork of the Little Red River, but says in the ArDemGaz 1996 articles that he never told anybody where he really caught it. He also says that it didn't put up a world record fight, that he thought he was dragging up a log until he saw it's eyes; and then for a moment he thought he might have hooked a small alligator.

The taxidermist, in order to get the job of mounting the fish, had to promise Nelson that he would save the meat. At first the taxidermist refused. Apparently that was either against shop policy or against the law, but Nelson got his way. The meat was served to a private party of fifteen to eighteen of Nelson's friends at the Red Rooster Restaurant, which Nelson owned at the time.

The article in Outdoor Life is a detailed account of the photographic analysis that resulted in the disqualification of the Tennessee fish caught by Mabry Harper.

The analysis is really really convincing. There are a lot of suspicious circumstances surrounding the Harper fish, miscalibrated scales, lack of witnesses or verification by state wildlife officials, refusal by the angler to let anybody measure the mounted fish and so on. People had been suspicous of the Tennessee fish for a long time. The only thing the author had to go on was a single photograph of the angler holding his catch. Dick Sternberg, a Minnesota fisheries biologist in charge of that state's record fish program, measured the span across the fisherman's knuckles and used that to determine the length of the fish. Even assuming Harper to have very large hands, the fish had to be several inches shorter than Harper had reported.

On top of that, if the fish had been the dimensions Harper had claimed, it would have weighed something on the order of forty pounds.

The article shows the picture of Harper holding his fish. Next to that photo is a picture of a man holding a replica that was built to the specifications given by Harper when he applied for official recognition of his record. The replica fish is very obviously much larger.

As of 1996, three of the five largest walleyes ever caught were caught in Arkansas.

RTJ -- 6/17/2005


SOURCES:

Sternberg, Dick; "Walleye Record Hoax," Outdoor Life, June 1996, pp. 66-67.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: 15Sep1996, section C, page 1.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: 15Sep1996, section C, page 15.

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