HAYWARD, WIS. -- This is the fish tale of a record that almost got away -- 56 years after the fact.
The 69-pound, 11-ounce, 63½-inch muskellunge caught in 1949 by Louis Spray, a known Prohibition-era bootlegger, is probably the most scrutinized muskie ever caught, said Emmett Brown, executive director of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward. And despite those who have cried foul, it's a catch that will continue to be recognized, Hall of Fame members voted Monday.
Behind Brown was a life-size black-and-white photo of Spray, who was recognized as the Babe Ruth of muskie anglers, holding his record catch. But other than photos and signed affidavits from people who claim they saw the fish, that's all that's left of Spray's prize catch.
Chin Whiskered Charlie, caught in the Chippewa Flowage in northern Wisconsin, was destroyed in a fire in 1959. Spray, too, is gone; he committed suicide at the age of 84 in 1984.
But the controversy lives on, and came to a head last October when a group known as the World Record Muskie Alliance presented a report to the Hall of Fame, alleging that the size of Spray's fish had been falsified and should be expunged from the record books.
The group said that Spray likely forced 25 pounds of ice inside the fish to balloon it to a record weight, knowing that the ice would have melted before a taxidermist was given the muskie to preserve.
Adding to the dispute were the published observations of a University of Minnesota mathematician, who concluded after looking at a photo of Spray and Charlie that the fish couldn't have been as tall as Spray claimed.
"I don't know how you dispute a record that has stood since 1949," Doug Arnold, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, said from his home in the Twin Cities before members of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame met to draw their own conclusions.
Members of the Hall of Fame may not have agreed with Arnold's measurements, but they agreed with his logic. Of the 11 prospective voters, eight upheld Spray's record, two declined to vote, and one voter abstained.
"The all-tackle world record will not be overturned," Brown said. "In many ways, it's further validated."
The challenger to the record
Encased to Brown's left was the challenger to the record -- a mounted version of the previous record holder, a 67½-pounder, also caught in 1949, by the late Cal Johnson, a former Minneapolis sportswriter.
But Monday also was the day for Spray's fishing legend to grow -- or shrink, depending on your frame of reference.
Arnold concluded that camera angles and distance may have distorted the actual size of the Spray's catch.
"I don't know how long it actually was, but it could not have been 63 inches," he said.
A Toronto-based company hired by the World Record Muskie Alliance came to the same conclusion -- looking at a different photo. That group claimed that the fish was closer to 53.6 inches tall, and not the 63½ inches that Spray claimed. The group also concluded the fish weighed no more than 55 pounds -- before Spray allegedly filled it with ice.
Impossible, said Brown. In 1949, there were no bags of ice cubes and it would take hours to chip 25 pounds off a block of ice and place the chunks inside a fish.
But the disputing group's expertise began to disappear when the "vanishing points" of the photos were discussed, Brown said. Among the experts who said that evidence from the photos was inconclusive was Bonnie Higgins, assistant professor of the Department of Technological Studies at Bemidji State University. "It's difficult to determine what is perpendicular," she wrote after examining one of the 1949 photos.