HAYWARD, WIS. – At 3 o’clock on a rainy afternoon last week, the Moccasin Bar here was crowded with patrons hoisting cold ones.
The Moccasin has been a Hayward beer joint since 1900, when Hamm’s Brewing ponied up cold cash to buy the prime downtown storefront location at the intersection of Hwys. 63 and 27.
Not until 1935 did the famous, and infamous, Louie Spray become owner, rebranding the saloon as Spray’s Bar & Grill.
For reasons that will become evident as this tale unwinds, Harry P. “Bud” Grant, the retired Vikings coach who was born and bred in Superior, Wis., was 8 years old when Spray’s namesake roadhouse debuted.
Grant, now 92, was at the time too young to be a muskie fisherman. But Spray regularly hunted these giant fish, and amid controversy that would drag on for decades, in 1949 he claimed to have legally landed a 69-pound, 11-ounce behemoth in the Chippewa Flowage that in some circles is still recognized as the “world’s largest muskie.”
A onetime bootlegger, Spray wasn’t the easiest person to believe when the topic was big fish. That didn’t make him unique in Hayward, whose reputation for tall tales and dime-store skulduggery was forged beginning in the 1920s, when Chicago mobster Al Capone bought 400 acres on nearby Pike Lake to escape the watchful eye of Eliot Ness and his Untouchables.
Beginning in his early teens, Grant routinely trekked from his home in Superior to lakes across northwest Wisconsin in search of fish that eventually would include muskies. These mini-adventures continued during Grant’s time at the U, and afterward, when in summer he would hire out his right arm to pitch town ball for Spooner, or perhaps Rice Lake, Hayward or Gordon, inveterately winning before settling in, postgame, to cast Bass-Orenos or Lazy Ikes on local lakes.
Sid Hartman, then a young sportswriter for the Minneapolis Tribune, accompanied Grant on some of the trips.
“One of my favorite lakes was Middle Eau Claire, where a man named Hank Baroo owned Sportsman’s Resort,” Grant said. “He let me do odd jobs in exchange for occasional use of a row boat, so I could go fishing.”
Baroo, Grant recalls, had been a bootlegger who had “done time in Waupon [State Prison, as it was called at the time].” Sometimes, Grant said, Baroo filled his bar’s Lord Calvert bottles with homemade hooch before peddling the inebriant to unsuspecting customers at premium prices.
“But he was a good guy,” Grant said. “We got along.”
It was on Middle Eau Claire Lake that Grant was fishing one summer day when he hooked a muskie that when it surfaced was nearly the length of his borrowed boat.
“It was bigger than any muskie I have ever seen, before or since,” Grant said.
For a long while, Grant fought the fish and nearly boated it before it dived deep, twisted its snout and broke Grant’s braided line.
• • •
A major attraction of the Moccasin Bar is its display of the “world record” muskie.
But it’s not Spray’s muskie, which was destroyed in a 1959 fire, that wins the establishment’s top billing. Instead it’s another 1949 esox masquinongy specimen caught by Cal Johnson, who was at the time, like Spray, a well-known Hayward-area muskie seeker.
Johnson’s fish is recognized by the Florida-based International Game Fish Association (IGFA) as the world’s top muskie, even though at 67 pounds, 8 ounces, it weighed about 2 pounds less than Spray’s 69-pound, 11-ounce fish.
(Spray’s muskie, meanwhile, is recognized as the world’s largest by the Hayward-based Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum and by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as the Wisconsin state record.)
A professional fisherman and longtime Sports Afield outdoors scribe, Cal Johnson originally said that, at the time of his record catch, his son, Phil, and Jack Connor, then the Minneapolis Tribune outdoors writer, were fishing together in a boat July 24, 1949, on Lac Courte Oreilles, a popular Hayward-area fishing lake.
Phil Johnson was rowing, with Connor in the bow and the elder Johnson in the stern, trolling a Pike-Oreno with 30-pound-test line. When the big muskie hit, Cal Johnson fought it for 30 minutes before his son jumped overboard in waist-deep water to gaff the beast and wrestle it to shore.
Johnson’s tale unraveled a bit when Connor later admitted he wasn’t in the boat. Eventually, so much doubt was sowed about the catch that the Milwaukee Sentinel’s outdoors editor, Lew Morrison, weighed in, according to research conducted by noted muskie historian Larry Ramsell (larryramsell.com).
“The Sentinel is vitally interested in this world’s record muskie, because it represents a most valuable asset to the state’s recreational interests,” Morrison opined. “Any shenanigans should be exposed. But likewise, if the catch was on the up and up, as the real facts reveal it to be, unwarranted rumors can bring irreparable harm to the entire state. In view of what transpired lately, the Sentinel moved into action, determined to get to the bottom of things.
“All of the facts, without a single exception, clearly and conclusively prove beyond the slightest shadow of doubt that the world’s record muskie taken by Cal Johnson in Lac Courte Oreilles on the morning of July 24, was legally caught, accurately weighed and measured.”
Notably, Morrison then added:
“It might clarify several things if it is pointed out here that the Sentinel made an agreement with Cal Johnson on the Monday forenoon following the catch whereby the Sentinel obtained the exclusive rights to exhibit the fish in Wisconsin. The first showing of this world’s record muskie in Wisconsin therefore, will be at the Sentinel Sports and Vacation show next April.”
• • •
To hold the IGFA “world record” muskie title 70 years, Johnson’s fish has had to overcome the claimed greater weight of Spray’s 1949 fish, as well as world-record assertions by anglers of at least two other catches:
• One in 1954 by Robert Malo, who boasted he landed a 70-pound, 4-ounce monster from Middle Eau Claire Lake.
• And a 1957 muskie claimed to weigh 69 pounds, 15 ounces, taken by Canadian Art Lawton from the St. Lawrence River.
Spray’s muskie first: Having survived a number of fraud allegations, it remains the top muskie recognized by the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward. The IGFA, however, rules out Spray’s muskie because it was dispatched by a pistol while alongside the boat. Legal then in Wisconsin, the practice violates IGFA rules.
The Lawton muskie, meanwhile, was for a time designated the world’s largest but was disqualified after questions arose about the photo of the fish Lawton submitted for record consideration.
Enter then the Malo muskie, which Grant believes he once hooked and nearly boated.
“That’s been nearly 70 years ago,” Grant said. “I can’t remember exactly when I hooked the fish. But it wasn’t too much longer afterward that the muskie was caught.”
Malo, a Thunder Bay, Ontario, resident, and his wife, Sally, were vacationing at Baroo’s resort on June 5, 1954, when, after a night of partying, Malo, in a boat at 4 a.m. with another resort guest, George Cruise of Chicago, hooked the big muskie.
After beaching the fish, Malo shot it with a pistol.
Perhaps sober, perhaps not, Malo, Cruise and Baroo rushed the muskie to Storey Taxidermy in Duluth, where Malo bequeathed the prize to Baroo in exchange for lifetime vacation rights at Sportsman’s Resort. Baroo, in turn, hoped the fish was a world record and that its stuffed facsimile would attract customers to his resort.
By the Duluth taxidermist’s scale, the fish weighed 70 pounds, 4 ounces. But before the weight could be certified, the taxidermist slit it open and skinned it.
• • •
After stopping at the Moccasin Bar the other day, I drove about 17 miles east to the Chippewa Flowage.
On that historic body of water sits Dun Rovin Lodge, a well-kept North Woods retreat, replete with spacious bar and restaurant.
In the latter establishment, behind glass, is Malo’s muskie.
But unlike Cal Johnson’s much ballyhooed record fish at the Moccasin Bar, no newspaper clippings explain the Malo fish’s presence or its storied history.
Hank Baroo had spent the last years of his life trying to gain world record recognition for his Middle Eau Claire Lake muskie. He never succeeded, and he died in 1959 of a heart attack. For the next 25 years, according to a 1990 story about the fish in Sports Illustrated, the muskie lay forgotten in the basement of Baroo’s widow.
From his cabin last week about an hour distant from the Chippewa Flowage, Grant pondered the fish’s fate, and how, if he had caught it, his muskie, not Louie Spray’s, might have been the world record.
“People talked about that muskie for years, but gradually the stories faded away. But I remember it. And I know that many years ago, I had the world’s biggest muskie on the end of my line.
“Who knows? If I had caught it, I might have been a muskie guide.”