I’ve been a fish-record buff since I was a kid. Back then, I could recite the weight of every major world-record fish species and tell you where it was caught. “Same with me,” says Joe Fellegy, publisher of the Mille Lacs Fishing Digest and noted record snoop. “It was sort of like learning the multiplication tables.”
I was reminded of fish records and the mysteries that sometimes surround them when I read Dennis Anderson’s column in the Wednesday Star Tribune about the Minnesota northern pike record, which was set — authentically or not — in 1929. (Read the column at http://strib.mn/2rMF5D7.)
For many anglers, there’s a mystique surrounding fish records. So much so that some will do whatever it takes to get their name in the record book.
In the old days, record-keeping was pretty loose. If you caught a big fish and could get someone to sign a statement to back you up, there was a pretty good chance your record would be accepted.
That’s what happened with the Minnesota muskie record, and here’s how it was taken down: It started at a party, where I met famed waterfowler Jimmy Robinson. He claimed that the longtime record, a 56-pound, 8-ouncer caught on Lake of the Woods in 1931, was actually taken in Ontario. He said that he was there when the fish was caught, and he remembered an article in a northern Minnesota newspaper (he wasn’t sure which one) that told the whole story. Using microfilm newspaper records at the Minnesota Historical Society, I found the article he was talking about. It stated that the fish was caught in Sabaskong Bay, which is, in fact, in Ontario. The record was dumped in 1976 and replaced by a 54-pounder caught in Lake Winnibigoshish in 1957.
The largemouth bass record has a winding history. In the late ’70s, it was challenged by Fellegy, who became convinced that the record largemouth, a 10-pound, 2-ouncer caught in Itasca County’s Prairie Lake in 1961, was a Florida import. After an extensive investigation, the DNR gave the angler six months to come forward with documentation to support his catch. He never responded, so the record was dumped in 1982.
The DNR’s largemouth bass file revealed several candidates to replace the fallen record:
• A pair of 9-pound, 14-ouncers — one from Little Horseshoe Lake (no county given) in 1937, and another from Snail Lake in Ramsey County in 1948. For lack of documentation, these entries were bypassed.
• A 9-pound, 6.5-ounce largemouth taken in 1961 in Cedar Lake, near Whipholt. The fish placed first in the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press Fishing Contest in 1961, but there was a rub. It was caught by a woman from Florida, who happened to be the girlfriend of the fellow whose record had been disallowed in 1982. The same woman won the largemouth division of the St. Paul contest in 1960, and her boyfriend won in 1959. Either these anglers were incredibly lucky or all these bass were Florida imports.
• A 9-pound largemouth taken by a Minnetonka man in Lake Minnetonka in September 1982. His story was challenged by an informant, and when confronted by the DNR the angler said a dog had eaten the bass.
• A 9-pound, 4-ounce largemouth caught in 1978 by a 14-year-old boy in Lake Washington near Mankato became the record in 1982. Three years later, an informant claimed the fish had been found floating after ice-out. The angler voluntarily relinquished his record.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Linda Erickson Eastwood of the DNR. “We decided it was time to start from scratch, so we invited anglers to submit new largemouth bass entries.”
Another ill-fated attempt to claim the largemouth bass record came in September 1993, when an angler reported landing a largemouth 26 inches long on Lake Waconia. It supposedly weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces on a state-certified scale. A reporter asked to see the fish and was told first it was with a taxidermist, then that it was in a freezer. A photo of the angler with his catch should have given record-keepers a clue. His cap said, “I fish, therefore I lie.”
Fellegy was also involved in discrediting the state lake sturgeon record — twice. Fellegy’s research indicated that a 236-pounder caught in Lake of the Woods in 1911 was taken in a commercial net. That record was replaced by a 162½-pounder reportedly caught in the Rainy River in 1968, but when Fellegy interviewed the record holder, he admitted the fish had been hooked with a gaff in a rapids on the Little Fork River, which was closed to fishing.
There is little evidence to support the Minnesota black crappie record. In fact, nobody is really sure if it was a white crappie or a black crappie. The fish, 5 pounds even, was taken in the Vermillion River in Dakota County in 1940.
Of all Minnesota records, perhaps the best candidate for the ax is the yellow perch. The fish, a 3-pound, 4-ouncer, was caught in Lake Plantagenet in 1945 by Merle Johnson, a Minnesota fisheries biologist who freely admitted he had taken the fish in a net and entered it because there was no record listed.
If you’re getting the idea that the whole record-keeping process — state and world records included — is a can of worms, you’re right. The two organizations that keep the world-record books disagree on many of the important records. And the dubious records that are still on the books in Minnesota are not likely to change soon.
Dick Sternberg formerly served as senior fisheries biologist for the Minnesota DNR and was instrumental in establishing the state-record fish awards program. His work led to the disqualification of the world-record walleye. Sternberg has authored 22 fishing and hunting books and has been a contributing editor for Outdoor Life Magazine. A version of this story was first published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.