The biggest smallmouth … ever

David L. Hayes is an avid sportfisherman who holds the distinction of having caught the world’s largest smallmouth bass. A narrative of how Hayes caught the 11-pound, 15-ounce fish back in 1955 is presented.

Well, maybe you’ve never heard of Mr. Hayes, but the record he set in 1955 outdid those other great moments in sports, not only unseating a current titleholder but establishing a record now forty years old and conceivably untouchable.

What David L. Hayes did was catch a smallmouth bass weighing 11 pounds 15 ounces, and if he isn’t famous because of it, he doesn’t much care. While people fuss over the micropterus that can’t hold a fighting candle to the smallmouth variety, Hayes can glance at the wall of his Kentucky home and know that the skin-mounted monster fish hanging on a plaque is the all-time, all-world, all-tackle top smallmouth bass. The other bass record. And in 1955 he caught it.

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The date was July 9; the place, Dale Hollow Lake, in Kentucky water at a spot close to the boundary with Tennessee. Both states claim the record, but Hayes, now seventy years old, is diplomatic. “I tell people the fish was caught in Kentucky, since I’m from Kentucky,” he says, “but most of the lake is in Tennessee. So to make everybody happy I often say [it was caught in] Kentucky-Tennessee.”

Hayes started fishing Dale Hollow in 1952 when the 31,000-acre flood-control reservoir was only nine years old. Like most new lakes it was hot, and fishing for many species was good. His neighbor and fishing buddy, the late Morris Willis, and other friends had been fishing Dale Hollow regularly and got Hayes into it too. He learned good fishing places and techniques from them. They primarily fished on weekends and often stayed on the water overnight. “Morris didn’t like to fish at night,” says Hayes, “so we’d pull up into a cove and sack out for the night and get up at daylight and start fishing. We’d fish pretty religiously all summer. Hit the hotspots and catch lots of fish.”

When it was hot in the summer the fish went deep, and the men perfected trolling with long lines and deep-diving Bomber plugs, then made out of wood.

Hayes says that Willis had the record bass on in the summer of 1954, but lost it when it jumped and threw the hooks. Hayes wasn’t along at the time, but “In November of ’54 a couple of us went down there camping,” says Hayes. “Came 4 inches of snow and 19-degree temperature. I hooked that fish – I’m pretty sure it was the same fish – and lost him trolling. My friend Whitney had a smallmouth on and he lost it, and we lost the propeller off the engine at the same time. We did real good.”

So they knew where a monster smallmouth lived, and the next year they fished for it, mostly on weekends. But there was a problem. “Every time we went [to that spot] we couldn’t troll like we wanted to. There was a cove right beside the point where this fish lived. And there was an elderly couple who would row out and set their bobber way out in the cove and then row back and sit in chairs on the bank. So we couldn’t get in there like we wanted to.”

The area they needed to fish was 17 feet deep. It was a place where they caught walleyes, largemouth bass, and Kentucky bass, but not a lot of smallmouths. The action in this part of Dale Hollow centered on several points that existed over a distance of about half a.mile. One point, which had shale on it, was especially productive. That was the one they’d been unable to fish properly. That was the home of the world-record smallmouth.

Hayes and his friends had refined their summer trolling. Hayes used a steel level-wind Penn reel and a True Temper rod with a very limber tip. “You could tell exactly what the Bomber was doing,” he says, “whether it was working right, when it was hitting the bottom, how hard it was hitting. I later bought a few fiberglass rods that I thought would do the job, but none of them worked like that steel rod.” He was also using the standard line of that era, Ashaway, in 20-pound strength so he wouldn’t lose so many Bombers when he hung up. “If you got too big a line, it wouldn’t go down good and too small a line you’d lose your plug. So 20-pound-test was a compromise.”

His boat was a 21-foot aluminum Lonestar cruiser with a small cuddy deck. Hayes sold boats and motors as a sideline to keep himself in boats and motors. The motor on this boat was a 40-hp Mercury, and, according to Hayes, it took about a box of sparkplugs a day to keep it cleared out.

“They weren’t like they are now,” he says. “Back in those days we had fishing boats and small motors. Now they’ve got speed boats and big motors. They have to get where they’re gonna fish in 30 seconds. They don’t boat there, they fly.”

Speed may not have been Hayes’s game, but efficiency was. That was an early era for boat electronics, yet he used a depthfinder and fished with it faithfully. “We were using some of the modern methods they use now back then. We’d find new spots to fish with the depthfinder. We used it to find similar structure. It seemed to work pretty good for us.”

While it seems that Hayes and his friends were pretty astute anglers, that’s not how Hayes sees it. “You’ve got to have 10 percent skill and 90 percent luck to catch fish,” he says.

He had plenty of both that year on July 9.

Hayes and his wife and seven-year-old son had gotten up very early that day, driven 100 miles to Dale Hollow, and then boated 17 miles up the lake in time for a 6 to 7 A.M. start. His first good fortune was to find that the old couple on the bank weren’t there.

While trolling he picked up a walleye early, but lost it when his wife tried to net it. It was not a particularly big fish as Hayes now recalls it. “We caught some nice walleyes in Dale Hollow back in those days,” he says. “I lost the biggest one I ever hooked. My reel came apart and I hand-lined him in and the net was too small. He was probably about 16 or 17 pounds. I did catch a 12-pound walleye in the spring one year. I caught a lot of 10s, 9s, and 8s there, too.”

Around 10 o’clock on this clear day, while his tired wife and son napped in the boat, Hayes hooked the smallmouth of the century and thought at first that he’d snagged bottom. His pattern for bass was to troll a pearl-colored 600 series Bomber nearly 300 feet behind the boat, so the bass and he were far apart when the fight began.

Hayes didn’t stop the boat while he was playing the bass because he thought that he’d surely lose the fish if he stopped. “It took about 20 minutes I guess to land him,” says Hayes. “He only jumped one time, about 3 feet out of the water. He shook his ol’head, and I thought, Oh, boy, I bet he’s gone.”

When the fish tired, it wallowed on the surface behind the boat, then dove. Hayes turned the boat sharply so the bass floated up, and he scooped it in. “If I’d had a rotten net, I wouldn’t have gotten him. But he sure came to life. He got enough rest and was ready to go again.”

The bass had torn a treble hook out of the plug and was barely impaled by one point from the other treble.

The threesome continued fishing until about noon but caught nothing further. Hayes put the humongous bass in a cooler that was “a little bit small.” Rigor morris set in and by the time he returned to the Cedar Hill boat dock the smallmouth was well-bowed. At the dock it weighed 11 pounds 15 ounces, which exceeded the current world record by an astonishing 1 pound 7 ounces, with a 27-inch length and 21 2/3-inch girth.

According to Hayes, the dock owner took a Polaroid photograph of the fish. Other photos would be taken later of a frozen or mounted bass, but this was the only picture of the fish while it was fresh. The bass was left for a week with the dock manager, who was going to send it off to be mounted. But Hayes brought the fish home a week later and took it to a taxidermist. During the week a Tennessee fisheries biologist checked the fish and said it was about thirteen years old.

Thanks to the dock manager, Hayes entered his bass in the Field & Stream Fishing Contest. He would win the smallmouth division, of course, receiving a pin, a $100 savings bond, and one paragraph of notoriety the following March. He would also get a world-record-holder certificate.

And that was about all Hayes received for his catch, although he says that Bomber sent him all the lures he needed. But he didn’t expect much either.

“Everybody wanted everything free back in those days,” he says. “A few years later I caught a 6-pound smallmouth at Dale Hollow and entered it in newspaper contests in Cincinnati and Louisville. I won both contests and actually got more gifts and things from that fish than from the world record.”

Although just half the size of his record fish, the 6-pounder was the second-largest smallmouth Hayes would ever catch. He would catch an 8-pound largemouth bass from Dale Hollow, a significant fish for that lake, as well as some big walleyes, but he never caught another smallmouth over 6 pounds.

Over the years quite a few articles were written about Hayes and his awesome catch. For a long time every summer when it got hot and fishing was in the doldrums a sportswriter for a Louisville newspaper would rerun the story. A lot of people phoned him, too. In an era before tape-recorded phone messages he spoke to everyone, and made a mimeograph copy of things people wanted to know, which he provided to those who sent a stamped self-addressed envelope.

He continued fishing at Dale Hollow, and with his friends got into “more sporty” bass fishing, locating good bass concentrations, anchoring, and using the newly available plastic worm to catch them. He stopped fishing Dale Hollow in the early ’70s and never returned. The fishing seemed past its peak, and he was tired of the long drive. He found good fishing closer to home.

David L. Hayes would eventually quit fishing altogether. He successfully battled cancer in the early 1980s, but his fishing buddies had passed away.

He had taken up flying in 1947 and had owned several planes before he quit the hobby. But in the mid-’80s, needing something to do with his hands, he started building and flying ultralight planes. George Perry, who caught the world record largemouth bass in 1932, was also a pilot and plane owner. Hayes agrees that this is an unusual coincidence, but he maintains that God does not deduct from man’s allotted time either the hours spent fishing or flying.

Hayes and his wife have spent recent winters in Florida, where they own a condo, and he’s done some largemouth bass and saltwater fishing. “I catch pretty nice bass in a nearby lake,” he says, “and they are as feisty as smallmouths. They want to come up and shake their head off. That’s what makes it fun.”

Does he think 11 pounds 15 ounces will ever be surpassed? Maybe. Although he hasn’t kept up on Dale Hollow, he thinks that could be the place. Or maybe one day Kentucky Lake.

And what about the record mount? Hayes still has it. Some years ago an acquaintance arranged for a fellow from Chicago, who was a foremost museum taxidermist, to restore what had become a “ratty-looking” record mount.

“He did a beautiful job of restoring it and getting it in great shape,” says Hayes. “He knew what he was doing, except for one thing. A Dale Hollow smallmouth does not have any green across the top and he painted it green on top.

“I took it down to Livingston, Tennessee, one time for a meeting in a high school, and this ol’ Dale Hollow fisherman came in and said, ‘That fish didn’t come out of Dale Hollow, there’s too much green on it.’ I told him, ‘The bass came from Dale Hollow, but the green came from Chicago.'”

RELATED ARTICLE: THE RECORD WALLEYE

Smallmouth world-record holder David L. Hayes remembers when the all-tackle world-record walleye was caught thirty-five years ago. “The guy was fixing to cut it up,” says Hayes, “when someone said, ‘Let’s weigh that thing. I understand he ate it.”

Tennessean Mabry C, Harper did eat the 25-pound walleye that he caught near Second Creek Resort at Old Hickory Lake, Tennessee, on August 1, 1960. The person who suggested weighing it was his wife.

The fish was weighed at Second Creek Resort, whose American family scales registered the monster walleye at 25 pounds 4 ounces. Evidently Harper dressed the fish shortly after weighing it. Later the scales were taken to the Reece Food Market in Hartsville and checked against their Toledo honest weight scales. A 25-pound sack of flour was placed on the family scales and found to weigh 25 pounds 4 ounces. The same sack weighed exactly 25 pounds on the Toledo scale.

Dr. Glenn Gentry, Chief of Fish Management for the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission, visited Second Creek Resort two days after Harper’s catch. He reported that the record walleye had in fact been dressed and eaten. but that the head was still on ice. He confirmed that the fish was a walleye and noted that the head was larger than the head of a 22-pound 8-ounce mounted walleye in his office.

According to Gentry, Harper claimed to have caught the fish on 75-pound monofilament line, using a 6/0 hook baited with a large steelback minnow, after a 45- to 50-minute fight.

Gentry commented that Harper “was not too excited about the fish since he has caught many large fish, and did not stop fishing. Fortunately, his wife took the fish and had it weighed.”

The Field & Stream Fishing Contest and World Record listing, published in March 1961, indicates that Harper caught the fish using a Betts rod, Pflueger reel, Pflueger line, and live bait. The previous world-record walleye was a 22-pound 4-ounce fish caught on May 26, 1943, at Fort Erie, Ontario. Fort Erie is at the extreme eastern end of Lake Erie, at the headwater of the Niagara River. The largest known walleye since Harper’s catch is a 22-pound 11-ounce specimen caught at Greer’s Ferry Lake, Arkansas, on March 14, 1982.

– Ken Schultz

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