The case for David Hayes

Did this Kentucky angler catch the biggest smallmouth bass ever?

David Hayes

On a plaque outside David L. Hayes' Leitchfield, Ky., home are the words "One old fisherman lives here with the catch of his life." Whether the sign refers to Ruth, his wife of 64 years, or the gigantic smallmouth bass that hangs on his living room wall is anyone's guess. It's a question Hayes wryly refuses to answer.

Unfortunately for the 80-year-old angler, it's not the only question surrounding his trophy catch from Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee-Kentucky border 50 years ago. Controversy swirls around this fish that stood as the world record for more than 40 years and now splits the record keeping authorities squarely down the middle.

The International Game Fish Association, generally recognized as the authority on freshwater fishing records since taking over from Field & Stream in 1978, disqualified Hayes' catch in 1996. The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame did likewise the same year. In 1999, however, the Hall of Fame reinstated Hayes' catch. The IGFA has not budged.

Even the states involved in this tangled tale are on different pages. Kentucky disqualified the catch in the midst of the IGFA and Hall of Fame turmoil. Hayes still sits atop the Tennessee record book.

It's a controversy that confounds smallmouth fans and frustrates the small community of Celina, Tenn., where a remarkable series of events took place more than half a century ago.

The catch

The date was July 9, 1955, and David Hayes, his wife and their six-year-old son were spending the day on Dale Hollow Lake trolling a 600 series pearl Bomber for smallmouth and walleye. They'd been coming to "the Hollow" for about three years, and Hayes had gotten very good at summertime trolling — so good that he was occasionally followed by local guides and other anglers hoping to learn his secrets.

On July 9, however, things were slow. Hayes' favorite trolling runs were coming up empty … at least until he swung into a favorite cut between Illwill Creek and Phillips Bottom, just north of Trooper Island and in Kentucky waters.

"There were a couple of weed beds through there, and if you lined it up just right you could bring your plug right between them and keep it bumping the bottom."

Hayes had about 300 feet of line out when the big fish hit. At first he thought he was snagged. Then he felt the surge of a powerful fish.

It took several minutes with his Tru-Temper steel rod, Penn Peer 209 reel and 20-pound-test line to bring the bass boatside, but Hayes eventually put a net under the leviathan. "It was between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m.," he said.

"I had no idea it was a world record."

The controversy

The fastest, easiest way to be called a liar is to catch a giant fish. Make it a world record, and the detractors will beat a path to your door.

After Hayes swung his giant smallmouth aboard his 21-foot cruiser, he stowed the fish in a metal cooler he kept on the deck of the boat and went right back to fishing. The Hayes family liked to eat fish, and the day was still young.

Sometime around noon, Hayes was getting low on gas and decided to head to the nearest marina — Wisdom Dock, up Illwill Creek. When he got there, he was met by Granville "Lightnin' " Madison, a dockhand who filled Hayes' gas tank. When Madison asked if Hayes was having any luck, the angler was characteristically modest.

"I've got one pretty good smallmouth," Hayes said.

Madison asked if he could weigh it, and Hayes agreed. Unbeknownst to the angler, Kentucky Water Police Officer Oral Burtram was inside the marina and saw the fish on the scales. The smallmouth lacked an ounce of weighing 12 pounds.

From Wisdom Dock, Hayes headed down the lake to Cedar Hill Resort, where he maintained a slip for his boat. It was there that the story took an unfortunate turn.

Once again the fish was placed on the scales — this time they were certified — and once again the bass weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces. People who were there and saw the fish still marvel at its size.

Hayes' mistake was in letting the fish out of his sight. He let dockhands at Cedar Hill weigh it. Had he kept it under his control the entire time, he would likely have never lost his place in the record books.

More than a month later, on August 17, Raymond "Doughbelly" Barlow presented an affidavit to the Corp of Engineers office at Dale Hollow Lake. The document, sworn to by Doughbelly's nephew, John H. Barlow, claimed that Hayes' bass had been tampered with — that it really weighed only 8 pounds, 15 ounces and that Cedar Hill Resort owner Dick Roberts and John's own brother Ira had asked John (a one-time guide at Cedar Hill) to "fix it up good."

John claimed he shoved 3 pounds of motor parts and sinkers into the bass' gullet then pinned the fish's throat shut with a treble hook. After the alleged dirty work was done, the bass weighed 11-15 — the same as it had weighed at Wisdom Dock.

Because the Corps isn't involved in keeping fishing records, the affidavit was returned to Doughbelly and a copy kept in the Corps office. It would be more than 40 years before anyone looked at it again.

A record is undone

Hayes was firmly entrenched in the record books by the mid-1990s when a Livingston, Tenn., assistant principal invited him to display the fish at an outdoors show. Eldon Davis and a few others decided that Hayes' bass didn't look like it weighed nearly 12 pounds and began their own investigation.

Davis found the John Barlow affidavit and then found Barlow himself. Using a private polygrapher and a set of questions devised by Davis, John passed a lie detector test. He was never given a subsequent test by state officials.

Within a few months, Hayes' bass was stricken from the record books despite the fact that no one from IGFA bothered to get his version of events. Hayes learned of the disqualification when Bassmaster senior writer Colin Moore called to interview him in 1996.

Tennessee's due diligence

Whether or not David Hayes holds the world record for smallmouth bass, the record came from Dale Hollow Lake. Both the second (John Gorman's 10-14 in 1969) and third (Paul Beal's 10-8 in 1986) biggest bronzebacks were caught there.

So when Ron Fox, assistant director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, investigated the catch and controversy in the summer of 1996, it was with an eye to discovering the truth, not to defend a state icon.

"I thought the research would be brief and confirm that the fish was a hoax, but the more I looked into it, the more the bits and pieces added up to help us reach our decision to maintain the catch as a record."

Fox talked to all the living witnesses to the catch and weighing. He heard from Bobby Stone, the night clerk at Cedar Hill who slept each night on the freezer containing the fish until it was sent to a taxidermist. Stone also examined the fish on the day it was caught, had his photo taken with the fish numerous times after the weighing and stated unequivocally that the fish's gullet was not pinned shut with a treble hook or otherwise compromised.

Fox talked with Lightnin' Madison who saw the fish at Wisdom Dock and confirmed its weight at 11-15. He even spoke with John Barlow's brother, Ira, a Cedar Hill clerk and guide who was at the dock when Hayes came in and whom John implicated in the alleged tampering.

Ira told Fox that John was nowhere near Cedar Hill that day and that John fabricated the story in order to get revenge on Dick Roberts, who had fired him from his guiding position. Ira even passed a polygraph test by a licensed examiner.

"I feel very comfortable that Mr. Hayes caught the world record smallmouth and deserves the recognition for it," Fox said. In March of 1997, TWRA decided to keep the Hayes fish as the state record.

A formula for the truth

Whether you contend that Hayes' smallmouth weighed a legitimate 11 pounds, 15 ounces or whether you believe John Barlow and others boosted its weight, there's no question that the fish was 27 inches long and had a girth of 21 2/3 inches.

A highly regarded formula for estimating bass weight is length x length x length ÷ 1,600. Plug the known numbers into the formula and Hayes' bass comes out to 12.3 pounds (12 pounds, 5 ounces).

The other most commonly used formula for estimating bass weight based upon measurements is length x length x girth ÷ 1,200. Under this equation, the Hayes smallmouth weighs 13.16 pounds (13-3).

If the bass' girth measurement is reduced by three inches — more than enough to compensate for any foul play, the formula would still indicate a weight of 11.34 pounds (11-5).

The Hayes bass was simply too large to weigh just 8-15, as John Barlow claimed.

The affidavit

Why would Dick Roberts ask John Barlow to boost the weight of Hayes' bass? The obvious answer, of course, would be to gain notoriety from having a world record smallmouth weighed at Cedar Hill Resort.

Forget for a moment that Dick Roberts was a pillar of the community, that he taught Sunday school at Celina United Methodist Church for more than 40 years and that he had the respect of virtually everyone around the lake. Ignore the fact that it would be completely out of his character to do something so unethical.

Instead, ask why anyone would need the help of John Barlow for such a deed. After all, even according to Barlow's own sworn statement, "Mr. Roberts and Ira Barlow came to me, and Mr. Roberts asked me to lead the fish — told me to fix it up good — and handed me a number of lead sinkers. Ira Barlow also had some lead sinkers in his hand."

Why did they need John Barlow if Roberts and Ira Barlow were standing right there with the sinkers? Why bring someone else in on the fraud? It makes no sense.

The usual suspects

Three men came together to create the affidavit sworn to by John H. Barlow, and all of them had motives to lie and discredit Cedar Hill Resort. In addition to John, there was Doughbelly Barlow and James H. Reneau Jr.

Doughbelly was a well-known character around Dale Hollow Lake in the 1950s. The corpulent fishing guide worked out of Dale Hollow Marina and was a sometime deputy sheriff known for ruthless behavior. He was also John's uncle.

Doughbelly was renowned for being jealous of other anglers who were catching bass when he was struggling. It would have bothered him to see a world record come into a competing marina. That it was caught by a weekend angler added insult to injury.

Jimmy Reneau was the attorney who prepared the affidavit. He also was the owner of Holly Creek Resort, just up the lake from Cedar Hill. Whatever business Dick Roberts gained by having a record smallmouth come to Cedar Hill, Reneau may have felt he was losing at Holly Creek.

Even the county court clerk who notarized the affidavit may have had something to gain from the conspiracy. Mary Ruth "Oopie" Reneau was Jimmy's sister.

Can I get a witness?

By the time John Barlow's affidavit came to light in the mid-1990s, most of the principals in the matter were dead. Raymond Barlow died in 1975; Jimmy Reneau committed suicide in 1981; Oopie died in 1984; and Dick Roberts passed away in 1993.

Of the six men John Barlow implicated in the conspiracy — himself, Dick Roberts, Dick's eldest son Dickie, Ira Barlow, Walter Blakely and David Hayes — only the Barlows, Dickie Roberts and Hayes were alive in 1995 when the statement resurfaced.

And only John Barlow recollected anything at all about tampering with the big smallmouth. Hayes denies it emphatically. Dickie Roberts was astounded by the charges and refuted any involvement on the part of himself or his father.

And when Ira Barlow was on his deathbed in 1998, he told his son, Tim, that the fish was legitimate and that John had fabricated the entire tale. Tim calls his Uncle John a "career liar" and says that setting the record straight was something his father wanted to do, right to the very end of his life.

Absolutely no one backs up John Barlow's story of fish tampering. Even the witnesses he lists in his infamous affidavit refute him.

Where are we now?

The witnesses to the record smallmouth controversy are, quite naturally, disappearing. David Hayes is nearly the only one left.

Though Tennessee and the Hall of Fame have placed Hayes in his proper position in the record book, Kentucky and the IGFA have not, choosing instead to ignore the considerable evidence in his favor.

Whether or not his home state and the IGFA do the right thing and reinstate his catch will have little effect on Hayes' life. He enjoys his retirement, his family and his friends. Unless someone asks about the big fish, Hayes seldom talks about it.

But to have one of the greatest accomplishments in sportfishing history discredited in the face of so much evidence to the contrary is an indignity that no one should suffer.

As Ron Fox puts it, "Mr. Hayes is a fine individual and should not end this life with his accomplishment being lost from the record books."

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