BASSography: George Perry

George Perry
Fishing legend George Perry.

Had it not been for going fishing on the second day of June 1932, George Washington Perry likely would never have found himself in the world and national limelights.

He was born in Rentz, a tiny community in Laurens County, Ga., on June 1, 1912, one of six children (three boys, three girls). His father was Joseph Perry, his mother Laura Vernissi Gladden Perry.

The Perrys settled on a farm near Helena in Telfair County, Ga., and while growing up, George discovered an oxbow called Montgomery Lake off the nearby Ocmulgee River. He fished there many times, eventually building a plywood boat out of scrap materials, which he kept beached among the cypress trees on the lake shore.

He also liked to hunt and was able to provide his family with wild game and fish for the larder to supplement what was being raised on the farm. He had become the family breadwinner after his father died in 1931.

One day after turning 20 years old, George woke up to the sound of rain. He knew he wouldn't be able to hitch up the mule because the rain would turn the fields into a quagmire. So he contacted his good friend, Jack Page, who owned a Model T pickup truck, and they went fishing on Montgomery Lake.

The weather was blustery and wet, but country boys back then didn't mind fishing in the rain. After all, it was June and temperatures were on the warm side. They launched George's boat and took turns casting and paddling. One would sit in the bow and cast, the other paddle, and when they decided to head for shore late in the afternoon, it was George's turn with the rod and reel.

They had not had a strike over several hours and were discouraged, but suddenly a bass struck and missed the Creek Chub Fintail Shiner, reportedly (according to some accounts) the only lure they had. Encouraged, they decided to stay just a little bit longer.

Nothing happened until George decided to cast the lure close to a cypress snag. He gave it a twitch and the plug disappeared in a froth of water. It was a huge largemouth bass, but neither realized just how large until George was able to bring the fish close to the boat. Both men started yelling in astonishment as George leaned over the side and hauled the fish into the boat.

After beaching the boat, the men headed back to the truck where the fish was placed in the back. Then Jack drove back to Helena. It was a trip that took almost an hour across wet, unpaved roads. The J.J. Hall Store was the town hangout for hunters and fishermen and, as fishermen are wont to do, they stopped and took the fish in to brag a bit.

One of George's friends suggested he enter the fish in Field & Stream magazine's Big Fish Contest, which had been running annually since the early 1900s. Rules called for the fish to be weighed on certified scales, with length and girth measurements taken. Then the vital statistics had to be certified by a notary public.

All of that was done, the contest application mailed and then George took the 22-pound, 4-ounce fish home where it would provide at least two meals for his family.

Much to his surprise and delight, the postman later delivered a huge box. "George was tickled to see a new rod and reel" among the prizes, his sister, Rubye Perry Latham, recalled during a 1983 interview.

The Depression was in full force and the Perrys lost their farm because they were not able to pay taxes. Most of the family moved to Sterling in Glynn County, but in 1934, George wound up for a brief stay in Pearson in Atkinson County where he had obtained a job as a railroad guard. He still fished and on a trip to swamp lakes off the nearby Altamaha River, he caught a 13-pound, 14-ounce bass that won a second Big Fish Contest. He was the only contestant to do so in all the years of the program.

In 1935, he married childhood sweetheart Pauline Clements and fathered four children — Barbara (1935), Emory (1937), George Larry (1944) and Celina (1955). Emory died in a drag racing accident in 1952.

During World War II, George operated a Brunswick shipyard crane, saved his money and, just after the war ended in 1945, bought some acreage on a nearby tidal stream and built a marina. He also netted and sold live shrimp for bait.

During the mid-1950s, George became interested in flying, his interest sparked by reading an article about Charles Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. George learned to fly at Sam Baker's Flying Service at the Brunswick airport called the Airpark, then became a certified aircraft mechanic. He'd long since established himself as someone who could fix anything.

When Baker left to establish a flying service on St. Simons Island in 1965, George took over as Airpark manager. He hired children to work around the airport, cleaning the hangars, pumping gas and doing innumerable chores. In return, he'd pay them by teaching them to fly.

George quickly developed a reputation as a quirky prankster and ran the airport to suit himself. He attracted a legion of flying friends who would sometimes engage in dogfights over nearby marshes, "with no harm to anyone except ourselves," one of the wild fliers recalled. Of course, such shenanigans were against Federal Aviation Administration rules, but George and his friends thumbed their noses at officialdom and got away with it.

The Perry saga came to an end on Jan. 23, 1974. George was ferrying a plane from Brunswick to Birmingham, Ala., when he ran into inclement weather. He died after his plane slammed into the side of Shades Mountain.

Originally published June 2009

EDITOR'S NOTE: Perry's life and times are recounted in Remembering George W. Perry, a book written by author Bill Baab and published in November 2009 by The Whitefish Press of Cincinnati, Ohio. Copies can be purchased from the publisher at whitefishpress.com.

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