All Quiet on the Record Front

George W. Perry's 1932 record still stands

Seventy-seven years ago today George Washington Perry and Jack Page launched a small wooden boat on an oxbow off the Ocmulgee River and made bass fishing history.

They took turns casting the only rod and reel and "ready-made" lure (a Creek Chub Fintail Shiner) they had between them. While one fished, the other paddled the boat.

Fortunately for Perry, he was holding the rod when he saw a disturbance in the shallows near a submerged stump. He made a cast and connected almost immediately.

"I thought I had hooked a log, but then the log started moving," Perry told a reporter in 1973. "A fish of that size isn't too spectacular in the water, just heavy and cumbersome. I didn't want to pressure him on that line [24-pound-test waterproof silk]. The bass did work its way into a half-submerged treetop, but finally it tired of my constant pressure, and I got him in."

Once the fish was in the boat, Perry and Page called it a day. This was in the midst of the Great Depression, and they were fishing for food, not records or glory. A fish of that size would feed the Perry family for several meals.

But before it hit the frying pan, they decided to take it into nearby Helena and show it off a little. After all, it was the biggest bass either of them had ever seen.

"It was almost an accident that I had it weighed and recorded," Perry said in 1969. "It created a lot of attention that day in Helena. The old fellow who ran the general store weighed it. He was also a notary public and made the whole thing official."

By "official," Perry meant that the notary was able to assist in the completion of the form to enter his catch in the Field & Stream Big Fish Contest. First prize in the largemouth bass division was $75 worth of outdoors gear, including a shotgun and rod and reel.

The bass weighed 22 pounds, 4 ounces, and, of course, he won the contest.

At the time, the fish was merely recognized as being the biggest of the year — not as a world record. It wasn't until a couple of years later that Field & Stream looked back at their records and decided that Perry's fish should be established as the world mark. In the process, they overlooked at least one fish that was purportedly bigger.

In the nearly eight decades since Perry's catch, interest in the record has gone up and down and now appears to be on a low swing.

The hunt for a new record was jump-started in 1973 when Dave Zimmerlee caught a 20-15 from Lake Miramar in California. It was the first 20-pound largemouth recorded since Perry's fish more than 40 years earlier and established that Western bass fed on a rich diet of rainbow trout could reach world class size.

Between 1980 and the early 1990s, record fever may have reached its height as experts proclaimed that a new top bass might be worth a million dollars to the angler lucky enough to catch it. Numerous fish in the 18-plus-pound range came out of California and fueled the furor.

It was during this time — in the spring of 1991 — that Perry's record weathered its greatest challenge. In the span of one week in early March, two California bass from Lake Castaic came within half a pound of Perry's mark. One even eclipsed the 22-pound barrier.

But when the flurry of record activity ended that year, things calmed again — until 2006. That's when three casino industry employees and longtime friends put the full court press on little Lake Dixon in Southern California. Dixon wasn't big on numbers of giant bass, but it had one largemouth, "Dottie," that threatened to make everyone forget Perry.

Dottie was caught and weighed three times over a period of just under three years. At her heaviest, in 2006, she weighed an astonishing 25-1. That's when Mac Weakley caught her. Unfortunately for Weakley, there was one problem with his catch.

He had foul-hooked her while bed fishing, and California sportfishing regulations do not allow foul-hooked fish to be credited as records. And since the International Game Fish Association requires compliance with all state fishing rules, the biggest bass anyone anywhere had ever seen or heard of, was released back into the lake without further ado.

World record mania was fashionable again. It seemed inevitable that a California fish — and more specifically, Dottie — was going to replace Perry's catch as the most sought after record in all of sportfishing. It was just a matter of time.

But it wasn't to be. In the spring of 2007, Dottie was found floating dead by a lake ranger. She had shrunk to a "dainty" 19 pounds and was apparently a victim of old age and natural causes.

With the passing of Dottie, interest in — or perhaps more accurately, the hope for — a new world record has waned. Perry's mark continues to turn away all challengers.

And now that we're into the postspawn season for Southern California waters (during the spawn the bass are shallowest, heavy with roe and most susceptible to angling), it appears that the Perry fish is safe until at least next spring. That's when a legion of record chasers will again take to the water in search of the Holy Grail of bass fishing.

Perry died on January 23, 1974 when the small private plane he was piloting crashed into a mountain in Birmingham, Ala. He never lived to see the interest his catch would generate or the obsession of those who seek to dethrone him.

Long live the king.