TENNESSEE’S GREAT WALLEYE BATTLE
Hartsville’s Mabry Harper was fishing for catfish one morning in 1960 on Old Hickory Lake when a monster walleye grabbed his catalpa worm and the fight was on.
It didn’t end until a half-century later.
Initially the fish – which tipped the scales at exactly 25 pounds – was declared a world record. However, in 1996 the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame disallowed Harper’s record because officials decided it couldn’t weigh as much as reported, based on “photograph evidence.”
This spring, after a long dispute and an investigation that could have come from a CSI script, the fish is back in the record book. New evidence finally convinced the FWFHF to change its position and accept the accuracy of the fish’s weight.
That evidence was compiled and presented by John Oliver of the Trousdale County Historical Society. Oliver spent over a year on his quest to get the late Harper’s world record reinstated, even traveling to FWFHF headquarters in Hayward, Wisconsin, to make his case.
“I jumped into it for several reasons,” Oliver said. “One, as a favor to the family. Two, as part of my job as Trousdale County’s official historian and president of our local Historical Society. The fish is a claim to fame for our small county and one that I hated to see us lose to a nefarious science called ‘photometric-analysis.’”
The FWFHF in May issued a press release announcing the reinstatement of Harper’s record and explaining why it had been removed.
“The decision was based upon a report which claimed that Harper’s walleye couldn’t have measured as long as claimed. The thrust of this report was a comparison of his fish (in a photograph) to an assumed size of Harper’s hands.”
Oliver, working with members of the Harper family, was able to produce evidence verifying the weight and length of the fish — including an affidavit from a retired Tennessee game warden. Warden James Spurling attested that he witnessed the fish being weighed and even tested the scale to make sure it was accurate. Spurling said the fish weighed exactly 25 pounds, as Harper claimed.
Spurling also measured the fish, which tallied 41 inches.
That information, along with some several previously undisclosed photographs and even some scale samples of the fish, convinced FWFHF officials restore Harper’s record.
“Our dad loved fishing and was a really good fisherman,” Harper’s step-son Jerry Robertson said in an interview a few years ago. “He took a lot of pride in having caught a world-record fish. I wanted to see his record restored because he earned it.”
Robertson, who lives in Hartsville, and Harper’s son Bobby Harper, a resident of Portland, both saw the huge walleye shortly after it was caught.
Robertson said his father was fishing from the bank for catfish, using catalpa worms for bait, when he caught the giant walleye.
They said a crowd gathered to view the fish, and a game warden (Spurling) was contacted and came over to verify the weight and length. Both their father and mother posed for photos with the fish, which was later cleaned and eaten.
Mabry submitted information about the fish to the Tennessee Wildlife Commission (now TWRA) and learned that it was not only a state record, but a world record as well.
The Harper walleye is one of Tennessee’s two world-record game fish. The biggest smallmouth bass ever caught came out of Dale Hollow Lake — an 11-pound, 15-ounce lunker landed in 1955 by David Hayes.
Like Harper’s record walleye, the record smallmouth was involved in a lengthy controversy over its weight. The dispute was eventually settled and the Dale Hollow smallmouth is now secure in the record book along with Harper’s Old Hickory walleye.
“These world record fish are important to us,” said Bobby Wilson, a spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency which has always recognized the two fish as both state records and world records.
“They bring a lot of attention to our state fisheries – Dale Hollow, for example, is nationally famous for its smallmouth and for producing a world record. That exposure draws a lot of fishermen to our state. Also, there’s bragging rights. Everyone likes to boast about their big fish, and here in Tennessee we can claim the biggest smallmouth and walleye ever caught.”