How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, January 30, 2006

A Fish Tale (muskie) Gone Wrong

Here's an interesting article by Steve Sarley regarding the Louis Spray debacle. It makes for an interesting spin on things.

The arena is the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame Museum in Hayward, Wis.

The title at stake is the heavyweight championship of the world, also known as the all-tackle record for largest muskie.

Let's go down to the ring. In this corner is the champion, having held the belt since Oct. 20, 1949. Hailing from Hayward, Louis Spray. In the champ's corner is his second, John Detloff, president of the NFWFHF.

In the other corner is the challenger, the world record Muskie Alliance, hailing from Illinois and seconded by photogrammetrical analysis provided by Dan Mills of DCM Technical Services.

Normally the referee would have a quick run-through of the rules, like, no scratching, no biting, no hitting below the belt. But not in this bout.

This is a no-holds barred, bare-knuckles contest. May the best man/group/fish win. And there's the bell!

Spray is the holder of the current record for the world's largest muskie. The fish is listed at 69 pounds, 11 ounces and was caught on the Chippewa Flowage. Spray previously caught two other world record muskies.

During the 1940s, the muskie title changed hands frequently. If the monsters registered in that era were not works of fiction, it is surprising Wisconsin's swimmers were safe in the water and not merely dinner fare for these monstrous, toothy beasts.

Spray provided affidavits to prove the legitimacy of his catch, but there always were challenges to Spray's veracity. Spray was a product of the era, somewhat of a fast talker who always was looking to cut a deal to direct a few dollars into his bank account. His personality and reputation are primary examples people who dispute the record use to try to downplay the size of his record fish.

Since 1949, Spray's record has been debated. This is not unusual, as the records for bass, perch, walleye and other fish are often questioned by disbelieving anglers. In fact, the old record in the smallmouth bass category was reinstated to the 11-pound, 15-ounce fish caught in 1955 by David Hayes on Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee.

After decades of verbal jousting, the fish was tossed out in 1996. This year, after review of evidence, the fish was given back its title.

The photogrammetrical evidence developed by Mills and DCM Technical Services is compelling. Mills does not inspect and analyze fish. Spray's record was his first attempt at converting his scientifically accepted methods to the angling arts. He did not have an axe to grind. On the basis of his work, I believe Spray's fish is not the size it is claimed to be.

In presenting Mills' report to the NFWFHF in an attempt to overturn Spray's record, the World Record Muskie Alliance made what I think was a strategic error.

In addition to the report, the WRMA included page after page of anecdotal evidence in an unnecessary attempt to bolster their claim that Spray's fish was a fraud. They cap the report with a statement by noted attorney and master angler, Kim Presbrey

"The photo analysis provided would be admissible in a court of law and the conclusions drawn from the photo analysis conclusively prove the photos provided of the alleged world record muskie do not represent a fish of the size stated by Louis Spray," the statement reads.

By filling in the tail end of the 93-page report with "he said, she said" allegations, no matter how good they sound, this takes away from the validity and the professionalism of the scientific portion of the report. For every anecdote and allegation the WRMA provides, Detloff and the Hall of Fame are able to return the volley with their own salvo of affidavits and stories. They tend to negate each other.

Often whispered, but never published are the allegations that Detloff defends Spray's record because he has a financial interest in the matter. Yes, Detloff has published a book, "Three Record Muskies in His Day – the Life and Times of Louis Spray."

Detloff also owns a bar/resort called the Indian Trail in the Hayward area, which is a long cast from where Spray's muskie reportedly was hooked. But is Indian Trail sold out of room space because of the legend of a fish caught in 1949? I think not. No one goes to Hayward any longer because of the 1949 world-record muskie, they go there because it is an excellent vacation area and still provides quality fishing with plenty of opportunities for catching big fish.

I think Detloff's financial rewards are quite exaggerated.

One point his detractors gleefully bring up is the manner in which Detloff has overruled records on other fish over the years. In regard to another purported record fish, Detloff writes, "Spray, and most muskie fishermen for that matter, were far from jealous about the Lawton muskie."

Detloff's zeal to disregard any other fish than the Spray fish certainly raises suspicions.

I think Detloff thinks Spray's fish is the true world record.

Over time, though, legendary stories tend to become exaggerated. I think that is how it is for Detloff and Spray's fish.

Spray's fish and the legend that surrounds it is part of the fiber of Detloff's existence. He grew up idolizing Spray. He has told the Spray story countless times. I never would expect to hear Detloff question something that is almost as much a part of himself as any of his internal organs. Does that make the fish legitimate? No.

Going back to our arena, we find the battle ended without a knockout punch having been delivered. As substantial as the WRMA case is, the panel of judges would not award a victory on points to the challenger. The voting members of the NFWFHF allowed Spray's record to stand.

The Hall ruled "the report lacks sufficient merit to overturn the Spray record. The report's primary piece of evidence came as a result of a computer software program that relied on multiple assumptions to be inputted before a result could be yielded. Because no control was ever done to test the approach that was used and so many assumptions had to be made, there exists too much reasonable doubt as to the accuracy of their result."

Was the voting done fairly? Again, allegations are bandied about. Though the vote passed on an 8-0 margin, with one abstention and two members recusing themselves, Detloff is targeted as having steered the vote even though he did not take part in it.

So we are left with a tainted record in the logs of the NFWFHF and a horde of angry fisherman burning up phone lines and Internet message boards with their arguments.

The solution is for someone to go out and catch a new, provable world record muskie, but the current record is so large that a fish of new record proportions might never be captured.

To solve the dilemma, I call upon Detloff and the NFWFHF to establish new categories for world record fish.

The first would be a historical record fish and the second a modern record, beginning immediately.

Cameras and scales are much more accurate today, and I think that advances in technology warrant a new set of records, but not the abandonment of the old ones.

I think this is the best solution, and I solemnly hope cooler heads prevail and this recommendation is considered for the best interests of the sport of fishing immediately.

* Steve Sarley's radio show, "The Outdoors Experience," airs live from 8 to 9 a.m. on Saturdays on AM-560. Sarley also runs a Web site for outdoors enthusiasts,


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