How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Spray's Muskie will always be controversial

In Ohio, state of the steamy summer waters, muskies grow fast and die young, at least compared with their cool-water kin.

Joe D. Lykins caught the largest Buckeye State muskellunge so far recorded when in April 1972 he overpowered a 55.13-pounder that measured 50¼ inches long. Caught in Piedmont Lake, which lies in northern Belmont and southern Harrison counties, Lykins’ muskie indisputably was stockier than most.

At least a dozen muskies 50 inches or longer were caught in Ohio waters last year alone, reported Don Weaver, president of the Ohio Huskie Muskie Club. But among the four landed at Salt Fork Lake, the three at Leesville Lake, the two at Piedmont, and the one each at West Branch Reservoir, Alum Creek Reservoir and Wills Creek, none came close to outweighing Lykins’ fish. Such has been the case every year for nigh on 34 years.

In 2000, Gary Amie landed a 54½-inch muskie at Salt Fork, but though more than 4 inches longer than Lykins’ fish, it weighed a meager 41 pounds. As far as the weightiest contender, a 53¾-inch muskie ambushed by Dennis McQuillan at Lake Milton in 1982 turned out to be, at 47 pounds, 3 ounces, several boxes of doughnuts less hefty than Lykins’ record.

Let’s be clear. Weight being the sole criterion set by the Outdoor Writers of Ohio, the designated keeper of state records, a fish that grows short and stout, relatively speaking, can outclass one that grows long and lean.

Fair enough, even though such a system appears to favor for record contention egg-laden females caught in late winter or spring.

Not that any sportsman would ever let an outright lie pass his lips, but stretching the truth when it comes to a fish has been around since Mesolithic man began holding his hands this far apart to show just how big was the giant gar that swallowed his mate at the riverbank.

Such claims invariably have been countered by the scoffers with the question, here translated from the ancient tongue into English for clarity: "How big did you say?"

With that, the hands typically move some inches closer.

Sometimes, when the fisherman refuses to move his hands closer or can’t because he’s no longer flexible, someone will try to do it for him.

Which brings us to the case of the late Louis Spray, a bootlegger back in the day when a guy could earn a few extra bucks and a year’s hard time by making bathtub hootch. After Prohibition, Spray had claimed a couple of world muskie records in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but he outdid himself in 1949 when he reportedly winched in a 69-pound, 11-ounce monster measuring 63½ inches in northern Wisconsin.

The mount of the world-record muskie, known as Chin Whiskered Charlie, went up in flames in 1959. To hear Spray’s critics tell his story, it can be assumed they figure Spray went the opposite direction when in 1984 he died, age 84, by his own hand.

Apparently aware that the legalistically best time to kick a man is when he’s down, a group calling itself the World Record Muskie Alliance, in challenging the recognized record fish, called Spray in a published paper "a clever and successful liar, cheat and con artist." In October, after two years of research on Spray and after some software calculations based on a photograph of the record muskie, the alliance presented a 94-page report disputing Chin Whiskered Charlie’s world-record status.

In offering its report to the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, keeper of game fish records in Hayward, Wis., the alliance made two primary charges. One, it said Spray and an accomplice had poured 25 pounds of ice chips down the muskie’s throat to increase its weight. Two, it said analysis of the photograph showed the fish would’ve measured far less than the claimed length of almost 70 inches.

Earlier in January, after nearly three months of examination, investigators representing the hall found the alliance’s evidence insufficient to overturn Spray’s record. Spray no doubt would drink to that decision, and he could certainly use a drink by now.

The alliance has offered no hint that it is about to come after Lykins’ Ohio record muskie, although rumors survive to this day that the muskie was found floating belly up. Envy sometimes sires rumors. But as Pontius Pilate and a few others have asked, what is truth? Sometimes not even the participants in the battles between fish and men know with certainty what has transpired, and only the one capable of concocting fiction can speak.

If Spray’s fish had been disqualified as a result of the latest challenge, a 67½-pound muskie, also caught in 1949, would have ascended as the world record. The fish was reeled to papa by the late Cal Johnson, a former Minneapolis sportswriter. If only such would be so, there could be no controversy. It’s a known fact that sportswriters never, never, ever embellish. Never. No. Not ever.


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