George Perry and the Greatest Whopper Ever Told
On the morning of June 2nd, 1932, then twenty-year-old George Perry awoke to rain. His father had passed away the previous year, and in the midst of the great depression George had taken on the role of provider for his family. The fields were too wet to plow, so young Perry decided he would go fishing in hopes of providing some much-needed meat for the household. He and his long-time friend, Jack Page, loaded up in Jack’s Model T and headed to a small off-the-beaten-path fishing hole called Montgomery Lake, just west of Lumber City, Georgia.
The fishing was slow that day, and around 4 pm George and Jack decided to call it quits. As they rowed George’s homemade boat back toward shore, George made one last cast with his Creek Chub Shiner. His lure landed at the base of a cypress tree, and moments later there was a swirl and then a series of explosions on the water. For the better part of ten minutes, he battled the giant and ultimately landed the fish that would pole vault him into the hallowed halls of fishing history. George Perry had landed a 22lb 4oz fish, the heaviest largemouth bass ever recorded.
Ann Landers said, “Bragging may not bring happiness, but no man having caught a large fish heads home through the alley,” that quote certainly rung true for George and Jack. While excited about the prospect of an evening fish fry George could not resist the chance to show off his catch. So, he and Jack loaded up their beast and headed to the town of Helena, approximately 23 miles to the north. Upon their arrival to town, folks told the pair of a big fish contest being hosted by Field and Stream Magazine and encouraged them to submit their catch for consideration. The details that followed vary by account but the fish was weighed and measured either at a general store or post office and ultimately certified by a notary of the public. Perry submitted the fish’s measurements which eventually lead to the fish being certified as the new World Record largemouth bass. This record has stood for 85 years.
On the surface, the story of this extraordinary fish tale is very appealing. Perry, a simple farmer with an 8th-grade education, and no apparent desire for fame or notoriety stumbles across the holy grail of the fishing world in a backwoods Georgia mud hole. At its core, the account has all the aspects of a legendary achievement that resonates with us all. The problem is, when reviewed in detail, the story is shrouded in controversy and contains all the twists and turns necessary for a mystery novel. In the case of Perry’s world record fish, the evidence draws a line between fact and fiction so fine it nearly vanishes.
Much of what we know of Perry’s story comes from the many interviews he gave over the course of his life or from the exhaustive research done by his acquaintance and self-appointed historian Bill Baab. Bill was an outdoor writer for the Augusta Chronical and spent more than 25 years of his life researching and documenting Perry’s story. His book, “Remembering George Perry,” stands out as the authoritative source on the life and facts of George Perry and his record fish. While conducting research for this project, I was fortunate to exchange e-mails with Bill which shed a great deal of light on some of the more confusing aspects of the story. While in the end, our assessment of Perry’s achievement may vary, I’m grateful to Bill for his insights and the time he took to answer my many questions.
Modern Record Rules
The problem with fishing stories is that they are usually told by fishermen. The sad reality is that the history of fishing is filled with countless examples of well-meaning tall tales and worse yet, unscrupulous individuals who have sought fame and fortune through fabricated deeds on the water. Modern world record rules have emerged as a result of this deception. They aim to standardize the process for documenting big fish so that catches may be fairly evaluated. The exact nature of these rules varies by organization, but there are a few rules they almost all have in common. First, the fish must be hooked in the mouth via a legal fishing method. Next, it must be weighed on a certified scale in front of a witness. Finally, there must be clear photographic evidence of the broad side of the fish. To be clear, these rules in their current form did not exist in Mr. Perry’s day. That said, independent of time, these most basic of rules are common sense guidelines that are required to establish the necessary burden of proof for a world record fish. In a legal sense, defendants are innocent until proven guilty. I believe running with this theme may prove a useful exercise to put Mr. Perry on an imaginary trial to see if we can establish enough evidence to convict him of catching the world record largemouth bass. You be the judge.
The first hurdle to cross in demonstrating the legitimacy of the Lake Montgomery beast is to examine eyewitness testimony. From the description of the story, one would expect plenty of this sort of evidence to exist. At a minimum, we should have firsthand accounts of the fish from Jack Page, the notary of the public, and of course George Perry himself. Let’s examine them in kind:
Jack Page was George Perry’s longtime fishing partner and the only person present when the fish was caught. Unfortunately, Mr. Page disappeared from the face of the earth shortly after the catch occurred. Mr. Baab and many others have spent countless hours searching through census data and area cemeteries trying to prove Jack Page even existed. None have succeeded thus far. In fact, no one other than Mr. Perry has any recollection of Jack Page. Perry’s fish gained wide notoriety just two years after the catch when it was declared the new world record. It’s plausible, but strange indeed that Page never came forth to give his version of the story.
Verdict: Inadmissible evidence: The bottom-line is there is no firsthand account from Mr. Page, and furthermore there is no independently verifiable evidence Mr. Page was a real person.
The Notary of the Public
There is no consistent story from Mr. Perry or his family as to who the notary of the public was. George Perry is on record saying the fish was weighed at the general store; however, the official account from the Perry family states that the fish was weighed at the post office across the street. Mr. Baab speculates it was Jesse Hall of Helena, GA the owner of J.J. Hall and Co. General Store, who acted as the signatory who verified the weight of Mr. Perry’s fish. However, this speculation ultimately remains just that, as none of the firsthand accounts from Perry actually list the notary by name. Exasperating an otherwise easily resolved riddle, the certified document submitted to Field and Stream, which included the name of the notary was lost in the 1950’s when it was loaned to an outdoor writer.
Verdict: Here again, inadmissible evidence. Perry and the man who could have been the notary have long since passed away. Even so, there are no firsthand accounts from any notary, purported or otherwise. It took Field and Stream two full years to recognize the Perry fish as a record. This length of time raises questions as to whether or not they had their own doubts.
Over the course of his life, George gave dozens of interviews about his catch. Unfortunately, many of these interviews presented contradicting details. Basic facts such as the type of lure, the location of the weigh-in, and whether or not pictures were taken seemed to change with the seasons. In other instances, vital facts which would have helped corroborate his case are never mentioned at all. For instance, Mr. Perry never provides any color on how he measured the length or the girth of the fish. Did he use a ruler, a yardstick, a tailor’s tape? While the measuring method may seem trivial, we shall see in a later section it could play a fundamental role in helping to unravel the mystery. The scale, which may have been at the general store, or possibly the post office, was purported to be a 100lb scale which measured weights in increments of ¼ of a pound. Unfortunately, no evidence is ever offered that the scale was ever certified or double checked for accuracy at the time of the weigh-in. To be fair, at the time these thoughts may never have crossed Mr. Perry’s mind as he had no idea just how meaningful his catch would become. It is not my intent in this discourse to personally attack the character of Mr. Perry. However, as we evaluate evidence, I do believe it’s important to remember that Mr. Perry was a human and humans are subject to observation error. As evidence of this, I offer up another interesting fact: Mr. Perry was the only person ever to win the Field and Stream big fish contest twice. Two years after his record-breaking 1932 catch he submitted a second fish he claimed weighed in at 13lbs 14 ounces. This time, like the previous time, the depression era farmer received prizes worth roughly $2,000 dollars in today’s money and a small amount of notoriety. Above I have included a picture of Mr. Perry’s 13 lb 14-ounce submission.
Verdict: You call it.
Physical Evidence: No physical evidence exists of Mr. Perry’s fish. He and his family fileted the fish the same day it was caught and consumed it over a period of several days.
Verdict: No evidence to review.
The Post Office Picture: Shortly after his catch, Mr. Perry is on record having said there were no photos of the fish taken. His family account confirms this statement. However, at some point, years later, Mr. Perry wrote the manufacturer of the lure he used and indicated pictures did exist. He offered to send in one in exchange for some lures from the company. Creek Chub Lure Company would have obliged the proposal, but never received the photo. Mysteriously, in 2005 a photo of a giant bass emerged which had the potential to provide a mountain of evidence for the giant Georgia bass. In fact, at the time of its discovery, many heralded it as a game changer in favor of Mr. Perry. The photo was discovered by Jerry Johnson of Waycross, Georgia who claimed to have found
the picture in the personal belongings of his deceased aunt, Mildred Johnson. The photo shows a man and a boy with a large bass. While it’s impossible to judge the size of the bass in the picture it is clearly quite large, in fact, if you compare it to Mac Weakley’s photo of ‘Dottie’ when she was 25lbs, the fish share a very similar body shape. There’s no doubt if the man in the photo could be confirmed to be Perry, the balance in this case might shift. Unfortunately, individuals from the Perry family and Bill Baab himself have confirmed categorically the man in the picture is not George Perry. Perry neither smoked nor drank, and the man in the photo has a cigarette in his mouth. There is some speculation the man in the photo is Jack Page, but the world may never know as no one has ever been able to positively identify either the man or the boy in the photo. Adding a small amount of authenticity the photo, there is some genealogical evidence that confirms that the Johnson family and the Perry families were in contact around the 1932 time period. How much this evidence means, however, is impossible to decide as it comes as no surprise that folks from a small rural area of Georgia might be familiar with other families in the area. It should also be noted individuals from the area have stated that the photo appears to have been taken outside the post office in Helena. That said, the detail in the background of the photo is insufficient to be able to prove this claim categorically.
The Plow Field Picture: There is one other supposed photo of Perry and his fish that greatly adds to the mystery. This photo shown below was sent via e-mail to Bill Baab from a mysterious man on June 2nd, 2013. To readers paying attention,
the timing of this e-mail should raise an eyebrow. Paraphrasing a bit, in his book, Baab describes the encounter as follows: The man who sent the photo claimed to be the son Jack Page and indicated this photo was one of several such photos found in an old tobacco shed in Florida which had been owned by his father. Baab says the man claimed Jack Page had died in the 1950’s and that he and his father were not close. The man also claimed his father had told him growing up that he was, in fact, the man who had caught the record fish and not George Perry. Immediately after that statement, however, the man acknowledged that he never knew when to believe his father. When Bill responded to the e-mail the man promptly blocked Bill and disappeared into the ether never to be heard from again. I asked Baab his personal opinion on the existence of Jake Page. He told me he was confident Jack was real, but that Perry had never commented to him directly as to why the friendship had inexplicably dissolved shortly after that fateful day on June 2nd, 1932. Baab said that his working theory on the matter was that there was a falling out over Perry’s failure to split any of the prize winnings from the big fish contest. As both men are dead, in all probability this is a riddle that will never be answered.
In regards to the picture itself, I asked professional photographer Jonathan Canny, to review the photo. He commented, “The focus of subject and fish appear strange in the photo. Perry’s face is clear, the fish appears almost HD, yet the legs in roughly the same plane are blurred more than one would expect. This could be the result of bad glass in the camera, but it’s suspect, to say the least. The back of the fish looks as though it may have been altered in a computer program. Lastly, a special setting on the camera would have been required to capture the drops of water falling off the fish. They appear out of focus and not a blurry, yet the ripples on the water are fairly sharp.” In conclusion, Jonathan said, “To my eyes, the image has been tampered with. I don't think it was done with intent to sell a lie, but rather maybe an attempt to improve the image. I don't think it's a spliced image, but I mention it to call attention to the fact that a trick like that was available at the time. People think Photoshop is a new invention of computers, but everything done in Photoshop has roots in tricks conceived in the dark room. If I was forced to take a stand on this picture, I'd say that it's an awkward photo taken with a crappy camera and someone attempted to restore or clarify it at some point.”
I myself initially concluded the photo was a fake giving the most weight to the peculiar nature of the fish’s mouth. I had never seen a fish posed in this fashion
and frankly, it just looked fake. While researching this article near the ends of the internet, much to my surprise, I came across many other photos, virtually all of them from the period, with fish posed in a similar fashion. Apparently, in olden days, this was a common way to pose with one’s catch. One of those photos I came across happened to be none other than George Perry. In reflecting on the matter, it seems unlikely to me a modern day forgery would have had the insight to replicate a pose from generations gone by. When I asked Bill Baab about the photo he told me he was confident the photo was real. He said that Dazy (Perry’s son) had positively identified the man as his dad when shown the photo. Bill also commented that he believes the photo had been taken alongside a plowed field a short way away from Lake Montgomery.
The Post Office Photo: This picture proves very little in relation to the Perry fish. The man in the photo is demonstrably not George Perry, and the identities of whomever the individuals actually are is unverifiable. Furthermore, the time and place of the photo cannot be verified, and most importantly the size of the fish in the photo cannot be verified. While it most likely is an authentic photo of a very large fish, we cannot use it as evidence to support the 22 lb 4-ounce weight of the Perry fish. It’s a tantalizing piece of evidence to be sure, but ultimately it lacks the necessary lineage to prove meaningful. As a final thought, if this was the picture of the fish that Mr. Perry alluded to in his letter to Creek Chub why didn’t he ever bring the image to light? He had countless chances during dozens of interviews.
The Plow Field Photo: I can’t say for certain whether the photo of the kneeling Perry and the wide mouthed bass is a fake. At a minimum, evidence indicates it’s been altered. If it is a genuine photo of Perry and a big bass, I’m intensely skeptical that it is a photo of the World Record fish. It appears to be much smaller than 22lbs and I find it odd that the pair would have brought a camera along on a rainy day when they were simply out fishing for food. Remember, at this time the nation was still embroiled in the Great Depression and the pair were so poor that they had only one lure with them and shared a rod and reel! While it wouldn’t prove anything in regards to the record fish, it would certainly be an interesting bit of history if the original copy of this photo ever surfaced and was shown to be real.
Weather/Astrological Evidence: Further examination of the post office photo also casts doubt on the Perry story. All of George’s accounts indicate the reason he went fishing the morning of June 2nd, 1932 was because it was raining and the fields were too soggy to plow. The nearest metropolitan area that has weather data available from 1932 is Macon, Georgia. Macon is roughly 100 miles north of Lake Montgomery. Interestingly it shows there was zero precipitation recorded on June 2nd, 1932. Given its location, however, it’s impossible to say if Mr. Perry had his story wrong on the weather of the day. Spotty thunderstorms are common that time of year and could have saturated the Lake Montgomery area and not Macon. That said, while we can’t prove the photo of the boy and the man has any ties to Perry, it is interesting to note that there are strong shadows in the photo indicating it was likely taken on a sunny day. Here again, this is not definitive proof the fish is not the Perry fish, but it is interesting none-the-less.
There is one final bit of astrological evidence we can derive from the photo which casts further doubt on Mr. Perry’s story. The analysis that follows, to the best of my knowledge, has never before been conducted on this photo. The official account documented by Bill Baab on page five of his book indicates Perry caught the fish sometime after 4 p.m. on June 2nd. Perry said there was at least a 10 minute battle with the beast. After landing the fish and taking care of the boat, George and Jack then drove Jack’s Model T 23 miles over dirt roads to the town of Helena. Model T’s of the period had top speeds of approximately 30 mph over such terrain. Rough math would indicate the earliest time George and Jack could have possibly arrived in Helena with the fish would have been well after 5 p.m. Baab himself admits their arrival was “hours after the catch.” Interestingly, we can see from the photo that shadows are being cast at a distinct 45-degree angle. Solunar data, available on the web from June 2nd, 1932 indicates that the sun would have been in a position the sky to create 45 degree shadows at 3:50 p.m. This makes it physically impossible for the fish in the photo to be Perry’s, unless of course, like so many of the other details about the story the time of the catch was reported incorrectly.
Verdict: Weather and astrological evidence cast doubt on the authenticity of Perry’s story.
Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S. ordered Terry Drace, one of his employees, to interview Perry and conduct a lie detector test. Some accounts of the encounter indicate Drace asked Perry to take the lie detector test and he declined. Bill Baab’s version suggests after interviewing Perry for hours Drace decided not to ask Perry to take the test. Another oddity in the Perry case is that he never discussed the big fish with his son George (Dazy) Perry. Dazy was 30 years old when George died in a plane crash in 1974. Dazy has expressed great regret about never discussing the topic with his father.
Verdict: It’s impossible to draw reliable conclusions from these facts. As a matter of personal opinion, I find it odd that a reporter would defy his boss by declining to ask Perry to take the lie detector test. It seems much more likely; Perry would have been the one to decline. Also, as a matter of opinion, I find it strange that Perry and his son never discussed the fish. One would think such a claim to fame would have been a regular topic of discussion. Was the big fish something Perry was ashamed to talk to his son about?
Most damning of all to Perry’s story is the evidence of the biological improbabilities of his fish. Let’s review the major points:
The Size of Lake Montgomery
There has been a great deal of confusion about the size of Lake Montgomery. I asked Bill Baab for clarity here, and he informed me that in Perry’s day the lake was quite sizable. His best guess was somewhere in the neighborhood of a mile long and perhaps 400 yards wide. The lake was flooded seasonally by the nearby Ocmulgee River. Baab indicated that outside of the flood seasons the lake was typically isolated from the main river. In more recent years the lake has shrunk considerably and is now no more than a few acres and sometimes completely dry.
Verdict: Plausible. The lake in its former size in 1932 could have conceivably supported a large fish. As an interesting side note, I spoke with a big bass biologist from South Texas who told me years ago he would have never believed a small lake could have supported a large fish. However, all that changed a few years ago when he electroshocked a small lake no more than an acre in size. Amazingly, amongst the many fish they shocked up, they found three large bass ranging in size from 6 to 9lbs. After being left in a holding tank during the day, several of the fish regurgitated the remains of multiple blackbirds. These fish had not only survived in a small body of water; they had figured out how to thrive!
The Size of Perry’s Fish
One of the biggest strikes against Perry’s fish is its purported size. At the time of the catch, there were no other well-documented giant bass to which Perry’s fish could be compared. However in recent years, several bass have emerged that threatened Perry’s record weight and their length, girths, and weight come well documented. First is the case of “Dottie,” the bass famously caught multiple times out of Lake Dixon in California in the 2000s. In 2003 she was caught and weighed in at 21lbs 11 ounces. She was next caught in March of 2006 and weighed in at 25lbs 1 ounce. This weight, incidentally, would have made her the new world record; however, she was foul hooked making the catch ineligible. When she was finally found dead in May of 2008, she measured 29.5” in length and had a girth of 24”. The second big bass data point comes from Manabu Kurita’s world record bass out of Lake Biwa, Japan, caught in 2009. His fish weighed 22lbs 5 ounces, technically tying it with Perry’s fish for the World Record. Her length was 27.2” and girth 26.7”. Both fish are dwarfed by the dimensions reported by Perry at 32.5” in length and 28.5” in girth. In the case of Manabu’s bass, Perry claims his bass was 19% longer (32.5”) and had a girth 6% greater (28.5”) and yet actually weighed in 1 ounce less than Manabu’s fish. Unless Perry’s bass was made of something lighter than bass, this is, of course, a physical impossibility. When I asked Baab about this discrepancy, he noted that the primary forage in Lake Montgomery was bream, and he was unsure of the main forage in Lake Biwa. In Baab’s mind, the forage could have perhaps influenced the density of the fish. While I have no definitive proof, I strongly doubt this logic and as it turns out the primary forage in Lake Biwa is also bream. Note: IGFA rules require fish less than 25lbs to exceed previous records by more than 2 ounces to qualify as a new record. Hence Perry and Manabu currently share the World Record.
Further evidence along this thread can be had from statistically derived formulas used to estimate the weight of bass. The first commonly used formula is (LxLxG)/1200 = Weight. It yields an estimated weight for Perry’s fish of 25.1lbs or 12.7% greater than reported 22.25lbs. The other formula widely used is (LxGxG)/800, which yields and estimated weight of 32.9lbs or 48.3% higher than the 22.25lbs Perry reported. The average of these two methods yields an estimated weight of 29lbs or 30% greater than the weight reported. Applying the same logic to Dottie’s dimensions, at the time of her death, the estimated weight comes out to 19.3lbs, virtually spot on to the 19lbs observed. Similarly, for Manabu’s bass, the average comes out to 20.5lbs, 9% lower, as compared to the actual weight. It’s only in the case of Perry’s fish the formula breaks down indicating the length and girth dimensions should yield a bass that weighs far more than recorded. The question then becomes, which of Perry’s measurements were wrong; the length, the girth, or the weight? It is, of course, impossible to know. What we can state with virtual mathematical certainty however, is that at least one, if not all three of these measurements were incorrectly reported by Perry.
Lake Montgomery is beyond the natural range of Florida-strain bass. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest Florida-strain bass were ever transplanted in the Ocmulgee River area prior to 1932. Baab admits as much in his book arguing the fish was a pure northern-strain bass. The largest northern-strain bass ever caught and recorded was less than 16lbs, making Perry’s fish nearly 40% bigger than any other northern-strain bass ever recorded. Many years after Perry’s catch, Florida-strain bass were introduced to Georgia, and subsequently bass as large as 18lbs have been documented. Even compared to the more recent Florida-strain giants out of Georgia, Perry’s fish exceeds the next biggest bass out of the state by more than 20%, making it a statistical anomaly, to say the least.
Pre-spawn in June
In his telling of the story, Perry made it clear when the fish was filleted it was full of roe. While this could certainly help explain the increased weight of the fish it also creates a biological problem that casts some additional doubt on Perry’s story. While sizable in 1932, Lake Montgomery was by all accounts relatively shallow. In central Georgia average temps in June have highs well into the mid-80s with nighttime lows in the 70s. There’s very little doubt the water temperate in the small lake would have been in the upper 70s to lower 80s. The problem here is that largemouth bass spawn when water temperatures rise into the lower 60s. In central Georgia, the spawn typically begins in early March and in late years may extend into mid-May. Biologically speaking, Perry’s fish being pre-spawn in June would be an outlier but perhaps not unheard of. It is noteworthy that no other bass caught in North America, which cracks the top 25 largest bass list, has been caught outside of the southern spawn months of February to May.
Verdict: While some of the biological evidence can be explained away, other aspects of the story, particularly the reported weight and dimensions of the fish, are demonstrably false. The genetics don’t pan out, and the measurements don’t add up. I ask the reader, what is more likely; a bass that defies physics or a fisherman who has made a mistake in measurement or perhaps stretched the truth?
Famed big bass expert Doug Hannon, dubbed “The Bass Professor,” vehemently argued the Perry fish was a false record. He concluded the fish was either a Striped Bass native to the river system that was miss-identified or that the fish likely weighed a maximum of 13lbs. While it’s purely speculation, my best guess is that Perry did, in fact, catch a giant bass. Perhaps the fish weighed well into the upper teens. Such a fish might have a length in the upper 20s” and a girth of 23” or more. If Perry then incorrectly measured the length of the fish by including its curvature (a mistake easy to make with a tailor's tape) he may well have arrived at a length in excess of 30”. This coupled with a scale that could have been poorly calibrated or simply miss-read could have led to a record that never was. Whatever the case, there is overwhelming evidence the fish’s dimensions as purported by Perry are a biological impossibility. In our imaginary court case, where we have attempted to convict Perry of having caught the World Record bass, we must acquit. Reasonable doubt abounds in virtually every detail of this whopper of a story. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, we are left wanting of even the most basic proof. I suspect that deep down Perry knew this all along, but sometimes stories get told and retold so often that eventually fact and myth freely mix. When this happens the truth of a story may be lost forever; even to the teller.