WOODY walleye

Hartsville’s Mabry Harper and his world record walleye.

Fishermen sometimes exaggerate, but Hartsville’s Mabry Harper insisted he didn’t.

After a half-century’s dispute about the size of the monster walleye he caught in Old Hickory Lake, today his world record stands secure.

It’s an intriguing story, as told by Hartsville historian John Oliver who played a major role in it.

It began on a sultry August day in 1960 when Harper was fishing for catfish in recently-dammed Old Hickory Lake. Something grabbed his bait and took off. Something big.

It wasn’t a catfish, it was a walleye – the biggest walleye in the world.

Harper was accustomed to catching big fish (he once landed a 90-pound catfish) and he knew how to play the lunker. After an hour’s tussle he hauled the huge fish into his boat and headed for a nearby marina.

The fish tipped the scales at 25 pounds, four ounces. The weight, length (41 inches) and girth (29 inches) were verified by several witnesses, including a Tennessee Game & Fish warden. The official weight was eventually lowered to 25 pounds after a re-check of the scales found them to be off by four ounces.

“I saw the fish when it was weighed and measured,” said Harper’s son Bobby, five at the time. “It weighed exactly what they said it did.”

Harper’s walleye – which he took home, cleaned and ate — was not just a state record but also a world record.

However, in 1996 the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame nixed the record based on a new science called “photometric analysis” – using objects in a photograph (such as hands) to determine the size of other objects in the photo. After examining a photograph of Harper holding the fish, officials declared the fish couldn’t have been as big as was claimed.

Harper’s world record was voided.

Harper had died by then and couldn’t defend his catch, but his sons and family friend Oliver waged the battle for him.

“I got involved for several reasons,” says Oliver, who writes a weekly historical column for the Hartsville Vidette. “First, as a favor to the family. Secondly, as president of the Trousdale County Historical Society it’s meaningful to have a former resident listed as a world record holder. There was also the matter of fairness; what they did to Mabry wasn’t fair.”

Oliver, assisted by Harper’s son Bobby and step-son Jerry, set about reclaiming their father’s record. Oliver spent over a year tracking down faded old photos of the fish, researching documents, interviewing surviving witnesses. One was retired game warden Jim Spurling who was present at the weigh-in and signed a document verifying the fish’s size.

In 2010 Oliver traveled to FWFHF headquarters in Hayward, Wisconsin, to present his case. He said the evidence supporting the size of Harper’s fish was indisputable. FWFHF officials heard Oliver’s argument, weighed the evidence, and voted to reinstate Harper’s world record.

And so it stands today after an incredible Odyssey – and a whopper of a fish tale.