The Strange, Once-Contested Story of the Biggest Smallmouth Bass Ever Caught
For years, the world record smallmouth bass was disqualified after a dock worker accused the angler of stuffing it with lead weights
Last fall, a cheating scandal rocked the fishing world. Two pro anglers were caught stuffing walleyes with multiple lead weights before a tournament weigh-in. The anglers were charged with felonies and will likely receive serious punishments, and the incident is already considered one of the most outrageous fishing tournament cheating scandals of all time.
And it’s reminiscent of another fishing scandal that many anglers today might not remember—the story of the biggest smallmouth bass ever caught. On July 9, 1955, David Lee Hayes was fishing with his wife and 6-year-old son on Dale Hollow Lake, which straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border. At the time, Hayes was already considered an accomplished bass and walleye fisherman.
At around 10 a.m., he was trolling a plug when a big fish hammered his lure. He soon boated an absolutely giant 11-pound, 15-ounce, smallmouth bass. At the time, Field & Stream was the official keeper of fishing records. The magazine quickly certified it as the rod-and-reel world-record smallmouth bass. And the record stood uncontested for decades.
A Dock Worker Cries Foul
Then in 1996, 41 years after Hayes made his impressive catch, a Tennessee school teacher unearthed a previously ignored affidavit from a dock worker at Dale Hollow, according to a story by ESPN. The affidavit alleged that Hayes had stuffed the bass with several pounds of lead weights and motor parts and that it was actually an 8-pounder.
The backlash was immediate. The IGFA, which had taken over fish records from Field & Stream, quickly rescinded Hayes’s record, as did Kentucky. Tennessee, for its part, did not disqualify the catch.
But the saga didn’t end there.
In 1996, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency assistant director Ron Fox launched a thorough investigation into the affidavit. He found the dock worker’s story to be fraudulent—and that the worker likely wasn’t even present at the dock when Hayes brought the fish in.
Despite the investigation, the fish stayed out of the IGFA and Kentucky record books until Bassmaster Magazine highlighted the story in a 2005 magazine feature. Later that year, both record-keeping agencies reinstated Hayes’s record.
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Hayes was 80 years old when his records were reinstated. “They could say what they wanted,” he told Field & Stream at the time. “I had the fun, and I have the fish. I never had any doubt what it weighed.”
Hayes passed away in July 2020. His world record still stands—and is currently considered one of the fishing records most unlikely to be broken.