The Facts Supporting the Harper Walleye Reinstatement.

By John Dettloff

This past May, after careful review of newly discovered evidence supporting the validity of the 25 pound 1960 walleye catch made by Mabry Harper out of Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee, the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame voted to officially reinstate the Harper walleye as our all tackle world record for walleye.

With more than 3000 world record entries for 125 species of fresh water fish in our record books, we chose to conduct our own internal review of our records during the past several years in order to make sure our listings are as fair and accurate as possible.  During this time, several records have been either re-categorized or removed, based upon their true ranking in their respective divisions. 

When it came to the walleye record, we considered this issue important to revisit because in 1996, the Hall had removed the long standing Harper walleye from its record listing.  This decision was based upon an Outdoor Life article which claimed that Harper’s walleye couldn’t have measured 41 inches in length, as reported on Harper’s original entry form to Field & Stream, the official record keeping body at the time. 

Click photos below to enlarge:

Doubts About the Harper Fish

The genesis of the doubts about the size of Harper’s walleye stemmed from the observation that the author didn’t believe the fish appeared as long as claimed after examining the photo of Mr. Harper holding his walleye.  While the image of the walleye in the photo may not at first appear to be 41 inches long to some individuals, this is simply just another case of today’s overstated photographic expectations not matching yesterday’s photographic reality.  So often these days, because of the more frequent use of wide angle lenses and the usual closer proximity of the cameraman to the angler, today’s photographic methods commonly make fish appear larger than they really are.

The Harper Hand Spread Assessment

Following this initial observation, the author then set out to calculate the walleye’s length by using an assumed hand spread of the angler (Harper) and comparing it to the length of his fish.   There are two major problems with attempting to measure a long unknown object off a much shorter known distance in a photograph. 

First, any minor error in the “known” distance will be multiplied by how many times longer the unknown object is.  For example in the case of the Harper walleye, because its total length is approximately nine times larger than Harper’s hand spread, whatever error there is in the assumed hand spread distance will be multiplied by that same factor of nine.  Therefore, if Harper’s assumed hand spread was just a quarter of an inch off, then the calculated length of the walleye would be two and a quarter inches off. 

Secondly, the premise of using a short known distance in a photograph to calculate a much longer unknown distance in the same photo will commonly yield inaccurate results… in some cases, overestimating, and at other times, underestimating the final result depending on the proximity of the “known distance” to the true horizon line or camera level of the photographer.  This is a fact of photographic perspective that many people seem to overlook when attempting to assess the size of a large fish in a photograph. 

I recall an article that I once read which discussed that one could measure the length of a fish in a photograph by using any known object in the same photograph, such as a stick of gum, as a reference measurement to yield a length for the fish.  Actually, this is not a reliable way of ascertaining an accurate measurement…. especially if the fish is many times longer than the reference item.  For example: if you photographed two 3 inch long sticks of gum, with one being positioned at camera level (the true horizon) and the other being positioned well below the horizon line, the lower stick of gum would measure smaller than the stick of gum that is located at the horizon.  Moreover, the wider the angle lens that is used, the greater the difference will be between the apparent length of the two sticks of gum… even though we known they are the same length.

When it came to the author’s assumption of how big he thought Harper’s hand spread was, he put it between 3½ and 4 inches (at most), basically stating that a 4½ inch hand spread would have been virtually impossible for Harper to have possessed.  Here in lies the most dangerous part of the author’s theory…using assumptions and not facts to back his theory that Harper’s fish didn’t measure up.  The fact is: hand width can have a considerable variance from one person to another and often without regard for a person’s physical size.  There are indeed people of average height (like Harper) who have exceptionally wide hands that measure in the 4½ inch range (when held in the same position that Harper had his hands).  Laborers and tradesmen who work with their hands often have thick, muscular hands as a result of their lifelong vocations.  And Harper, who was a plumber by trade, was very likely one such person.  Could Harper’s hand spread have measured in the 4½ range in the photograph?  Yes, it is certainly could have. 

The theory which concluded that Harper’s walleye wasn’t long enough turns out to unsupported by any facts and, in retrospect, Harper’s walleye should have never been removed from the record books.  Some people bought into this theory, including the people who had reviewed the matter at the Hall.  Although most of the current people in place at the Hall today were not involved in the decision to remove the Harper walleye 14 years ago, we take responsibility for this action and feel it is important to correct this error and make sure history will remember the Harper’s world record walleye as a fair and honest angling accomplishment.

Click photos below to enlarge:

Newly Discorvered Documentation Supporting the Harper Walleye

Among the additional evidence that has been discovered supporting Harper’s 25 pound world record walleye are two quality photographs of Harper’s wife holding his fish and another photograph of the walleye’s head (after it had been cleaned) with a ruler on top of it.  These three photos greatly help support the reported size of Mabry Harper’s world record walleye at 25 pounds and 41 inches in length.  Two of the photos of Mrs. Harper holder her husband’s walleye illustrate a most impressive and well built walleye.  Both taken in front of a 1959 Plymouth Custom Suburban automobile, these photos show a fish which more convincingly was as large as claimed.

The reason that Mr. Harper didn’t mount his walleye shouldn’t indicate that something was “fishy” about his great catch.  On the contrary, during that time period and in that part of the country where people have always been known as hard workers who eked out a subsistence living off the land, Harper regarded his catch as, first and foremost, food for the table.  He did, however, have a photograph taken of the walleye’s head with a ruler on top of it shortly after it had been dressed out and cleaned.  Herein lies a most unique and very strong piece of documentation. 

Keeping in mind the limitations of camera perspective and distortion, there are limits to what this photo can tell us about the size of the walleye head.  For example, because the ruler is lying on top of the walleye’s head (closer to the camera than the end of the fishes gill plates) we can not accurately ascertain the total length of the walleye’s head without the result being significantly understated.  However, because the walleye’s eye is higher up and closer to the ruler, we can arrive at a slightly underestimated or “lowballed” measurement of the distance from the tip of the walleye’s upper jaw to the posterior edge of its eye socket.  A straight measurement of this distance off the photo yields a measurement of between 3 ¾ and 3 7/8 inches.  Remember, because the ruler is slightly closer to the camera than this distance we know this measurement will be slightly “lowballed”.  Therefore, using the upper end of this measurement of 3 7/8 inches would give us the more accurate reading for this distance.

Knowing this fact, we can come up with a fairly accurate total head length for the Harper walleye by assessing the photo of Mrs. Harper holding the fish vertically.  This 3 7/8 eye to upper jaw distance can also be used to yield a “lowballed” or underestimated total length of the walleye.  It is important to keep in mind that this length result will not represent to actual length of the walleye, rather it WILL give an underestimated or smaller than actual length figure. This is because the eye to upper jaw reference measurement that is being used has been taken from a position very close to the horizon line or camera level.  We know the camera level or horizon in this photo is at a point near the bottom edge of the car windows because the distant tree line visible through the car indicates this.

Knowing all of the above facts, once we use the 3 7/8 inch reference measurement, the Harper walleye’s head length calculates to being close to 11 inches long and the “lowballed” or underestimated total length of the walleye comes to around 39 inches.  Remember, this doesn’t mean the walleye was 39 inches long; rather, it means that the walleye had to be longer the 39 inches!  This is consistent with the reported length of Harper’s walleye being 41 inches in length.

In addition to the additional photographic evidence supporting the Harper walleye, there are also two key affidavits from a Tennessee game warden named James Spurling that further document the walleye’s size.  On a 1960 affidavit he had signed, Spurling  attested to the fact that he had personally checked the scale that the walleye was weighed on.  Furthermore, on an additional affidavit that he had prepared shortly before he had passed away, Warden Spurling attested that he had also witnessed the re-weighing of the walleye and that he had personally measured the fish (which was 41 inches in length).  As further evidence of this walleye’s existence, there are even scale samples preserved from the Harper’s 25 pound walleye.

So let the record be known in the walleye world that the world record walleye of 25 pounds which measured 41 inches in length was caught by Mabry Harper in the great state of Tennessee in 1960 was a most well documented claim and there has never been any evidence to prove the contrary.