A Fish That Is Truly Worthy of the Hall of Fame : Yes, There Really Is a Catch to This Story

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of anglers drive to this out-of-the-way northwoods hamlet every day throughout the summer just to see the big fish.

This is no fish story.

The big fish in Hayward is something else. They call it the world's largest--half a block long, 4 1/2 stories high.

The giant leaping green and white muskie is beyond the wildest imagination of any fisherman, fisherwoman or fisherkid.

Of course, it's only a statue--made of 500 tons of concrete, steel and fiberglass--but anyone who has ever cast a line into a stream or lake stands in awe in the shadows of this finny colossus.

The muskie's gaping lower jaw is an observation platform with room for 30 people. The tail is three stories high. The belly of the big fish is a museum.

It is a shrine to anglers of both sexes and all ages, races, nationalities and religions.

"The muskie is the king of freshwater fish," says Bob Kutz, 66, director of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. "I wanted something outstanding, something people would remember."

He's got it.

The Hall of Fame was founded in 1960 by Kutz and his wife, Fannie, 65, lifelong fishing companions and 40-year marriage partners. The big fish was completed in 1979 at a cost of $500,000. Fannie serves as business manager of the Hall of Fame.

"Fannie taught me how to fish when we were kids," said Kutz, who was born and grew up in Cicero, Ill., a Chicago suburb. "She baited my first hook, took my first fish off my line."

The giant muskie is surrounded by seven smaller species of freshwater fish, hand-sculptured statues standing 10 to 12 feet high. There also are gardens and several other buildings on the 6 1/2-acre spread that makes up the Hall of Fame.

It is here that all state, national and world records of freshwater game fish are recorded. Each year the hall publishes a book with nearly 4,000 record catches by all tackle, by all line classes--strength of line used--by rod and reel, fly fishing, pole and line with no reel, and ice fishing, all for 150 species of sport fish.

There is a photo gallery honoring record-holders with their fish.

Some of the records are longstanding. For example, William Pomin's 31-pound 8-ounce cutthroat trout caught in 1911 on Lake Tahoe is still the California record for that fish. The national all-tackle cutthroat trout record is held by John Skimmerhorn for a 41-pound fish caught on Pyramid Lake in Nevada in 1925.

The largest muskie ever caught was a 69-pound 15-ounce whopper taken from the St. Lawrence River in 1957 by Art Lawton.

"You don't just write in and say, 'I caught the biggest fish ever,' " Kutz said. "There are forms to fill out. The fish must be weighed on a certified scale, properly witnessed. We need photographs and documentation by a professional taxidermist or biologist."

Each year since 1979, conservationists, scientists and fishermen of note have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

There are 39 so far, including this year's inductees, Berkley Bedell, who pioneered research in the manufacture of monofilament fishing line; Nick Creme, who developed plastic fishing worms, and Tom Lenk, president and chairman of the Garcia Corp., who popularized open-reel spin fishing.

"Fishing is no small potatoes," Kutz said. "There are 56 million licensed anglers in America, 21 million of them women."

Humor, too, is part of the Hall of Fame, just as it is quite often a part of fishing. On the grounds is an anglers' "cemetery" with make-believe headstones bearing such epitaphs as, "Edith Wouldn't Clean the Fish," "A Muskie Ate Him Up," and "He Stood Up in the Boat."

There are also statues, plaques and real memorial gardens provided by relatives of a number of departed lovers of the sport. For example, one garden is marked with a plaque: "In Fond Memory of Fred Meeske, 1903-1970, An Avid Fisherman. From His Beloved Wife, Hilda, And Children."

The museum is filled with exhibits that keep anglers drooling for hours on end. It has more than 5,000 dated lures, hundreds of antique rods, reels and angling accessories, more than 300 antique and classic outboard motors, more than 400 mounts of 200 different species of fish, 2 theaters showing 12 hours of nonstop films on fishing and much more.

One exhibit shows all 287 known types of flys used by fly fishermen. Another has a copy of the "Treatyse of Fishynge," published in 1496 and the first known book written about fishing. The author was a Catholic nun. There is a display of ice fishing through the ages.

More than 500 sports fishing clubs support the Hall of Fame, which is governed by a 30-member board. Former baseball star Ted Williams is one of the governors.

A major supporter through the years has been the James B. Beam distillery. The liquor company issued a series of decanters in the shape of fish and donated a percentage of the sales--totaling $250,000 to date--to the National Fresh Water Fish Hall of Fame.

More than 12,000 anglers are dues-paying members of the hall. For $15 a year they are admitted free, receive a membership card, calendar, plaque, the annual record book and quarterly copies of the magazine, Splash.

The hall has even promoted romance. Two ichthyologists--fish scientists--a man and a woman, professors from the University of Wisconsin, were so inspired by Hayward's giant muskie that they were recently married in the gaping mouth of the big fish.

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