The date was May 10, 1958, when Austin T. Race, Jr. invited 13 year-old Michael Barry to try his hand at “dibbling.”
The art of “dibbling” consists of a short line (about 24 inches long) and a top-water bait on the end of a cane pole. Fishing like this is difficult enough from a boat — Race and Barry were in a canoe!
When the fish struck, neither knew they had a smallmouth bass. The fish put up a real battle and as Michael brought it in, the smallmouth threw the hook into his pants — the hook virtually straightened.
Though they returned with a stringer of five fish, little did Barry know he had the possibility of becoming “fisherman of the year” in the smallmouth bass division.
To catch a smallmouth bass in Winter Haven is unusual and even more so when the fish weighs 10 pounds, two ounces (officially weighed at downtown’s Carrol Smith Hardware — then bass contest headquarters).
At the time, one fishing tackle manufacturer listed the world record smallmouth at 11 pounds, 15 ounces caught in Kentucky in 1955. This fish was later found to have been augmented by the addition of lead weights. Another source had maintained that a 14 pound bass caught in Florida previously was not a true smallmouth.
It wasn’t until later that Race considered it might have been a smallmouth based on the battle the fish put up. Using books and magazines, scales and rulers, he, Michael and his father M.D. Barry applied science to their determination.
Among the findings: Michael’s fish had more than 12 rows of scales (largemouth bass never have more than 12 rows); the dorsal fin was not deeply notched (largemouth sometimes appear to have two); the jaw joint was directly below the eye (largemouth jaw joint extends to a point far beyond the eye line); the fish had different markings from a largemouth.
The newspaper report of the catch noted that many anglers maintained there are no smallmouth bass in the Winter Haven area. Other locals remember the lake being stocked with smallmouth bass as an experiment.
Among the recognitions the fish received was the Freshwater Grand Prize in Scouting’s Boy’s Life Fishing Contest. For winning, Michael received a new 3 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor, as well as his photo and story in the magazine.
The family had the fish mounted and it has resided in his office throughout his career. He even had the taxidermy “freshened” some years back. The catch and the fond memories associated with it have brought him years of enjoyment.
The fish and various documents about its history will be on display at the Museum of Winter Haven History this fall. When he donated the prize, wife Janice added, “This is not ‘on loan’ to the museum — it is most definitely a gift.”
This segment is based on newspaper accounts and other documents provided by Mr. Barry. Michael Barry is the brother of Judy B. Cleaves. Janice (Smith) Barry is the daughter of Sidney and Lucille Smith of the pioneering Inman family.