Posted on Thu, Feb. 23, 2006

Mathematicians call for muskie study
RECORD FISH: Three math experts examined the photo of Louie Spray's catch and say an independent investigation is needed.


The controversy over a muskie caught more than 56 years ago will not die.

Three mathematicians who examined photos of the world-record muskie are recommending that an independent group with experts in mathematics and photogrammetry be created to determine whether Louis Spray's fish was as large as claimed.

"Why do I care about the world-record muskie?" said Douglas N. Arnold, mathematics professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and director of its Institute for Mathematics and its Applications. "I was asked to put my name on these results. Math has something to contribute, and we should be honest about what it can say and can't say."

Arnold was one of the mathematicians that the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, asked to examine photographs of Spray and his muskie. Two others were Joseph Gallian, a mathematics professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth; and Dorian Goldfeld, professor of mathematics at Columbia University.

The three mathematicians worked independently on their calculations, then co-wrote a Feb. 1 letter to Emmett Brown, the Hall of Fame's executive director. They believe the Hall of Fame is not recognizing the limitations of their method of photo analysis.

"The three of us agree that things could have been done better," Joseph Gallian said. "There are ways that people who are experts using sophisticated methods could produce a much more accurate answer."

In their letter, the mathematicians said an independent group of such experts "should be supplied with the full information available, including all known photos of the fish in original format, and allowed to pursue the evidence as they feel most justified."

The Hall of Fame announced Jan. 19 that its board of directors had voted 8-0 to retain Spray's world record of a 69-pound, 11-ounce muskie caught on the Chippewa Flowage in 1949.

"Photos of this musky actually prove -- through the use of same plane, direct scaling techniques ... that the reported length of Spray's musky (63.9 inches) is in the 'ballpark' (the approximate range) of where it should be," was one of the reasons the hall cited for keeping Spray's record.

" 'Prove' is the wrong word," Gallian said. "Direct scaling is only accurate under ideal conditions. And we did not have those conditions. Even a small amount away from the perfect can make a significant difference."

Brown is satisfied that hall's board made the correct and final decision.

"We're confident in the record based on the strength of the affidavits," he said. "That's the most compelling bit of information. There are 10 verified witnesses to the measuring, the weighing, and that the fish was fresh and live caught."

A fire destroyed Spray's mounted fish in 1959, leaving only photographs and the affidavits as evidence of the fish's measurements.

"In the grand scheme of things the documentation -- the affidavits -- is the strongest piece of verification that the fish existed in the reported dimensions," Brown said. "Photo analysis can and is subjective."

Brown rejected earlier photo analysis done for the World Record Muskie Alliance, an Illinois group that challenged Spray's record, saying photos show that the fish was only 54 inches long, not 63.

If experts know how large something is in a photograph, they may be able to use that knowledge to determine how large something else in the picture is. In this case, if Spray's muskie is 63 inches long, the fish would appear to be 88 percent as long as the 6-foot Spray was tall.

But that assumes that Spray and the fish were next to each other when the picture was taken. And as any angler knows, holding a fish out at arm's length toward the camera makes the fish look larger than holding it close to the body. Tilting the camera will affect results as well.

Assuming Spray was holding the fish alongside his body and that the camera wasn't tilted, Gallian calculated a theoretical maximum length of about 65 inches for the fish. "It could be much smaller," he said of muskie in two photos he provided by the Hall of Fame.

Arnold was asked to examine just one photo. He questions why different people were given different pictures to examine, and whether the Hall of Fame understands his analysis.

Like Gallian, Arnold decided the fish could have been as much as 63 inches long. Or much shorter.

"If I had to guess, I would say probably considerably shorter because the one test I did made a much shorter board look that size," he said.

If Spray's record is ever thrown out, next in line is a 67-pounder caught in 1949 by Minneapolis outdoors writer Cal Johnson on Lac Courte Oreilles. That fish is on display at the Moccasin Bar in downtown Hayward.

STEVE KUCHERA can be reached at (218) 279-5503, toll free at (800) 456-8282, or by e-mail at

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