Questions still linger over Spray record muskie saga

Thursday, March 2, 2006 4:26 PM EST


By Tim Spielman Associate Editor

St. Paul - For Emmett Brown and the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame's board of trustees, the challenge to a 1949 world record muskie has been rejected, the issue put to rest.

'We think it's over,' said Brown, executive director of the hall, located in Hayward, Wis. The record muskie's legitimacy was challenged last year by a group called the World Record Muskie Alliance.

However, following a report issued by the Hall of Fame regarding the decision to retain the record fish - caught Oct. 29, 1949 by Louis Spray from Wisconsin's Chippewa Flowage - a group of mathematicians called upon by the hall to estimate the fish's length, based on photographic images, wants a more in-depth review of the available photos. The record fish is listed as 69 pounds, 11 ounces.

Dr. Douglas N. Arnold, director of the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota, one of those chosen to review a photo of Spray's muskie, said the hall's approach left room for error by those who studied muskie photos.

He and the other scientists enrolled to determine the fish's size, based on photos, wrote Brown a letter, stating, in part: ' Š none of us is willing to say, based on limited information and investigations we have made up to this point, whether or not we believe the record is valid. However, we feel that it is important that the analysis we have contributed be correctly understood.

'We believe a much more definitive result can be obtained from the photos which are available.

'To this end, it is our recommendation that an independent group, including experts on mathematics and photogrammetry (drawing conclusions of scale from photographs), be impaneled. This group should be supplied with the full information available, including all known photos of the fish in the original format, and allowed to pursue the evidence as they feel most justified.'

In November, the World Record Muskie Alliance released a 93-page report in which it stated the Spray muskie should be disqualified because it's own research indicated the fish wasn't as large as it was claimed to be. Disqualification of the Spray muskie would've catapulted Cal Johnson's muskie - a 671/2-pounder caught that same year - to the top, though that fish, too, has been rumored to be the subject of scrutiny by the WRMA.

Arnold said hall officials mailed to him one photo from which to make his estimate. 'It's not that simple,' he said. Arnold said he accepted the request because, 'We're a public institution and math can contribute, but now it's a political football.'

The hall's ruling, he said, 'is not an accurate summary of what we said.'

The Hall of Fame, in its final report regarding the challenge, states: '(Arnold) summed up his calculations by stating, ‘Thus, the only conclusion that we can draw with certainty is that the fish is shorter than 63 inches, perhaps considerably so.' Although the last portion of the statement is speculation, the factual portion of the statement is right in line with Dr. Gallian's (Joseph Gallian, University of Minnesota-Duluth, who also made an estimate based on a photo of the muskie) conclusion, in that Dr. Arnold refers to the length of the (visible portion of the) fish as being as much as 63 inches long. However, because Dr. Arnold didn't seem to realize that not all of the fish was visible in the photo, his answer may be misleading to some.'

Brown said the hall received the letter and recommendation from Arnold, Gallian, and Dr. Goldfeld, a professor of mathematics at Columbia University, who also responded to the hall's request for an estimate of the fish's size. However, Brown said the hall would not seek the opinion of an independent group assigned to examine all available photos and reach a conclusion regarding the muskie's size.

'We made our decision based on the best information,' he said.

According to the hall's validation of the Spray muskie: 'The report's (from the WRMA) primary piece of evidence (which alleged that the Spray muskie was only 53.6 inches long, not the claimed 631/2 inches long) came as a result of a computer software program that relied on multiple assumptions to be inputted before a result could be yielded,' according to the hall. 'Because no control was ever done to test the approach that was used, and so many assumptions had to be made, there exists too much reasonable doubt as to the accuracy of their result Š other allegations contained in the report prove to be largely speculative, invalid, and in many cases, outright false.'

In other words, Brown said, for the software to be effective, a photo must have 'two strong points of perspective,' but it was determined there was only one strong point of perspective by university professors, thus rendering computer analysis unreliable.

'It's game over at that point,' he said. 'At that point, we looked at the rest of the (WRMA) report, which is filled with innuendo and general ‘bar' talk.'

Furthermore, there are about 10 witnesses who've signed forms verifying the validity of the '49 catch.

'We can't just throw out this mountain of information we have,' Brown said. 'We take all records seriously, and we take our role of keeping records seriously.'

During the course of examining the Spray muskie, Brown said costs arose, which led to a new Hall of Fame policy - a fee of $1,500 for any new challenges. The fee will be refunded if the challenge is upheld, he said. But if it proves frivolous, the refund only will include what wasn't spent during the investigation.

'We want to cover our expenses,' Brown said.

Brown said he doesn't expect to see another challenge to the Spray muskie - at least not in the foreseeable future.

'But never say never, I guess,' he said.

Arnold said he and the other photo examiners have pursued follow-up studies in order that scientific results not be 'cherry-picked.'

'It's a microcosm of things that bother me a great deal in society,' Arnold said of scientific results selectively picked. 'It's important to stand up for science so that it's used in the correct manner. You can't accept (the results) and not tell what the assumptions are. You can tout professors and mathematics, but the assumptions have to be there, as well.'