Straddling the border of Kentucky and Tennessee near the Cumberland Plateau, lies a body of water known for producing renowned smallmouth and legendary anglers.
Dale Hollow Lake was created in 1943 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Obey River in Celina, TN. The Obey, which empties into the Cumberland, and its largest tributary the Wolf River, were both quality smallmouth rivers before the impoundment. After the reservoir started to fill, the habitat and the quality genetics created a perfect storm. A storm that would catapult the lake into the record books.
The reservoir has not only produced the world record smallmouth, but it also has numbers two and three on the list. In fact, the lake is home to 10 of the 25 largest bronzebacks on record.
THE WORLD RECORD
David L. Hayes is a quiet, unassuming man who loved to fish and was not interested in fame. The Leitchfield, KY angler got more than he bargained for in the summer of 1955 when a smallmouth bass he caught at Dale Hollow changed his life and sent shock waves through the bass fishing nation.
The author with David L. Hayes world record smallmouth taken from Dale Hollow in 1955.
Hayes was trolling a pearl-colored Bomber 600 series crankbait on the morning of July 9 when the fish struck. Although he had no way of knowing at the time, Hayes was hooked into a fish that would bring him joy, popularity and heartache. Both his wife Ruth and his young son David Jr. were asleep in the cabin of the Lone Star Cruiser Hayes was piloting.
The fight lasted “about 20 minutes, but seemed longer” and he was forced to wake his wife to help net the fish. When the fish was finally safely in the net, Hayes was excited by the size of the bronzeback, but still wasn’t sure the implications of the fish.
“I didn’t really know how big the fish was,” Hayes told me in a 2010 interview. “I knew he was bigger than any smallmouth I had ever seen, but I didn’t know how big he was or what the world record was. It wouldn’t fit in my cooler without the tail flopping over the side so I knew it was a good one.”
Hayes fish was 27 inches long and the girth measured 21 2/3 inches. It weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces. No one – before or since—has caught and documented a smallie over 11 pounds and Hayes’ world record was 1 ounce shy of 12 pounds. The fish would sit atop the IGFA World Record Book for the next 40 years, only to be toppled –not by a bigger fish—but by controversy.
After displaying his fish at an outdoor expo in Livingston, Tenn., the promoter of the show decided he didn’t believe the fish was as big as reported. He later found an affidavit sworn by what was later proved to have been a disgruntled dock worker, who claimed to have stuffed artificial weight into the fish. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) removed Hayes record from the books. From 1996 until 2005, the new world record was a 10.875 bronzeback, also taken from Dale Hollow, by John Gorman in 1969.
A diligent investigation into the claims of Hayes’s fish being artificially weighted was begun by Ron Fox of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and noted bass historian and outdoor writer Ken Duke. The results of this investigation were that both the IGFA and the KDFWR reinstated the record where it still proudly sits after almost 60 years.
“Mr. Hayes big fish made a huge impact that is still felt today,” said Stephen Headrick, a smallmouth expert in his own right. “Even today, all these years later, people still come here and want to talk about the world record smallmouth. It’s been over 50 years and people still know the details of that fish.”
A LARGER THAN LIFE ANGLER
The front and back cover of Billy Westmoreland’s book Them Ol’ Brown Fish.
While much credit for the sudden popularity in Dale Hollow was due to the world record smallmouth, most angling historians agree that it was an over-sized, fun-loving Celina native that really put the reservoir on the map.
Billy Westmoreland saw it all on this lake during his life. At the tender age of 13 he was guiding smallmouth anglers on the reservoir, at times playing hooky from to school to do so. As an adult he was a three-time winner on Ray Scott’s fledgling Bass Angler Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) tournaments and qualified for six Bassmaster Classics. It was during the course of an early B.A.S.S. that Westmoreland saved the life of Johnny Morris and a fellow angler. Morris, who would later go on to found Bass Pro Shops.
In the 1980’s, Westmoreland retired from professional tournament fishing and began a career in television. His show “Billy Westmorland’s Fishing Diary” ran for years nationally and catapulted the lake and Westmoreland into the national spotlight. Westmoreland would have celebrities from both inside the fishing world and out as guest on his show. Anglers such as Bill Dance and Jerry McKinnis and country music star Porter Waggoner were just a few of his well-known guest who appeared on the show. This brought lots of national attention to the already popular reservoir.
“What Billy Westmoreland did was take the lake’s reputation to a higher level,” explained Headrick. Billy was the perfect person to do that, because of his TV shows, magazine articles and the fact that he had caught so many big smallmouth from the lake.”
Indeed, when it came to catching oversized bronzebacks, Westmoreland had no equal. He is the only man to catch two smallmouth over 10 pounds and he has three of the top 25 largest smallmouth ever taken.
Headrick, nicknamed “The Smallmouth Guru” is part Dale Hollow evangelist and part historian.
“Billy’s success on the tournament trail and his three big smallmouth lent a lot of credibility to the lake’s reputation,” Headrick recalled. “With his television show and all the celebrities coming to Dale Hollow to fish with him, it just added to the lake’s reputation.”
Despite all of his accomplishments, one fish haunted Westmoreland’s dreams. On Christmas Day of 1970 Westmoreland hooked and battled a fish that he was convinced would go over 12 pounds. He was fishing a Pedigo Spinrite on a cold, blustery day when the big fish struck. After a long initial run, Westmoreland was starting to gain line on the fish. He worked it to the surface where it wallowed for a minute and he was able to get a good look at the fish. He described it as the biggest smallmouth he had ever seen. The fish dove and the lure pulled loose and the legendary angler was left to ponder “what if.” It was an experience the Celina native never quite recovered from and it invaded his dreams for years to come.
“I remember Uncle Billy waking up in the middle of the night and towing the boat to the lake when I was young,” said Kenny Westmoreland, the angler’s nephew. “He didn’t plan these trips or anything; he just said he would dream about that big fish and go spend a few hours fishing for it in the middle of the night. He knew exactly where that fish lived and he was convinced he was going to catch it.”
Westmoreland passed away in 2002 and never caught the giant smallmouth of his dreams. He fished all over the country and could have lived anywhere he wanted, but he never left Celina and his beloved Dale Hollow.
“Billy loved this lake and he loved the family,” noted his brother Bobby Westmoreland. “This lake made him who he was and he helped make this lake. Dale Hollow can do that to you, make you never want to be anywhere else.”
Authors note: The original copy of this story was published in Cabela’s Outfitter Journal. It has been slightly altered for this version.