When Irene Boroo died four years ago, an item in her possession was a fish that had been stored in her basement for 25 years. But when it was time for the Boroo estate auction, the fish was nowhere to be found.
An ardent admirer of said fish, one Dennis Johnstone, owner of Dun Rovin Lodge in Hayward, Wis., had already snapped it up for $5,000 from Irene's grandchildren. Johnstone has called it "the buy of the century." Until the deal went down, Johnstone had so wanted the big fish for his lodge's lounge that he had called himself "future holder of the world-record muskie," and hung up a 63.5-pound muskellunge stuffed to look like a 71-pounder—or maybe a scaly sumo wrestler.
But, one sham was enough. So when Johnstone bought that mighty muskie from the Boroo estate and put out a road sign proclaiming that Dun Rovin was HOME OF THE WORLD RECORD MUSKY—70 POUNDS, 4 OUNCES, tongues started flapping: Was Johnstone cashing in on yet another hoax?
In the fall of 1987, after a nearly yearlong investigation of Johnstone's muskie, the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, situated in Hayward, decided yes...and no. The muskie displayed at Dun Rovin was the world-record fish, but not the official world-record fish. The gingerly judgment was handed down by Bob Kutz, founder of the Hall of Fame. No stranger to the promotional power of large muskies, Kutz is famous for the 4½ story-high, walk-through muskie he built on the Hall's lawn.
The tale of the Malo muskie began on a sultry summer night on the shores of Middle Eau Claire Lake in northern Wisconsin. The time was Saturday night and Sunday morning, June 5-6, 1954. It was an occasion marked by drinking, dancing, drinking, eating, drinking and, as Bob Malo, one of the partygoers at the Sportsman's Lodge that night, tells it, "a lot of fine people." Among them: Hank Boroo, the owner of Sportsman's Lodge; his wife, Hilda, the estimable chef at the Lodge; George Cruise, a Chicagoan who worked as a serviceman for Union Gas; and Bob and Sally Malo, a couple from Thunder Bay, Ontario.
It was two in the morning. Sally Malo had gone to bed. And Cruise was baiting her husband: "You shoulda been there today. You shoulda seen those walleyes and northerns. You always say you're going to go fishing. What do you say we two go fishing?"
Bob Malo swallowed Cruise's bait. He borrowed Boroo's Montague trolling rod and Shakespeare reel. He and Cruise were about to shove off when Hank Boroo stopped them. "If the pike are that big," he said, "then, by god, you two had better take my gun." And they did, says Malo, "just to lend some drama to the affair."
It was not until "around four," according to Malo, that "we went out in a pretty saucy condition." First Cruise trolled, then Malo took the rod. "I figure we must have been horsing around out there for a half hour," says Malo. "All I know is, we were running into some weeds, when suddenly the weight was there on my line. I was thinking pike, northern pike. And then again, I thought it could be one of those big turtles."
Turtles, indeed. What was hauling on Malo's bait was 70 pounds of unsated muskellunge, which had just supped on one of those fine northern pikes Cruise had talked about, and then gulped down the nine-inch sucker hooked to Malo's line for dessert.
"We knew we had something big," says Malo, "and we kept working it closer and closer toward the beach. When we reached shallow water, I got out and trapped the muskie between my knees and the boat. George said, 'I'm going to shoot.' " Cruise shot, missed, shot again and nailed the big fish in the head. "I was hollering, 'Enough! Enough!' " says Malo, "what with everything all slippery."
Around 5:30 they beached their boat and rousted the other guests at Sportsman's Lodge out of their cabins. When Hank Boroo saw the fish, he began calling everyone he knew. Among those summoned to the lodge that morning was Kutz, then a public relations man for the local resort association. While others were patting each other on the back, Kutz leaned over the lunker and noted that "the fish's gills were still pulsating. The fish was still fresh."
While Malo was figuring how to get away from all the celebrating and back to Canada in time for work on Monday, he also agreed to give the fish to Boroo, accepting in return free American Plan lodging at Sportsman's Lodge for the rest of his life. He was going to pay $300 to get it mounted properly at the Storey Taxidermy Company in Duluth, Minn. Then people would walk into the Sportsman's Lodge and exclaim, Wow! This is where you can catch a world-record muskie.
When Malo, Cruise and Boroo reached Storey Taxidermy, plopped the muskie on taxidermist George Flaim's counter and told him to weigh and stuff the fish, they had already committed their first gaffe. "I told them the fish should have been properly weighed on an authorized scale," Flaim says. "But they just said 'mount it.' " Since they didn't care, Flaim didn't insist. He laid the muskie down on his bathroom scale, and he, Cruise, Boroo and Malo all watched as the needle fluttered three quarters of the way past 69, toward 70. The fish weighed 69 pounds, 12 ounces, according to Flaim's scale.
That put the Malo muskie just over the world record at the time: Louis Spray's 69-pound, 11-ounce fish, caught in 1949. But not until Boroo, Cruise and Malo got back to the lodge and looked at a record book did they realize that. They just thought they had a damn big muskie. By then, Flaim had slit the world-record belly, emptied it of eight and a quarter pounds of spawn and three pounds of chewed-up pike and taken the meat off the fish. Whoops.
Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, suspicions about the muskie were growing. As soon as Malo returned to the Sportsman's Lodge, a doubter stepped forward, sniffed the inside of his car and said, "Boy, you sure got that fishy smell out of this car pretty fast." And Malo replied, "We didn't take the muskie to Duluth in this car, we used Hank Boroo's." The man retorted: "No, I mean the smell from bringing the fish down from Canada."
Larry Ramsell, who headed up the investigation of the Malo muskie for the Hall of Fame, writes in his booklet entitled Is This the World Record Muskellunge? that he was struck by "an 'undertones—no, make that several 'undertones,'—of negativity, surrounding the Malo muskie." Ramsell listed the questions, with the results of his research:
•Was the Malo muskie a real muskie or a "tiger muskie," a hybrid between a muskie and a northern pike? (Definitely a purebred muskie.)
•How did Malo, who was not a muskie fisherman, happen to catch a muskie in Middle Eau Claire Lake, which is not a known muskie lake? (He knew how to fish, and there were muskies in that lake.)
•How could a muskie that short—52 inches, with a girth of 32 inches—weigh so much? (It had just eaten.)
•Well then, shouldn't the stomach contents be subtracted from the weight? (No, stomach content counts.)
•Why was the muskie skinned and stuffed so quickly? (Malo wanted to go home.)
•Why was it shot? (At the time, it was legal—and almost traditional—to shoot big muskies. In fact, Louis Spray shot his world-record fish.)
•Was the fish weighed on a certified scale? (Uh, no.)
The last was a legitimate gripe. Ever the optimist, Boroo thought all he had to do was show that Flaim's bathroom scale was as good as any certified one, enter Malo's muskie in the annual fishing contest conducted by Field & Stream magazine, have it judged the world record and sit back for the crowds and the money to roll into Sportsman's Lodge. So, on June 9, three days after the catch, Boroo took Flaim's scale to Marlowe Axell, a weights and measurements inspector for the State of Minnesota.
Axell's news was both bad and good: Flaim's scale was not accurate; it was weighing one-half pound low. The fish weighed not 69 pounds 12 ounces, but 70 pounds 4 ounces. In other words, Malo's muskie bested Spray's record fish not by one ounce but by nine.
The extra ounces made no difference, though, for on July 28, Field & Stream disqualified the Malo muskie because of the inaccuracy of Flaim's scale. "As you undoubtedly realize," the magazine's representative wrote to Malo, "any other course would immediately involve us in endless controversies."
But no one was going to get off the hook that easily. On Aug. 5, Boroo made Axell test Flaim's scale 15 times. And 15 times Axell swore that the scale was exactly one-half pound light. Field & Stream still would not change its decision. (When, at last, Spray's record was beaten, in 1957, it was but another slap in the Malo muskie's face. The fish that took the record was a 69-pound, 15-ounce muskie hooked by Art Lawton—five ounces lighter than the Malo muskie.)
World record or not, Boroo believed in the Malo muskie, and he dedicated his life to it. If he left town for a weekend, he would first drop the fish at a lodge in Duluth for safekeeping. But if the fish brought Boroo anything, it was a heap of bad luck. In time, Hilda left Hank, who then married Irene, and, as Malo puts it, "everything on Hank's side of the scale went down. His business just dropped until it was nothing." Boroo sold his property, cabin by cabin, and lived on the proceeds. Then one day in 1959, when Boroo was out of town and the muskie was on display in Duluth, his lodge burned to the ground. Boroo died of a heart attack not long after, and Irene inherited the fish, which she stuck in her basement and left there for 25 years.
When Johnstone finally got his hands on the fish, bombast became the byword. Right away, he swept away a quarter of a century of silence with his road sign. Then he posted a $100,000 reward to the person who could top his fish. It might not be a world record but, thus far, no one has caught a bigger muskie.
For all the hype, though, Johnstone and his muskie seem doomed by their association with one another. And, of course, once it surfaced again, the Malo muskie wasn't the most popular fish in town. Both owner and fish had such strong reputations that it wasn't clear which one would suffer more by the alliance.
The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame took it upon itself to become the "official" keeper of world records for freshwater fish in 1970, and when Johnstone took possession of the Malo muskie and hung out his bold road sign in 1986, the matter of the record was opened anew. At the outset of the Hall of Fame's investigation, the Malo Muskie's weight was docked four ounces, because, according to Is This the World Record Muskellunge?, Flaim's scale wasn't accurate to the quarter pound, only to the half pound. And, for a while, it looked as though the now 70-pound Malo muskie would fare better than its former 70-pound, 4-ounce incarnation because investigator Ramsell recommended that the Malo muskie be recognized, at 70 pounds even, as the official world record.
Then two things happened. First, Kutz decided to survey muskie clubs, sportswriters and people in the fishing industry to see what their opinion was on the controversial fish. Overwhelmingly, the respondents voted not to accept the Malo muskie as a record. Second, during the Hall of Fame's investigation a member of its Board of Governors asked, How do you put a 55-inch fish on a scale without it flopping down? The surmise: You put a board on the scale for the fish to rest on.
There were only four persons who could say whether or not that was actually how the Malo muskie was weighed at Storey Taxidermy: Malo, Boroo, Cruise and Flaim. Cruise was unreachable during the Hall of Fame investigation. Boroo was dead. That left Malo, who was throwing up during part of the weighing, and Flaim, the taxidermist, now retired.
What does Malo remember? "All I can say is, What board? The fish was 32 inches around, so I don't think it would have bent that much. I don't recall a board. I was not much of a healthy person after the party. I was suffering. I was violently ill."
What does the taxidermist say? "I don't remember putting the board on. But we must have put a board underneath, because a fish that big drapes. Its head and tail would have hit the table unless it was raised." But if there were a board, Flaim says, he would certainly have "dialed the scale back to zero."
If a scale is re-zeroed with a board on it, argues Ramsell, "the board becomes part of the scale." The board becomes an insignificant detail.
Not insignificant enough for Kutz. In the November-December 1987 edition of The Splash Pulse, the Hall of Fame's official publication, Kutz announced that the probability of a board on the scale was "the factor that weighed most heavily in the Hall's decision to not recognize the Malo 70-pound musky [sic] as a new official world record."
But the Hall of Fame offered a consolation prize of sorts: It would recognize Malo's fish as the unofficial world-record muskie. What does that mean? Kutz says it means that the fish really did weigh 70 pounds, but not on a "certified" scale. Ramsell says, "This is called doublespeak. It satisfies those who think it should be a record without annoying those who don't. It's called being political."
Malo seems resigned, and a bit bewildered, at the judgment. The Hall of Fame not only denied his fish an official world-record status, but it whittled four ounces off the muskie in the process. "If this were official, I would say, O.K., it's only 70 pounds," reasons Malo. "But if this is unofficial, I say, 'Why not 70 pounds, 4 ounces?'
"I asked Mr. Kutz, 'Now that you have said it is a 70-pound fish, am I going to get anything, in an unofficial way?' Kutz said, 'We'll give you something.'"
That was almost three years ago. So far all Malo, now 66, has to commemorate the mighty muskie he once caught is a three-page news release from the Hall of Fame.
Sarah Boxer, who lives in New York City, has written several articles for this magazine.