National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame
The world's largest fiberglass sculpture is also the world's largest fish -- a fearsome muskie -- and the centerpiece of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. Over four stories tall and as long as a Boeing 757, it is the biggest thing in a very small town. If the muskie were alive it could swallow a bus -- a bus that would probably be filled with awestruck freshwater fishing fans, over 100,000 of which visit the Hall of Fame every year.
The Hall is the "keeper of the world record fish of North America," a task that had been neglected until the Hall's inception in the 1970s. Its early survival is credited to the Jim Beam Company, whose ten-year program of collectible fish whiskey decanters netted the Hall of Fame a quarter-million dollars in licensing fees. The scale and scope of the place has grown ever since.
A door in the tail of the muskie offers visitors entry to its innards. Inside is the Shrine to Anglers, whose walls are lined with the names of thousands of the Hall's charter members. Here, too, is a memorial exhibit to Herman the Worm, a sickly Canadian night crawler that was nursed back to health by a freshwater fisherman and eventually made a guest appearance on The Tonight Show.
A stairway up the muskie's gullet leads to an observation platform in its toothy, open mouth. From here, visitors have a good view of the Hall's six-acre spread and its "Sea of Fishes," a sculpture garden populated with oversized perch, bluegill, and other freshwater game. In front of the fiberglass bass (which is eating a fiberglass frog) is a plaque: "In Loving Memory of Marjorie Anne Pazik Herrewig 1948-1983: The smallmouth was her favorite fish." The rainbow trout comes with an attached rod and reel for gag photos.
The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame has over 3,000 entries in its world record book. Its museum displays 5,000 fishing lures, 200 rods and reels, 400 mounted fish, and a room of outboard motors. We noticed a showcase of minnow buckets, an ice spearing exhibit, a tackle box panorama, and a memorial wall "In Memory of Those Gently at Rest in God's Landing Net." In one room, two hairy Bigfoot dummies are tagged "The Primitive Fisherman" and "The Primitive Fisherman's Son," which probably draws a big laugh from the fishing-friendly crowd.
Emmet Brown, the executive director of the Hall of Fame, showed us the outboard motor room. It's packed with 300 motors, several small boats, and smells like a garage. "Most people, when they look at the motors, they say 'Wow,'" Emmet told us. "This is definitely the largest collection of outboard motors available to public viewing. No doubt in my mind about that." We stared, without really comprehending, at a 1947 Western Auto Wizard and a 1935 Montgomery Ward Sea King. Emmet directed our attention to the 1909 Evinrude, which he said was the world's first production outboard motor. "This is probably our gem," Emmet told us.
Also without parallel is the Hall's collection of mounted world-record freshwater fish. Anglers can gaze in awe at a 22-pound walleye, a 40-pound brown trout, a 46-pound northern pike. The most famous fish in the Hall, a 69-pound 11-ounce muskie, was caught by former bootlegger Louis Spray right here in Hayward in 1949. But is it a world record fish? That's a matter of some controversy. For years it hung as a trophy in Louis Spray's bar, until both were destroyed in a fire. The Hall painstakingly reconstructed the fish using photos and vital statistics, which every muskie fisherman and woman knew by heart.
Emmet tells us that fishing to him "is more than just catching; it's the experience," and we figure that most of the anglers who come here share that sentiment. For the rest of us, what will stand out in your memory is the big muskie. Its gaping, merciless eyes. Its green, sleek skin against a blue Wisconsin sky puffed with clouds. And its open mouth full of unsuspecting humans, on the short end of the food chain for a change.