Fishing for Smallmouth Bass

Daily Limit: Greatest Great Lakes smallmouth

(Photo: Grant Gallagher) Grant Gallagher holds the 10.15-pound smallmouth his father, Gregg, landed on Lake Erie.

Gregg Gallagher is uneasy with his newfound fame after catching the Great Lakes’ first double-digit smallmouth bass.

The fishing world is abuzz about Gallagher’s 10.15-pound smallmouth from Lake Erie. Word of the record-setting fish spread quickly since the Nov. 3 outing with his son, Grant. Back at the same Port Clinton, Ohio, ramp three days after the catch, Gregg was retrieving the trailer when a stranger called out.

“I’ve been overwhelmed to say the least,” Gregg said. “I’m a really shy, non-attention seeking person. I went from nobody knowing who I was to being called ‘The Big Bass Guy.’ I didn’t realize the guy was talking to me. I had to think about it for a second.”

The 54-year-old high school business teacher in Fremont, Ohio, wished it was his son who caught the bass. After all, Grant put in the work to find the behemoth, which ranks among the top 5 ever caught. Grant, a former Bassmaster College Series angler at Adrian College who competes in some regional events, was ecstatic to make such a mark in fishing, and doubly so to do it with the man who started him fishing.

“I still don’t think it’s really hit us,” Grant said. “It’s just truly a blessing. We’re both men of faith. For it to happen to us, we couldn’t be more grateful. We’re overwhelmed by all the messages and calls.

“It really hasn’t set in. When you talk about a 10-pound smallmouth, it doesn’t even seem fathomable.”

Gregg shows off the slob that is the biggest smallmouth caught on any of the Great Lakes.

Fog day, fishing day

The day of fishing shouldn’t even have happened, Grant said. Thick fog that Thursday morning made travel so bad that school was cancelled. On past “fog days,” the Gallaghers have gone fishing.

So Grant, a second-grade teacher in Hudson, Mich., texted his dad to get ready. Grant had some prep and a 75-mile drive to Fremont, where Gregg had hooked up his son’s Bass Cat for the half-hour drive to Lake Erie.

The fog had burned off and it turned into a beautiful day by the time they launched around 11:30. Gregg, a “converted walleye guy,” started at their deep area near Pelee Island with an A-rig and single swimbaits, which had worked well over the weekend. Grant advised him to switch bait and follow the plan he’d developed.

“The last couple weeks, we’ve been figuring out there’s some giant fish that are roaming with these shad. They’re pelagic,” Grant said. “They don’t live on rock piles. They literally live chasing bait.”

With the trolling motor on high and watching for clouds of shad on his forward facing sonar, Grant came across the magic school. He landed a 5-pounder that had 20 to 30 follow it.

“It still gives me goosebumps thinking about,” Grant said. “I scanned one more time, and there’s one big blip out there. I yelled to my dad, ‘Pitch out there.’ Those big ones like to be left alone. He was all by himself.”

Gregg’s first cast with the bait — “a very popular soft plastic” that Grant said will remain secret for now — didn’t get to the bottom. The big guy bit, and Gregg set the hook on a fish that seemed too heavy to be a bass.

“I thought it was a sheepshead so I horsed it, hoping it would either come off or I get it to the boat as quickly as possible so I can keep fishing,” Gregg said.

“We’re not taking it serious because we didn’t think it’s a smallmouth,” Grant said. “Then that line starts to race up. And we just look at each other, and that’s when the schoolgirl voices break out.”

“I’m a very quiet, reserved person,” Gregg said. “It’s kind of embarrassing watching that video.”

On a video, the two are hooting and hollering. They knew they had a giant, something bigger than they’d ever caught before, but not necessarily a record … yet.

“We both went into shock. We’ve never seen anything like that,” said Gregg, acknowledging neither have topped 7 pounds. “It made a couple, I’d say, weak dives. I’ve had much smaller fish fight harder than that one did. He scooped it up and put it on his bow, and we couldn’t believe what we caught.”

“The fight was really anticlimactic,” Grant said. “He pulled her right up to the surface, and it was so big. It tried to jump but it couldn’t even get out of the water. It was a very easy fight compared to normal smallmouth.”

Now what?

After the shouting but still full of excitement, the Gallaghers weighed the fish at 9.87 pounds, although Grant’s scale is known to weigh light. With unusual cell signal, a call connected to friend and guide, Capt. Ross Robertson, who informed them the Lake Erie record is 9.84.

“I don’t really want to go in,” Gregg said. “I’ll just take some good pictures and release. What do you do with a 9-pounder? I’m not going to skin mount it.”

Again cell signal allowed a call to Jason Clemons, who operates Clemons Boats in Sandusky and lets Grant run a Bass Cat Jaguar as part of a pro staff deal. Clemons came from a couple miles away with an accurate scale that registered the bass at 10.16.

“I look at Grant. I guess our fishing day is over,” Gregg said.

“Oh my gosh, what do we have here? This is a record-setting fish,” Grant said. “We’ve got to get a hold of somebody on the mainland.”

As they headed in, Robertson hooked them up with Travis Hartman, who runs the fisheries research station in Sandusky for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Hartman, waiting with a cooler to keep the fish alive, helped them get to a certified scale and start the verification process in Ohio and Canada.

The world record smallmouth is David L. Hayes’ 11-pound, 15-ounce beast caught in 1955 from Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The lake also produced the second-largest smallmouth (10-14) and another 10-8 there tied for third with a fish caught out of the Wheeler Dam Tailwater in Alabama. Gallagher’s fish would be the fifth largest, supplanting a 1951 10-pounder from Hiwassee Reservoir in North Carolina.

These images show the smallmouth being weighed and in a transport cooler.

The catch, which was 23 ¾ inches long with a girth of 19 3/8, will overtake Randy VanDam’s Ohio record of 9-8 from 1993 and replace the current Ontario Province mark of 9.84 set in 1954 by Andy Anderson.

Great Lakes smallmouth have been growing larger since the introduction of invasive species, zebras mussels in the 1980s and gobies in the 1990s. The 2022 Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River was won by Jay Przekurat with a total of 102-9, the first time 100 pounds was eclipsed with smallmouth.

Paul Mueller landed a 7-13 in Lake Ontario in 2020, the largest smallmouth the Elites have seen in competition, although Canadian Elites Cory and Chris Johnston have long said there are bigger smallmouth there.

“It was an absolute giant,” Bassmaster TV analyst Mark Zona said, “but I’m not surprised at all, especially coming from the Great Lakes in the fall.”

“I think the biggest surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner … Great Lakes smallies get bigger every year with goby and zebra mussels, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. I do feel every Great Lake has 10-pound smallies swimming in them now.”

Chris Johnston agrees, however, he said Erie was less likely than lakes like Ontario or Simcoe because it’s known more for quantities of 5-pounders.

“It’s a giant, a freak of nature,” Johnston said. “A 5-pounder is big, and you’re doubling that?”

Looks small for its size

Grant said he’s kind of disappointed that in most of the photos of the leviathan, it doesn’t appear as massive as it does in real life.

“Those pictures don’t do it justice. That’s what still kind of makes us upset,” he said. “I can stick my whole fist down its mouth. That doesn’t make sense. It was like a totally different strain of smallmouth. We’ve been pretty diehard smallmouth guys the last five years — it was a true unicorn.”

This shot perhaps gives the best perspective of how truly big the fish is.

With the recent walleye scandal on Lake Erie where tournament anglers were caught stuffing weights into fish, the Gallaghers weren’t surprised that Ontario officials wanted the fish X-rayed. It passed, of course. It was also verified as a pure smallmouth, and a scale master and witnesses signed off on the weight.

Ohio DNR officers told the Gallaghers the fish is probably around 15- to 17-years old, is most likely done spawning and is quite possibly a male. The state is keeping the fish to conduct studies.

“We are really heart-broken we didn’t get to release it,” Grant said. “We kept it super healthy, unfortunately, the state wanted to test it. There’s a good chance it’s a giant male.”

Gregg said it would have been great to know that fish is back roaming the depths of Lake Erie. He seems reluctant to accept the accolades of having his name in the record books, continuing to credit his son.

“It’s cool and everything, I just wish Grant would have caught it. It was his boat. He put the time in,” Gregg said. “I’ve been with him a lot, but he’s been the one graphing and he keeps perfecting and perfecting.”

“As a dad, I want no career in fishing. I love to fish. Twelve months out the year it’s a passion. It’s fun. I’m a teacher first. I just love to fish. Grant’s the one that put the time in.”

Sure, Grant would have liked to land it, too, but he’s pretty stoked with putting his dad on the record fish. He’s been working to get youth into bass fishing, informing his students about the sport and taking out friends and high school anglers.

“It’s really special for me,” he said. “The fact that I got to take my dad, the guy that got me into fishing, and that happened to us. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it, because that was a bit of a God wink. That’s what puts a smile on my face at the end of the day.”

Gregg said it’s been a satisfying journey watching Grant progress as an angler, and he’s proud of the man he raised.

“He’s my favorite fishing partner since 5,” he said. “We’ve been a package deal. Everybody knew if they’re coming with me, Grant’s going. Or if I’m going with you, Grant’s coming with us.”

Grant is certainly pleased to return the joy of fishing to his father.

“This is my first year playing captain for him,” he said. “This has been a really good week.”