Everybody’s heard a big fish story. Some are credible; some are not.
Doug Seibert, a retired Gladwin High School teacher and long-time taxidermist, has a story that is just so incredible, well … you have to hear it.
The story starts a little more than a decade ago.
“I’ve been doing fish taxidermy for a lot of years as a hobby,” Seibert said. “Some of the fish I get come from commercial fishermen and the fins and tails are beat up pretty badly. I had a former student of mine stop by one day and I was whining to him about how I needed some perch fins and tails.
“A few weeks later,” Seibert said, “he stopped by and he handed me a sackful of perch – and they were whoppers, up to 14 inches.
He said they came from Lake Independence in Big Bay and that’s where the state-record perch came from and it was 21 inches long.”
A 21-inch perch piqued Seibert’s curiosity.
“That was so much bigger than any perch I’d ever heard of, I immediately started looking into it,” he said.
The Department of Natural Resources had, indeed, recognized a state-record perch – weighing 3 pounds, 12 ounces – as having come from Lake Independence in 1947, caught by one Eugene Jezinski.
Seibert hooked up the camper and went to Big Bay to go perch fishing.
“That week I caught some of the nicest fish I’ve ever caught,” he said. “But part of my mission up there was to ask around about this state-record perch.”
Nobody had ever heard of a Eugene (or any other) Jezinski. Seibert went to the local library. He went to the library at the Marquette Mining Journal. It was a dead end.
“I did everything short of hiring a private eye,” Seibert said. “I realize 1947 was a long time ago, but it wasn’t the dark ages. They had cameras. They had newspapers. A fish of that size should have made headlines.”
Seibert made a subsequent fishing/sleuthing trip to Big Bay and, while digging around, he got the name of a conservation officer – Don Claus – who had worked Marquette County in the 1940s. Eventually, Seibert located Claus’ son, who told him that his father was living in a nearby assisted-living center.
Seibert went to the housing center, met the long-retired Claus, and asked him if he’d heard about the record perch. Claus replied that he’d not only heard about it, he had seen and measured it.
Claus told Seibert that he’d never heard of Jezinski, and that the fish had actually been caught by George Slutter, then the bus driver and janitor for Powell Township School in Big Bay. Claus said Slutter had been trolling for walleye the day he caught the record perch.
Slutter died in 1976 while plowing snow. Nobody could locate any next of kin. Slutter’s body was kept in cold storage at the local funeral home for months until Slutter’s sister, who lived in Pennsylvania, showed up looking for him.
Seibert tracked down the funeral director.
“He said he remembered George Slutter well, because the man had the biggest feet of any man he’d ever seen,” Seibert recalled.
An inspection of Slutter’s personal effects by his sister failed to turn up a photograph – or even a mention – of the record perch. Seibert said Claus told him that Slutter was an unassuming guy who probably just took the fish home and ate it.
Wanting to set the record straight, Seibert contacted the DNR and had Claus sign (and have notarized) an affidavit that it was Slutter, not Jezinski, who had caught the big fish.
But Seibert wasn’t done.
“I took it upon myself to try to re-create that 21-inch perch,” Seibert said.
He obtained some fish (smallmouth bass and white bass) that were anatomically similar to perch, and then mounted, modified and painted them.
The results were unsatisfactory, Seibert said, so he began contacting “world-class carvers” to see if one would carve a 21-inch perch that he could mold and make replicas from.
Two turned him down. After finding a third, in Galveston, Texas, who agreed to do it for $500, Seibert sent him a money order.
“I got stiffed,” Seibert said. “He never did anything.”
Still, Seibert was undeterred. He located an artist in Missouri who agreed to try making a mold. Seibert sent him a 15-inch perch to work from. The fellow made a mold from it, then expanded the mold – through some process Seibert said he doesn’t fully understand – to 21 inches.
“What he had was a 21-inch replica of a 15-inch perch,” Seibert said. “I said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m looking for.’”
Seibert then had three replicas made.
“I had the honor of painting them and if there’s any doubt about the quality of these replicas, it’s because I didn’t do a good enough job of painting them,” Seibert said.
Seibert presented one of the three replicas to the DNR at the May 17 Natural Resources Commission meeting in Onaway, Mich.
“People in the state are going have an opportunity to see the biggest perch that ever had fins,” Seibert said.
Seibert admitted there are some loose ends to the story. The recognized world-record perch – caught in New Jersey in 1865 – weighed 4 pounds, 4 ounces; but, there is no length noted for the fish.
“There has never been a yellow perch recorded that was as long as 18 inches,” Seibert said. “This perch is so much bigger than any other perch ever recorded. I had to wonder whether this was really a perch.”
Some say it probably wasn’t.
“Was it a case of mistaken identity?” Seibert asked. “Don Claus knew what a perch looked like.”
Seibert said Claus told him of another eyewitness. Seibert tracked the fellow to a retirement home in Florida and called him – the gentleman verified Claus’ story.
Seibert admitted to being puzzled about the whole affair.
“I spent years and years researching this on the Internet,” he said. “I went to the U.P. so many times they knew me by my first name. The fact that there was no picture, no mount, no publicity anywhere, it just doesn’t make any sense,” Seibert said. “But the fact that Don Claus, a 44-year veteran of the DNR, and another eyewitness identified it … my gut-level feeling? I don’t even know. I’m stuck between the reality that there were two eyewitnesses to the perch and something being wrong here.
“So, with reservations, I do believe our state record is a 21-inch perch.”
If nothing else, Seibert has one heck of a fish story. Thanks to his persistence and generosity, the DNR now has a replica of that curious, state-record 21-inch perch.
Learn more about Michigan’s other record-breaking fish on the DNR website,