by Joel Vance
The late A. J. (Junior) Samples of Cumming, Georgia, couldn't remember his lines, couldn't read cue cards, looked like 40 miles of bad road, and couldn't sing. Hardly the star image.
But he did one thing better than anyone ever has and it made him famous. He told history's greatest fish lie. Junior became a star on the syndicated country television variety show "Hee Haw" because of a taped interview made in 1967 with Jim Morrison, then chief of information for the Georgia Game and Fish Department.
Junior claimed he had caught a world-record largemouth bass from Georgia's Lake Lanier, a sprawling impoundment just across the road from Cumming. The fish allegedly weighed 22 pounds, nine ounces. Every schoolboy knows the world record is 22 pounds, four ounces, caught in 1932 by George Perry from Montgomery Lake, Georgia. It is the outdoor equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's streak of hitting in 56 straight games.
Perry's record has endured for more than 60 years and anyone who breaks it will have instant fame. The endorsements alone will bring a fortune. Junior Samples won fame and fortune even though his record claim was a flat-out lie. Morrison interviewed Junior, a sprawling 300-pound heap of a man, on a front porch right out of Dogpatch.
"It was Squalor Holler," Morrison says. "The outhouse was in a corner of a stall in the barn. There were no screens on the windows and there was trash and garbage laying out in the weeds."
Morrison had no trouble finding Junior. Cumming wasn't much bigger than Junior anyway, and he was, if not a leading, at least a prominent citizen.
"He was racin' cars and runnin' a liquor store," Morrison says.
Before that, Junior had run moonshine--it's how he learned to drive a race car, another of his good ol' boy careers. Junior also fancied himself a carpenter. "Drivin' nails," he drawled. But he allowed--and here he paused as if he were trying to spit out a mouthful of cockleburs--that work had interfered with his fishing before he caught the record bass.
"But it ain't gonna no more!" he vowed fervently. "Ah'm gonna do a BONCH uh fishin'!" Junior's interview was a masterpiece of misdirection.
"He told it so convincingly I believed him," Morrison says.
Junior claimed he ate the world-record bass. "Ah's lookin' fer sumpin tuh EAT!" he declared. That would have invalidated his claim even if it had been true. But he told Morrison the fish had been weighed in several places around the lake.
He claimed he couldn't remember where the fish was weighed. "Ah don't know. Ah was dronk," he drawled. "We weighed 'im sommers and didn't nobody dispute the word. Ah showed him all over the county. Ah reckon ah did. Ah think ah did. There's plenty of people seed the feesh. Ah thought we weighed 'im down at Joe Hansard's but Grace said Harold said we didn't weigh 'im down there, so ah guess we didn't weigh 'im down there."
Morrison remembers, "I drove him all around that lake looking for who weighed it. And the hell of it is, we found someone who said he'd seen the fish."
Junior said he was fishing about a mile below Bald Ridge Marina (for those who dote on where-to information). "On a smerged (submerged) island. Ah dropped mah anchor rock there on the island and ah peetched my little outfit out, that li'l 33 out? Ah had some heavy equipment there in the boat an' ah uz gonna put uh big lizard on them an' git ready for uh big bass an' ah just got one hooked an' ah looked over there an' seed my line a-stretchin' out, a-straightenin' out and I reached down and caught 'im. When ah jerked him, ah thinks ah'm hung fer it dint go nowhere when ah jerked."
The fight, though, was unspectacular. Junior knew better than to embellish a good lie so much it sounded like a lie.
"Atter he come up and stood on that tail and shuck that head three or four times he jist turnt over on his side and ah just drug 'im right on in," Junior said.
He showed Morrison the head of the fish and the size of it astounded Morrison. Only a world record bass could have such a head...assuming the decomposing remains were those of a bass. By the time Morrison saw the head, it was several days old and stinking.
"It was light-colored for a bass, but I figured a largemouth bass after three or four days of rotting might get a little lighter colored," Morrison says.
When Morrison returned to Atlanta, he woke up a fisheries biologist and showed him the fish head by the light of a flashlight--not exactly the best conditions for identification. The biologist said, "Jim, this is the finest bass that's ever lived in the world."
That was verification enough for Morrison. The next morning, Morrison ran into Aubrey Morris, a reporter for Atlanta radio station WSB and told him the story. Morris aired the story almost instantly.
"The cat was out of the bag," Morrison says. "Then a biologist who'd worked in saltwater said, 'hell, Jim, that ain't no bass, that's a red grouper."
Hoax or not, the tape was country funny and Morrison played it on a Game and Fish Department radio show twice, once right after it was made and about six months later. Each time, he was flooded with calls from people who were tickled by it. The second time, two of the callers represented record companies. During the original interview, Junior said something that either is totally puzzling or that reveals he was thinking phonograph record months before anyone else.
"I didn't think I had no record," he says. "I knowed I had a record, but I didn't think I did on the fish."
Did Junior Samples set out to create an entertainment career? Some who knew him think he was just canny enough to come up with such a scheme. There are at least two stories on how Junior came to have the head of a grouper in north Georgia, a long way from the ocean.
The one he told was that his brother saw the fish below a bridge, apparently tossed there. The brother cut off the head and had it in the back of a pickup truck at an auto race.
"Someone asked who caught that big fish and Junior and his brother looked at each other," Morrison says. "His brother didn't want to claim it, so Junior said he caught it."
The other story is that the two of them swiped the fish out of someone's car and ate it, except for the head. Morrison photographed Junior with the fish head, even in comic poses with him wearing the head like a cap.
After the recording of Junior's story appeared, Junior began to get invitations to entertain in country and western beer joints. By then no one cared if he could catch record fish or not. He could tell a world-record fish story and that was good enough. Before long, there was a commercial version of the interview, along with other stories.
In 1969, Junior reached the summit, if it can be called that, of country entertainment. He joined "Hee Haw." Junior mumbled and stumbled his way through scripts designed to be deliberately baffling for the rest of his life. His charm was not that he read the jokes right, but that he read them wrong. Mitch Jayne plays bass for the Dillards bluegrass band, the group that had a continuing role as the Darling family in the old Andy Griffith television show. Jayne is a writer and former teacher who is as far intellectually from Junior Samples as the Metropolitan Opera is from "Hee Haw." But he liked Junior.
"Junior said things funny," Jayne recalls. "The stories just poured out and he always had his lower lip full of tobacco, so he kind of mushed his words."
There was more to Junior Samples than a fat drunk whom everyone teased. He only looked stupid; he was country smart. He was canny enough to tell a huge lie and get knowledgeable people to believe it.
"Junior had the quality of cupidity," Jayne says. "He could take almost anything and turn it into money. He started out delivering moonshine on a bicycle. Picture that--this kid who probably weighed 300 pounds when he was 16 riding a bicycle loaded with hootch."
For all his financial cunning, though, Junior missed a bet in the big bass story. He did claim he caught the fish on a "Zebbyco 33," a free endorsement for Zebco, but said the fish hit on "a leetle bitty what (white) bellied sprang (spring) lizard.
"Every lure manufacturer would have killed to be mentioned as the lure-of-choice. Junior became famous enough that he was invited on "This Is Your Life," the Ralph Edwards television show that allegedly surprised celebrities, then confronted them with people from their past.
Junior stayed in California with Mitch Jayne and his wife. Jayne recalls his few days as Junior's host with fond horror. "The producers said, 'you've got to keep him busy and keep him from going crazy,'" Jayne says. "I figured what's a week? If I'd known what trouble Junior could be I wouldn't have kept him a day.
"He got off the plane wearing bib overalls and a striped tee shirt. It's all I ever saw him wear. He had a cardboard suitcase with two pairs of overalls and three or four pairs of underwear and that just about filled the thing. Later on, he gave us a pair of his overalls and we had a Christmas photo taken, each of us in a leg."
Jayne had just bought a station wagon. Junior, after warning Smitty Jayne in the back seat to "get outa the line of farr, li'l lady," proceeded to spit tobacco juice out the window all the way to Jayne's home. Jayne discovered that his new wagon had what appeared to be a brown racing stripe its entire length.
"It was like a flame job done by a drunk teenager. We like to never got it off."
Junior asked Mitch if he "lacked bald shreemp."
"It took me a while to decipher that one," Jayne says. "He meant did I like boiled shrimp." Jayne bought 10 pounds, found that was barely an appetizer for the massive moonshiner. Junior cooked the shrimp in the Jayne's kitchen, then pitched the salty water in the backyard, almost instantly killing a huge chunk of the landlord's cherished dichondra lawn.
Jayne was supposed to keep the Edwards show secret from Junior, but it became increasingly difficult because Junior kept trying to call home and no one was there. That was because everyone he knew in Cumming was on a train (they were afraid of flying), headed to California for the show.
Jayne says, "Junior was ready to jump on a plane to Cumming--he'd fly in anything. Junior wasn't afraid of planes. Planes were afraid of Junior."
Junior became increasingly agitated about being out of touch. Jayne, trying to keep Junior off the phone to Cumming, stayed on it himself, so after two days, Junior insisted on getting a motel room where he could use the phone to track his wife, Grace, down. Junior suspected Grace was running around on him.
"I told the manager to keep an eye on him because I had no idea what the man was going to do," Jayne says. "The first thing he did was spit in the lobby fountain. Looked like a spittoon to him."
Junior got drunk in the motel and called Mitch.
"He said he was sure Grace had run off and he didn't care. He said, 'I'll give her the house. I'll give her the hogs!'" Junior called back and claimed he had flown to "Lost Wages" (Las Vegas) and picked up a waitress on each arm. He wanted to say goodbye forever.
"He said, 'Meetch, we'll meet again some ol' day, but it'll be in a damn different place!'"
Finally, the producers caved in and confessed to Junior that he was to be the subject of the show and allowed Grace to stay with him until showtime.
"He didn't like being fooled," Jayne says. "'Hayull, Meetch,' he told me, 'they coulda trusted me. Iffen they want a show, I'll give 'em one.'"
And as each person from his past was introduced, Junior hauled out a huge red handkerchief and bawled and blubbered into it, acting emotionally blown away.
The show remains among the best-remembered. Junior Samples had come full cycle--from tiny Cumming, Georgia, where he founded a career on an colorful con to national prominence, still gulling everyone.
Junior Samples died in 1983 of a heart attack in his beloved Cumming and he now is no more than a footnote in angling history and a fond memory for devoted fans of rustic tomfoolery.