Now That's a Fish Story
Let’s get it out of the way. I’m a trout man. Always have been. I’ve filleted and fried pan fish, caught and plated perch; I will bite into baked bass and chomp down on walleye with relish. But, at heart, I’m a trout man.
It was late June and there I stood, on a dock jutting into Keuka Lake. I resented it. If only I had a small boat, I could be out there in the open water trolling for trout—lake trout. Years ago, my dad and his friends, noted as a company of scoundrels and a cadre of reprobates by my mother, would get in their small row boats, power up a 5-horse Evinrude, cruise to the middle of the lake, and drop sharp-hooked silver spoons from a Seth Green rig. They caught big lake trout. The key word was trout. I went along often, and I just dragged a spinner way behind the boat and way above the lures. There was little chance I’d ever catch anything and, even as a ten-year-old, I knew it. I’d often doze, cradling my spinning rod in the crook of my arm. But, one day, WHAM! I’d hooked a lake trout. My dad and his buddies made a big deal out of that trout, even took a picture. How I wish I had a boat and Seth Green rig out on the lake.
It was dark, a Keuka dark with stars above and one lone fisherman silently trolling down toward Bluff Point. The family was gathered around a lakeside fire. I wandered out to the end of the dock to cast a Jitterbug. At least I could hear the soothing ripple as the lure slowly worked its way back to the dock. I was working the lure parallel to shore. I felt a hit and set the hook. It was quite a fight. I figured it to be a scrappy smallmouth. It was a bass, and I landed it in the darkness. It had a nice heft to it and I wondered what it weighed. I went into the cottage to retrieve my hand-held scale. The granddaughters followed. In the light I noticed that the bass was a rock bass, easily identified by those bright red eyes. The scale said it weighed two pounds and change. I put the readers on and looked closer. “Two-pound, seven-ounces,” I said. The younger grand eagerly asked, “Can we eat it? Are you gonna make Papa fish?” She loved my “secret recipe” for trout filets. I responded, “Yep. We’ll eat him. Gotta clean him first.”
I skinned and filleted the rock bass. When the fish was fried, the kids shared a side each. The next day, I wondered about the New York State record for rock bass. After all, I’d caught a big one. I groaned. The record, set in 1984, was a measly 1 lb., 15 oz. I had broken the state record but my granddaughters had eaten the evidence! That was my one shot at angling fame. But that began a curiosity about record fish. I noted that most Pennsylvania and New York records have been set within the last twenty years. I had expected to see records set back in 1897 that could never be touched today. Apparently, anglers were fishing for food in days gone by and they almost never weighed or measured their catch. Only lately have we become obsessed with records. (Note that my “almost” record was topped by William Wightman in 2018.)
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation keeps records on forty-five species of fish. Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission recognizes thirty-two species of finned swimmers.
I wondered if any locals had landed state records. I found that Richard Pino, of Covington, caught and recorded the Pennsylvania state record crappie having boated the 4 lb. 2.88 oz. fish in Hammond Lake in Tioga County. Naturally, I compared Dick’s crappie with the record from the Empire State. He hammered the record from the neighboring state by 1.8 lbs.
But, as I said, I’m a trout man. There are five species of trout for which records are kept in the Keystone State and the Empire State. In Pennsy they are: brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, palomino trout, and steelhead. The palomino trout was originally a hybrid that mated the rainbow to the golden trout. PFBC science has produced a palomino that can reproduce true to color. The steelhead is an anadromous rainbow. That is, it is a sea-run rainbow that, like salmon, lives most of its life in big water only to return to streams to spawn. The record Pennsylvania brook trout is seven pounds, caught by Vonada Ranck in 1996, and was most certainly a long-lived, pampered hatchery-stocked trout. The other species of trout records perhaps belie their legitimacy. None are trout that lived their entire lives in Pennsylvania streams. The state record rainbow was caught in Lake Erie. A 19 lb., 10 oz. brown trout was also creeled in 2000 while migrating up Walnut Creek, having left Lake Erie. I don’t consider those “real” records.
New York, on the other hand, has no palomino trout but they have added the splake, another hybrid of a brook trout (originally called speckled trout) and a lake trout. The state’s record brown trout, hooked in Lake Ontario, was thirty-eight inches long and weighed 33 lbs. 2 oz. The record rainbow was also a Great Lakes resident, captured in 2004 weighing in at 31 lbs. 3 oz. with a length of thirty-nine inches. Personally, I don’t consider those lakers “real” records either. A record trout ought to grow up and remain in a stream. To their credit, New York had enough respect for the brook trout to count their state record from a true brookie born in New York waters, one that lived in the wilds until taken by an angler who had to hike into the Silver Lake Wilderness Area to catch it.
Try for a record. But, most importantly, get out on the water and drop a line. And take a kid. That’s where the fun is.