When showing off a speckled trout that’s not quite 30 inches long, sympathy seems a strange response from those who appraise it.
It was an unusual day, and from several perspectives. For one, the week of Thanksgiving, 2005 was unseasonably warm. For another, David Sikes and his friends were fishing in the afternoon.
Usually, big-trout trips on Baffin Bay are morning propositions. This day, though, due to rigorous schedule demands, Sikes and crew struck out for the notoriously rock-strewn Cat Head area of the legendary bay a few hours after lunchtime.
It was warm enough, Sikes recalls, that throwing topwater plugs seemed the appropriate thing to do. As outdoor editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, and a guy who is privileged to spend a good deal of time on the state’s premier big-trout waters, Sikes’ assessment was based on experience.
It was dead-on. In only a few hours of wade fishing, the longtime outdoor writer and his companions had duped five chunky trout between 3 and 5 pounds on slowly-twitched MirrOlure She Dogs. But as sundown loomed close, Sikes couldn’t resist the impulse to switch to one of his favorite go-to trout lures, a limetreuse-colored Saltwater Assassin threaded onto a Bass Assassin Screw-Lock jighead.
Mullet-imitating topwaters are the gold standard for selective trophy-class trout, and for good reason. Five of those reasons had already answered the calls of the group’s chrome-sided surface-scratchers. The fish weren’t trophies, but they definitely weren’t dinks, either.
Soft plastics like the Assassin are generally acknowledged as “numbers” baits. Yes, they catch their share of lunker specks. They are, however, best known for their efficiency, a proven propensity to consistently boot out large numbers of modestly-sized fish. Still, something told the veteran journalist that instead of a topwater plug, a slowed-down presentation of the wobbling plastic eel over the soft mud bottom was the way to go. He already knew, after all, that the area held a substantial number of heavier-than-average speckled trout.
It took only a few casts to verify his suspicions.
“I knew when it hit that it was a big fish,” Sikes recalls. “It put a serious bend in the rod, and was taking line. I took my time fighting it. “When I got it close and realized I couldn’t get my hand around its belly, I decided to walk it back to the boat.”
The trout was hooked solidly in the bony portion of its jaw, the barb of the Mustad hook firmly embedded deep in the corner. Yet, like every angler who has made a hasty decision to hand-grab a trophy-caliber trout only to see his long-sought quarry disappear in a splashy surge, he wisely decided to take no chances.
“The boat was about a hundred yards away,” Sikes recalls. “My buddies were already aboard. They saw me coming, and from the way I was walking, they knew something was up. When those guys saw that fish they flipped out,” he adds with a laugh. “The thing was huge, in the saltwater fishing culture what we call a ‘football.’ One of my friends immediately picked up a Boga Grip and got a lock on the fish’s jaw.”
According to the Boga Grip, a popular fish-weighing device that is accurate to the extent that it can be certified by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) for world-record-verification purposes, Sikes’ fish weighed just a few ounces better than 10 pounds.
“Is that thing accurate?” Sikes inquired.
“Yes,” his friend replied.
“That’s all I need to know,” Sikes answered. “I’m going to have this fish mounted.”
Back at Bird Island Basin, where the crew had launched that afternoon, a weighing session on steady ground affirmed that the massive trout weighed 10 pounds on the money. It’s not unusual for fish, especially thin-skinned species like speckled trout, to lose an ounce or two in transit. Still, despite the shrinkage factor, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Sikes’ trout was a legitimate double-digit fish.
Then the ruler came out.
“Oh, no!” Sikes partner said.
“Oh no, what?” Sikes replied. “What’s the problem?”
“Man, I’m sorry,” his buddy said. “But it’s not quite 30 inches long.”
Sikes checked the tape. Sure enough, the trout’s sprawling tail nudged the ruler at 29-3/4 inches.
“Are you still going to have it mounted?” his friend inquired.
Sikes was speechless for a moment.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m still gonna have it mounted.”
His buddies were excited, and happy for their friend. More than anything, Sikes says, they were amazed that a fish of that length breached the 10-pound mark.
Later conversations about the fish assumed a strange and perplexing tone. A pattern of sorts developed.
“I heard it several times in the next several days,” Sikes says, “basically the same story over and over. I’d tell ‘em I had caught a 10-pound trout, and then get congratulated with a slap on the back. Then,” he says, “they would ask me how long it was. I said twenty-nine and three-quarters, that it didn’t quite make the 30-inch mark.
“And all of a sudden, they were offering me condolences.”
Today, Sikes’ wallhanger speck holds a place of honor above the fireplace of his home in Padre Isles. Every time he looks at it, he can’t help but think about how convoluted many anglers’ mentalities have become in regard to assessing the definition of a “trophy” speckled trout.
“It’s too bad that’s the prevailing view,” Sikes says. “Here I am, showing people this fish on the wall, and all they want to know is how long it is. Somehow, the saltwater culture has assumed the strange quirk of gauging speckled trout almost solely by length.”
He has a valid point. Consider, for example, the generally-held mentality for largemouth bass. I don’t recall a single bass fisherman ever inquiring about the length of a trophy fish. If anything, it’s an afterthought.
I recall, years ago, catching a 22-inch-long largemouth from Fayette County Lake near LaGrange. I caught the fish well after the spawn. Instead of a football it looked more like a pregnant cigar. It weighed a mere 7-1/2 pounds.
Like Sikes, I received my share of condolences from friends who looked at the photo of what one guy snidely called a “long-mouthed bass.” Difference was, I agreed with them. All I could see when I looked at that bass was three pounds of fish that didn’t exist.
On the saltwater side, my career trout met the landing net in May of 1974 and weighed an even 9 pounds. It was 29 inches long. I thought then, and still think today, that it was a bona fide trophy.
I have yet to catch a bigger one, whether in length or in weight. If I caught a trout like Sikes’ Thanksgiving ’05 speck today, you’d probably hear me hollering from wherever you are reading this.
“I’ve tried to explore where the arbitrary line of 30 inches originated,” Sikes tells me. “We’re such an ‘even’ society; maybe they wanted an even number (think 20-inch spreads on white-tailed bucks). When I was a kid,” Sikes adds, “a 6-pound bass was a benchmark. Now it’s 10.
“At first, when people expressed their sympathy I thought they were joking,” he says. “Then I realized they were being sincere, that they felt it a pity. ‘Don’t worry,’ they say. ‘You’ll get there.’
“My first reaction? Where does this come from? Where can you find a negative? Where is there room for a negative in that fish-of-a-lifetime scenario?”
Perhaps inadvertently, Sikes had already touched on the answer to his own question. Fishing, whether it’s for speckled trout on the flats, largemouth bass on the lakes or blue marlin off the Continental Shelf, consists of a surprisingly distinct group of subcultures. We are, to put it mildly, a provincial lot, each with our own degree of quirkiness.
It can be great fun. Sadly, it can also be a real downer for the fisherman who, at 28 inches, has just caught the biggest trout of his life, and by a substantial margin, only to be told by his peers that his so-called “trophy” falls short of “real” trophy standards.
Doing so diminishes not only the fish, but also the fisherman.
The odds of a speckled trout making it to a mere 5 pounds are infinitesimally small. For most saltwater fishermen, even avid and experienced anglers like Sikes and his friends, the likelihood of catching a 30-inch or longer speck isn’t exactly overwhelming, either.
That aside, there are hundreds of Texas coastal regulars who will quickly assure you that they’ve caught 30-inch trout. If you ask, though … assuming they’ll admit it … you’ll frequently find that they didn’t have a measuring board on-hand when recording the dimensions (understandably, the IGFA requires anglers to provide a detailed photo of a potential record fish … with said fish accurately situated on a ruler). The fear, of course, is that the alleged 30-incher, like Sikes' big fish, might fall short … even by a fraction … of the revered Three-Oh mark.
That trepidation, if we stop to think about it … and then, pause to honestly assess how many documented 30-inch trout we have caught or seen caught … is frankly a little bit insane.
Through the organization of the good folks at Cabela’s, I made a flats fishing trip with the Texas Sporting Journal magazine team to Port Mansfield a couple of years ago. The weather, to put it politely, sucked.
Still, having driven so far and to such an awesome locale, optimism prevailed. My fishing buddy and video production partner Dave Aitken and I were eager to start casting. We joined Capt. Charlie Buchen for a day aboard Buchen’s airboat. Buchen’s Air Ranger could … and did … take us everywhere we wanted to go. Considering that the wind was blowing like a newborn hurricane and hadn’t let up for days, the airboat was a Godsend.
We ended up just beyond the mouth of a tide-carved “micro-delta” south of Mansfield Harbor. A small slough, a connecting link between an inshore lagoon and the open flats, was rushing hard from the recent onslaught of rain coupled with an outgoing tide. It was virtually packed with finger mullet.
As the continuous parade of baitfish washed out onto the flat, they were forced past a pile of matted grass on the northern fringe of a 2-foot-deep cut just outside the shoreline. Aitken and Buchen walked out on the flat a few hundred yards past the cut. Meanwhile, I headed the opposite direction, intent on investigating the telltale “smacks” of mullet getting hammered by unseen predators.
Like Sikes, I instinctively went for the soft plastic shadtail in my tackle pack, a red-colored PRADCO “Yum” on a quarter-ounce jighead. The first time the lure swept past the densely-layered vegetation it was immediately assaulted by a 21-inch speck. On the featherweight Salt Striker spinning rig, the fish was a blast to catch … and, a harbinger of what came next.
I waited a few moments, relishing the layout. It was as “fishy” a place as I’d seen in years, a textbook big trout haven.
Then I saw the shadow.
The fish was motionless, its broad, spotted tail flagging just enough to keep it in place. It briefly surged forward, then back-finned a foot or two inside the olive-green carpet of grass.
I pitched the lure into the slough, opened the reel bail and let the bait tumble until, second later, everything melded into bright broken shards of shattered saltwater, iridescent purple flanks, blurry glimpses of a gaping yellow jaw and desperate thrashes of a violet-hued head as thick as a wrestler’s wrist.
My heart pounding like a hammer, I kept the presence of mind to loosen the drag lest the 10-pound monofilament meet an unseen obstruction. The trout surged out onto the flat, its lavender dorsal fin exposed.
A little rod pressure and the fish turned its head. Then, just as abruptly, it raced away again, but this time with a bit less momentum.
The trout’s drooping ivory belly dragged the bottom, stirring up silt. I was already imagining … yes, a 30-inch fish … when I finally led it ashore. A pocket tape measure verified 26-12 inches. The Boga Grip dipped to almost 6-1/2 pounds.
I must admit that I was, for the briefest of moments, disappointed. Then I looked at the billowing storm clouds rolling offshore, heard the wind’s shrill whine, saw the angry whitecaps churning the flats and suddenly realized that my knees were wobbling.
I’m talking full-blown, tumble-your-stomach, buck-fever knee knocks.
It really came home, though, when Aitken strolled up atop the wet sand bank and I saw the wide-eyed look on his face.
“Man,” he said, “that’s a real trophy fish.”
I lifted the trout, its strength still apparent as I attempted to hold it still for a photo. And with that, my intrepid fishing buddy took a shot of a magnificent fish that to this very day makes me smile every time I look at it.
Several months ago, J.P. Greeson was kind enough to put it on the home page of Texas Fishing Forum. I looked at that picture once again, the sheer wildness of it and recalling the strategy that went into making it happen, and smiled once again.
I’m with Sikes.
If there’s a negative in that picture, for the life of me I can’t see it.