A true Adirondack Squaretail brook trout that was taken from a heritage pond.
There is a unique element surrounding outdoor sporting endeavors that seems to trigger the competitive juices in all of us. Whether the contest involves a frog jumping competition for children, a popular Big Buck Contest at the local tavern or a professional Bass Master Classic conducted on Lake Champlain, outdoor travelers always seem to enjoy sharing their accomplishments with others.
Years ago, while visiting the Four Corners region of Northern Arizona, I traveled to Canyon de Chelly to view cliff dwellings that once were the home of indigenous peoples.
Etched into the sandstone of the canyon walls were charcoal renderings of deer, bison, geese and turkeys. It was obvious some houses had a much larger collection of animals and birds. Our guide explained the symbols provided an accounting of the hunting accomplishments of the occupants. At a glance, visitors could easily determine who the best hunters were. The charcoal renderings were a billboard of their achievements.
In a similar manner, modern hunters and anglers continue to pursue this ancient tradition, whether by harvesting a Boone and Crockett Club record buck, or establishing a new New York State record fish. Many local sportsman clubs have their own particular, and peculiar standards for the hunting or fishing accomplishments of their members. Honors may include an actual trophy or a new firearm, while those who missed a chance to harvest a potential trophy may suffer the loss of a shirttail to be nailed on the camp’s “wall of shame.”
Participants on the Professional Bass Circuit may suffer a fate far greater than simple humiliation from their peers when they fail to produce a trophy catch. They are likely to lose sponsors, and sponsorship money. Professional anglers realize if they can’t put out, they’ll likely have to get out.
However, when competition is just between friends, or family, it can often be just as bitter and hard-nosed. To illustrate this point, I often tell the tale about a tail that finally sealed the deal between a long fought over, family fishing competition which always seemed to spark an annual battle.
The main players were both avid brook trout anglers, and as such they rarely traded information on locations, advice on tackle, tactics or any other tips that might possibly provide the other guy with an upper hand.
Rules of the contest were quite simple. After catching a potential trophy, it was to be wrapped in paper and kept frozen until the day after the annual trout season was complete. Over the course of the trout season, they would each measure and re-measure their catches in order to gradually increase the size of their respective trophies by increments of several inches.
A 14-inch brookie taken at ice out in May could later be replaced by a 16-incher in August, and a 19 and ¾ inch specimen may eventually be unveiled the day after the season closed. Since the two contestants lived nearby, there was always a lot of friendly banter and a fair bit of packaging, and repackaging of the potential trophies. Contest rules required the fish were to be wrapped in freezer paper.
The sparring anglers would often visit their competitor’s home freezer to take measurements. The practice was usually unannounced, and often undeclared, however it was the only way they could keep up with each other. However, as the end of the season rolled around there were often other tactics employed. Fishing lines may be ‘slightly nicked’ deep on the spool, and brass snap swivels may be filed down to reduce their strength, or a rod tip could be roughened up to damage the integrity of the fishing line.
Of course, neither of the competitors would ever admit to ‘doctoring’ their competitor’s equipment. But suspiciously, it seemed there were always weakened lines, a hole in the landing net, or seemingly odd ‘burrs’ to be found on their respective rod guides.
It was nearly the end of the trout season when the younger competitor landed a handsome, native brook trout that measured nearly 22 inches in length. On his return home, he stopped by to show the fish to his father. “You see this?” the old man asked as he fanned out the brookie’s tail. “That’s a true native trout, you can tell by the tail. It’s exactly square, no hint of a ‘V’ shape at all! The old timers called ‘em ‘square tails.’ Let’s see what the tape has to say.”
The tape measure spanned exactly 22 inches from tip of its nose to top of the tail, and following the measurement, the son carefully rewrapped his trophy and carted it off to his freezer.
His father, who had recently retired, devoted his every waking moment in a quest to top the 22 incher. He hit the ponds early, and dredged the depths of the lakes with a variety of offerings that were presented with leadcore line. He fished at night under lantern light and jigged off the bottom during the heat of the day.
There was simply no way he would allow his son to take over his spot atop the family’s angling hierarchy. He began fishing like a man on a mission! Two days before the season was set to close, his son was unexpectedly called off to an important job in Albany.
Knowing he had left town, his father slipped silently into his son’s house and headed right to the freezer, where he carefully unwrapped the big lunker, and placed it on a nearby plank of wood. He had replaced the old blade of his utility knife with a razor sharp edge, and quickly went to work on the fish. After he finished with the dirty deed, the trophy fish was carefully re-wrapped and returned to the freezer. It was two days before his son returned, and the father spent the entire time on the water with no success. They had agreed to get together late in the day, each with their respective trophies in hand.
The packaged trout were set on the kitchen table, and silently unwrapped, beginning with the father’s fish first. The tape measure revealed its length at 21 and ¾ inches, and the son grinned happily. He was certain to win. As he hurried to unwrap his trophy trout, he declared, “Finally, after all these years, I’ve got you! I finally beat your fish, I’ve got the top rod in this family now!”
Still grinning from ear to elbow, he unpackaged the fish and placed it on the table beside his father’s. There was something slightly wrong, however, and the tail appeared remarkably square. A tape measure was still on the table and he grabbed it quickly to size up his catch. The tale of the tape read exactly 21 and 1/2 inches. “What the hell?” he declared, “Don’t tell me my freakin’ fish shrunk! I don’t believe it!”
“Freezer burn is what I’d guess,” joked his dad, as he slowly took his wallet out of his back pocket. He produced a small, shriveled-up piece of trout skin that he set down next to the potential trophy and declared, “Unless you can reattach that, it appears the Top Rod is all mine for another year!”
He son was shocked, but before he could attempt an answer, the family cat grabbed the brittle bit of fish tail and ran off.
“Better luck next year!” remarked his father amid the attendant laughter, and good luck with the squaretails!
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.