It’s been a couple of weeks ago now, but I came across the the biggest brown trout I’ve ever seen on the Clinch River. I had taken Gary Newton from Berea, Kentucky on a float trip. It was a pretty good day of fishing with most trout taking midge patterns in the #20 range. A few of the trout were in the 14″ – 17″ range with most in the 10″ range.
Clouds built throughout the day and around 4:00 the rain started to fall. That wasn’t too bad, but the thunder and lightning drove us off the river to safety. There was no real place to stay dry, but we sat it out in rain gear. It was a downpour to say the least and water was standing about ankle deep at the rowers seat in the drift boat.
The rain started to let up and we decided to go ahead and pull out into the current. The water had started to rise so I didn’t have to worry about zig-zagging my way down the river through a maze of ledges. The water had just gotten high enough so there was a few inches clearance to float over them.
The fog had come on pretty thick over the river and visibility was only about 75 yards. There were still some rumbles of thunder in the distance so I was pushing the boat on down the river to avoid round two in the storms.
I was just upstream of Lewellyn Island when I noticed something off to my left in the river. I initially thought it was some flotsam picked up by the rising water, but it had a little bit of motion that made it look more alive than a piece of trash.
As I rowed over to it I could see that it was a big fish. It was drifting with the current but so big that I had difficulty getting in the net. It took me four separate attempts to finally get it in the net and in the boat. Gary made the comment that the fish was easily over 24″ long.
I have a 20″ ruler decal in the drift boat and the fish dwarfed it, more than a head and tail longer than the sticker. I put the fish down in the water in bottom of the boat and it showed signs of life so I rowed over to a shallow spot in order to get out of the boat to revive the fish.
After about 10 minutes the fish didn’t seem to be any more alive, although it occasionally kicked or worked its mouth open and closed. I couldn’t see myself mounting a fish I didn’t catch and I don’t have a fly shop to put it on display so I simply decided to leave the fish in the water. As I started to leave I thought to measure the fish and get some photos.
I don’t carry a tape measure in the boat since I have the ruler decal. I grabbed a spool of tippet and pulled a length of line from the brown trout’s nose to tail and clipped it off. I did the same to get a girth just behind the pectoral fins.
I reviewed the photos I had taken of the fish and knew that even with a net and my foot in the picture and knew that the true size of the fish couldn’t be appreciated from those images. I asked Gary to pop a few pictures of me holding the fish.
In the back of my mind I was guessing that the brown was about 28″. We’ve hooked and landed some beasts from the Clinch over the years but all were 26″ or less. I’m aware of at least one fish that a fly fisher caught on a streamer that was 28″. We hear the 30″ number tossed around every so often, but that’s a bigger trout than most people realize. One of our regular customers has fished Tierra del Fuego for sea run browns and has assured us that 30″ is a lot of fish.
I measured the two pieces of tippet and was floored by the size. The brown trout was 34″ and had a 19″ girth. Truly an impressive trout anywhere you go. Even more when you consider this is a resident fish, not a lake or ocean run fish.
I ran into TWRA cold water fisheries biologist Jim Habera a few days later and showed him the pictures. Jim has handled some big trout while shocking tailwaters here in Tennessee and he laid down an educated guess that the brown trout weighed about 20 pounds. The current state record here in Tennessee is 28 pounds from the Clinch River.
The fish was in good shape and didn’t show any injuries so I asked Jim if he had an opinion as to why the fish was dying. His opinion mirrored mine. A fish has to die some time of something and it looks like this one died of old age. Jim told me that a fish of this size would almost have to be 8 years old but could easily be older.
Brown trout like this one are exceptionally rare, but there are certainly other fish out there in this size range. The Clinch and South Holston Rivers are the most likely suspects along with the Cumberland River in Kentucky, but the Caney Fork in Middle Tennessee is a dark horse that could produce a fish like this or will some time in the future. We know of one fly fisher who landed a 30″ brown trout on the Watauga a few years back so it’s not a stretch to consider that river either.