Thirty-Inch Liars

by | Dec 17, 2021 | 29 comments

** NOTE ** This article was originally published to Hatch Magazine in 2016. It is republished here, and it’s one of my favorites

It was a slow morning in fast water. It was a small fish day on a big fish river. It was a disappointment by noon, but fate was about to pivot.

I had spent the better part of the morning up to my waist in water cold enough to numb my toes and stiffen my legs while my upper body fried in the high summer sun, absorbing the ninety degree rays like a sail accepting the wind.

I was wet wading, which is something fishermen do when direct solar energy is enough to bake your noodle into delirium, but you still wish to fish. Walking into a coldwater fishery without waders takes some getting used to, but fishing a tailwater with bottom releases from a dam that’s dumping frigid water in the upper forties takes brave resolve — or stupidity — sometimes they go hand in hand. Eventually, the body balances things out, and some kind of mental regulator switch flicks on and tells the two drastically different temperature zones in the body that neither one is actually in pain and to just relax. In fact, you start to feel downright comfortable after a while, and as the lower half radiates away the terrible heat gained from the upper half, you kinda forget about it all and just fish.

After a full morning immersed in this dichotomy, I was weary, waterlogged and ready for the shift in fortune that came my way.

In the next hour, as I sat on a fallen oak and ate lunch, I watched and felt the weather pattern change. Blankets of thin clouds covered the sun, changing the angular, harsh light that photographers (and trout) hate into duller, friendlier greys. Calm shadows overtook the valley, and as I felt the first raindrops, the transformation was complete.

The shifting weather gave me a new reason to believe, and I positioned myself in the flow to work up the shallow side of a long island. I caught a few fish, then landed a twenty-inch trout that I measured against the simple marks on my net handle. Real twenty — the Whiskey mark. I reached deep into my vest pocket for the cool metal container, then took a pull on the flask in celebration of the rare fish, knowing always that, in this river, much bigger fish are a real possibility.

I worked to the top of the island then turned to swing streamers down the primary side. The wind died down and the rain settled into a steady drone. I felt refreshed to stand in the rain, as my torso was now wet and cool and more closely matched with my legs.

When I rounded the outside bend, I circled around to the near side and switched back to nymphs. Then, while tight lining a heavy stonefly pattern just under my rod tip in fast pocket water, it happened. I hooked the biggest fish of my life.

The beast hit with ferocity, and I set the hook with equal aggression. Immediately, the fish rocketed to the top and took one huge leap into the humid air.

The magnificent brown trout of my dreams suspended aloft, just between the rise and fall of a leaping trout, only ten feet away. I could have reached out and touched him with my rod tip. It was the biggest wild brown trout I’ve ever seen, and it was hooked to my line.

The moment stopped.

It was, I don’t know, about thirty inches?

What?

Wait a second. Let’s leave that fish suspended in the air for now and address something.

Trout fishermen have benchmarks — a set of numbers we refer to that defines how unique or rare a fish is. That series of measurements goes something like this, in inches: 15, 18, 20, 24, 30.

And thirty inches seems to be the benchmark where fantasy replaces reality.

That half-foot between twenty-four and thirty inches is an enormous distance, and it takes many (too many) years for a trout to put on the required mass to make up such ground. A thirty-inch trout is so much larger than a twenty-inch trout that it seems like a different animal.

But I’m talking here as though they exist.

I once read through a publication that printed, “Thirty-inch wild trout are common in this stretch of water.” Now, I don’t care what river in the continental United States you want to put up as an example. None of them have thirty-inch wild trout as a regular thing and certainly not in my home state of Pennsylvania. And yet, every fisherman in the parking lot seems to have a thirty-inch fish story, don’t they?

You know what I hear when someone says a fish was “about two feet long?” I hear: “I didn’t measure the fish.”

Bass guys don’t put up with this stuff. My friend, Sawyer (a dedicated bass and musky guy), is dumbfounded by the cavalier way trout fishermen throw estimates around. In his world, if you didn’t measure it, you don’t put a number on it. They take it seriously. We trout fishermen embarrass ourselves with estimates.

Personally, I don’t care about the half or quarter inches in between the important numbers. Specifics beyond the benchmarks aren’t a concern to me. It’s enough for me to know that a trout was twenty, and I can get the flask of whiskey out. If it’s twenty-four, my friends and I have taken the habit of granting a trout of that size a proper name (things like El Diablo, Ker-Thunk, Hog Johnson and Slab Daddy). But if it’s thirty? Well, the longer I do this, the more I believe there are no thirty-inch wild trout in my home state of Pennsylvania.

Those who tell stories about thirty-inch trout aren’t really liars, I suppose. They just have unrestrained hope clouding reality and reason.

Now, let’s get back to my trout suspended in the air …

I didn’t land it.

I was over-matched. When you finally hook the fish you’ve dreamed of, you may sadly realize that you cannot land it with the same equipment you’ve been using to fool it.

He hit the water broadside, with a startling splat and a belly flop. The splash from the bad entry landed on my glasses, and I watched through spotted amber lenses as he bolted downstream.

I did everything I could to hold on, running parallel to him in shallow water, rod tip high, keeping the line tight until he turned at the tailout. One hundred and eighty degrees. And then he faced the current.

He charged upstream with massive, steady force right through the heart of the heaviest run on the river, against powerful currents and against the pull of my deeply bent graphite rod. That’s when I knew I wouldn’t land him. Not even for one second did I feel there was any possibility of gaining control over the fight. This was not a 5X trout.

He effortlessly continued upstream, recovering fifty yards and passing the pocket where I had hooked him, then further on into a tangle of brush. As he approached the submerged pile of logs and branches, I pulled back as hard as I could, figuring to either break the tippet or turn his head. I did neither. The line stretched, and the rod bent more than what I had calculated for, surrendering just enough extra distance for the fish of my dreams to enter the brush. And he was gone.

I’ve never fished 5X on that river again.

He was thirty inches, though no one will believe me. And I wouldn’t blame them.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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29 Comments

  1. This is timely as a friend just sent me an article from Field and Stream about a California angler who recently caught a 41 inch rainbow that was estimated at 38 lbs (with pictures). Took him an hour to bring it in! Although it wasn’t taken on a fly rod it was still an incredible fish.

    I was fortunate enough to catch my largest trout to date (20″) on the Tully last month and it put up quite the fight. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a 30″ or larger fish on the end of my line in fast water!

    Love to hear some other stories about ‘the one that got away’!

    Reply
    • “one that got away.” Oh I have a lot of those . . .

      Dom

      Reply
  2. I have 2 different sizes of the Measure Net, rubber, I measure every big fish i catch…I want to know exactly…

    Reply
  3. Accurate length measurements of a large trout are very difficult to make.
    Using rod marks or net marks gets you within ± 1″-2″, at best. ‘Measure Nets’ are probably even less accurate as they attempt to measure along the curvature of the fish in the sagging net, which of course varies with fish size. Check those prep printed scales on your float tube and you may be surprised as well.

    Measuring accurately is further complicated by the difficulty in properly positioning an active trout along your rod or net. Then there is the question of how to measure length, starting at the tip of the nose ( or lower jaw) and ending at the . . . ? Fork or tip of tail? Some states like PA allows the ridiculous practice of pinching the tail when measuring. And all while holding a strong and struggling whiskey (or is it?).

    The most practical method that provides reasonable accuracy is a tape measure, but technically adds some length if it follows the curvature of the body. Taping out a trout requires shallow, slow current, and a relaxed trout. So still pretty iffy. A small plastic folding ruler is a better alternative to a tape because it eliminates having to hold a tape perfectly taught.

    Nothing is more accurate (or less practical) than a rigid tournament style bump board. There are a wide variety available and are better suited to drift boats.

    I developed the Aqua-Ruler several years ago which provides very accurate length measurements while keeping the trout relaxed, submerged, and breathing comfortably. In my failed attempts to market it I concluded that the vast majority of trout fishermen are simply not that interested in accurate length measurements of their fish.

    If your answer to the question, “Was it really a ‘whiskey’?” . . . is, “Close enough”, then you’re in the vast majority who are happy with approximate measurements.

    Reply
    • Tournament bump boards like these are the singular best tool for accurate fish measurements.

      https://ketchproducts.com/

      Reply
    • I’ve seen three trout in my life I would consider 30″ or better and as the article states, they are an entirely different beast. One I watched for an hour in skinny water while doing a spawning survey. The other two I hooked on an orvis superfine 9’3wt which did not end well.

      I put the magical 16″ and 20″ markings on my orvis back in the early 90s and seldom give them a second thought any more.

      As with most articles here, it brings back old memories and for that I say than you.

      Tight lines

      Reply
    • Rick,

      I’d say that, yes, I’m in the camp of close enough. Even though I appreciate accurate measurements, I don’t much care about quarter inches. I have lengths on my net measured out. And a quick look gets me to those marks listed above. We know when we catch a Whiskey or a Namer. And in my group, it’s no fun to lie about it or exaggerate.
      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  4. That is a fantastic story. I can picture the entire day. I feel like I was there. Well done.

    Reply
  5. I’ve kind of given up on measuring fish, preferring to just lump them into three categories : “rats”, “proper”, and “big”.

    What truly cracks me up is how many anglers have finely calibrated scales in their arms, able to ascertain the exact weight of a fish just by lifting it out of the water. This syndrome seems to be most prevalent in those of us who fish the salt.

    Reply
    • Yep, the built in scale is alive and well in my arm when I fish for big reds on the coast! Mine has an error margin of plus/minus 4 lbs for every 5 lbs of weight.

      Reply
  6. Please. Don’t bother measuring your fish. Leave it in the water and tell whatever tale you would like. The more Pinocchios your tale deserves the better as far as I’m concerned. Unless you are in a tournament, you do not need to know exactly how long your fish is. Bass fisherman use heavy line and yank the fish out of the water within seconds of hooking it so the fish is not exhausted by the time it gets to the net. That is not true with a fish caught on 5X.

    Reply
    • Nah. Respectfully, this is the kind of advice that bends to the least common denominator, and there’s too much of that in fly fishing.

      More examples:

      — Telling anglers not to fish for trout in water warmer than 64 degrees (even though the real number is higher).

      — Telling anglers not to take the trout our of the water at all.

      — Telling anglers not to take pictures of trout.

      — Telling anglers not to catch too many trout.

      All of the above, and now add in the request not to measure the fish, is based on the belief that anglers cannot/will not handle fish properly. I grow tired of this trend, of underestimating the average angler. People can learn to handle trout. They can learn to be cautious and to respect the resource. Education is the key here — not limitation. Instead of telling anglers what not to do, tell them what they should do.

      I’ve written many articles about safe catch and release practices here:

      https://troutbitten.com/category/catch-and-release-safely/

      It starts with how we fight them, and in ends with how we handle them.

      In short, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with measuring a trout, if you are thoughtful and prepared to do it. Marks on the net handle, and even knowing the distances between your outstretched fingers is an easy way to get a good measurement.

      People can handle the responsibility. Let’s teach them and set good examples.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • I never take the fish out of the water , just lay your rod next to it in the water . Ussually the first guide is around the 30 inch mark . Note where the fish is on your rod and measure that later . Better for the fish not to take it out of the water .

        Reply
  7. I built a net with a basket that measures 20” end to end. It’s proven to be real handy for tamping down those exaggerated on-the-line measurements. I’ve considered other more accurate means but apparently it’s not that important, because catching a 20” fish is not a requirement for me to drink whiskey ha!

    Reply
  8. Caught a 21″ at Clear Creek many years ago (clearly a stocker), about had a heart attack. Went to a local hatchery and saw big hen breeders 30″ plus and now know that the one a friend caught was one of those “discards” because it could no longer breed. Guy at the hatchery said if it is over 24″ and has a kype jaw it would take twice as long to grow in the wild. There is not enough food and cover here in Western PA except in the Yough or the 3 rivers where this could ever remotely happen. 10″-18″ is the best we ever get naturally around here. Unfortunately most of what we see are stockers. Great article Dom.

    Reply
  9. “if it is over 24″ and has a kype jaw it would take twice as long to grow in the wild.”

    YES!!

    Good point.

    Dom

    Reply
  10. I really enjoy your stories. This is one of your best. I regularly fish a famous western tailwater where everyone claims a 25″ rainbow. My tip, put a red nail polish mark at 20″ and a yellow nail polish mark at 25″ on your fly rod. It is easy to quickly lay your rod (straight line) on top of the landed fish to get a good measurement. During the pandemic I landed and measured a 28″ and a 29″ rainbows on the same day. It was great that everything was shut down and I had this famous water to myself.

    Reply
  11. I saw the comment about the Yough and it brought back a memory. I was fly fishing in the Yough near the confluence. Tagged something the moved like a freight train on a streamer. It went upriver, not stopping or slowing down, and ran the line almost thru the backing before breaking off the 4x tippet. Never saw the fish at all. I could have hooked a submarine for all I could tell.

    My fishing buddy called BS on me, until he realized I was chasing line upstream. He figured it was a musky or northern. I’m still going with an SSN.

    Reply
    • A good “and” amusing article because of its truth in what you stated. A thicker than normal trout can make it seem longer than it really is too, especially very vividly colored, until accurately measured.
      Also from fly fishermen in basic tail water rivers, I hear a periodic…. “It probably weighed 3-5 lbs.”

      Now, growing up on the Clearwater River in Idaho, in the 70’s catching a lot of big B-Run steelhead, there is a pretty accurate rule that every inch over 20” = 1 lb.
      Yes, a 36” steelhead (a big powerful trout that went to the ocean 1-4 years and ate really well) often would weigh around 16lbs.
      A 30” steelhead around 10 lbs.

      So, not only do 16” – 20” trout look much bigger to fisherman than reality, and I also know trout in those sizes are not “weightless.
      But …5 lbs?
      Enough said!

      Thanks for your articles!

      Reply
  12. Lost fish always look bigger than they are, as they become magnified by refraction or imagination. We never get to measure the lost bigs, so our exact estimates never get debunked.

    Do truly wild 30″ ers exist beyond Great Lakes tribs or reservoir spill overs? No doubt they do in some waters, but they remain the fish of a billion casts unless you’re fishing those select tail waters like the White or Yampa where the trout may be wild but the environments are not.

    Reply
  13. After living in NZ for the last 11 years think I can comment on bigger trout, lived in Pa for 59 years. For one season I weighted and measured each trout caught with a tape measure and a weigh net. A twenty inch trout is usually around 3 lbs.; 22 inches-4 lbs.; 24 inches-5lbs.; 26 inches-6 pounds; after that the one inch/one pound added seems to hold true. These of course would be averages, you get some lighter and some heavier. Have never cracked the 30 inch mark here, best is three 29 inch browns. I fish from the roadside, no fly-in or backpacking(I am past that stage). You catch lots of fish 18-22 inches, a couple handfuls of 22-24 inches, Over 24 inches you can usually count on two hands during a season. A fish 26 or over would make your season. There are areas in NZ where bigger fish would be available, but my area would probably be “average” for NZ. Like most places anglers here over estimate their fish, do it usually in pounds though. By the way the biggest trout I landed in PA in some 50 years of fishing that I knew was a wild fish was 19 inches.

    Reply
    • Dan, thanks for that perspective! I really thought you’d say there were more 30’s in NZ.

      But to hear that even 24’s are still rare over there is sobering.

      I guess unless trout are lake influenced or there’s a set up (like big browns being fed rainbow trout fingerings) wild brown trout are pretty much the same wherever they are found, and those numbers hold firm.

      It shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose. Human beings don’t grow to seven or eight feet very often either.

      Thanks again for the feedback.

      Dom

      Reply
  14. 30”, I don’t think they exist in PA under natural conditions. 40 years of fishing hard and a few years electrofishing some pretty famous streams and I’ve never seen one I thought was even close. I taped fish for years but I’m back to the rod marks, pretty accurate really if you take a little time and are honest about it. I saw 2 fish last spring and I hooked on the year before that have me dreaming…

    Reply
  15. Great narrative Dom. We occasionally have on e or two show up on local waters which are pressured. More likely north of of our border. The opportunity keeps us coming back

    Reply
  16. Hey Dom,
    I thought fish grow at a phenomenal rate once they get off. Is that not correct?
    In all seriousness, I put a mark on my net at 20”. I’ve caught quite a number of fish that I would have sworn were 20+ that turned out to be 18 or 19. The mark at 20” is a big help since it’s easy to estimate how many inches over 20 the fish is. It also helps “keep fish wet” prior to release since there’s no searching for a tape measure involved.
    BTW, I’ve fished extensively in NY NJ & PA and have never seen a trout over 30” in a stream. I hope the one that broke you off is still out there!

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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