March 29, 2015
Long-lived brown trout can live in the same spot a decade or longer
On the cover of the Aug.-Sep. 2014 issue we showed a 10-pound brown trout (with guide Ed Halson) that I caught earlier that year on New Zealand's South Island. This trout seemed to be particularly astute, aware of his surroundings, and every few minutes he patrolled the perimeter of his pool, seeming to peer at the world outside as if he were scanning for fly fishers before he resumed dimpling the glassy surface with riseforms.
I nicknamed this fish "The Lord of the Rings" and wrote about him in that issue. A few months afterward, I received an email from artist Martin Simpson. He had been commissioned by fellow Kiwi Stu Tripney to paint a lifetime fish Tripney calls his "best mate"— a trout Tripney has chased for 10 years, and caught twice. Tripney took only one (slightly blurry) photo when he last released the trout in 2012, so Simpson was Googling "beautiful brown trout" images to find a model fish when he came across the photo of "my" fish. At first glance, he knew it was the same trout.
How did he know? Like killer whales or snowflakes, each brown trout has a unique spotting pattern. [See "Trout Fingerprints," in the Aug.-Sep. 2013 issue.] The trout also had spectacularly broad pectoral fins, and a distinctive upper jaw. Using my photo and a short underwater video of the same trout from flyfisherman.com/new-zealand, Simpson was able to recreate the fish in a life-size, anatomically accurate, and incredibly realistic painting that captures the majesty of the great trout—but the story of the "celebrity trout" gets better. I've since heard from others including Robbie McPhee, host of the DVD series New Zealand Trophy Waters, who caught the same fish in the same spot in 2013.
Besides the obvious curiosity factor, what is to be learned from all this? First, brown trout are territorial homebodies that often live in the same pool all their lives. This particular fish lived in the same run beside the same rock for at least a decade of its adult life. Some years, Tripney would get to the river only to find the fish wasn't feeding—but he could see the trout's wide tail sticking out from under the rock. It's also clear from all of this that if we handle them correctly, using nets with a soft rubber mesh bag, brown trout can live a long time. This one has.
Clearly, catch-and-release fishing has been a boon to us all, and this fish is a reminder that many (even most?) of the trout we all catch are the result of the common sense, courtesy, and sensitivity of fly fishers who have drifted their flies before us. To all those who caught one of "my" fish before me, and handled it gently, I thank you!