The World’s Largest Trout
The time has come to tell the story. I’ve been reluctant to do so because I am a fly fishing guide, and people think that fly fishing guides are prone to exaggeration.
Maybe you’ve seen the post cards. You used to find them out west in small, backwater towns, usually in little general stores or gas stations. The picture is that of a giant trout tied to the top of a station wagon or maybe sitting in the back of a pickup truck, its massive tail hanging out the back. A person is usually gazing up at the trout with a look of amazement, and the caption reads something like, “They grow them big out west.” Created with technology long before Photoshop, the amateurish attempt at deception brings a smile.
It was in the spring of 1993 that I came across one of these big-fish cards at the general store in St. Xavier, Montana, a tiny town near the banks of the fabled Bighorn River. The card was on a dusty post-card rack that received little attention and it was stuck to the back of a “Little Big Horn Battlefield” card. There was a cracking noise as I peeled the two cards apart. The hidden card depicted yet another giant trout, this one on the back of a 1950ish Chevrolet pickup, with a cowboy staring at the fish, awestruck as one might expect. I smiled and inserted the card back into the postcard rack. Then I snatched the card back and looked closer. The picture was different from every giant, fake-fish postcard I’d seen before. For starters, it was black-and-white and there was no stream or lake in the background. Instead, there was a ranch house and a set of corrals. And the fish didn’t have the proportions of a twelve-inch fish who, with the magic of cut-and-paste and crude photographic manipulation, had been transformed into something massive. This fish was massive. He had a large hook jaw, but his head was small in proportion to his body, and his body spread out and nearly covered the pickup bed. Hay was stuck to the sides of the giant trout’s body, and something was stuck in the fish’s back – it looked like a hay hook, an implement I knew well from a youth spent stacking hay bales. The fish appeared to have been on the truck for hours, as his skin looked dry and discolored. This photograph was real.
“Can you tell me anything about this postcard?” I asked the store owner. He was a bent, older man dressed in the faded Wranglers and belt buckle of the modern cowboy.
He leaned closer and said, “Didn’t know we had any of those left. If you really want to know the story behind that picture, you need to talk to Will Starnham at the Crescent J, that is if Will is still alive. His place is about five miles down the road toward Pryor, near Beauvais Creek. If he likes you, he’ll have plenty to say about that picture.” He gave me directions and the phone number of the ranch headquarters.
It was three days later before I made it out to Starnham’s ranch. An elderly woman greeted me at the door. I assumed it was Mr. Starnham’s wife, but I soon found out it was his daughter. She ushered me into the living room and as she did she said, “Don’t be fooled by appearances. My father may be very old and in poor health, but mentally he’s still sharp as a tack.”
Come to find out, Will Starnham was 95 years old and he was the patriarch of Starnham Land & Livestock, aka the Crescent J. He was “not long for this earth” according to his daughter, Laura, but he still had “good days” and this was one of them. I could tell he’d once been tall, but now He sat in a wheel chair, his body tilted to one side. He nodded at me and gave me a firm hand shake. The Young and the Restless was on TV and thankfully he turned the volume down. We exchanged pleasantries, and I took out the old post card.
“What can you tell me about this picture, Mr. Starnham.” Your friend in St. X said you would know something about it.
“I’ll be darned,” he said hoarsely, and a crooked smile creased his ancient face as he studied the postcard. “Didn’t know there were any of these still around, the pictures I mean. If you’ve got the time, I’ll tell you a story. Might be a tough one to believe but it’s true. The fish in that picture weighed 410 pounds, one of the bigger ones we took out of the creek down below here, but there were others like him. Many of them ran in the 300, 350-pound range. If you look closely at this picture you can see this ranch house and the corrals right out the window.” He was right, of course. The picture had been taken right here, near this very house.
“We’ve done a little remodeling since then. This would have been in the early 50’s,” he went on, gazing at the photo and a shaky hand took a pinch of Copenhagen and put it in his lower lip.
“I quit smoking. Doctor’s orders. Ben brings me this to keep me sane. Laura will take it away if she sees it, so this is our little secret.” Will Starnham slipped the can under a magazine on the coffee table.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “You and your family have caught trout—this fish in the picture looks like a trout—that weigh upwards of 300 pounds! Just where and how were you catching these fish of this size?”
“Most of ‘em we caught right down here in the crick, Beauvais Creek I mean. A few we got out of the Bighorn not far downstream from the creek’s mouth. They were trout alright, a species of trout you don’t see much of today, migratory trout kind of like salmon I guess. Only have ‘em here, right here in this creek, or we used to have ‘em before they started damming up the Missouri River.”
“Will, you are correct that this is all somewhat difficult to believe. If I hadn’t seen the picture I doubt I would have or could have. So, you’re saying these fish migrated up from the Missouri, into the Yellowstone, up the Bighorn, and then into Beauvais Creek?”
“That’s what I’m saying. Of course, they ran clear down the Mississippi and into the ocean too. That’s what the fisheries guy used to tell me. This was all before the Pick-Sloan dams were built on the Missouri.”
“Uh huh,” I said blankly, trying to process the information about trout entering the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico. “Who’s the “fisheries guy” you refer to?”
“Mullen, Randy Mullen … no, Richard Mullen from Miles City. Worked for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. He’s been dead a few years. Mullen studied the fish. Became a friend of the family. Swore us all to secrecy about these fish. Didn’t want the general public finding out about them. Had his reasons for wanting things this way. That’s why I was surprised there was still a postcard left. Mullen made it his mission to hunt down and destroy all those cards.”
“So what did these giant trout eat, how’d you catch fish of that size?” I asked.
“Well, we figured out there was a reason they were heading up Beauvais Creek. They only showed up here in the spring, which was smart I suppose since the creek gets pretty low in late summer, especially during a dry year. As near as I can tell, they showed up in the spring to eat prairie dogs. No shortage of prairie dogs around Beauvais Creek. June is the time of year the critters would swim across the creek now and again—maybe to visit relatives or colonize the other side. Hell, I don’t know the mind of a dumbass prairie dog, but it was a mistake at times because the trout were waiting for them. Pretty impressive to see them hit those gophers. Kind of like that shark movie. The fish would also eat muskrats, ducks, and beavers. And fish. Hell, they’d be full of big suckers and ten-pound catfish.
As you might figure, conventional fishing tackle left us at a … disadvantage. I tried a friend’s paddlefish setup, but it wasn’t stout enough, so we came up with the ‘Starnham Rig.’ Had to forge my own hooks which were about the size of a hay hook with a barb on them. I attached steel cable to the hook and tied it to the drawbar of my Allis Chalmers WD. We’d pull the tractor about 20 feet away from the creek, then Ben, my foreman, would attract the fish. He’d beat the water with a long stick for a minute or two. You could see the wake when the trout entered the pool and started heading upstream. Then Ben would drop the stick and throw out the bait. He’d heave the hook across the creek, which had a dead prairie dog attached to it, and begin hauling it in, hand over hand. He learned quickly to wear gloves and to keep his arms bent. Dam near dislocated his shoulder once when a big one hit. When those big trout took the bait, there was a hell of a commotion. Ben got the hell out of the way at that point. When the cable became taut, I’d put the tractor in gear and throttle it up. Then I’d slowly head toward higher ground. Those big fish would make an awful ruckus, nearly tear up the pool in fact, but if they were hooked well, diesel power usually won the day. Once we got them ashore, I’d increase my speed and get them well away from the water. Then I’d jump off the tractor and run for cover myself.”
“Why’d you run for cover,” I asked, trying to visualize the sequence of events.
“Well, think about it. You’ve seen a decent sized trout flopping in a boat—they can make quite a disturbance, knocking over fishing poles and bottles of beer. Now imagine a 350-pound critter, big as a steer, flopping and tearing up the sod and uprooting sagebrush. If that critter ends up on the tractor seat, he could beat me nearly to death. So I played it safe. Ran and hid behind a cottonwood tree for a spell. When he settled down, I’d head back to the tractor, snub up the cable, and drag him to the barn for butchering. Them trout was good eating. One of them would keep you in fish steaks a whole year.”
“We found out that if the trout were in a feeding mood, we could just tie a piece of burlap sack onto the hook. As long as the size was close to a prairie dog, and we moved it just right, the fish would hit it.” Will commenced telling me about the various giant trout he landed, or “towed in” via tractor. Then, taking another dip of Copenhagen, he called for Laura. She brought out a photo album that contained pictures of various giant trout. Most of the photos were in black and white, but there were a few faded color pictures. As near as I could tell, the fish were marked somewhat like a Yellowstone Cutthroat, which would make some sense as these giant trout must be related to some existing trout species on the eastern side of the continental divide; but the bodies of these Beauvais fish were not slim, but compact and powerful. Well, compact in the context of a 350 pound fish.
“So this Mullen guy,” I asked Will, “you say he studied the fish and sought to keep their existence a secret?”
“Yeah. Richard said there was one other creek, a tributary to the Yellowstone, that had a few of the fish in them. Big prairie dog town near that creek too. Somehow Richard learned of the fish up here, probably from a former ranch hand who couldn’t keep a secret, and Rich shows up here to learn what he can. Even though Richard wanted to protect the fish, the dams on the Missouri pretty much put an end to them. At least most of the giants. There’s still some of the little ones running around, the 80-90 pounders.”
“There’s still some around?” I asked incredulously.
“Yep, just a few according to Ben. Might not have to use the tractor on those guys.”
“So what happened to the research data Richard collected on these fish? Does the Montana FWP have it somewhere?”
“You might call Richard’s son, Tom. He’s in Billings. He would probably know. Tell him you’re a friend of mine.”
Tom Mullen was an accountant, at least that was his second career. He lived in Billings Heights and wasn’t overly friendly until I mentioned Starnham, his father, and the “fish.” He agreed to meet me at a City Brew coffee shop in west Billings and he came in carrying a large file folder.
“So, you’re ‘in the know’ regarding Salmo gigantis-venandi,” he quipped, extending his hand. It has never been officially classified taxonomically, but the “gigantic, hunter trout” seems to describe it well.
“That sounds like an appropriate scientific name,” I said. “Yeah, Mr. Starnham had quite a story to tell and it sounds like your father was the resident expert on the subject.”
“He was, and so was I for a time. I was a fisheries biologist for Montana FWP for over 20 years. When I was a kid, I saw some of the big fish, although they disappeared soon after; well, most of them. You’ve told me about the postcard and your meeting with Will. How can I help you?”
“Well, as you might suspect, as a life-long fly fisherman, to learn of the existence of an anadromous trout on this side of the continental divide, especially one this amazingly large is utterly fascinating. I want to learn all I can. To begin, how does a trout survive the environment it would be exposed to between Montana and the Gulf of Mexico. It sounds a little fantastic.”
“That’s a very valid question,” Tom responded, sipping his coffee. As near as we can tell, these trout are genetically unique, different from most trout species. They can tolerate warm water temperatures and turbidity. They prefer cold water, but somehow, kind of like a steelhead smolt is able to transition from fresh to saltwater, the giants can survive huge temperature swings. Once they made it to the Gulf, they headed for deeper, cooler water, and what they ate in saltwater or how far they ranged is somewhat of a mystery. They showed up in Beauvais Creek in May and June, primarily, it appears, to eat prairie dogs. They would spawn shortly thereafter.”
“But why, of all places, would they run up the Bighorn River, and then into a tiny, little prairie stream that almost dries up every summer? Why this stream and not a thousand others? And why wouldn’t they seek out some clear, cold water?” I asked.
“Those are the same questions my Dad asked,” Tom went on. “There may be several reasons, but one of them relates to feeding efficiency. Trout often move into shallow water to feed because all the food, aquatic insects for example, is compressed into a few inches of water. They don’t have to move up and down the water column. Now take that concept to the extreme. You have a huge, predatory fish that needs lots of calories. Why not move into a small stream where there is access to large organisms—prairie dogs, ducks, suckers, catfish. And once they’d clean the fish out of a pool, they took things to the next level. Of course, they’d eat any prairie dog dumb enough to get in the water. But have you ever seen killer whales in those National Geographic documentaries? On occasion they’ll jump up on the ice, grab the seal, and then flop their way back into the water. These trout did that all the time—I mean leap out of the water, grab a prairie dog, and work their way back into the stream.
Tom went on to relate stories of the diverse creatures they would find in the stomachs of these large trout—coyotes, raccoons, antelope and mule deer fawns, etc. “These fish are a bit like the Taiman of Mongolia and Siberia,” he related. “Large salmonids who are very opportunistic. Of course, the biggest of these trout might eat your average Taiman.”
“So, the million-dollar question is how many, if any, of these fish are still alive?” I wondered aloud. “You think the true giants are all gone?”
“For the most part, yes,” he said sadly, staring into his coffee, “But I suspect—or maybe I just hope—that there are a few still around because these fish live a long, long time. Obviously, they can’t migrate back to saltwater anymore, so in the winter they head down the Yellowstone and eat paddlefish and catfish, but the few trout that are left still choose to spawn in the tiny prairie streams … well, maybe only one stream now.”
Tom reached into the file folder he had brought and showed me multiple pictures of the giant trout, closeups of their jaws and teeth, plus information relating to scale samples, fish size, stomach contents, and all sorts of biological data. It was fascinating.
“So why the secrecy?” I asked. “These fish seem to be on their way to extinction. Wouldn’t it make sense to mount a campaign to save them, to go public with their existence?”
“First of all, we have saved DNA from these fish, and I suppose it’s possible that the species could be preserved through modern biotechnology. However, this trout species seems to have an ecological niche that is so narrow there is no way of bringing it back. The species wants to return to saltwater. It prefers cold water but seems to need contact with warm water and even turbid water. It feeds on prairie dogs, but not just any prairie dogs—the ones in this part of eastern Montana. We feel there are minerals in the soil here that aren’t available elsewhere, and the flesh of the prairie dogs contains minerals the fish need. There is something unique about Beauvais Creek as well, but we’re not sure what it is. I could go on, but the bottom line is, this is the end of an era. This species is going quietly into the night. I’m being forthright with you because it doesn’t make any difference at this point. Yes, there may be a few left, but the curtain has almost fallen.”
I sat there pondering the immensity of the revelation I had just been privy too.
“Would you be willing to go with me to the Creek in a couple of weeks in the off chance we could find, or even catch one of the last of the species?”
“I don’t think the folks at the Cresent J would mind,” he said. “Of course, you know it’s a long shot, but it will be late May and historically that’s when they were in the stream in the greatest numbers.”
On May 30th, Tom and I sat on a high hill about a quarter mile north of Beauvais Creek. Tom handed me a pair of Swarovski binoculars and said, “Here’s the plan. From this vantage point we can scan over a mile of the creek. I probably don’t have to tell you that fish of this size make quite a disturbance when they feed. You’ll be looking for big wakes, swirls, violent splashing, things of that sort. If you see something, we’ll head down to that section of the stream and check things out. Me, I’ve got some business to conduct.”
Tom then proceeded to call several clients on his cell phone and discuss the intricacies of federal tax law. I trained the binoculars on the stream and began my search. The entire exercise seemed a bit ludicrous as I sat in my lawn chair, but I had seen the pictures and heard the stories. Prairie dogs chirped and scrambled hither and thither across the meadow. Magpies made their unique racket, and the occasional song of a Meadow Lark sounded forth. It was becoming a warm spring day and there was a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon.
We saw nothing that day and late in the morning of day two, my resolve began to wane a bit. Due to rain showers the previous afternoon, the water in the creek had come up a bit and the clarity was a leaden brown. My systematic approach to scanning the water had given way to watching a herd of antelope about a mile in the distance. Then it happened. Out of the corner of my eye a geyser of water arched skyward. Near a fallen log by a low cutbank, what looked like an enormous tail had broken the surface, followed by a gigantic swirl.
“Whoa!” I said involuntarily. “Something just made a big racket,” and Tom roused from his semi-slumber to ask, “Where?” “Almost directly in line with that pyramid-shaped rock,” and I pointed it out to him.” He grabbed the binos and watched for a moment.
“Let’s head down there,” he said, and we folded up the lawn chairs and hopped in the pickup.
When we arrived at the creek bank, I asked Tom, “Any idea how long a fish will stay in a certain hole before moving upstream?”
“Historically they move upstream about a half-mile a day, at least when they’re in the actual spawning stream. Things might be different now. There are beaver dams in Beauvais Creek now, and the migratory process is slowed down.”
“So there weren’t beavers in the creek before?”
“No, the trout ate the beavers.”
“Makes sense,” I said, and just then a fountain of spray arched skyward in the run upstream. Maybe a prairie dog had met an untimely end.
“That was a serious fish,” Tom declaimed. “The question has been answered. There’s at least one of the giants still around.”
I strode to the pickup and grabbed my saltwater fly rod. Tom looked doubtful as I strung fly line through the guides and tied on a surface fly about ten inches long. The pattern was one that anglers used in Mongolia and Siberia for Taiman, and it was tied with closed-cell foam and rabbit fur. It would serve to imitate a small rodent. Standing by the small, muddy stream, I felt ridiculous holding a twelve-weight rod and a fly of this size, but in light of the creature I hoped to encounter, I certainly wasn’t over-gunned. About 100 feet upriver we saw a gigantic boil in the turbid water, and my heart skipped a beat. I really didn’t have a plan if I hooked this fish, but much of my life was based in that mindset, so what the hell. I crept upstream.
“Any tips would be appreciated,” I said.
“Give him his head if he wants it,” Tom laughed.
After an errant back cast snagged some sagebrush, I finally angled a proper cast toward the head of the pool. The fly landed with an audible splat, and I popped the rod tip a couple of times, then began stripping line in slowly, giving the foam-fly action and sending ripples across the pool. Hopefully the setup was providing the illusion of a water-bound prairie dog. I worked the giant fly across the small pool. There was a disturbance on the far side of the pool which sent a large wave lapping against my side of the creek, but nothing attacked the fly. I cast again and let the fly sit motionless. A black void appeared under my fly and then a wheelbarrow-sized whirlpool as the fly disappeared in a foaming vortex. In shock I stumbled backward, almost tripping on a shrub and setting the hook in an involuntary sort of strip strike. It felt as if I’d snagged bottom and I leaned back on the weight, bending the rod nearly double. Nothing happened, and I glanced back at Tom. He shrugged his shoulders. Then the reel made three slow revolutions and stopped. I tapped the cork of the rod hard several times, hoping to send vibrations down to the fish that would stimulate it into action. I was not disappointed. Line peeled off the reel and the water erupted. A giant trout cartwheeled out of the water in a leap that must have cleared ten feet. The fish crashed through the limbs of a fallen cottonwood tree, and sticks, dead leaves, and even a bird’s nest showered down. A group of whitetail deer sprinted from the brush a hundred yards upstream. Waterfowl flushed from a pool around the creek’s bend. The fish continued upstream at a brisk pace, creating a large wave that lapped against the clay banks. The 80 lb. Spiderwire line and saltwater hook held fast and I followed the fish upstream, holding the rod high. Prairie dogs chirped and fled as I trotted up the bank. Suddenly the fish stopped, and I reeled in the slack line and waited. Tom had followed me, and I looked over at him and said, “How big do you think this fish is?”
“I’m guessing he’s close to 300 pounds,” he said softly, “what they used to call a ‘tractor fish.’ I have no idea how you intend to land him.”
The fish remained motionless and I took the time to catch my breath. Tom was right. The stream was so small the fish didn’t have the room to tire himself out, unless he went on a mile-long run upstream or down. For now, I’d hang onto him as long as I could and hope for the best.
I pulled at the fish from different angles and tapped the cork again and again. All of a sudden, the line went slack as the fish headed downstream toward me. Then, the trout burst from the water like a Polaris missile, shaking his head violently, rising fifteen feet into the air before crashing down. He then began tail walking across the surface, drenching Tom with muddy water and heading directly toward me. I reeled for all I was worth and took several steps backward. The next thing I knew the giant trout was on the bank with me, knocking me to the ground and violently pounding the prairie sod, sending stones and mud in all directions. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tom kneeling with his hands over his head. The fish had flopped off me and then back toward me. I felt the fish’s weight on my chest, and I reached out to bearhug the beast in an attempt to subdue him. Then all went black.
The ride to Billings was hazy as I lay bleeding in the back of Tom’s Suburban. At the Billings Clinic emergency room, the nurse gave me a puzzled look, as my shirt was covered in mud, fish slime and silver scales. She probably asked me what happened, but I don’t remember what I told her.
Later, I would receive the news from the doctor: “You have a broken radius and clavicle, a serious concussion, multiple lacerations and bruises, plus soft tissue damage to your left ankle. Other than that, you’re okay.” The doctor had a dry sense of humor.
A day later, Tom visited me at the hospital. Under a thick fog of pain killers, I heard Tom ask me how I was doing. Tom’s appearance had changed markedly and not for the better. His body was bloated, his face discolored, and he lay in a hospital bed next to mine. What the hell had happened to him?
“No, over here cowboy,” Tom said, and I looked to the other side of the room. I guess I’d been looking at a patient in the hospital bed next to me.
“Oh, thank God.”
Tom filled in some of the details about what had happened: “I guess we could say ‘technically’ that you landed the fish—probably the first one on a fly rod. The problem was he was a bit ‘green’ when he came ashore and after beating the shit out of you, he flopped back into the creek. I’m not sure where you’re fly rod is.” I laid there trying to process the information.
I suppose you can tell people you landed him and released him quickly,” Tom chuckled. “I’ll vouch for you.”
“Yeah, I guess I did land him,” I wheezed. “That’s something.”
The problem with the whole affair is that I didn’t have any pictures and nobody, especially my fellow fishing guides would ever believe my story. As I lay there in pain on that hospital bed, I began making plans for a rematch. And next time, I might have to borrow a tractor.