Most winters, Ryan Bridges doesn’t pay much attention to Tunk Lake, a well-known fish factory near Cherryfield that is known to produce some large lake trout.
The reason: The water is also famous for its finicky nature. Some winters, it never freezes safely, or completely.
But this year has been different, and Bridges and his friends have been taking advantage of the conditions and targeting the lake regularly.
“It’s really the first year it’s buttoned up [well],” Bridges said. “Some people said it’s been 15 or 20 years since it’s actually buttoned up this early. We had all that cold weather, and we’ve been fishing it pretty hard.”
And on Feb. 13, the effort of the Gouldsboro angler and his friends paid off with a fish tale they’ll tell for a long, long time.
Bridges explained that he and his buddies went to check a flag at about 8:30, and what they found wasn’t particularly thrilling. The reel wasn’t spinning a bit, in fact.
“Then, all of a sudden we see the trap kind of shudder a bit,” Bridges said. “I didn’t realize it, but when [the fish] had pulled line out it had tightened my drag on my tip-up. I reached down and loosened the drag on it and [the fish] just took off after that, went another 30 or 40 yards. Then I set the hook.”
And the fight was on.
“It felt really heavy. I had three other fellas with me, and I told them, ‘I’ve caught a few 10-pounders, and it don’t feel like any 10-pounder I’ve caught,’” Bridges said.
It wasn’t any 10-pounder. Or 15-pounder. He wouldn’t learn it until later, but Bridges had a 25.5-pound lake trout on the other end of the line. And the fish was a whopping 40 inches long.
To put that in context, the state record lake trout — or togue, as many call them — is 31 pounds, 8 ounces.
Bridges didn’t think he had a record fish on the line, but he did think it was big.
“It was just real heavy. I’d reel in four feet of line and it would take back two,” he said. “It never went on any real big runs or anything like that. It was just real heavy.”
After a 15-minute fight, Bridges had the fish to the hole. Then he and his friends saw exactly how big the togue was.
“My brother in law was sitting there, fishing with us, and when he sees it swim by the hole the first time, he just gets that god-awful look on his face, like, ‘Oh my word,’” Bridges said. “He started taking his gloves off and pulling his sleeves up. All we saw at first was the pectoral fin on it. He says, ‘That fin was the size of the paper plate we just ate breakfast on. Holy cow.’”
Landing the fish proved difficult, as the hole was only nine inches in diameter, rather than the more customary 10 inches.
“I saw it swim by the hole and I couldn’t even begin to get its head turned into it,” Bridges said. “My brother-in-law had to reach down and grab it and haul it up through.”
That’s when the celebration started.
“There was a lot of foul language and high fives. It was pretty intense,” said Bridges, who thinks he was lucky to even get the fish to the surface.
“I think the only reason I got it is I hooked it right in the lip. It didn’t swallow [the bait] so it didn’t have the chance to chafe my leader [on its teeth] or anything,” Bridges said. “I only had 12-pound test for my leader, which everybody’s kind of skeptical about, and aren’t sure what to believe about that.”
Bridges has taken the fish to a Cherryfield taxidermist, and fisheries biologist Gregory Burr of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will age the fish at some point.
Burr said the fish was an impressive specimen.
“Tunk is known for big togue as anglers catch fish between 10 and 16 pounds every year, with an occasional fish around 20 pounds,” Burr wrote in an email. “This 25-pound togue is the second-biggest togue I’ve ever encountered in my 31 years working in the region.”
“The say fishing is 90 percent luck and 10 percent skill, but I was pushing a full 100 percent that day, and I’m not talking about skill,” Bridges said.
So what’s next for an angler who catches such a memorable fish?
“I’m ruined now,” Bridges said with a chuckle. “I’ve been trying. I went [fishing] the next couple of days, but I’ve actually been skunked since.”
Even a few slow days won’t keep him away from the lake, though.
“Most people say they would have hung their traps up and called it a year,” Bridges said. “But there’s one in there 26 pounds. I’m sure of it.”
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