Every avid angler has likely had a brief fishing thrill that’s a bit like what Drew Leavitt of Greene experienced on Aug. 2.
While fishing Pleasant Pond in Turner, Leavitt watched as his line popped out of the downrigger and the rod bent toward the water.
“I grab the rod and reel up the slack and the rod just doubles over and it starts spooling line off my baitcaster,” Leavitt said. “It felt like bottom.”
That’s where the similarity between Leavitt’s experience and those of most everyone else ends, though.
Most of us have hoped for the best, but eventually realized that we had really hooked bottom. Leavitt hadn’t. And after considering his situation for a second, he realized the truth.
“I’m like, ‘How am I hooked on bottom when I’m fishing 25 feet down in 60 feet of water?” Leavitt said he asked himself.
The simple answer: He wasn’t.
Downriggers allow anglers to fish at specific depths, as a clip attached to a weighted ball is attached to the fishing line, and then lowered into the depths while trolling.
Leavitt realized he should have been well off bottom. He also realized that almost all of his line had been peeled off his reel. He got to work trying to retrieve some of that line, and after 10 minutes of reeling, he finally felt the telltale shake of a fish’s head. Until then, he said, he’d compiled a list of potential non-fish objects that he may have hooked onto.
Maybe it was an anchor rope attached to a float? Maybe it was a loon? Maybe it was a turtle?
After battling for a half hour or so, Leavitt brought a fish to the surface.
“I looked down and it was like the TV show ‘Wicked Tuna,’” Leavitt said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. The thing is huge’”
Leavitt had landed a monstrous splake — a hatchery hybrid cross between a brook trout (also called a speckled trout) and a lake trout.
The fish was 32½ inches long, 19 inches around, and weighed more than 15 pounds, according to the scale Leavitt had with him.
Many websites still list Maine’s state record splake as Dan Paquette’s 10 pound, 3 ounce fish caught in 1993, while Leavitt himself thought he’d heard of another record fish that weighed 11 pounds. Either way, he was confident that his fish would establish a state record.
Game warden Dave Chabot weighed the fish at an official 14.7 pounds, which would certainly qualify it as the new state standard.
There was a little problem to address, however: The fish looked quite a bit like a lake trout, which tend to grow much larger than either brook trout or splake. Therefore, before a state record could be declared, biologists had to confirm that Leavitt’s catch was actually a splake.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s website explains that splake and brook trout often have similar coloration, while the splake inherit a slightly forked tail from the lake trout, rather than the square tail of a brookie.
The innards of the fish were taken to the state’s fish health lab, where a count of the fish’s pyloric caeca was made to help in that determination.
“The pyloric caeca are filamentous finger-like projection located near the intersection of the stomach and intestine. They aid in digestion,” said Francis Brautigam, the director of fisheries and hatcheries for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Lake trout are known to have between 93 and 208 pyloric caeca, according to pathologist David Russell of the state fish health lab. Leavitt’s fish had 63.
Russell said splake typically have 65 to 85 caeca, but Leavitt’s fish had been frozen and thawed before the count was made, which could account for it being just shy of the norm.
Brautigam was more succinct in his assessment of the facts.
“It’s a splake!” Brautigam said.
The Maine Sportsman magazine serves as the keeper of state fishing records, and has already recognized Leavitt’s splake as the record.
And it was entirely unexpected, according to Leavitt.
“I have never actually caught a splake out of there before,” he said. “They’ve been stocking salmon in there for about five or six years, and the pond is really close to my house, so I get out of work and I’ll go over there and troll around.”
Leavitt took the fish to a local taxidermist, who is preparing a mount.
And on Aug. 2, that casual salmon-fishing evening turned into a trip to remember. Even if the fish he caught wasn’t a salmon at all.
“[After I caught it] I just kind of sat down on the boat, trying to wrap my head around everything,” Leavitt said.