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Personal Best "PB" Trout

PB - "personal best" - trout or other fish are, apparently, all the rage today. I do not really know what my PB trout or other fish species are nor do I much care, to be quite honest. More honestly, I do know that my PB Brook Trout in Wisconsin was thirteen-and-a-half inches back in 1995 or 1996. The rest, I have but a reasonable guess what my PB is but there are all sorts of caveats.

Driftless Brook Trout Stream - or at least it was 30 years ago.
An old scanned photo from what was once one of my favorite places. I always felt accomplished when I could hook a Brook Trout out of this gin clear pool. The stream has since been "improved" and this spot only remains in my memories.

Personal best, which assumes that all that matters is length or weight - though that is usually a guess - just does not do much for me. There are so many other variables that matter that PBs do not account for. Here in the Midwest, a Great Lakes fish is much different than that same species in a trout stream. I am almost certain to never catch a Brown Trout larger than ones I have caught in a Lake Michigan tributary. But those are hardly the same fish. And a stocker as a PB is lame - less lame if it was stocked as a tiny fish but still not the same. At least not for me. Is my personal best Cutthroat Trout a maybe ten or eleven inch Colorado River Cutthroat Trout from a tiny little stream or a significantly larger Cutthroat stocked as a fingerling into a tailwater river where Cutthroat Trout are not native? And I think we all know that the same fish on a dry fly makes it much more worthy (no?).

Colorado River Cutthroat Trout
A wild and native Colorado River Cutthroat Trout in a cool and unique setting - this is a real trophy of a memory.

More than anything, I care about memorable fish which can be memorable for all sorts of reasons. Fair warning, this is where he starts to tell stories...

San Juan River Tailwaters
The view from Navajo Dam on the San Juan River. The tailwater below is one of the West's best known and most heavily fished tailwaters - it was so disappointing.

I have a post that some day I will get back to about the most disappointing amazing day of fishing I have ever had. Together with my friends Henry and Rich, we fished the San Juan River tailwater in New Mexico on our way to southern Colorado from the Albuquerque airport. We were pretty excited as we had read and heard plenty about the San Juan and how it would test our skills. We parked at one of the major parking lots and made our way to the river at one of the named pools. Pale morning duns (PMD) were hatching so I tie on an emerger I had tied up for our Western trip. Three or so casts in, I hook and land a nice fish, nearly twenty inches, as do the others shortly after. Then we started seeing flying ants and we all caught fish after fish after fish. And lots of nice fish - I am sure in one day I caught more twenty-plus inch trout than I do in probably a decade of fishing Wisconsin trout streams. I probably caught a PB Brown Trout and I know I caught a PB Rainbow Trout - not including Great Lakes "steelhead" - but none of them felt like it as they were pretty easy to hook and they fought like wet socks once hooked. Quite honestly, despite the great day of catching, it was not terribly memorable except for the lameness of the fight in the fish.

West Fork Sports Club and West Fork Kickapoo River
The West Fork of the Kickapoo River at the West Fork Sports Club. That memorable trout was downstream - though over 25 years ago, I'm guessing it is not a 47 inch river beast today.

One of the most memorable fish I ever caught was all of twelve, maybe twelve-and-a-half, inches long, but I earned that fish. Back in the day when the West Fork and other Driftless streams had much better sulphur hatches, I spent two full weekends trying to catch one particular fish that I knew had to be a big one. It was in this nearly impossible spot below a piece of bank that had sloughed off and created this perfect little current break. The issue was that with the odd currents, it was nearly impossible to get a drag free drift. I was sure this was one of those monsters that the river was known to hold. So each evening for at least two different weekends, I was after this fish. I had tried nearly everything, moving my position upstream and casting down, fishing it from directly downtream with a little hook cast, fishing from down and across with a slack line cast, and I tried moving my fly to see if that would tempt this wily Brown Trout. Nothing worked until one evening, I made just the right slack line presentation that drifted perfectly into where this trout had been rising and finally I got just the right cast. That cast just felt right and I knew it was the one. He came up and sucked in my sparkle dun just like he was supposed to. The hook set defied expectations, it was not a monster that had been incredibly selective in slowly sucking in sulphur emergers the past five or six evenings I had fished this spot but an "average" trout. Sure, it would have been nice had it been the twenty inch trout I had expected but I did not much care. I had spent half dozen evenings specifically chasing this trout, I finally did it all correctly, and I was rewarded with one of the most memorable fish I have ever caught. This is a story from over twenty-five years ago and maybe I do not quite remember it like it was yesterday but I still remember that twelve inch trout because of the story behind it and the fact that I was finally able to put it all together. I am still proud of that fish.

Late fall fishing with Mike
A beautiful late season day with a good friend that is fishing another one of those places that only exists in memories (and this photo). A flood moved the stream about 10 feet to the left.

I have read - and rather like - this idea that in the pursuit of happiness, we are better off spending our money on experiences rather than on "things". As you are reading this post up to this point, you are almost undoubtedly thinking about your own fishing memories. Fishing is about a lot more than chasing a PB but if that is your thing, so be it. Rarely are my best memories around the largest fish I have ever caught. I have probably spent a thousand-plus days fishing Driftless spring creeks, fishing memories are harder to come by today. Though I fish alone most of the time, few of those days stand out as terribly memorable, no matter how good the fishing was. That is not to say I do not have some great memories from fishing alone - there was that day I fished the total eclipse, hitting Grannom hatches and having crazy number days, the day this past summer that I caught at least 30 fish in an hour and a half and fished less than a hundred yards of stream. Though over the years, most of those memories are likely to fade. Great memories from days fishing come from being with friends, exploring new places, fishing old haunts with different people, and the fishing has its place in those memories but it is just part of the story.

Ben cooking venison streamside
Ben cooking venison skewers for myself and Mike along a Driftless trout stream. I can swear my mouth is watering a bit remembering the deer heart in Chimichurri.

I am sure I have "told" some of these same stories before - in a quick look at a post about the most memorable days of fishing, I see some of the same images - so I am sure the stories might be there too. There are just some days that stick out more than others. Sure, maybe they don't draw the Instagram likes that a new PB trout does but I know I will remember the morning in the fog on the Lower Wisconsin, venison heart in Chimichurri after a fine day of fishing, memories from our annual "Last Hurrah" camping trips, getting lost in the UP, helping a friend help his wife catch her first trout, or any number of other great memories more than I remember my own PB trout.

About a 16" Brown Trout from a Driftless stream.
Not a PB but a very memorable fish that my friend Ben netted for me. I made one cast this day.

I do not much care about PB trout. Maybe it is the circumstances that I find myself in and the way I like to fish - up top, whenever possible. Maybe it is that I had handled a few hundred thousand fish as a fisheries biologist in training and individuals start to become a whole lot less memorable. I mostly fish the Driftless Area which certainly has some trophy trout, it is certainly not what the area is known for. I prefer to fish a dry fly when possible which is a significant handicap if you are "hunting" for a PB trout.

Size distribution of Brown Trout for a Driftless trout stream.
Size distribution of Brown Trout for a pretty typical Dritless trout stream - large fish are pretty rare. Data from the Wisconsin DNR.

If I were into chasing PBs, I would fish different places and in different ways than I do. I would trade my dry fly for a streamer. I would move from the rather high gradient upper and middle reaches of trout streams that hold a high density of trout to streams with lower densities of trout. These streams are generally lower in gradient and probably get warmer mid-summer but they hold more minnows and sucker species - thus the trout in them can go larger. And I would probably do more of my fishing at night. Once in a while I chase big trout but only once in a while because I just do not enjoy it as much as the way I typically fish on the streams whose character I much prefer. To each their own.

Small Chernobyl fly on a fiberglass rod
Chasing Brookies on a foam fly on a fiberglass rod - more my style than throwing big ass streamers on a broom stick. Your mileage may vary.

There are a few PB fish that I can remember. A twenty-two-and-one-quarter inch Smallmouth Bass came on a Tiny Torpedo on a five day camping and fishing trip with my dad more than a dozen years ago. But it was caught on spinning tackle - does that really count? On a fly, I have caught a few smallies that were twenty inches - none as memorable as the fish with my dad on that memorable canoe and camping trip. I have caught larger Brook Trout than the thirteen-and-a-half incher I mentioned in the first paragraph but I do not remember any of them like I remember that Driftless Brook Trout. I honestly do not know what my largest stream Brown Trout is but it was probably that day on the San Juan where I caught at least three or four as large as anything I have caught in the Driftless. Now if you ask me about my most memorable Brown Trout, it is either that one on the West Fork or the mid-twenties fish on Pennsylvania's Big Fishing Creek that I hooked on an ant, under a tree, in maybe eight inches of water. I never did land that fish and only had it on long enough to see how large it was. It was, however, as memorable a fish as I have ever hooked.


But the one that got away is always bigger - a story for another day...

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Many years ago I caught a brown just under 27” long on a fly. It was kind of cheating though. He was a lake run brown that had grown to full size in Lake Superior.


I lost a bigger brown in a small Driftless stream. I had it on for a long time, and I could say I lost the fish at the net. I had the net in my hand, but the fish never would have fit in my net.


I lost another brown bigger than the lake run fish twice (I’m pretty sure it was the same fish) on a small TFZ stream. The first time she jumped and jumped and then ran into the alder roots. I…


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