No fish tale: Aspenite hauls in 44-pounder
Aspen Times Staff Writer
A half hour, maybe more, passed before Matt Smiley finally saw the lunker: a massive lake trout that had been fiercely resisting his rod from the depths of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison.
Smiley, 24, a biochemist who works in the water lab of the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District, knew he had hooked something big, but until the first visual he couldn’t be sure. Earlier that morning on April 11, he’d already caught and released a 23-pounder.
“All he wanted to do was swim circles at the bottom,” Smiley said this week. “I literally had to let him keep swimming until he tired himself out.
“It’s hard to say, but it must have been 30, 35 minutes before I even saw him – and that’s when I knew I really didn’t want to lose him.”
Fishing a tube jig on a comparatively fragile 12-pound-test line, Smiley played the lunker out with care. When it surfaced, after what seemed like an eternity, Smiley scooped it into his boat with a net.
Later, the fish was weighed at 44 pounds, 5 ounces.
“I didn’t realize just how big he was – just a monstrous fish – until I saw him rolling around in the net,” Smiley said.
“He was fat all over. It took me awhile to believe the whole thing.”
It wasn’t until much later, after inquiries from reporters and state Division of Wildlife biologists, that Smiley learned his fish not only broke the state record for lake trout, but also eclipsed a 42-pound grass carp, pulled from a pond in Denver in 1999, as the biggest catch in Colorado history.
And while it might appear that the lunker’s gut was filled with cannonballs, two DOW biologists indicated that its belly was likely stuffed with Kokanee salmon, the preferred prey of lake trout in Blue Mesa.
“It’s quite a monster, but it’s not surprising in the fact that Blue Mesa is really drawn down,” said Robin Knox, the sport fish program manager for the DOW in Denver.
“The fish are all concentrated in a smaller area due to the drought, so the prey fish, like Kokanee, have less space to avoid predators, like this lake trout. He could’ve had three or four Kokanee salmon in its stomach, and it looked like he did.”
Patrick Martinez, a DOW aquatics researcher in Grand Junction, estimated that the fish was older than the fisherman, between 27 and 29 years old.
That estimate stems from a test performed on a once-record lake trout caught by Denver’s Jerome Vinet, 38 pounds, 6 ounces in 1998, also from Blue Mesa.
Vinet, a former college roommate of Smiley’s at Western State in Gunnison, submitted that fish’s head to the DOW for analysis.
“It came back as 24 years old,” said Martinez. “And what we’ve been able to extrapolate is that a fish of that size grows about an inch a year. So by adding onto the known age of Jerome’s fish, we’re looking at this fish being from 27 to 29 years old.”
Smiley, who grew up in Arvada and graduated from Western State in 2001, got his first fishing rod at age 5, a gift from his dad.
“My dad always says the worst thing he ever did was get me started with a Snoopy pole at age 5,” Smiley said with a chuckle. “He claims I don’t do anything else anymore.”
And Smiley is as avid a fisherman as they come. By summer, he’s plying rivers and creeks with his fly rod, and in spring and fall, he’s usually out on Blue Mesa – the largest body of water in the state – on his 18-foot Tracker boat.
“I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in college learning the lake, trying to figure it out,” he said.
The first state-record lake trout, a 36-pounder, was caught in 1949 out of Deep Lake in Garfield County, the DOW’s Knox said. That record stood until 1995, when a 38-plus pounder was hauled from Granby Reservoir.
Vinet’s fish caught in 1998 at Blue Mesa, weighing 38 pounds, 6 ounces, broke the previous record by an ounce and a half and stood for four years. Then, last July, a 41-pound, 10-ounce lake trout was landed, also at Blue Mesa.
“We were always joking about when I was going to break [Vinet’s] record. Then he lost it in July, and we both got started talking about when one of us was going to take it back,” Smiley said.
“But the odds are so slight to catch two of those sized fish.”
On April 11, Smiley hadn’t planned to be fishing. In fact, his weeklong trip to Blue Mesa was supposed to start the following day.
“But I just decided I’d get up there a day early,” Smiley said. “My buddy couldn’t get the day off – he missed out.”
Smiley shoved off in his boat about 6 o’clock that morning, “and the fish were biting. I caught a bunch that morning, nothing huge, about 23 pounds maybe was the biggest.”
Using a vertical jigging technique with a tube jig that resembles a squid, Smiley continued fishing deep water, about 50-65 feet. That’s when the historic lunker latched onto his hook.
Because of its size, Smiley opted to keep the fish – a first in several years for the catch-and-release advocate – to have it certified and mounted.
“I finally got ahold of Jerome [Vinet] that night,” Smiley said, “and I told him I got something back that he lost last summer. He said, ‘Please tell me you’re saying what I think you’re saying!’ He was as happy as could be for me.”
The question remains whether there is a bigger fish in Blue Mesa.
Martinez, who has studied the fishery extensively, is certain there is.
“I have no doubt that there’s already a bigger one in there or we’re currently growing one,” he said.
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