Fish tales — the spicy, too-good-to-be-true kind — start innocently. One person hears one thing at their local bait shop. They pass the information along to their butcher. The butcher tells his wife, who tells her co-worker. A few facts are mixed up along the way.
And before long, a guppy becomes a salmon, the salmon morphs into a shark, and the shark miraculously turns into a whale … or something like that.
Earlier this week, a great too-good-to-be true fish tale started making the rounds. An email dispatch from the St. John Valley arrived in my in-box, claiming that a guy named Bruno Doucette had caught a big fish. Since that email included photographic proof, I knew there was something to the story.
Later the same day, I got the same photo in another email, and was informed that the fish in question actually weighed five pounds more than it had that morning. At least, that’s what the emailer said.
Tracking down fisherman Bruno Doucette and the Mystery Fish of the St. John Valley turned out to be easier than I thought. I know a few people. They know a few people. And on Tuesday afternoon, Doucette and I had nice phone chat about the lake trout he’s been trying to catch for the past 30 years.
Before we go any further, let me assure you: the fish was big. Not, perhaps as big as some had claimed. But for once, this was a fish tale where guppies didn’t become salmon, and salmon didn’t turn into sharks.
The tale of the tape: Doucette’s lake trout was 38 inches long and weighed 21.2 pounds on a certified scale. (According to the rumor mill, the fish either weighed 21.6 pounds or 26.0 pounds. The state record, if you’re curious, is a 31.5-pounder that hauled out of Beech Hill Pond in 1958.
Bruno Doucette said he’d planned to go fishing on Eagle Lake — the one in the Fish River chain of lakes … there are several around the state — on Jan. 7. He’d planned to fish with four or five buddies.
The day before the trip, Doucette learned that none of his pals could fish. They all bailed out. They’re likely regretting that fact now.
“Nobody wanted to come,” Doucette said. ”So I said, ‘I’m going alone.’ So I did.”
Doucette explained that he does most of his ice fishing on Eagle Lake. He has had some success in the past, and said he’s won the lake trout division of the annual Long Lake Ice Fishing Derby, in which anglers have a wide choice of local lakes to prospect, once or twice.
And he said his approach is pretty scientific.
“All my fishing holes are marked on GPS,” Doucette said. “So [on Jan. 7] I set up where I always set up. This one particular trap that I caught this fish on, usually it produces fish all day long, off and on. I’ll catch two or three or whatever.”
Not that day.
“It didn’t do anything all day. It didn’t produce until quarter of 2 in the afternoon. [The flag] finally went up,” he said.
Doucette said the trap sat on ice over 28 feet of water, and during the day he had moved the bait higher or lower in the water column, searching for the lucky spot. When the strike came, he had recently put a fresh smelt on the hook and lowered it down to the bottom of the lake.
“[When the flag went up] I thought I had a cusk on because the reel was just barely turning,” Doucette said. He quickly learned that he was wrong.
“I grabbed the line and set the hook and my god. When I set the hook that [fish] took off just like a rocket. I said, ‘Wow.’”
Doucette said a lengthy tug-of-war ensued, with the fish taking line with a series of runs that he answered. The first time he got a look at the fish, as it swam by the hole, Doucette knew he had the biggest lake trout of his life on the line.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god. This thing is huge,’” he said. “[Then] it went back to the bottom. It went up and down probably 25 times through the whole process.
“But finally, the last time I got it off bottom, I knew it was tired because it wasn’t resisting at all. I brought it to the hole and stuck my hand down through the hole and [grabbed it under the gills] and threw it on the ice,” he said.
At that point, Doucette says he was pretty stunned at what he was looking at. He had caught eight-pound togue before. But this? This was much, much larger.
“I just stood there in awe for about five minutes,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what just happened. I’ve been fishing almost 30 years for these and I’ve finally got [a big] one. And when it finally registered that I got a big fish I was dancing around the hole just like an idiot does.”
Doucette said he carries the same kind of scale that state fisheries biologists use, but learned that his measuring tool had some limitations that he’d had reason to consider.
“They go up to 15 pounds. I hooked [the fish onto the scale] and picked it up and of course the scale bottomed right out … I thought it was 15-ish because I’ve never seen a big one like that. I’ve seen 12′s and 13′s, but never that big.
“So I said, ‘Well, that’s a waste of time, and I threw my scale back in my pocket, picked up my traps and I headed home,” he said. Upon arriving, he weighed the fish on an unofficial scale, upon which it weighed 22 pounds.
The next day, at Paradis Shop ‘n Save in Madawaska, the state-certified scale said the lake trout weighed 21.2 pounds.
And that’s OK with Doucette.
“Back in ’95 I caught an eight-pounder. I tried before that and I tried up until now [to catch something bigger]. It finally happened.”
And those pals that didn’t show up on that fateful Saturday?
“They’re in awe,” Doucette said. “They can’t believe how big it is. It’s like, ‘Wow. I’ve never seen a fish that big.’ For around here, I haven’t, either.