Fly fishing gear

Photographer recalls documenting record breaking trout

Every angler has seen the famous photograph of the late Howard “Rip” Collins holding the 40-pound, 4-ounce brown trout he caught in the Little Red River in 1992.

This fish held the world all-tackle record for brown trout for 17 years until 2009, when a 41-pound, 7-ounce fish from Michigan’s Manistee River took top honors.

The photograph shows Collins, in waders, standing chest deep in the Little Red River, cradling trout on the water. The image clearly expresses the immensity of the fish and has inspired thousands of anglers around the world to come to Little Red River for a shot at glory. It is a dream to this day, even though the current brown trout world record now belongs to New Zealand and stands at 44.3 pounds.

There has been a lot of speculation about Collin’s fish, most of which is nonsense. Little Rock’s Gregg Patterson, who took this famous photo, set the record straight on Wednesday.

Patterson, who sits on the board of Wildlife Forever, is one of America’s most accomplished outdoor journalists. He worked for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 1992 and had strong ties to the state’s fly fishing community. Collins called Patterson on a Sunday to tell him he had caught an unusually large brown trout.

“Rip said he thought he had caught a line class record, and he asked me to come check it out for him,” Patterson said.

It was Mother’s Day and Patterson told Collins he would come after church. He arrived that evening.

A line-class world record is the largest fish species recognized by the International Game Fish Association caught on a specific book test line. The world record for all apparatus is that of the largest fish of a species.

Collins kept the trout alive in a livewell on his dock. He circulated cold, oxygenated water through the box to keep the fish healthy while he waited for Patterson to arrive. It was too dark to see the fish when Patterson arrived, so Collins showed it to him on a VHS tape. Remember these? A VHS tape is about 25 times the size of an SD card.

“I took a look and said, ‘Rip, I’m sorry, but that’s not a class record,’ /23/photographer-remembers-documenting-recording-trout/” Patterson said. “He looked all disappointed. I said, ‘Wait, Rip. This is THE world record. The all-tackles world record!”

There is a process to certify a record fish, including being weighed on a certified scale. Patterson called an employee of the Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery, which farms trout. The hatchery sent a vehicle with a special tank to transport the fish to the post office in Heber Springs, which has a certified scale.

“There were seven or eight people lined up at the post office waiting to do their business,” Patterson said. “We walked in the door with this big fish wrapped in foil. Big trout are very important to Heber Springs. They are a big part of their economy. The guy working the counter knew exactly what was going on. He brought you to the front of the line and put this fish on the scale and it wiggled around a bit and finally stopped at 40 lbs 4 oz.

“Of course, a Game and Fish employee had to sign,” Patterson continued. “It was me. Bingo! A new world record.”

Collins desperately wanted to release the fish alive, Patterson said. Fatigue from handling, being out of the water for a long time for weighing, and repeated transport put too much stress on older fish. Collins even persuaded a vet to give the fish a steroid injection to help him recover. It was for nothing. The fish did not survive.

“Rip was a gruff, tough old man,” Patterson said. “He cried when that fish died. He really did. He cried.”

Patterson said that for the rest of his life, Collins expressed regret for not releasing the fish immediately after catching it. He said the record was not worth killing such a magnificent old fish.

We deeply respect Collins for his grief, but we think Collins was too hard on himself. Remember, 1992 was before cell phones and built-in cameras. If Collins had succeeded, the only record of the fish might have been only in a poor quality and blurry Polaroid photo, probably at a crazy tilted angle, which did not do the fish justice.

Instead, he shared the moment with a close friend who happened to be a professional photographer. Together they made this fish immortal.