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.
That fish held the all-tackle world 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 the trout on the water. The image clearly conveys the fish's immensity, and it inspired thousands of anglers from around the world to journey to the Little Red River for a shot at glory. It inspires imaginations to this day, even though the current world record for brown trout now belongs to New Zealand and stands at 44.3 pounds.
There has been a lot of speculation about Collin's fish, much of it absurd. Gregg Patterson of Little Rock, who shot that famous photo, set the record straight on Wednesday.
Patterson, who serves on the board of directors for Wildlife Forever, is one of America's most accomplished outdoors journalists. He worked for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 1992 and had close ties with the state's fly fishing community. Collins called Patterson on a Sunday to tell him that he'd caught an exceptionally large brown trout.
"Rip said that he thought he'd caught a line class record, and he asked me to come up and verify it for him," Patterson said.
It was Mother's Day, and Patterson told Collins he would come up after church. He arrived that evening.
A line-class world record is the largest species of fish recognized by the International Game Fish Association caught on a specific pound-test line. The all-tackle world record is the biggest fish of a species.
Collins kept the trout alive in a box livewell on his dock. He circulated cold, oxygenated water through the box to keep the fish healthy while waiting 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 those? A VHS cassette is about 25 times the size of an SD card.
"I took one look, and I said, 'Rip, I'm sorry, but this isn't a line-class record,' " Patterson said. "He looked all disappointed. I said, 'Hold on, Rip. This is THE world record. The all-tackle world record!"
There is a process to certify a record fish, including being weighed on a certified scale. Patterson called an employee at the Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery, which raises trout. The hatchery sent over a vehicle with a special tank to transport the fish to the Heber Springs Post Office, which has a certified scale.
"There were seven or eight people in line at the post office waiting to do their post office stuff," Patterson said. "We came in the door with this great big fish wrapped in a sheet. Big trout are a big deal in Heber Springs. They're a big part of their economy. The guy working the counter knew exactly what was going on. He brought us to the front of the line and put that fish on the scale. It jiggled around a little bit and finally came to rest at 40 pounds, 4 ounces.
"Of course, a Game and Fish employee had to sign off on it," Patterson continued. "That was me. Bingo! A new world record."
Collins desperately wanted to release that fish alive, Patterson said. The strain of handling, being out of the water for an extended time for weighing, and repeated transportation put too much stress on the elderly fish. Collins even persuaded a veterinarian to give the fish a steroid shot to help it recover. It was all for naught. The fish did not survive.
"Rip was a gruff, tough old guy," 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 sorrow, but we believe Collins was too hard on himself. Remember, 1992 was before cell phones and built-in cameras. If Collins had his way, the only record of the fish might have been only in a shoddy, out-of-focus photo Polaroid photo, probably at a crazy slanted angle, that 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 that fish immortal.