The True Story of the World Record Brook Trout
This is a story not just of the world record, but of a plenitude of fish that once existed in a legendary river.
(The story unfolds with many interpretations and versions of what really happened…clouded with years of retelling and fading memories.)
It is the object of a prolonged endeavour. The obsessive pursuit of a distant, all-but-unobtainable ultimate goal that is the pinnacle of one’s hobby, passion or profession. For the scientist, it is achieving perpetual motion. For the alchemist, it is turning rock to gold. To a fly fisherman, the Grail is the pursuit of the World Record Brook Trout. While the reasons may vary from achieving immortality, being recognized by our peers, or simply a test of one’s worth, this is a story not just of world records, but of a plenitude of fish that once existed in a legendary river. Our search for the truth begins with the legend, fact and phenomenon surrounding Fontinalis Salvelinus.
As early as the 1850’s, the ‘Nepigon’ (as it was once spelled), had gained popularity with the early gentlemen anglers for the vast quantity and size of brook trout in a pristine wilderness. In 1865, Hon. R. B. Roosevelt said, “of rivers, the most famous is the Nipigon, where barrels of trout, averaging 4 pounds have been taken in one day. They were collected in pools and were so numerous as to ruin the sport.”
Prior to man’s intervention, the river in its prime was much different. The Nipigon varied in width from 50 to 200 yards, with a voluminous flow of water; 5500 cu. feet per second. In its 32-mile southerly course from Lake Nipigon, it once descended 313 feet over 15 well-accelerated rapids and seven waterfalls, losing its identity only temporarily when it flowed through four lakes. It has been described as having three ecologies: 10 miles of lakes, 10 miles of river, and 10 miles of rapids. That is why the 1887 issue of Field & Stream magazine touted it to be “the finest trout stream in the world.”
The watery scene was set. The aquatic actors continued their biological destiny. The audience arrived; draped in knickers, felt fedoras and carrying bamboo poles. The train bound for Orient Bay on the south-east end of Lake Nipigon in the summer of 1915 provided the best seat in the house to access the grandeur and natural riches of the upper reaches of the Nipigon. This was a performance of a life time and would spawn a story of mystery and intrigue that truly justifies as a Grail.
Dr. J.W. Cook of Fort William, Ontario was a patron to the art of fly fishing the Nipigon. Along with his fishing partners, R. J. Byrnes, Roy Neeland, and J.A. Fyfe, he regularly made the journey to partake in the majesty of the Brook Trout. Local Indian guides had been hired to transport the party via canoe through the rapids and pools of the Nipigon. On July 21, 1915 at approximately 6:00pm, Dr. Cook reportedly cast a minnow, referred to as a ‘Cockatuouche’, into a pool of foam and swirling dark water at Rabbit rapids (a.k.a. MacDonald’s Rapids) about a mile below Virgin Falls. An explosion of finned fury ensued as he landed a large fish and unceremoniously left it on the bank of the river. Several minutes later, the native guides excitedly pointed out that Dr. Cook had actually caught a brook trout and not a lake trout as first thought. As with many large, older fish, this female brute appeared pale by comparison, displaying subdued brook trout colours, but her shear size caused excitement for the members of the fishing party.
As the doctor told the Fort William Times Journal 35 years later, just a year before his death, the river on the 21st of July, 1915, was “covered with brown flies,” and the trout were feeding aggressively. “I’d been fishing with a minnow,” he said. “The bait had barely settled below the surface when the big fellow struck.” Cook called immediately for a net, and was reported to have spent 15 minutes bringing the giant fish to shore.
The records of what happened over the next few days are sketchy at best. We do know that Dr. Cook probably spent several more days fishing the Nipigon before having it weighed at the train scales in Orient Bay. Consistent with the fish mounting practices of the day, Dr. Cook dextrously separated the skin into two facing halves and sent it to Ottawa where Alex Finlayson, a government inspector of fish hatcheries confirmed the monster fish to be without doubt, the largest brook trout ever caught. It measured 31.5 inches long with a depth of 11 inches. (Girth measurements were not common place back then and currently estimated at 23 inches.) However, it did officially weigh 14 pounds 8 ounces. To this day, the legend is surrounded in controversy and the target of skeptics. Was it actually a Brook Trout, sea run char, a Splake or Laker? Regrettably, this controversy will never be solved as the remaining skins are gone. The one lost in a fire at the Nipigon museum mistakenly had an inscription that stated the date as 1916, not the correct 1915 year perpetuating yet another controversy. While Dr. Cook had several pictures taken with the fish, they too have disappeared into oblivion.
Most people don’t know that not only did Dr. Cook achieve the fishing Grail of catching the largest brook trout, but he also set another unbeaten record the following day by catching the world’s largest pair of brook trout (5 lbs. and 6lbs. 8 oz) caught simultaneously on one line with two tippets.
By the late 1800’s, the river's production was already in decline. The creation of 4 dams from the 1920s to the 1950s, lead to further habitat destruction and fluctuating water levels. The completion of the Pine Portage Dam in 1950 raised the water level on the Nipigon River by 31 metres (100 feet) and flooded out almost 16 kilometres of white water, rapids and waterfalls including the White Chutes, Victoria, Canal, Devil, Rabbit and Miner’s Rapids. Lake Emma and Hannah were both flooded out and the whole area was renamed Forgan Lake. The river has irrevocably changed.
Over the years, interest in the Grail continues to wax and wane as reports of other monster brook trout surface. None have proven to be ‘naturals’ or as large. Maybe we just don’t want the record to be broken and the legends fade into obscurity. It is the confirmation of an era past, yet the plight of the brook trout continues. The river has changed, the fishing methods refined, yet the determination to pursue the Grail continues ever strong. It seems to be a psychological need for every trout fisherman to be a part of that celebrated past and a member of its glorious future.
The large brook trout of the famed Nipigon still remain, but are significantly reduced in number and range. Efforts are under way to enhance the current population and protect their future. Significant efforts by Rob Swainson, of the Nipigon MNR have dramatically improved the sustainability of the brook trout, also known as Coasters. Size and catch limits, conservation practices, water flow agreements and a shift in fishing practices to ”Catch & Release” have positively impacted the future of the brook trout. We all hope, dream and indeed, fanticize about what was, is, and will be. One can only imagine fishing ‘the Nepigon’ in its prime, and dream of its potential in the continued...
“Quest for the Grail.”
Written by Alan Muir
Cook also holds another record of the largest 2 brook trout caught simultaneously on a single line with two tippets. (5 lbs and 6lbs 8 ozs)
These are on display at the Thunder Bay Museum
The New Fly Fisher put together a show for the 100th anniversary of world record catch. video
On July 21, 1915, a party of anglers, composed of Dr. J. W. Cook, R. j. Byrnes, R. Neeland and J.A. Fyfe, were fishing the Nipigon River at the McDonald Rapids (Rabbit Rapids). At 6 p.m. in the evening Dr. Cook hooked and landed on a five ounce fly rod, a speckled trout weighting 14 1/2 pounds!
There is some difference of opinion as to what Dr. Cook used for a lure. Some accounts give it as a fly, others a cockatouche, a small marine animal found among the stones along the shores of the Nipigon and eagerly sought after by speckled trout.
Andrew Lexie, pictured above later in life, was the lead guide of that trip. Others in the party who witnessed the event were Rafael Boudain, cook, and guides Joe Hardy, Sam King, Michael Bouchard, John Ogama, Louis Musquash, Jim Shuse and Lawrence Martin.
Officially, the world record Brook Trout was caught in the Nipigon River by Dr. J.W. Cook although the decendants of Andrew Lexie claim that the fish was actually caught by Lexie while Cook slept in his tent. Their native interpretation of what actually happened that day simply adds to the mystery.
One of the very few photos that remain of the most famous Brook Trout ever.
The world record Brook Trout was caught by Dr. W. J. Cook on July 21, 1915 in the Nipigon River and weighed 14.5 pounds (6.58 kg.) This monster measured 31.5 inches long and 23 inches in girth. (11 inch depth). It was caught at Rabbit Rapids below Virgin Falls.
Below the fish mount is a 2ft wooden ruler resting on the lower birch bark frame to give perspective to the size of this fish.
What's wrong with this picture? Any brook trout aficianado knows that the photo of the world record brook trout faces left. For decades the left facing mount has been touted as the only mount of the world record fish still in existence (allthough it did burn in the Nipigon museum fire in 1990). While there have been rumours of a second mount for almost a 100 years, most of us concluded that the left facing mount has to be the only one. Afterall, how is it possible to split a fish skin into two mounts with only one tail, dorsal and caudal fin?
Current lore says that Andrew Lexie (Cook's head guide) mounted the fish facing left using traditional mounting techniques of the time. It was skinned and mounted, with fins, on birchbark and quietly kept in the Cook home till the 50's when it toured various sportsman shows throughout the US and Canada. In the early 60's, it was retired from the circuit, rather tattered and worn, to the Tourist Pagoda in Port Arthur. I remember seeing that mount several times as a young boy, although not realizing its significance at the time. The travels of the mount continued, as it was absconded from the Pagoda and resurfaced in Nipigon where it eventually resided at the museum until its fateful demize in the fire.
Fast forward to 2018 where Rob Swainson, retired biologist for the Nipigon area, has continued his dogged persuit of any and all information related to the world record fish. For years, there have been rumours of a second mount but most were dismissed as there was no proof or records of its existence...till now. Continuing to search for the improbable, Rob miraculously acquired the adjacent article that clearly shows and confirms the existence of the the right facing mount. Now, how it the mount possible? Listen to an excited Rob explain his find to Gord Ellis in this radio brodcast.
So there you have it. The second mount did exist and I'm sure Rob will continue his dogged persuit of its existence and any thing else brook trout related.
Why would there be a second mount?
Promotion and advertising.Long before social media, TV or a fledgling radio, companies used newspapers and public event/tours to promote themselves. Roads in the Nipigon area were almost non existent. In fact a bridge over the Nipigon never existed until 1937 linking east and west. Trains were the prefered mode of travel to get to the famed "Nepigon".It will be noted that the two mounts were with the two rival railway companies. The left half with the CNR (Canadian Northern then Canadian National Railway) and the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway).
Francis Hardy was guiding on the Nipigon River that fateful day. In an interview just prior to his death,
he recounted the following...
“Fishing in the afternoon about 5 o’clock, I took the two Americans downstream to Rabbit Rapids. When we got there, Andrew Alexie, who was Dr. Cook’s guide was there in the canoe with Dr. Cook. We knew they had a big fish because the other guides passed the word along. So we went to take a look. This would have been about an hour after the the fish had been caught.”
“It didn’t look much like a speckled trout. It was real chunky and I knew it was a big fish. Its head and tail looked like a speckled trout, but the rest of it looked like a lake trout. Sort of grey and black on the back. There sure weren’t any spots on the side. The fish was hanging in the shade. They were using a Cockatouche and were bait fishing.”
McKirdy, the outfitter who supplied the Cook party with several 18 ft canoes, equipment and guides had also been sent word of the big fish.
At 76, Jack McKirdy recalled, “When they told me the news, I didn’t stop for anything. I called one of my guides, grabbed a paddle and we fairly made that canoe jump the 12 miles upriver to their camp.”
The Cook party continued to fish for several more days before the big fish was weighed on a spring scale in Orient Bay according to McKirdy.
Confusion still persists around the actual year that the fish was caught. Was it 1915 or 1916? Many books, articles, photos and references incorrectly report the fish was caught in 1916 like the photo above.
This photograph was taken by Rob Swainson (MNR, retired) of the Nipigon Forest Reserve Registry book for 1915. It clearly indicates that Dr. J. W. Cook, R. J. Byrnes, R. Neeland and J.A. Fyfe were signed into the registry on July 15, 1915.
A recent search of the local newspaper from 1915 reveiled the following article which not only proves the year was 1915, but that the fish sent to Ottawa was confirmend by an external examination to be a Brook Trout.(actual newspaper clipping below on right)
Dr. COOK OF FORT WILLIAM OFFICIALLY NAMED
AS CAPTER OF LARGEST SPECKLED TROUT KNOWN
August 9, 1915 Fort William Daily Times Journal
"In connection with the fish caught in the Nipigon River, the skin of which you left at the fisheries exhibit room for the purpose of determining its species, I may say that I am convinced it is a speckled trout. The square tail, short head and the abrupt curve of the lateral line all go to show this . The absence of the pink markings on the sides does not count for much, as many of the large, and old fish lose these markings."
Inspector of fish hatcheries,
This is the only known photo of Dr. Cook with the world record trout.
Alex Finlayson's reply confirming it is a brook trout by external exam
'Thee' most famous fly rod
Dr. Jim Donaldson (dentist), trout fishing enthusiast and collector, posed for a photo of his prized possession...
Dr. Cook's fly rod. The 100 year old treasure is a 4 piece fly rod of bamboo construction. By today's standards, it felt like a 5 weight rod but very delicate. The reel and line are also original and came with a spare tip and fly case.
This close up photo clearly shows the signature of "Cook" on the fly rod. For any trout fisherman, the opportunity to touch a part of history was truely inspiring for me.
That was one trip to the dentist I truely enjoyed.
Dr. Cook's fly case?
Not only has the fly rod surfaced after years of hiding in the attic of Cook's relatives, but possibly his fly case as well. Realizing the significance of their find, several descendants donated the fly case, another unsigned rod and other fishing paraphernalia to the Thunder Bay museum. While there is no proof of their authenticity, one can only dream of the adventures these treasures must have experienced.
Brook Trout enthusiasts are familiar with the image of the world record brook trout mounted on birch bark surrounded with a birch sapling frame. This famous mount has a storied past as it once travelled the sportsman shows, hung in the Port Arthur Pagoda and even a car dealership in Nipigon. It eventually found its way to the Nipigon museum. Sadly, a fire destroyed the museum and much of its contents, including the famous mount. A new museum was built and now displays the charred remains of the most famous brook trout ever.