BDN Outdoors contributor Chris Sargent thought he had caught a brook trout. It turned out to be "the most beautiful splake I’d ever seen."
Bangor Daily News outdoors columnist Chris Sargent holds up a splake he caught on a recent ice fishing outing. He initially mistook the fish for a brook trout. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Sargent

Through the foggy vinyl windows of our pop-up ice shack, I squinted and tried to find the four Heritage traps we’d set in the glaring January sun. A lack of optimism had set in during the last two actionless hours but as my eyes landed on the most distant trap, there it was: “Flag!”

Emily and I raced out of the shack, grabbed the pack basket and hurried over. The neon green line screamed off the reel for several seconds then stopped. Tempting as it was to grab the line, experience suggested otherwise and we waited. A few seconds later, the reel turned slowly, stopped, then turned a few more times and stopped again. It was time. I lifted the trap from the hole, grabbed the line, pulled in a bit of slack then gave it a short but purposeful yank and it was on.

Instantly, the fish shook its head and ran. It felt heavy and my heart raced as I wondered what it might be. The small, local and often overlooked body of water we were on was limited to two traps per angler and was home to brook trout, lake trout (togue) and splake. A cold-water fishery mainly, I’d heard tales of fish better than 8 pounds being caught there. While I knew this wasn’t likely a heavyweight contender, I was excited to see what had taken my shiner.

For a while, the fish seemed to have given up and I gained dozens of yards with little opposition. As the bottom marker in my line came into view, it tightened once again and our tug of war continued. When the 6-foot, 6-pound leader broke the surface, the fish ran, taking with it several yards of line. We repeated the dance twice more before I finally got my first glimpse as it passed by the hole less than 2 feet down. Beautiful snow-white leading edges on orange fins and a dark-colored back led me to believe I’d hooked a beautiful brookie.

I’d caught my share of brook trout both big and small, but never one of those picture perfect, brightly colored, football-sized trophies you see adorning the walls of sporting camps or magazine covers. A sense of urgency and panic set in when the leader tightened and rubbed against the sharp ice as the fish dove hard at the sight of the hole.

It was over, though. The fish was tired, and while it managed to muster one last valiant escape effort, I easily lifted it from the water and laid it on the ice. Emily shrieked, offering an excited, “Nice fish! Way to go!” I smiled victoriously, soaking in every bit of the moment. In the excitement, I was convinced I had finally caught a brookie that would marry a moose antler and live for eternity on the wall of our log home.

But something wasn’t right. Emily, a more than experienced ice fisherman, looked puzzled. “Are you sure that’s a brookie?” she asked.

The fish was of legal size, regardless of species. I had chosen to keep it either way, so we were offered ample opportunity to examine and scrutinize. I’d caught, checked or otherwise looked at thousands of fish during my professional and personal life, but I was puzzled initially. In the excitement and on the ice, the fish looked for all the world like a brook trout. As I held it, however, things just didn’t add up.

I turned first to vermiculation lines. Brook trout have clearly visible wavy vermiculation lines along the top of their backs, especially near the dorsal fin. My fish had those, kind of. Then I looked at the head. Brook trout have a more stubby head, whereas lake trout and splake have a more elongated head, which my fish had, kind of.

For me, the tell was in the tail and it was what I made my final assessment on. Brook trout possess a heavily squared tail, while a lake trout’s tail is clearly forked. As a result of hybridization, splake have a somewhat forked tail, which my fish clearly displayed. Additionally, an important identifying characteristic I had forgotten at the time were spotted gill plates. Lake trout and splake have spots on their gill plates while a brook trout’s gill plate generally lacks spotting.

I had landed the most beautiful splake I’d ever seen.

Was it a little disappointing I didn’t have my moose antler trophy brookie? Yeah, it was. However, looking back on that day and the excitement of that moment, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because now I get to keep chasing that dream fish.

You see, that’s what keeps us anglers going. That’s what inspires us, what motivates us and what drives us. It’s always going to be the next cast, the next hole or the next trip that entices. As for that splake, you put up one heck of a fight and I’d take you on any day.

Avatar photo

Chris Sargent, Outdoors Contributor

Chris Sargent is an avid outdoorsman, a former Maine Game Warden and lover of anything wild and tasty. Chris’ passion and appreciation for hunting, processing and preparing wild game has become more...