Is This Fish the New World-Record Landlocked Atlantic Salmon or a Trophy-Class Brown Trout?

On Tuesday, March 9, 2010, Ken May of Williamsburg, Michigan, reeled in a 29-pound 11-ounce fish, genus Salmo, from Torch Lake in Northern Michigan. When he first caught the fish, which was bright silver and covered in x-shaped spots, he thought he had landed the new all-tackle world record for landlocked Atlantic salmon. There was just one problem: Another Salmo species lurks in Torch Lake - Salmo trutta, the brown trout. These two species have so many overlapping characteristics, especially in big-lake specimens, even trained fisheries biologists can have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Such was the case with this fish. After closely examining its remains (the fish was filleted soon after it was weighed) Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment biologists Todd Kalish and Mark Tonello were unable to determine if it was a landlocked Atlantic salmon or a trophy big-lake brown trout. They are now shipping these remains to Michigan State University for DNA testing.
This is Dennis Tuck of Williamsburg, Michigan, holding the fish in what is the clearest photo taken of it. May was fishing on Tuck's boat and using his equipment. "Because of its unique spotting and bright silver color, the first thought we had when we pulled it from the landing net was that we're holding the new world-record Atlantic," says May. The fish was filleted and frozen soon after being weighed on a certified scale at Shoreline Packing in the nearby community of Kewadin. Kalish and Tonello (who confirmed the species of the world-record brown trout caught this past September) examined the frozen entrails and head three days after the catch. "There are a lot of things that need to be looked at in a laboratory that are nearly impossible to get accurate accounts of in the field," said Kalish. "And when you fillet and freeze something, such as was done to this fish, you degrade certain morphological characteristics and that makes it even more difficult to quickly determine species." One test they conducted was to peel back the skin on the roof of the fish's mouth to take a close look at minute teeth there known as vomerine teeth. Atlantics have one row of these teeth while brown trout have two. However, this fish's vomerine teeth had been broken off during the fight, and so the test was deemed inconclusive. Another test was to count the scales on the lateral line. Atlantic salmon have 109 to 121 scales along this line; brown trout have 120 to 130. But because the fish had been filleted (they had the skin, but it had been damaged when the fish was cleaned), they couldn't get an accurate count. Kalish and Tonello also counted the fish's gill rakers. Atlantic salmon typically have from 18 to 24 gill rakers; brown trout have from 14 to 20. The number of rakers on this fish fell within the overlapping ranges.
This photo was taken a few hours after the fish was caught. Its length was 39 inches and its girth was 25 1/2 inches. "This particular fish has many traits of a brown trout, yet a lot of characteristics of an Atlantic salmon," says Kalish. "There are too many overlapping characteristics for us to feel comfortable making the call one way or the other."
One common characteristic of an Atlantic is that the face and mouth are generally shorter than a brown trout's. The mandible (back of the mouth) of an Atlantic tends to line up directly below the rear of the eye, while a brown trout's extends well beyond the eye. This trait, however, has been known to overlap between the two species, and after close examination Kalish believes that, although the face was slightly more elongate than shortened, it was not enough of a difference to help with identification.
The spots on an Atlantic salmon are more likely to have an "X" shape; a brown trout's spots are more commonly dots, often with haloes around them. "But we see a lot of fish with both," says Kalish. The recent world-record brown trout, for example, had both "X's" and haloed dots. This fish had mostly x-shaped spots, but there were a few haloed dots on its gill plates.
The adipose fin of a brown trout always has spots, and this fish's adipose fin was spotted. But Atlantics can have this trait as well.
The tail of a brown trout is typically squared while the tail of an Atlantic may be forked.
In this picture, Dennis Childs of Rapid City, Michigan, holds a brown trout caught from Lake Bellaire, part of the Torch Lake watershed. This fish has a different look than the one reeled in by May. "We've learned a lot about fish identification and the relationship between these two species because of this catch," said Tuck. "But man, we're both hoping it's an Atlantic salmon!" added May.David Rose
May and Tuck were trolling in Torch Lake, just after ice-out, when this fish hit. Water temperatures were just above freezing, and the lake was still half full of ice. Around 3 p.m. the fish hit a small crankbait approximately 200 feet behind the boat in more than 125 feet of water. The fish was lethargic and "bull-dogged" rather than making long, fast runs. "I kept hollering to Dennis that the reel's drag was too loose - until the fish dove to bottom and pulled most of the line from the reel," says May. "The line would have broken for sure had we done that."
The crankbait they were using was this 2 1/2-inch chrome-and-blue Cotton Cordell Wally Diver, which mimics the small cisco (also known as lake herring) that are the main forage of both trout and salmon in Torch Lake.David Rose
Here's a shot of two real cisco taken from the brute's stomach after it was filleted.
The rod May used was a vintage 7-foot medium-action fiberglass Silstar. The reel was a Daiwa SS 1600 Tournament Series spinning reel spooled with 6-pound-test Trilene XL.David Rose
Several records precede this fish. One (shown above), a 22-pound, 14-ounce fish caught by Roy Leyva from Jamaica Pond, Mass., on April 5, 2005, is the biggest North American landlocked salmon recorded by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame (NFWFHF). Another is a 23-pound, 11-ounce salmon caught in Sweden by Thomas Johansson in 2002 that's recognized by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) as the current all-tackle world record. Weirdly, the current Michigan state-record landlocked salmon, caught in 1981 by Elaine Bender, was larger than either of these fish (it weighted 32.62 pounds), but it never made it into either organization's books. "It's possible that at the time it did not meet our requirements [such as providing a sample of the line used during the catch],' says Emmet Brown, executive director of the NFWFHF. It's also possible that the angler simply never registered her catch with either organization. This put's May's fish an unusual position - if DNA testing shows that it is, in fact, a landlocked salmon, it could become the new all-tackle world record without taking top honors in the state! The North American sea-run world record, according to NFWFHF, is 30 pounds, caught from the St Jean River in Quebec, Canada, by Joseph A Montgomery in 1979. IGFA's all-tackle sea-run world record is a 79-pound 2-ounch behemoth taken from the Tana River in Norway by Henrik Henriksen on January 1, 1929.David Rose
This is Torch Lake four days after the catch, near where the fish was taken. This is the same lake Michigan's state-record muskie was caught in this past September. Torch Lake has a population both of brown trout--last stocked by the State in 1996--and Atlantic salmon--raised and stocked annually by Lake Superior State University. Torch is the state's only inland lake stocked with these salmon.