In Support of Daniel Webster
By Russell M. Cera
Does Long Island hold the record for having the largest brook trout to have ever lived? Legend has it that Daniel Webster caught the world’s largest brook trout. He was fishing in the Carman’s River on Long Island back in 1827 when he landed a 14.5-pound brookie.
Fact has it that the world record brook trout was not caught on Long Island, nor anywhere near New York at all. The record fish, better know as a speckled trout within the environs more suited for the species, was caught in Ontario, nearly a thousand miles away.
Back in 1915, an angler named Dr. J. W. Cook was fishing along the Canadian national transcontinental line, below Virgin Falls when he cast a live minnow into the frigid, swift current of McDonal Rapids on the Nipigon River, and hooked the famous trout. Dr. Cook had witnesses when he landed the 34.5-inch fish that weighed 14.5-pounds, lengthier, but not heavier than old Daniel’s fish.
Would the Daniel Webster, who litigated for Jabez Stone against the devil incarnate, Mr. Scratch, create a fish tale? Daniel, too, had witnesses. Mister Carman himself, and half of the congregation of South Haven church (what more credent group?) were alleged to have seen Webster catch a fish that had become legendary to the local gentry. Many of them had seen the fish lolling in the Carman’s before, and they piqued Mr. Webster’s interest. Resolved that he should have the honor, Daniel Webster angled for the huge trout, and hooked it. The slave, Apaius Enos helped land the mammoth trout. “We hab you now sar!” he supposedly cried out as the fish was boated. The record seems questionable because the Carman’s River eventually runs its ten-mile course to the Atlantic Ocean, and therefore likely that Webster’s trophy could have been a salter, a sea-run brook trout.
Record book brook trout are taken from places like Barbe Lake, in which Tim Matheson of Manitoba caught a brook trout that eclipsed both Cook’s and Webster’s fish in weight. Because Matheson, a sportsman, released the trout, his world record does not stand, while Webster’s trout takes on a stigma of doubt mainly because of where it was caught. The Carman’s River today holds many species of fish, and brook trout can flourish there. In comparison to the Canadian waters that hold monsters, the Carman’s River is but a rill. To believe she could yield a world record brook trout is unthinkable to some, but not to me.
Let’s not too quickly doubt the angling exploits of Senator Webster, or the capability of where he fished to produce such a record. Another creek exists on Long Island that also may prove support for the claim of Daniel, and restore Long Island to its rightful place as home to some of the largest brook trout to inhabit waters anywhere. The Connetquot River in Oakdale, New York is such a stream and has a small stretch of water nearly impossible to fly fish, the only means available.
Many years have passed since I have been there, but the body of water I consider “un-fishable,” needs description. It was far up on the back-backwaters of the Connetquot River, near fishing site 24. It may be different now, but then, several hundred feet of river ran there, slow and dark. As I remember, it was too deep to wade, and unreachable from a fishing platform. The bottomless run was lined on both sides by toothy brush so thick and high making it practically impenetrable. A tangle of wiry growth crawled up from the steep banks like a defending guard-dog and discouraged anglers to even think of attempting the most ill-advised cast. But the collar of growth never put a leash on my imagination for what fish might dwell in the protected pool.
I have walked countless times past that stretch, but never have I not had the insane thought to risk my better judgment, snake my fly rod through the bushes and attempt the unfeasible. Such thoughts were only vainglorious notions that I could succeed to hook a fish, and the idea a fleeting vagary when I considered the possibility of landing it.
Providing I could have burrowed through the gnarly brush, the water immediately beyond appeared deep enough to reach my neck, and a slip into the river from the steep bank would have filled my waders and pulled me under. I’d have had a look at the fishes that dwelled in that sanctuary, but it would most likely have been my final reward before permanently sleeping among them. I did, however, many times risk scratched skin and a blinded eye to peek through the biting thicket to see if trout were rising in the liquid fortress affectionately named the Black Pool by one of its admirers.
Solitude is the fancy of the angler. To approach a favored stream and find oneself alone is a fisherman’s dream, and he would beseech the fishing gods to grant it. But once, when my prayers to find reclusion were answered, I came to the “un-fishable” spot on the gin clear Connetquot and became sorry for heavenly favor. Fighting the brambles, I cleared enough foliage to glimpse through a small opening to see the surface of the pool, and it was then that I saw the largest brook trout I have ever seen. When I caught my breath, about to use it to yell for witness, I did, instead, shout several expletives at my aloneness. Since then, I withhold seeking divine intervention, and subscribe, instead, to the trite admonition of being careful for what I wish.
I’ve learned that a rainbow over 18 pounds, and a brown trout about a pound lighter have been taken in the Connetquot. I have seen there a few brown trout I thought nearly as large, but the trout I saw in the “un-fishable” pool was a brook trout, rising and turning just below the surface affording me a look at the white tipped pectoral fins and the orange, blood-red underbelly distinctive of its kind.
Without a witness, I’m not sure if anyone, even Gill Bergen, the State Park’s supervisor, believed that I saw a brook trout the size of which I often describe by extending an arm with outstretched fingertips to show how far the trout’s tail would reach if its head rested at the middle of my chest. The girth of the fish I saw that day was just as unbelievable, for my first inclination was to think a big striped bass had run upriver from the Great South Bay.
I profess no credentials as an ichthyologist, nor do I boast my skills as an angler. But I’ve caught my share of trout and consider myself capably familiar with the three dominant species here in the northeastern waters. I know the fish I saw was Salvelinus Fontinalis, a brook trout. Perhaps it was a salter that made it from the ocean, or, simply, a fish that lived in a location that afforded it the opportunity to grow to legendary proportions – like the brook trout caught by Daniel Webster in the Carman’s River here on Long Island. I think, perhaps, Webster was denied a hearing, a fair inquiry. I would like to be the lawyer in his posthumous trial. “I stand on the Constitution,” I’d say as Webster said to Mr. Scratch, “I demand a trial for my client.”