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On second thought

Big fish gets him in hot water

Ryan McCullough thought he caught a huge brown trout. But on further inspection . . . Ryan McCullough thought he caught a huge brown trout. But on further inspection . . . (Ryan Mccullough)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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Ryan McCullough has been fishing since childhood, for some 15 or 16 of his 22 years, and initially he was thrilled with his July 25 catch in the White River, just downstream of the federal fish hatchery in Stockbridge, Vt.

“The second I pulled it out, I was like, ‘Wow!’ ’’ recounted McCullough, whose catch of a lifetime quickly turned into a whale of woe and a date next month in Windsor (Vt.) District Court. “I was thinking, ‘This is the biggest trout I’ve ever caught in the White River.’

“Heck, it was bigger than anything my grandfather ever caught, and he’s been fishing that part of the river for about 50 years.’’

According to McCullough, a part-time landscaper, he truly believed he caught a brown trout. A whopper. Heck, it had to be one of the biggest brownies ever nabbed in Vermont.

Using a fly fashioned by his granddad, Al Lawson, he hooked a beauty weighing in at 9 1/2 pounds and measuring 31 1/2 inches long.

“I watched that fish for, oh, maybe two hours,’’ recalled McCullough, noting how his catch was among “hundreds, maybe thousands’’ of brown trout teeming in the water that afternoon. “It took some time, but I got him.’’

By early evening, McCullough had the prized catch tucked away in a freezer at his cousin’s house, and over the next few days he called around to local taxidermists and made plans to spend the $390 to have the great fish mounted.

“It was too long to fit in my freezer,’’ said McCullough, who lives in Bethel, slightly northeast of Rutland. “I wanted it flat, you know, for a good mount.’’

But then the law came looking for McCullough and his fish. He wasn’t chased down with guns, pepper spray, and handcuffs, but a radio tracking device that homed in on the fish. Law enforcement also had a picture of McCullough holding his catch. Beaming over what he caught, McCullough submitted a photo to the Herald of Randolph, which promptly published it, and it soon went over the Internet.

For a guy with a dream to become a professional outdoor guide, he figured the publicity could only boost his professional aspirations.

With the picture as evidence, and equipped with a radio receiver that detected a pinging device surgically implanted in the fish’s belly, Vermont game warden Keith Gallant showed up at the doorstep of McCullough’s cousin’s home, asking for a look at the fish.

In short order, said McCullough, Gallant identified the catch as a federally protected anadromous Atlantic salmon, a species that became endangered almost overnight when mills and dams sprung up along the Connecticut River late in the 19th century. Once the waterways were clogged, the salmon no longer could return from the Atlantic to spawn.

“The warden called me before he showed up, and he told me he wanted to see the fish I caught,’’ recalled McCullough, “and right away I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this is just great!’

“I’d been reading stuff on the Internet and hearing stuff before he came, and I knew some people were suspicious, saying maybe it was a return salmon. But I figured no way, I knew it was a brown trout.

“At least that’s what I thought.’’

As part of a federal program that began in the ’80s, millions of Atlantic salmon fry are stocked in the Connecticut River and its tributaries each year. Some of the fry make it to the ocean, grow to adulthood, and eventually make their way back to the Connecticut, genetically wired to head upstream to spawn as their life cycle draws to an end.

In Holyoke, where aquatic biologist Caleb Slater helps to oversee the program, most of the fish that make it that far are culled from the water, their eggs harvested to ensure that the fry stock is replenished. Very few of the salmon, perhaps only 200 per year, even make it that far, and only a tiny fraction of those specimens (12-15 per year) are allowed to continue their way up water.

If they are sent on their way, they are fitted with the tiny tracking device. It was one of those very few fish that McCullough landed.

“Kinda like winning the lottery, I guess,’’ mused Slater, who recruits volunteers each spring, mostly in April, to help release the fry in Western Massachusetts waters. “Actually, given the odds, he might have had a better chance of winning the lottery.’’

Reached in his office last week, Colonel David LeCours, Vermont’s chief game warden, explained that Vermont classifies Atlantic salmon as “big game.’’ It’s the only fish with that designation, putting it on par with bear, moose, deer, and turkey. To catch one and keep it, noted LeCours, is considered a serious offense.

LeCours figures that McCullough, given his experience, should have been able to tell the difference between a brown trout and a salmon, and noted that it will now be up to the court, when McCullough appears Sept. 27, to discern his guilt or innocence and what penalty, if any, he should incur.

Based on accounts he has read, said McCullough, he could be fined up to $1,500 and lose both his fishing and hunting licenses for up to three years. However, he said he was initially told by Gallant that the fine could not exceed $500.

“I’m not sure how that other $1,000 has been added,’’ said McCullough. “Maybe it’s $500 for a juvenile salmon - and I’ve seen loads of those up here - and $1,000 for an adult? I’m not sure.

“But there’s a lot I’m not sure about now. I’ve fished for years, and these two fish, the brown and the salmon, look just alike.

“I’ve never been in trouble like this. Never. And look, I feel bad that I took that fish’s life. I realize that fish went through hell to get to that point in the river and no one’s supposed to touch them. Had I known, I would have just let him go.’’

If he loses his licenses, McCullough hopes he can still pursue his dream to become a professional guide, but he realizes that a hunting and fishing guide who is banned from fishing and hunting has, at the very least, a marketing handicap. If forced to surrender rod, reel, and firearm, he figures maybe he’ll head to Alaska, and try to land a job in the commercial fishing industry.

All in all, the good catch turned bad, and it’s another example of how modern-day technology keeps an eye on all of us, man and beast alike. Even a fish caught in a Vermont river, tucked away and turned rock-solid in a freezer, can’t hide from Big Brother. And now that fish is on McCullough’s rap sheet.

“It stinks,’’ said McCullough, who figures he’ll act as his own attorney. “I finally get recognized - and nationally - for hunting and fishing, and it turns out to be the worst way possible.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.