The longest-standing record in Colorado, a 7.63-pound brook trout caught in 1947, was once widely considered unbreakable. George Knorr’s mid-century catch has been shrouded in mystery for decades, achieving a near folklore status amongst Colorado anglers, many of whom suspect foul play. Some say Knorr had secret brook trout ponds that he beefed up with buckets of dog food. Others report that he would ride his horse to high-mountain lakes, trot right into the water, and fly fish off his partially-submerged pony.
This year, however, the rumors were put to rest when Tim Daniel, a Granby, Colorado, resident, smashed the record with a grotesquely large 7.84-pound lunker on May 23. When he brought the fish to net this spring, he had good reason to believe it would sit atop the charts for nearly another century.
At the time, nobody could’ve predicted that the record would be broken again in the same year. But on October 8, Matt Smiley achieved the unthinkable by landing an 8.56-pound brookie in a high mountain lake near Salida, Colorado.
MeatEater caught up with the anglers behind these record-breaking trout and quickly discovered that the quest for these fish began years before any marks were made in the books. This is how two fishermen broke the Colorado state record in under six months.
Tim Daniel is the kind of angler who never uses the drag on his spinning reel. Instead, he back reels. That way if something goes wrong—the line snaps or a hook pops out—he can’t blame it on his gear.
Unsurprisingly, Daniel also dedicates every free minute to the pursuit of fish, particularly large trout. Decades ago, when he first started exploring alpine lakes in the mountains around Granby, he immediately fell in love with brook trout and the beautiful areas they inhabit. Daniel’s fishing adventures eventually morphed into the search for a trophy brookie, which coincidentally brought him to some of the most remote and inaccessible lakes in the region. “It got to the point where I’d be at work, already thinking about where I wanted to fish,” Daniel reminisced.
Daniel explored dozens of different lakes. “I never liked to fish the same place twice,” he recalled of his backcountry trips. Eventually, though, he narrowed down his search to a couple of lakes that were producing particularly large trout. In the ensuing years, Daniel caught several brookies up to about seven pounds, including a potential state record, all of which he released.
“I hate killing big fish,” Daniel said. “And I wanted to be humble about it.”
Then, four years ago, Daniel had a back injury that forced him to reevaluate where he could fish. That’s when he turned his efforts to Monarch Lake, a relatively shallow and road-accessible lake with the potential to produce big brook trout, a rarity in Colorado. Brookies are non-native to the state, and in most lakes they tend to proliferate to such high densities that they effectively eat themselves out of food, resulting in large populations of stunted fish. According to a 2019 report by Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Jon Ewert, however, Monarch Lake also sustains a population of brown trout that prey on brookies, keeping their numbers down and allowing the brook trout that evade predation to grow particularly large.
Daniel was fishing with his girlfriend, Karen, on the morning he hooked into one of these trophy brook trout. At first, the couple was just planning to catch a couple of fish for breakfast. Then, after some friendly banter, it became a bet as to who could catch a bigger fish. Seconds later, Daniel’s line went tight.
Based on how the fish was fighting and rolling in the line, Daniel initially thought he had hooked a sucker or a brown trout. It wasn’t until the monster was closer to shore that he could make out the distinct, wormlike markings of a brookie. Once he landed the fish, Daniel’s immediate reaction was to release it, but the battle had already taken its toll on the specimen.
“We tried reviving him,” Daniel said. “We went 45 minutes and it wasn’t working.” Eventually, the couple gave up and decided to go in search of a certified scale on which to weigh the fish.
Ten years ago, brook trout weren’t even on Matt Smiley’s radar. He was a lake trout fisherman, squeezing in college classes between trips to Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa Reservoirs. It wasn’t until he linked up with his fishing partner, Chris Lusin, that he ventured into the high country in search of brookies.
“We made a deal,” Smiley said. “I’d take Chris to Flaming Gorge, and in return, he’d show me stuff about high mountain lakes.” Their first trip together kicked off what subsequently turned into an obsession. Smiley also discovered that the best lakes were the hardest to get into, frequently taking them off-trail, over cliffs, and up thousands of feet in elevation. After a few fishing excursions, Smiley recalled asking Chris, “Of all these lakes you have, is there one that’s not a death march to get into?”
As Smiley got into better physical shape, the duo began exploring more lakes together, learning and adapting fishing techniques from one another. Within a few years, their work began to pay off, and they were consistently catching brook trout up to seven pounds. Then, six years ago, Chris caught what would have easily been a state record, but chose to release it. That same year, however, there was a large winter kill in the lake, and all the big fish appeared to have died. “We see these things happen over the years at these different lakes,” Smiley explained. “We see these cycles. Nothing’s forever in these lakes.”
It wasn’t until this year that conditions lined up again to produce a trophy. Smiley was fishing alone at Waterdog Lake on the day he landed his record—one of very few excursions without Chris. When he saw a giant brookie surface to eat an insect, Smiley instantly knew it was a record-size fish. “Oh my God,” he thought to himself. “That’s the fish we’ve been talking about for ten years.” Smiley cast his lure and hooked the behemoth.
The first time Smiley brought the monster to his net, it flopped out. Miraculously, it stayed hooked and he was able to bring it in again. Once the fish was squirming on the bank, Smiley made an on-the-spot decision. “I decided to keep that fish. I was positive it was a record,” he said. “We’d been talking about it as a mythical thing for years and years, and all of a sudden it was in my net and I made the decision to keep it.”
Smiley snapped a few pictures, shoved the fish into his backpack, and sprinted for the trail. He knew that if his fish were to be a record, he would have to move quickly before it began to dry out and loose weight.
Most sportsmen count their hunting and fishing spots among their most closely guarded secrets, and both Daniel and Smiley are no exception. When both fishermen landed their trophy specimens, they were forced to confront the most timeless paradox in the angling community: to spoil their favorite fishing hole by reporting the record, or to release the fish and preserve their honey hole.
Daniel, having landed and released several state-record-caliber brookies in the past, never thought he would have to face this conundrum. “I always tell my kids never to share where you hunt or fish, and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite,” he said. But once his efforts to resuscitate the fish had failed, he decided that the best way to honor its life would be to put it in the record books.
His first call was to his children. Daniel explained the situation, and they told him, “This is different, Dad. We want to be able to tell our grandkids about it.” After the conversation, Daniel got in touch with a CPW biologist to report the fish. After the catch was confirmed, it took Daniel another two months of contemplation before he decided to actually submit the record.
Smiley, several months later, was faced with a similar conundrum. Until the minute he reported the record to a state biologist, Smiley and his fishing partner were extremely secretive about their spots. They never even referred to Waterdog Lake by its full name, opting instead for the abbreviation “WD,” lest someone overheard.
Upon bringing the fish to a scale, Smiley’s first phone call was predictably to Chris. He accepted that Waterdog Lake would soon be pillaged by other anglers, and reportedly told Smiley, “We’ve had our time at that lake. Something was going to happen at some point, and at least it was one of us who caught one.”
How long Smiley’s record will hold is yet to be seen, but if the past year is any indication, it won’t be long.
Other media outlets have reported that another angler broke the state record in early October. However, as both Daniel and Smiley noted, several other anglers have caught and chosen to release state-record-sized trout in the last decade. An important part of the certification process is reporting the location of the catch to state biologists and the general public so they can document its validity. The third angler failed to do so. Because it is not currently a confirmed record, we are not considering it a state record for the purpose of this article.
Images via Tim Daniel and Matt Smiley.