May 25, 2022
Recently, a post on the Friends of the Little Red River Facebook caught my attention for a couple of distinct reasons.
The post, which showed a smiling young man holding a huge fly rod and a large brown trout from the river, was reason enough as it read:
"Personal Best Brown. Was Speechless. Sorry, I don’t have a weight or length, wanted to get it back in the water after the battle it put up. Considering the length of my net, was definitely close to or shy of 30-(inches). Hope to see someone else enjoy this fish down the road!"
The young man who caught the fish is Shen Catteau, a great friend of my two sons, Zach and Will. He’s from our hometown in North Texas and was the valedictorian at Denison High School when he graduated. After moving to Searcy, Ark., to attend Harding University, he was smitten with the fly rod, brown trout, and the nearby Little Red.
So, obviously, with a fish that was likely north of 15 pounds, and being caught and released by a hometown friend of my two boys, there was reason enough to smile. And I’d like to think that somewhere, the late Howard "Rip" Collins would think so too, beaming a huge heavenly grin from the other side of eternity.
If the name of Rip Collins rings a bell with fishing-history buffs—and fly anglers who love the trout-rich Ozark tailwaters in Arkansas—it should. Because 30 years ago, one of the most remarkable anniversaries in American angling history passed by quietly, probably just the way that Collins would have wanted it. More on that in a minute.
The Stuff of Angling Legend
As astute observers might remember, it was Colins’ huge fish catch a generation ago near the river’s Swinging Bridge area (now called Barnett’s Access), that drew the attention of the angling world and really put the Little Red on the map. That catch came on May 9, 1992—Mother’s Day, that year—when Collins took an impromptu fishing trip and landed a then-world record brown trout from the chilly waters of the Little Red River tailwater near Heber Springs, Ark.
While the White River and Norfork River to the north were already well-known for huge brown trout catches—including a 1988 world-record catch of 38 pounds, 9 ounces in the Norfork River by Huey Manley—the Little Red was a bit more carefully guarded secret, a tailwater popular with anglers from Arkansas, to Memphis, Tenn., eastern Oklahoma and North Texas.
Collins—who has been gone for a number of years after a bout with cancer in the late 1990s—changed all of that in 1992, with a catch that went viral even before the Internet was going strong and social media was hardly a dream.
As angling history buffs might recall, Collins was a retired lieutenant colonel—one report says in the U.S. Army and another says in the U.S. Air Force--and normally a serious fly angler, according to a story by Sports Illustrated writer Robert H. Boyle.
But when the then 64-year old Heber Springs resident took his boat out to test a balky engine on Mother’s Day, May 9, 1992, he brought along angling buddy Van Cooper and a spinning rod. After tying on a 1/32-ounce olive green marabou jig to the four-pound test line, Collins then made a cast heard around the world about 11 a.m. that morning.
What happened next is the stuff of angling legend, as Collins hooked a 40-pound, 4-ounce behemoth brown trout from the Little Red that would become an International Game Fish Association world record.
Were it not for the excellent account of Collins’ world-record catch in my friend Steve Wright’s book Ozark Trout Tales, many of the details surrounding the moment might have been lost to the passage of time.
A World-Record Tale
Wright, who has gone on to be one of the top story writers for B.A.S.S. down through the years—including this year’s Bassmaster Classic won by Jason Christie—got his outdoors journalism start in northwestern Arkansas, where he spent a year traveling the region’s rich trout waters, gathering stories and interviews in the shadow of the Boston Mountains. Eventually, those tales formed the backbone of his great book, an out-of-print volume still available on Amazon, eBay, Alibris and the like.
According to Wright’s tale of Collins and his epic catch, the angler was losing interest in the Little Red River and wasn’t even planning on fishing that fateful day. Instead, the troublesome outboard motor needing a test drive lured him out with his neighbor, Van Cooper.
While Cooper initially out-fished Collins, a tip from the late hall-of-fame fly angler Lefty Kreh lodged in Collins' mind about matching flies and lures to the color of a riverbed, caused the angler to switch jig colors from white to olive green.
Moments later, Collins pitched his jig near a historically good beaver hut spot and began the retrieve. When the take came, he thought he had initially hooked a log. Seconds later, however, as the 4 ½ foot Browning spinning rod doubled over and the thin monofilament line pulled away from the Shimano Mark I reel, he knew otherwise.
And when the angler saw the huge fish—which later measured at 40 ¼ inches in length—he quickly knew that a different game was afoot than the other big trout and bass he had previously hooked in his angling lifetime that began as a boy in Indiana, continued in the military overseas, and finally came full circle as he retired to the Arkansas Ozarks.
"It looked like Shamu the whale," Collins told Wright of his late-morning catch.
During the course of the long fight, Collins adjusted the drag pressure down almost all of the way, as the fish swam upstream and eventually tried to break off in a thick moss bed.
As Collins told Wright, that was an unusual tactic for the longtime angler. But given the trout’s enormous size, the abundance of laydowns and moss beds in the Little Red, and the lengthy fight that took around 20 minutes, it was totally necessary.
"Never in my lifetime have I changed the drag when I was fishing," Collins is quoted in Wright’s Ozark Trout Tales. "But if I had left that drag setting the way it was, I would never have landed that fish."
We Need a Bigger Net
Eventually, after repeated threats of getting into moss beds and breaking off, Collins had the fish positioned to land it. Since Collins and his angling buddy had hit the water simply looking to test the motor out. The addition of spinning gear was almost an afterthought and neither man had a net handy.
And when a nearby boat was flagged down, the first possible net was too small. Finally, another boat happened by with a big net and the fish was finally secured. Sort of, that is, since only its head went in the net and no one could reportedly lift the trout aboard.
Collins knew he had caught a monster, but still didn’t know that it was world-record class. A stickler for catch-and-release tactics, he took the big fish back to a nearby dock and put it in a submerged wire cage to keep it alive.
Later that day, as word of the huge trout began to spread around the Ozarks, outdoor writer Bryan Hendricks picked up the story in an article he wrote earlier this year about the iconic photograph that Gregg Patterson took of Collins standing waist deep in the river and carefully cradling the huge fish.
In Hendrick’s Jan. 23, 2022 story in Little Rock’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper, the tale is told about how Collins summoned Patterson, then with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and told him about the huge fish.
"Rip said that he thought he’d caught a line class record, and he asked me to come up and verify it for him," Patterson told Hendricks.
Special Delivery at Post Office
Since the catch was on Mother’s Day, Patterson reportedly told Collins that he’d come up later in the day, after church services had let out. When he arrived that evening, the journalist was startled by the size of the exceptionally large trout.
"I took one look, and I said, ‘Rip, I’m sorry, but this isn’t a line-class record,' " Patterson said to Hendricks. "He looked all disappointed. I said, ‘Hold on, Rip. This is THE world record. The all-tackle world record!"
Indeed, it was, as a crazy and historic angling tale continued to unfold in the Ozarks. A hatchery truck from the nearby Greer’s Ferry National Fish Hatchery was eventually summoned early the next day and the fish was transported to the Heber Springs Post Office location—where a certified scale awaited—to be officially weighed.
"There were seven or eight people in line at the post office waiting to do their post office stuff," Patterson said in the newspaper story earlier this year. "We came in the door with this great big fish wrapped in a sheet. Big trout are a big deal in Heber Springs. They’re a big part of their economy. The guy working the counter knew exactly what was going on."
When the fish was quickly weighed, the scale settled on 40 pounds, 4 ounces. The IGFA confirmed the world-record application and the Collins brown trout became the species’ benchmark, a spot that it would hold for almost two decades. Incidentally, there was/is much speculation that Collins’ fish weighed even more, perhaps as much as 43 or 44 pounds, since it wasn’t weighed until 24 hours later.
Collins’ world record was eventually supplanted in 2009, when a 41-pound, 7-ounce brown trout from Michigan’s Manistee River took the top spot. And today, the world record is held by a controversial trout from New Zealand, one that weighs 44-5.
Unfortunately, the stress on Collins’ world record was too much and it died before it could be released, or even be transported to an aquarium like the one at the nearby Springfield, Mo., location of Bass Pro Shops. If you’re into angling history, you might remember that’s where the one-time Texas state record largemouth bass, a fish named "Ethel" by the guide, Mark Stevenson, who caught her in Nov. 1986 at famed Lake Fork—had lived for several years.
“Due to my own stupidity and inexperience, I killed her," Collins told Wright.
From either the catch, the loss of the record catch, or both, Collins went on to form the Friends of the Little Red River conservation organization prior to his death, an organization that continues to this day.
And while Collins and his big trout are both gone, their memories live on 30 years after their brush with fame. As do the huge brown trout of the Little Red River and the even bigger smiles by anglers like Shen Catteau.
Yes indeed, somewhere, Rip Collins is smiling.