I’m not sure when the term “trophy” came into the language of the angler and hunter. I can’t recall if it was always around or if it’s something the outdoor community adopted more recently. Yet this single word, when attached to fish and game of any kind, reveals an extreme polarity of views.
Some people feel the word trophy is a benign term, and a proper way to refer to any fish or wild animal that is extraordinary. Others — and this is not limited to the anti-hunting and anti-fishing community — feel calling something a trophy puts too much emphasis on the rack or overall size of the quarry; that it diminishes the experience.
Trophy means more than size
This is an interesting one. I don’t personally have a problem with the term. Some of the fish I’ve caught haven’t measured up as the largest, but they had other attributes that made them unique — a trophy. Like a very nice brookie I caught 25 years ago that’s skin mounted and hung above my office computer. It’s far from my largest, so why did I mount it?
Well, here’s the story. It was a fish that I saw feeding one evening and could not catch. I’d found a single hellgrammite at our campsite and put it in an empty beer bottle, then tossed the bottle into the canoe. On a whim, I emptied it and hooked that hellgrammite on a single #4 octopus, placed it under a small slip float, and tossed it towards the feeding trout. That did it. The hellgrammite was inhaled and the float disappeared.
The 23-inch inland-lake brookie was a beauty and I instantly wanted to mount it to preserve the experience. Today, I’d have released that fish; it was a different time. Yet, I still think of it as a trophy fish.
Emphasis on size
The trophy terminology becomes even more loaded when it has anything to do with hunting. Our culture, fired-up by social media, has defined trophy hunting as any hunting that puts the emphasis on size. Many of the viral anti posts that make the rounds are aimed at “trophy hunters.” This catch-all phrase tends to encompass any person who takes game that is unusually large, whether or not the hunter was actually looking for a record-book specimen. It becomes immaterial.
Admittedly, many hunters, this columnist included, do get fixated on antlers and overall size. A huge-racked bull moose or whitetail is both a majestic creature and a rare harvest. However, the vast majority of hunters who are in the field aren’t focused on bones. They want to harvest wild game. For edibility, many of us will take a spike moose over a huge monarch. As awesome as a 60-inch bull is, the meat is a bit chewy, and you can only mount so many moose racks. In reality, for most Ontario hunters, every moose is a trophy. These animals are so large and awesome, you never forget any that are harvested.
Finding another term
Several years ago, I was on a committee looking at brook trout regulations on the Nipigon River and Lake Superior. After hearing from researchers, the group wanted to increase the minimum size limit so all fish would have a chance to spawn three times. There was concern from certain corners this was being done to create a “trophy” brook trout fishery. The terminology began to overshadow the genuine biological need to reduce harvest of the fish. One of the committee members, a now retired MNRF biologist named Rob Swainson, came up with an idea. Instead of emphasizing the trophy nature of the fish and fishery, Swainson recommended the group use another term.
“Let’s talk about brook trout as a memorable fish,” said Swainson. “These fish are unique, and each one is memorable in its own way. We are preserving that.” That term was more palatable to people and defused much of the controversy over “trophy” fishing. The term also stuck with me. Over the years, I’ve found myself thinking less about fish and game as potential trophies and more about them as unique and memorable.
Term won’t go away
The term trophy is not going away, as it’s a way for people to emphasize the unique aspects of a catch or harvest. It isn’t necessarily about size, length, or tine count.
When my son Devin was 13 years old, he shot his first deer. It was a button buck. When that young man walked up to the deer and looked at it, he could not have been more excited. He smiled at me, showing off braces, and it might as well have been a 12-point monster. To Devin, it was a trophy. A really full-fledged Stanley Cup of a deer.
And for his old man, it was so, so memorable.
Senior Editor Gord Ellis is a journalist, radio broadcaster, photographer, and professional angler based in Thunder Bay.
Originally appeared in the Ontario OUT of DOORS 2018-2019 Hunting Annual.