West Virginia’s “Gold Rush Giveaway,” an annual fishing event that offers prizes to anglers who catch specially tagged “golden” fish, has produced a new state record. The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR) exclusively stocks the pale-colored “golden rainbow trout,” also known as palomino trout, during the special two-week period in late March and early April.
Benji Lilly, of Beckley, caught the 9.72-pound trout in late March while jigging a Berkley Power Worm on a 1/32nd ounce jig head at the Little Beaver State Park pond in Raleigh County. Lilly knocked off the 25-year-old record of 9.31 pounds, which was set by Danny Crider at Brushy Fork Lake in 1998. Lilly’s fish created such a stir that Governor Jim Justice posted photos of the catch and congratulated the angler on his Facebook page.
“It was a pretty good fight,” Lilly told West Virginia Outdoors. “It took me about 10 minutes to get him in. We were up on the walk at the park and my dad had to run to the truck and get a net because there was no way I could lift him up over the rail.”
Though West Virginians know these hatchery-raised fish as “golden trout,” they are actually a mutated strain of yellow-colored rainbow trout. They are unrelated to the wild golden trout native to California. The stocked fish do have an interesting origin story in the Mountain State.
In 1949, the Petersburg State Trout Hatchery in Grant County, West Virginia, received 10,000 rainbow trout fry from a California strain. Those fish became the brood stock for the WVDNR’s efforts to introduce rainbow trout to the state. In 1955, a hatchery manager noticed one fingerling with yellow markings, and he moved the juvenile rainbow—which he nicknamed “Little Camouflage”—to a separate rearing pond. The female’s yellow coloration intensified as she matured, and by fertilizing her eggs with the milt of regular rainbow males, biologists over time created a strain of rainbows that got more golden with age. Starting with West Virginia’s centennial in 1963, the department began stocking the fish statewide at a ratio of one “golden” to 10 regular rainbows.
The fish have a reputation as difficult to catch, and Lilly says his previous best golden was a 7-pounder caught 20 years ago. He underestimated the weight of this year’s catch and almost missed out on the state record after he nearly gave the fish away.
“I was giving it to a guy and somebody pulled up in a jeep and asked if he could weigh it,” Lilly said. “I figured it was a little over eight pounds. The guy weighed it and said, ‘That’s a state record.’ I had to ask the guy if I could keep the fish.”
Everybody got what they wanted in the end. Once the paperwork was signed, the fish was certified as a new record, and Lilly had the measurements needed to create a replica, he gave the fish to the man anyway.