A few months ago, Bill Babler was on his way to Kansas City with precious cargo in the back of his car.
Wrapped in towels and tucked safely inside a sleeping bag was the frozen carcass of the new state record brown trout that he pulled from Lake Taneycomo.
"It crossed my mind what I would say if I got pulled over," said Babler, laughing.
He was delivering the fish – which was just 1 pound, 9 ounces shy of the world record brown from New Zealand – to renowned fish taxidermy artist Don Frank.
After months of painstaking work, Frank last week delivered two mounts of Babler's 40-pound, 6-ounce Missouri record brown trout, which the Blue Eye angler caught on Sept. 6.
One of the mounts, on display at Lilley's Landing Resort and Marina, is a one-off cast of the fish, which Frank meticulously hand-painted to look exactly as the original fish appeared when it was caught.
The other mount dwarfs all the other fish on Babler's walls at his and wife Becky's White River Lodge bed and breakfast at Table Rock Lake.
"Don did all of the fish mounts in the lodge," Babler said Thursday, waving a hand to show the big rainbow trout and other fish species he has caught. "This brown trout is the actual fish – it's a skin mount. It's hard to appreciate how big it really is until you're up close to it."
Unlike the cast replica mount, Babler said Frank carefully skinned the thawed brown trout and used that tissue – scales and all – to re-create the big fish.
Like the cast mount, Frank then hand-painted the skin mount, based on photographs taken the day the fish was caught and before its beautiful copper hues began to fade after it died.
Babler said he and Lilley's Landing owner Phil Lilley tried to keep the fish alive in an aeration tank, with plans to release it back to the lake to grow some more.
But the stress of the fight on a 90-degree day and the effort to quickly weigh the fish on certified scales proved too much for the fish. It expired.
"We tried everything we could to keep him alive," Babler recalled. "We got him in the aeration tank within 10 minutes of catching him. We'd have sure liked to have released him, but it was 9 or 10 years old. The fish had lived a good life."
Conservation Department fisheries experts confirmed the brown trout was a triploid trout, one that was bred to be sterile so it can grow large. It was released from Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery at the base of Table Rock Dam, where thousands of brown and rainbow trout are raised.
Babler, a professional trout and bass fishing guide on Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake, had the day off on Sept. 6 and decided to take a longtime fishing buddy to a spot on Taneycomo that he knew was full of rainbow trout.
His friend, Mark Mauss from Bois d'Arc, was fishing a channel "where big rainbows were just stacked up in there," Babler recalled.
Babler decided to join Mauss. He picked up a rod with a pink Berkeley PowerBait plastic worm and got a big strike on his first cast.
Babler said he didn't know the big brown was there and hadn't seen the fish before it hit. He had caught big brown trout before and wanted his fishing buddy to have a chance, too.
"I tried to hand him the rod twice, but he wouldn't take it," Babler recalled. "He knew I had caught it and didn't want to put a stain on a possible record fish."
Word of Babler's huge brown trout traveled fast in the trout world. Babler said he got offers to mount the fish from taxidermists in Alaska, Seattle, Florida and even New Zealand, where the current world record brown trout weighing 42 pounds, 1 ounce was caught in 2013.
Babler said there was no question whom he would choose.
"Don (Frank) is known all over the country, and he has done the two previous Missouri record browns," Babler said. "Don knew this one was coming to him."
Missouri's previous brown trout record was set just seven months before Babler caught his fish. Paul Crews of Neosho pulled in a 34-pound, 10-ounce brown trout on Feb. 23, 2019, also at Lake Taneycomo.
Babler said it's possible Taneycomo might yield the next world record brown trout.
The lake has an ample supply of rainbow trout and other small fish to feed on, and the cold water coming from Table Rock Lake into Lake Taneycomo makes it an ideal environment for trout.
Babler agreed his fish could easily swallow a 2-pound trout in one gulp.
"It was only 1 pound 9 ounces off the world record," Babler notes. "If it swallowed one carcass, it would have bumped it up there."