Note: Bobby Cleveland covered the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo as a reporter for nearly 25 years. This is the third in a series of his favorite stories as the 66th annual event approaches July 3-6.

When most fishermen talk about the one that got away, they refer to fish that either broke their line, shook the hook or otherwise avoid being caught after getting hooked.

But when two guys from Slidell, La., arrived at the 1988 Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, their “one that got away” story was more of a mystery.

It remains so to this day.

The weird tale began shortly before the scales closed on the third day of the event, about 7 p.m. just outside the gate leading to the scales at Rice Pavilion at Gulfport Small Craft Harbor.

Two men pulled up in a pickup truck, got out and walked to the big leaderboard that hangs from the roof above the weigh-in area. They stood there a few minutes reading it up and down, pointing at the different fish and whispering to each other in between swallows of beer.

“Hey, bud,” one of them said quietly to a reporter — me — standing just inside the gate. “Those speckled trout up there, are they the overall leaders or just the biggest ones weighed in today?”

I told him that all the fish listed on that particular board were indeed the two overall leaders from the first three days. The first place trout was just over 5 ½ pounds and the second about 5 ¼.

“Well, I know I’ve got them beat,” he said, reaching out to shake hands. “Name’s Jenkins. Tell me, what’s that small number in between those fish?”

I told him it was the rodeo record of 10 pounds, 6 ounces (at the time also the state record set by Francis Creel of Biloxi in the 1973 event).

“I might even have that one beat,” he said. “I got a good one I caught at Lake Ponchatrain this afternoon that’ll go close to 10 ½. Can I weigh it here if I caught it over there? You ought to see it.”

I followed him out to the gate to do just that, telling him along the way that indeed, he could enter the fish. When we got to his truck, which had a camper top over its bed, Jenkins pulled out the keys, unlocked the camper and opened the door. He reached in and grabbed a 48-quart cooler and slid it up to the edge.

“This is the best speck I’ve ever caught or seen,” he said. “I ought to mount it but I figured I could win the Rodeo with it.”

Jenkins opened the lid of the cooler and got the shock of his life.

It was empty.

“What the hell,” he said.

The cooler was still half full of ice and water, but it was otherwise barren. The white bottom of the box was clearly visible, but Jenkins couldn’t resist reaching into the ice and water. He ran his hand around it, corner to corner and side to side, hoping to find the fish.

“Where the hell is it?” he said. “Where is my fish?”

I asked the obvious questions:

Are you sure you grabbed the right box?

“Yes. The fish barely fit and had to go in corner to corner.”

Are you sure you put it in the box?

“Yes. I swear it was in there when I put it in the truck and it’s been locked since we left home at Slidell an hour ago.”

Where else could it be?

“Damned if I know.”

Jenkins returned to the scales to find his friend. They came back and the other man opened the box, ran his hand around inside it and then rubbed his head at the quandary.

I reached into the box, wet my hand and smelled it.

Fishy. It smelled like fish and had that slimy feel of water that once had held a fish.

“Well, there was definitely a fish in there at one time,” I said.

Jenkins even crawled up into the truck, pushing aside the rods, tackle boxes and other fishing gear to look for the fish.

“Where the hell is my fish?” he said to his partner. “You better not be playing a trick on me.”

His friend was just as dumbfounded.

“I saw you put that fish in there,” the other man said. “I swear I did. When I put that bag of ice in that box before we left, there was a fish in there. I swear there was.”

They retraced their tracks, which went something like this: They took their boat out of the water at a boat ramp and stopped at the first store they came to for a bag of ice, and I’m guessing a new 6- or 12-pack or maybe another case of beer. The big trout was apparently moved from the boat’s fish box to the 48-quart cooler and the ice added. They then drove to Jenkins’ house, unhooked the boat, cleaned the rest of the catch and then drove over to Gulfport.

“This is crazy,” the other man said. “Where is that fish? You don’t think we screwed up and cleaned that fish. Naw, we couldn’t have done that. No way. We’d have noticed it because it was so much bigger than the other fish. Reckon we did that? Naw, man, no way would we have done that. Would we?

“Jenkins, where the hell is that trout?”

Jenkins closed the box and shoved it back in the truck. He shut the doors, and, in a colorful Cajun dialect that included some very dirty words, announced that they were going to find a phone, call home and see if anyone back there knew of the fish’s whereabouts.

They drove off, never to be seen or heard from at the Rodeo again. Thus, their story became, for me, the big one that got away.

I am forever haunted for not getting their full names and phone numbers before they left. I was the only witness, and decided I couldn’t write the story that night since I had no confirmation, no names or anything. Were they just playing a prank? Did they clean the fish?

Did they make it home without running off into the swamp?