I celebrated a birthday last month, and judging by the number of candles my wife stuck in the cake, I must be 34. My kids think that's ancient, but I would guess there are actually a whole lot more people in America older than me than younger. So I still consider myself a young man, and consequently, I'll probably see a lot more in the world of fishing than I've witnessed to date.

But one thing I've found interesting in the 25 or so years I've been observing grown men's fascination with anything that swims is the evolution of Louisiana trout fishermen from harvesters to anglers.

When I first entered this fishing game, a trout trip wasn't a success if there was still room in the ice chest. If the squeaky lid closed without anyone having to sit on it, the trip wasn't done. If the trout could be spread out on anything less than the fully opened Sunday paper for the obligatory picture, the dog was at risk of being kicked. If there weren't enough fillets to invite over the whole neighborhood and "ya mom 'n nem" for a fish fry, you might kick a hole in your tri-hull.

But over the last quarter-century — particularly the last decade — Louisiana anglers have become proportionately more interested in size than numbers.

The question used to be, "How many boxes did you catch?" In the late '80s, that evolved into, "How many fish did you catch?" But today, you're just as likely to hear, "How big was your biggest?"

Trophy trout are in demand, but biologists will admit they don't know a whole lot about these fish. To change that, Jerald Horst and Kevin Savoie of the LSU AgCenter/Sea Grant Program teamed up with Randy Pausina and Mike Harbison of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries last year to create the Trout Watchers program.

Under this program, ordinary citizens who are personally driven to catch big trout are trained how to remove the otoliths from these fish. Now official Trout Watchers, the anglers then mail to the biologists the otoliths from any 25-inch-plus trout they catch. Biologists can gain a wealth of information from these "ear bones," including age and DNA data.

"There's something magical about a 6-pound trout. That's when people start to sort of think of it as a trophy," Horst said. "So that's why we set the mark at 25 inches. A 25-inch trout, on average, will weigh 5.7 pounds."

The biologists received their first otolith in December from a 27 1/2-inch female trout caught in Lake Pontchartrain. Since then, they've received 88 otoliths.

Pausina is waiting for a bigger sample before he begins studying the otoliths, but already some interesting data can be inferred from the information sent in by the Trout Watchers.

Particularly noteable is that 41 of the 88 trout from which the program has received otoliths were caught in Calcasieu Lake, 25 were boated near Venice and nine came from the Lake Pontchartrain basin. Only three, however, were caught in the southcentral part of the state (two at Fourchon Beach, and one's exact location was not given).

Even casual observers have noticed over the last several years that an inordinate percentage of the state's big trout are caught in Calcasieu, Pontchartrain and at the mouth of the Mississippi. The research that results from the innovative Trout Watchers program should tell us why.