Often, when making long hikes up into the backcountry I pass streams, small or not so small, which “look good.” I’ll think to myself, as if conversing with someone, “If a fisherman took the time they would likely find some good fishing there.” Some of these streams are in steep country and are basically pocket water, pocket water never ending, so it seems, between the waterfalls. It would take serious effort to effectively fish them, especially with a fly rod. “But,” I continue my internal dialogue, “I’ve never, literally never, seen anyone fish those waters.”
I typically keep walking. This reflection, these musings of what the fishing might be, has become just part of the routine of passing time on a long hike to a pond where I know I can catch trout of significantly better size than would be in the stream. I feel so sure about it, even though I have no evidence. I give my inner dialogue a needed jolt and shake my head. Such thinking is all too common, too human, and in recent years has enabled political agendas to overshadow science.
However, reflecting back a couple of years, there was that trout I looked down upon while crossing the stream via a wooden bridge. It was there, finning in a hole behind a medium sized boulder, a beautiful trout, no doubt 11 inches, maybe a foot! It caught me off guard. I did not, in any way, expect such a brook trout in that water. A trout of 20 inches would not have made a larger impression. I made a move to rig up my disjointed rod and the trout was gone, simply gone. The great blue herons have, over the millennia, taught these fish of the perils that come from above.
Thus, it became clear that fish existed in the stream which were quite fine trout, better than I would have guessed. But, being a creature of habit, I continued to ignore that stretch of stream.
Higher up the mountain trail, close to my eventual destination, the country levels off, a stream meanders through a meadow, old beaver dams and lodges here and there. To my eyes it is very picturesque country. The stream looks inviting. Although it is a shadow of the waterway it would have been with the dams intact there are still fine pools and rifles which look to hold trout. I’ve passed on the fishing here many times, only admiring from afar.
One late April morning I stopped and surveyed the scene with attention—sun brilliant on the remaining snowfields, water flow at springtime high and the smell of the season of rebirth in the air—and decided, today I would fish this valley.
I made my way to the stream, the brown, subdued vegetation of early spring being easy to traverse. Once new growth begins it would become more difficult to fish this meadow stream, and this no doubt was a major reason why I had so often passed it by.
My eye was on a long pool beyond an old beaver dam. I needed to cross the stream and picked a riffle which looked relatively shallow. It was deeper than expected and, after crossing, removed my knee boots and wet socks as I sat on a rock in the warm sun. I put on my spare wool socks, dumped the cold water out of my boots and continued.
I made my way to the head of the pool, a beautiful setting: the current strong over white sand, leading into the deep water of the pool. I carefully stood on two rocks close to the main body of the pool and made sure I was stable. I roll cast once, then let out the line, and roll cast again, into the fast water which soon was embraced by the darkness of the depths of the large pool. Stripping more line from the reel, I gave the rod tip a twitch and watched the slack of my slow-sinking line straighten with the current and very slowly sink. I was immediately on to a trout, and it felt good. After a spirited fight I led it into the net, a fine wild brook trout of 9 and a half inches. It was a better trout than I had hoped for and I admired it then released it. I repeated the routine on the next cast and, déjà vu, had another of near 9 inches.
Idyllic fishing it was. I slowly fished riffles and more pools behind the remnants of old dams. In most spots there was room for a backcast. It was not fast fishing after the first pool, but the occasional 8 to 9 inch trout which came to my wet fly seemed more impressive than their length on that beautiful spring day.
I did not, however, fish the meadow again that year. The rapid growth of vegetation was a hindrance to the backcast and, as summer came along water flow decreased. The balance was tipped and I was back to walking by and only looking over at the valley during my trips to the pond.
I’ve driven by many a small stream and my head will turn towards the water like caught in a magnetic field, and maybe there’s some truth to that. Most anglers know exactly that scenario. My mind quickly appreciates the riffles or undercut bank in view before the stream vanishes from sight, often into a hemlock or spruce thicket in “these parts.”
Yet there seems to be an internal inertia which keeps me from exploring new waters seen from a driver’s seat. It’s odd, I admit, but nonetheless true. I am much more likely to try something new when my feet are touching the ground.
A small beaver pond along a favorite trail comes to mind: an attractive, comfortable spot, a frequent stopping place for lunch. Usually I take the time for a few casts and, with rare exception, catch a few 6-to-7-inch trout. It’s enjoyable to see the trout, in that relatively shallow water, attack my fly. They are not shy. There have been outings where that little pond keeps me from being skunked.
One trip this past summer, I stopped there as usual. I admired the scene: the widest part of the pond lay before me, backed by the dam. My eyes followed the brush-lined banks as the waters narrowed and curved towards the far end, out of sight, where the riffles of the inlet could be faintly heard beneath the spruce. At the first bend, just within casting distance, a trout rolled. I did a double take: it was a good trout, thick, bronze and no doubt over 9 inches. I quickly rigged up and put a hurried, sloppy cast smack (and that is the right word) on the spot. The trout took the fly immediately and then was gone. I got a good look and knew it was over 10 inches. Another fine trout rolled a bit further towards the inlet. In my excitement I put on an exhibition of poor casting which was rewarded with no trout caught. Just rewards.
Those were good specimens, trout the like of which I had never seen in this small pond before. I looked over the situation with more thought than I normally do. (Yes, a little thought more often might solve a few other problems as well.) I was standing on a clump of grass, the dam not far behind, and casting in the direction of the head of the pond. I turned and observed the small dam behind me: water in spots flowing over it, perhaps two or three feet above the water downstream which was narrow with brush overhanging as it, in turn, was backed up by another modest dam at the edge of the lake. I rarely have tried to fish that water due to the difficulty of laying a fly in there.
It dawned on me what had likely happened. The heavy downpours of a few days ago must have caused a significant flow over these low dams. They likely became small waterfalls. The fact that trout will travel long distances has become evident by recent research. Their ability to negotiate vertical feet also is now more appreciated. It is most likely that these large trout were attracted by the surge of cold water, over the dams, into this small pond, just a few days ago. I made mental note and will be aware of such migrations, however short they might be, in the future.
I had to stop and think of how many times in the past I had overlooked such a situation.
Again, I looked across the pond to the inlet flowing from the spruce thicket. In my mind the spruce became that hemlock thicket back in Pennsylvania in 1960, the hidden source of the small stream I had followed as it meandered through the cow-pie spotted pasture, where Holsteins grazed unconcerned in the hot sun. That day I crossed the pasture, for reasons long gone from memory, and followed the lazy stream into the dark woods. It changed abruptly once within the forest, the water was clear with pools interspersed between riffles. As I walked along the mossy bank in the cool shade, trout darted to and fro ahead of me. It was a different world, a hidden world. Many of the trout were of decent size, “pan-sized.” I was surprised seeing them. It was all more than I had expected. But, I never fished it. It was not the farm of a relative so I didn’t feel at home even though it was not posted. Of course almost nothing was posted back then, in that era of rural life in America. There must have been a fence in my young mind. I should have fished it.
The memory of those wild trout is haunting, as is the thought of having passed it up. I suppose I still have a bit of that barrier to try new places in my mind. Maybe it is not too late to change those ways. Maybe.
Backwoods Brook Trout: Stories of Time and Place can be obtained directly from the publisher, www.beechriverbooks.com. Excerpted with permission. All rights reserved.