Surviving the Storm

April 19, 2024 By: Richard Donnelly

I went fishing last spring with no intention of catching fish. I just wanted to see Gilbert Creek. Immense spring rains, six inches in one night alone, scoured and scored the valley, overturning trees, collapsing banks, burying springs. My cherished brook trout stream had become a wasteland of sandbars and mud.

When I saw the creek I said one word. Perfect. Nothing more. Just one word. Perfect.

I knew every inch of the Gilbert. This is not an exaggeration. There’s a Hemingway story in which the narrator, a soldier, can’t sleep. To make it through the night he mentally fishes a stream from beginning to end, a creek from childhood, fished so often every turn and plunge is committed to memory. Hemingway knows what he’s talking about.

Like Hem’s creek the Gilbert had, at least for me, mythic powers. One year it might have saved my life. With work trouble and life trouble pursuing like wolves the water was there to soothe me. I fished the bends and pools, ate peanut butter sandwiches while sitting on boulders, tossed earthworms at trout, stretched myself out and napped on a massive cottonwood log, smooth and white. At the end of the day I could go home again.

Now all the fish were gone, flushed into the Mississippi River and off to Bermuda. So long, friends.

I trekked the banks, inspecting empty pools. It was interesting, in a post-mortem kind of way. Bends had vanished. All the runs were mixed-up, unrecognizable. My napping log was gone. It must have taken some water to carry that off. Gravel bars crunched under my boots. I found a nice-sized fossil of a sea snail. Incredibly, all this was once the bottom of the ocean.

Even though I wasn’t fishing, I carried a rod. I didn’t want to look foolish. Then, as I walked, something magical happened. The first thing that ever happened when I started fly fishing. The thing that hooked me.

I saw the splash of a trout.

I knotted up a prince beadhead, the kind with white wings. Fast. The splash had been in a shallow run, maybe four inches deep. I made a ten foot cast. Just sort of threw it in. The strike was immediate.

In short order I held a little brook trout, admiring the olive, mottled back. No wonder a brook trout hides so well. They look like running water.

I released him and started fishing. I had what they call “A Day.” There were brook trout in every pool, every deep-blue bend. I caught trout right handed, left handed, and underhanded. All my familiar lanes were gone. I had to be creative. It was fun.

I even caught a brown trout as long as your leg. Not quite that big, but he was big. Now I was in trouble. No net. (Ever notice that? Anytime you forget the net you just about guarantee a big hookup. I’m going to start leaving it at home.) The trout ran up-creek, and right when I thought I cornered him he turned down-creek. Right into a deep hole.

That’s usually the end. Not this time. The river bed had been scoured clean of snags. All I had to do was wait. Pulling doggedly, but slower and slower, the trout came to hand.

I seldom keep trout. But I kept this one. A big brown in a brook trout creek is a bully. He hogs the best tail-outs. He chases the brookies off their spawning beds. He eats their fry. This bully didn’t return to his mischief. He went into the pan with garlic and butter.

That day I discovered two things. Gilbert Creek had survived the storm. Even been improved. And there’s a place in nature for everything. Even me.