I first encountered wild, native Brook Trout in the Appalachian foothills of Western Pennsylvania, not long after I’d begun fly fishing. I was enamored with the notion of these absurdly colorful fish living in quiet, tucked away places and made it a personal mission to find them. Approaching each pool with quiet exuberance, I’d search my back cast for a means of delivering the fly. Almost without fail, a respectable presentation was met by an equally exuberant Fontinalis specimen, abandoning the sanctuary of woody cover to launch itself at a size 10 stimulator. It was as if each fish had spent 10,000 years of evolution anticipating the very moment my fly landed on the water. I quickly fell in love with those moments. For lack of proximity, predicament or more recently, parenthood, in recent years I’ve found them harder and harder to come by.
Members of the Charr or Salvelinus genus, Brookies came to being as we know them during the most recent period of glacial advance and retreat. Like other creatures of that origin, their historic range mirrors glacial migrations. Unlike their cousins in the Salmonidae family, however, they exhibit relatively little subspecies variation across populations; A Brookie from one native population will closely resemble that of another, even when separated by many miles. As threats to their existence continue to mount over time, they’ve retreated to the fragile fortresses of the few remaining Eastern headwater streams whose ecological integrity (or at least part of it) remains intact.
My friend Brett and I have been planning this reunion trip for some time. For the most part we’ve left the particulars to chance. After years of fishing together, time and place have prevented us from sharing a piece of water for the better part of two years. When it comes time to pin down the details, we settle on a familiar, off the beaten path drainage we discovered together a half decade prior. During our fishing hiatus, Brett has managed to investigate most of the blue lines that make up this watershed, but there’s at least one that both of us have yet to fish. Removed from all roads by a 50 year old reservoir, access requires use of vessel and paddle. We arrive to camp with both, and the reassurance of reserve horsepower thanks to our respective canine companions.
On a sticky August morning, we slide the overloaded Old Town into a quiet back bay. The air is calm and deceptively cool, a low cloud ceiling providing a temporary barrier from the summer sun. With a few paddle strokes we set a north-northwest heading towards a pine bluff on the far bank. The reservoir is narrow and snaky, a meandering collection of exposed bluffs and woody draws funneling off the sides of the old river gorge. Coming around the bluff we’re greeted by the faint gurgle of an invisible stream, hidden by hardwood canopy. A bead of sweat runs down the side of my face and the muscles in my neck tighten. Victor, my chocolate lab, tilts his head to the sky and twitches his nose.
Under normal circumstances I’d happily wait for my fishing partner to ready his gear before taking to the trail. But the anticipation is too much; I slide my pack on, reach for my little seven-foot four-weight bamboo rod – a gift from an old customer reserved for rare occasions – and make strides for the sound’s source. Victor is four steps ahead of me.
There’s not much to it, but that’s no surprise. It’s August in the East and water is scarce. I scan for any bucket, boil or back eddy that might hold a 4-incher and present the fly, with nothing to show for it. Maybe they’ve taken refuge at higher elevations. I reel up just as Brett appears around the downstream bend. Without a word, we march across the flood plain in search of holding water, battling a forest floor carpeted in stinging nettles and ticks.
The first few eats are scattered between pools, and we miss them with over-eager hooksets. When a fish finally comes to hand, I take a knee to scoop it up and the cool water and vibrant markings help me forget about the stinging itch in my legs. My curiosity is further satisfied and ailments quickly forgotten as we continue up the creek. With higher gradient comes deeper plunge pools, sharp cascades and plenty of fish. Some of the water tests our imagination and our casting skills as we crouch and creep through snarls of rhododendron to find a casting lane. I brace my belly against a granite shelf, pulling back on the nylon leader to load the rod into casting position. My thumb and index finger part and the bushy fly accelerates, eluding the branches above and landing abruptly in the boil of an upstream cascade. The pool lights up as three brookies slash and dart in a race to the buffet. I manage an awkward hookset and smugly handline the six-inch char in for a closer look.
There are better times of year for catching these fish. The heavy currents of spring and fall provide more cover and more food, spreading the fish out and making them less wary of predators. But something about hunting them in the skinny flows of late summer elevates the experience, underscoring the species’ resilience and adaptability. With the fall spawn on the horizon their markings are pronounced and exclamatory. And yet they are virtually impossible to see from above, vermiculated backs melting into the rock and lichen-covered streambed below. Moving upstream, the holding lies become harder and harder to comprehend. A stairstep chute pours down a “V” cut into bed rock, funneling all of the stream’s flow through a 3-foot wide slot. Near the bottom of the chute is small swirling eddy, barely large enough to float a softball. Brett approaches at an angle so as to keep his fly line off out of the ripping current adjacent to the eddy, and daps a small dry fly into the vortex. The impossible fish dutifully materializes to inhale it, sparkling green and red in the filtered light as it splashes and tumbles into the pool below.
Come Sunday afternoon, many miles and six sore legs later Victor and I crest the mountain and merge onto the interstate, headed home. He has no trouble falling fast asleep in the passenger seat, but my mind is stranded in that narrow, dimly lit valley. I keep picturing the miles of creek bed traversed over the course of the weekend and wondering how many more of those fish had gone unseen. This is the beauty of brook trout; as the angler calibrates his quarry he is forced to trust imagination and believe in the unseen. Searching a small mountain stream for a fish that might not be there forces us to peel back the layers of superfluous gear and fancy fishing clothes to the core of our angler’s nature; a childhood fascination with what might be possible. The fish themselves are perfectly suited to the role. It’s as if the Fishing Gods handed a three year old a blank canvas and a set of finger paints with the order, “Make us a fish, and hide it for someone else to find.” Bring your doubts with you and leave them behind when you go. Brook trout will make you believe.