Monday, February 12, 2018

Cycle and Change

There is a small stream not too far from home that holds the important distinction of being the first place I really truly studied the practices of fishing very small freestone brook trout water. The first house I ever lived in CT just so happened to be nearly atop its head waters. At that time I could certainly not be called a fisherman but I was still a outdoorsy kid, so catching frogs and snakes in that little creek was a frequent activity. The creek's name included the word "river", which struck us as odd being that it almost always went nearly dry in the summer. Of course I was used to rivers being big, slow moving things, creeks being smaller, louder, and rockier, and brooks or runs being that but smaller still. Franklin PA, where I lived my first seven years of life, has a river running not quite through it but past it. The Allegheny, it is called. It is about 250 times wider than this "river" in our backyard. I spent many days catching frogs and crayfish in Oil Creek, which is about the size of the Farmington and still much much larger than this river. In western PA, we would not even have called our backyard ditch a brook, we would have called it a spring. And even though I was catching all sorts of aquatic things in all sorts of watery places throughout my childhood I never thought such a place would be worth fishing.

Fast forward eight years... I picked up fly fishing, got an interest in small streams, and began to see some things in a new light. This little "river" that I had lived next to for a couple of years ended up being one of the first brook trout streams I really discovered. It wasn't in the Angler's Guide. There was no literature. There was no electro fishing data. The only information to be obtained was word of mouth, and that consisted mostly of phrases like "used to" and "back in the day". I was going to have to fish it to find out. And so I did. It was tricky, too tricky for my undeveloped casting skills and non-existent stalking. But on my first visit I did see wild brook trout rising to the first winter stonefly hatch I ever observed.

Between that late winter day and now I have caught a lot of wild brook trout and learned quite a bit on that stream. It was a wonderful place in that it assured complete privacy. It is almost entirely inaccessible if you are of sound mind. Most surrounding land is private and what isn't has no parking and provides you with some of the most painful bush-whacking you could ever hope for. This keeps nearly everyone out. I, however, am not of sound mind. A very powerful little magnet in my frontal lobe occasionally turns on and pulls me through the brush to the stream. This stream's fish are not particularly big. They are not particularly colorful either, with the exception of some of the males in the fall which have some of the most spectacular spawning colors I have seen on CT brook trout. This is an all together typical, small, wild brookie stream. But too me it is special. And that is why I had't been back to it since the summer of 2016. What I found on that last visit hit me in the gut like a wrecking ball. For a stream with a propensity to go dry, it was awfully dry. I have been scared to return since. But today, after I visited a stream that I have fished quite often in the last two years, rather inexplicably, the magnet turned on.

The walk/crawl/stumble/beating to get to the stream was what I knew it would be, and when I got there I saw the same clear, tiny, brushed in stream I expected. It flows through steeply sloped moraine consisting mostly of gneissose and granitic boulders. These rocks were packed in till that the stream cleared out, leaving them in place with big, odd spaces between them. Spaces perfect for brook trout to hide in. Spaces almost impossible to get a fly into. That, and the encroaching undergrowth, make this stream an exceptionally challenging one to fish. It forced me to learn how to get as close to a hole as possible without spooking its occupants, how to bow-and-arrow cast, and how to perform a wide variety of complex, difficult, and unnamed casts. One day I'll write a book about these things. One day. But at the moment something more important was afoot. I positioned myself upstream of a likely plunge, carefully cast my Walt's Worm under a fallen branch, and was electrified when this was met with a sharp pull. A few moments later I was sitting on the bank happily, probably as happy as any person has ever been. No photo. This fish had come out just for me. 

I continued on, catching brook trout here and there. Not too many. Not too big. Not too colorful. There is no doubt that there are fewer fish than there had been before 2016. But small stream populations are cyclical, and in two years if the conditions are normal it will rebound. Change has happened around this stream, the fastest being the result of man. And that is the change that will eventually end the cycle if we aren't careful. 

Right now it doesn't really seem like we are being careful enough.

After I had gotten all I needed out of that little stream I crossed the crest of the ridge it comes down from, went partway down the other side, and payed a visit to another high gradient moraine stream. This one is an oddball. The water and stream bed color is funky, kind of yellow, which is disconcerting because the water is actually about as clear as clear can be. It looks unnatural. Thick mountain laurels conceal the winding path of the creek except where beavers have come in and done their job.

 This stream as more accessible to the general public, but even harder to navigate and fish than it's cousin on the other side of the mountain. I also get a strange feeling there that intensifies the further up it I go. I feel very much like I'm being observed at a distance, every time I go. It eventually gets to a point where I feel that if I don't turn back I will look up from the water to see some disturbing inhuman apparition standing in the brush, pointing in the direction I had come from. Weird goings on are assured for those who spend an immense amount of time in the woods, eventually. Some biological and psychological phenomena occur that we just haven't quite figured out yet. Whatever the creepiness of this stream, it does have some quite nice brook trout and is a challenge to fish, so I keep coming back. Malevolent ghosts be damned. 

Changes are going on right now. The trees are looking fuller, more red. Skunk cabbages have come out of the dirt. It's the middle of February and yet the weather is very much spring-like. Winter stones are hatching but not in the numbers normally seen. What part of the cycle are we in now, exactly?


  1. What a great post. With the propensity of that brook to go dry especially during the prolonged last drought we had, how do the brook trout somehow make it? I have read they have the ability to burrow into wet gravel to wait it out until rain comes again. Or do they migrate to other places with water? I have no idea, but I am glad this special breed of fish endures somehow. Like you, I hope they always do.

    1. The stream bed itself may go dry but in many stretches of this watercourse there are large water-filled cavities between glacial erratics underground that have little openings into the stream bed. They are cold and have flow. Basically, the stream goes underground. The fish make good use of it.

  2. Wonderful story and getting through the brush was worth it. They survive in spite of environmental changes. WOW!
    Tie, fish, write and photo on...

    1. This stream did. But it won't continue to if so much as one more development goes in on top of it's aquifer.