A long hike for small fish is something that can ground you. And make no mistake, whether you only chase big fish or simply don’t get enjoyment out of little fish… Everyone needs grounding from time to time.
I personally don’t care if I’m catching big fish or small fish, and I only get tired of tiny fish after I’ve caught a hundred of them and nothing else. I’m at the age where I think it’s safe to say that I’ve figured out who I am, what it is I want out of life, and that I’m content with the simplicities I can still manage to find at this point. I only wish everything could be as simple as, say, a fly rod, a stream, and a cast. If I could dumb down everything else in life to three simple components of happiness, everything I’d touch would turn to gold. You’d be calling me Midas.
You might not have noticed, but I’m sure you just might have as well, that I only put three components in there, not four. I could’ve followed up with a fish after the cast, but it’s just not always realistic. No matter how much you want it every time, more times than not the cast will be followed by another cast, and another. The fish may or may not ever materialize, and so to get the full enjoyment out of the experience I’ve found that a fly rod in hand, a stream flowing around my knees, and a fly line looping over my shoulder are the general ideas of all happiness. A fish at the end is simply a bonus. If only life were fly fishing and nothing more.
When I think about brook trout in the Adirondacks, I think about small streams and pocket water. Dark tannin stained streams with ferns, tag alders, and other undergrowth crowding the banks. While evergreen forests stand full of fallen branches and broken tree tops lying in tangled silent commotion on the forest floor. They make travel by foot something akin to moving through an obstacle course. I think of streams shaded by the great pines, the Hemlocks and Spruces, mostly second growth after the logging era with an enormous spared original growth giant scattered here and there.
All of this, the trees, the dead falls, the undergrowth, they stop abruptly at the streams edge where ferns and tall blades of grass mix with tree roots. And there they flank the rocks and boulders, the unmoving and resilient. The dark water does it’s best to move them, to reshape them, but it takes years and years of patience. Millions of years. And the dark water. Adirondack dark. Red tannin stained water, which makes the flash of a brookie look copper. In places if an angler isn’t good at reading waters, the guess could be two feet deep or ten because the dark tea likeness hides the bottom and its structures so well. The brookies use the stained water to their advantage and hide easily in only a few inches of water sometimes.
I don’t think about these things when I’m on an Adirondack stream. I think about the fish and where they might be, and the roll of the fly line loop during a perfect cast. But when I’m not on those streams, these are the things I see in my head. The quintessential Adirondack brook trout stream. This was not the setting we found ourselves in on this trip.
Tim, Nicole, and I, we were staring at clear water. As clear as tap water. We had maps. Tim had a GPS. I had a compass tucked in the top pocket of my overnight pack. A second compass lay buried somewhere in the pack in a dry bag, in a zip lock bag with some matches. Two is one, one is none. Something I learned the hard way many times in my younger years. The GPS was great, but I don’t fully trust technology. It fails from time to time with its batteries and its solder connections. Just give it the chance. I shouldered the weight of a couple compasses to ease my mind.
We shouldered packs with dry clothes, food, tents and sleeping bags, and of course rod tubes and fly boxes. But it was unfamiliar terrain. It didn’t feel like the Adirondacks, it felt foreign, as if we’d traveled to some far off place in a magazine. There were pines, but they were far outnumbered by hardwoods. There was no complaining there, because hardwood forests are easier to move through. The forest floor isn’t littered with the rotten fallen tops of pines, nor is it crowded with the new growth of four foot tall evergreens trying to stake claim to a piece of soil to call home. But the soil, the soil seemed sandy. Not dark and rich with rotting compost. Sure, it was a blanket of rotting leaves, but when we walked along the stream sand was what met the grass, not rocks in the grasp of tree roots anchoring themselves down the sides of cut out and nutrient rich overhung banks. No, tufts of grass met sandy banks which faded into sandy stream bottom which inter mixed with light gravel and scattered softball sized rocks in the widest and slowest stretches.
And how were the details of the sand and gravel and the softball sized rocks so irrefutable? Because there was no color to these waters. Cliché gin clear. It was like looking into a new fish aquarium. Everything is placed just so. The gravel bottom raked perfectly, the larger stones placed with purpose and a sense of natural perfection. The glass cleaned and spotless. Only the fish have not been added yet. The tank is empty.
We hiked an eleven mile round trip. I’ve gone farther, but I’ve also gone only a fraction of that, many times, to catch dozens of brookies. We followed this lazy, colorless and featureless stream for an hour after finding it. It filled us full of doubt. There was no reason for a brook trout, or any fish really to be in such water. There was no place to hide, not only was it gin clear but the forest stood back from it, kept its distance. Small unkempt patches of wild lawn flanked it along most of its length. The trees did nothing to give it cover or shade. A fish would be completely exposed and vulnerable. The King Fisher that swooped and rocketed away never touched the water, as if just passing through. But we did see moose tracks on the sand bar near a downed tree, and as we stood there and studied them water began to fill up their bottoms. There was a moose standing there somewhere watching us we were sure of it, but we couldn’t see it. The thought crossed my mind that if we couldn’t find something the size of a horse that we knew was right there looking at us how did we ever expect to find the tiny brook trout that we doubted lived in these waters?
One-hundred feet up the tiny tributary that we had followed the main stream to find I finally had something small and black dart out from the upstream side of a small boulder as I stripped a tiny streamer past from the downstream side of it, but it was only a tug, a flash of black nothingness, and then it returned to its most excellent hiding spot and refused to move again. Upstream for a half mile we cast to every hole we found on the tiny stream and got nothing, not even the darting of curiosity that seems to be part of the brook trout’s DNA. When we found on this small six foot wide stream a hole, covered in foam, in a jog to the right around a huge boulder and under a large fallen tree, we all thought that surely this was where the brookies would be if they were at all. Nothing.
On our way back down the tiny trib to the main stream I gave the section where I’d gotten the only tug a wide birth, crossing well above it and circling around behind the rock once again to stay out of site. It finally paid off, and I ended up with four inches of brook trout. It was tiny, both in length and girth, or more accurately a lack of both. Even in this small covered stream that had structure, moving aerated water and cover overhead, I still blamed the gin clear water. There were obviously fish in it. You couldn’t tell me that a trout put down a red somewhere up here in the stream and only one fish came out of it. I simply blamed the fact that I was used to catching brook trout easily in the Adirondacks, but that this place was unlike any Adirondacks I’d fished before. The learning curve was steep. We shouldered packs and headed back the way we’d come.
We came to a foot bridge downstream, a man-made structure in the middle of the wilderness. A crossing of the stream by the Northville-Placid Trail. It was as good a place as any to take off our packs and rest a while, so the three of us sat with our feet dangling off the bridge the way children sit on chairs that are too tall for them to reach the floor. We sat there for thirty minutes, give or take, before Nicole spoke up. “There’s a fish, I just saw a fish!” I was lying on my back on the narrow bridge with my eyes closed just listening to the breeze in the trees, the sound of the water, and the occasional buzzing in my ear of the black flies only beginning to become nuisances. I sat up. “Where?”
She pointed to two bowling ball sized stones near the right bank about two feet apart. “It darted from that one to the next. It’s still there, somewhere.” The sky was wide open, bright blue. The sun shined down so bright on the clear water that if it wasn’t for the flow being disturbed by rocks breaking the surface you might not know there was water at all. It was so clear. There were no trees to cover or shade, no trees to hide a fish from a searching bird above. We sat motionless for a few moments watching those two rocks. Nothing. A few more moments. Nothing. I’d given up and relinquished the thought of a fish to mere hope and nothing real when it finally made its move.
A small brookie, possibly five inches, give or take. It moved with purpose, like a special forces commando moving down an alley from cover to cover. It moved from the rock, swam against the current and across for about two feet before tucking itself on the upstream side of a rock hardly any bigger than itself. There it disappeared for a few seconds. Then it moved again. The same way, the same distance, to another stone about the same size and again tucked itself against the upstream side of it. The stone was so small that I could actually see the fish allowing the current to form its body to the shape of the stone to blend in the best it could. It did this same maneuver three times before finally making a break for the left hand bank.
Only the bank wasn’t a straight shear bank or even a cutout bank to hide under. There were no rocks or tree roots to tuck into either. It was the same sandy bank as the rest of the stream, one that came down at an easy angle to meet the water. There was only one tuft of grass, not even a handful if I’d gone to it and pulled it out by the roots. And under those few tiny blades of grass just barely hanging over the water is where the trout disappeared for the final time. It disappeared. Gone.
It may have been an eleven mile round trip hike for one four inch brookie, but it was much more than that in the end. What Nicole took from it I’m not quite sure. I know she pushed herself harder than she probably has in a long time, and I was proud of her. What Tim took away from it I couldn’t tell you either. I know he was hoping for more fish, but aren’t we all? What I took away from it… Well, it seems to change and grow a little every time I think about it. The fish stays the same length every time. But somehow everything else seems bigger, more obvious, makes more sense. Every time I replay it in my head. Eleven and four. Two numbers that’ll stay in my head with lessons attached to them for a long time to come. Tim says it was five inches. Eleven and four sounds better. Four it is.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies available on this web site, JPRossflyrods.com.