*The following story occurred on a scientific exploration of a stream while my good friend Paul Miller and I were collecting brook trout DNA samples. Fly fishing is our method of capture, small fin clips are taken, and the fish are released to live another day. The name of the creek and its location weren’t changed to protect its identity… they were left out completely. It’s quite possible that I’m not a scientist at all but that science was my excuse to go fishing. But let’s be serious… Would you blame me?*
The stream wasn’t looking very promising. That’s not entirely accurate. It looked as fishy as a stream could look… at first glance. Flanked by high stone walls cut out by water over millions of years and cascading through a dark hardwood forest, Paul and I looked at every pool with giddy childlike anticipation. There must be brookies in this one. There has to be. Each pool was something out of brook trout angler dreams. The water fell, poured off ledges that spanned the width of the stream, the elevation dropping another three or four feet into each subsequent pool, frothing white and dispersing into calmer water, and your mind told you that there just had to be trout below the white, at the edges of eddies, and in the deepest darkest portions of the pools. But on closer inspection all wasn’t as great as our angling minds were wishing it to be.
The rock walls the stream had cut through over time were flat, sharply chiseled by time and erosion, long linear lines running horizontally along the ravine. Which meant one thing under the water. The bottom was flat too. Too flat to hold food. And if there was no cover for aquatic insect life, nothing for them to grab a hold of, then there was no reason for trout to be there either. The wading and walking was easy, actually pleasant. We remarked that it was almost like walking on a sidewalk it was so flat and level. And walking up or down the frequent three and four foot waterfalls was like walking up and down steps. It was too easy. Such a place that was so easy to traverse and fish at the same time reinforced the old saying “If it’s too good to be true it then it probably is.” There were no fish here in these pools, no brook trout.
But landscapes change, and thankfully so. Farther downstream after an hour’s worth of empty casts which became empty hopes the terrain started to look different. The flat stone walls faded giving way to forest floor meeting stream banks. Trees and ferns overhung moving water, and the stream bottom became harder to walk because of the cobblestone bottom and strewn boulders and rocks. Finally, pocket water. Obvious runs where you could pick out the most logical places for fish to wait for meals being swept downstream. Undercut banks that looked as fishy as an undercut bank could look. And every now and then, if you just stood motionless and watched from a distance, tiny splashes and sips at the surface could be observed happening. They were random, there was no apparent hatch at any given time, but even if you didn’t know what they were eating, at least you knew where they were. And after a beautiful stretch of fishless water, that was a definite morale booster.
The fishing wasn’t easy, at first. Because some of these small stream brook trout can be so, well, small, a few times we found ourselves casting to tiny dace minnows that were splashing at insect meals that were themselves so small that they couldn’t be identified either. But if we had any question of whether the brook trout in this stream might be stocked or not, when we found two inch brook trout on our size 22 dry flies it gave us that confident certainty, these were wild trout. After a couple pipsqueak brookies, we moved out of that tiny tributary stream and back onto the main creek, right around the time the sun was beginning to climb and the water starting to warm up a bit.
The fishing may have started slow, but once it turned on, it was ON. It became easier and easier to find brook trout with each cast. At the highest point in the afternoon, if Paul didn’t have a fish on his line, than most likely I did. And it didn’t seem to matter so much were we made our casts. I was fishing to pockets, Paul was drifting riffles, and we were both doing a lot of grinning. A lot of catching.
If you’re the type of angler that’s only happy catching big fish then small stream brook trout fishing probably isn’t for you. Most of these trout that we chase in these small waters average in the seven to ten inch range. They aren’t big, but what they lack in size is made up for not only in their spots and vermiculation, but in the spectacular post card settings that they normally call home. I’d also add that if you’re not into chasing small brook trout, that’s both too bad and great at the same time. Too bad for you, but great for guys like Paul and I. Because it means we hardly ever see other people in these places. Which, undoubtedly, would be the third reason besides the beautiful little fish and surroundings. The effort to find and get into such settings is reward enough, but add wild fish and no other people, and what’s not to love?
On our way back up stream Paul stopped to rest at the bottom of the last big pool we’d fished with the flat featureless bottom. I stood just downstream of him staring at a text book setting. The water existed the pool, tumbled down and narrowed, spilling into a deep trench that tucked under the collapsing flat rock wall. Everything told me there should be a brook trout hidden back under the undercut rock ledge where the white water could be flushing small minnows and insects right to it in complete cover. It was so perfect that I just knew… it was too good to be true.
Paul looked at me and said something about it seeming like it would be a shame not to give it a shot, and he was right. Too good to be true or not, I tied on the smallest streamer I had, crouched, and made a bow and arrow cast sending the streamer back in deep at the top of the ledge and let it drift through. The fish of the day came out of that text book spot with a text book specific cast tailored just for such a scenario, a brookie with a bright orange belly and magnificent blue haloed spots. It was probably ten or eleven inches, shaped like a football, and full of piss and vinegar. It used every inch of the small run of stream to escape me, but I managed to get it to my net in the end.
Some things in life are too good to be true. It’s something we’ve all learned over and over along the way, and something we all ignore every now and then no matter how many times we’ve learned it. Why? Because sometimes it’s not too good to be true. And when it works out, in our minds it makes all the chances we’re going to take in the future completely worth it.
Mark Usyk is the author of two books, Reflections of a Fly Rod and his latest, Carp Are Jerks. Not just fishing stories, but stories about life where fishing happens. They can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies are available on this website… JPRossflyrods.com