This past Memorial Day weekend, I spent a few days camping in the Adirondacks with some new friends and fishing for native brook trout. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not nearly as bright as our anticipation of catching a good-old-fashioned mess of of brookies on dry flies. Instead, we caught the brunt of three massive thunder and lightning storms that filled the fire-pit and kept us corralled under a very big and well-placed tarp. 3-plus inches would be a conservative estimate on total rainfall, which translated into 2-plus feet on the main river and trib stream we planned on fishing.
The third day, Alex (author of the blog 40 Rivers to Freedom), his son Cole and I elected to stay above the fray and explore a small spill-pool stream, which we followed from the river up into the fern, pine and boulder covered mountainside. As with any time spent in the giant solitude of the mountains, the mind tends to clear a bit. I let go of the responsibilities waiting for me at home and the ever-present weight of a schedule. I took in the heavy pine smell of the wet woods, the humidity of the (yet again) impending rain, the dull snap of branches between my wading boots and the peat, the repetitive mantra of the water on its downhill path. I got to thinking about fishing as a kid and realized that there’s only been a handful of times in my life that I’ve actually caught brook trout. Even fewer that I’ve headed to water with the intent to fish for them specifically.
My first introduction to a brookie was brokered by a small Mepps Black Fury spinner–a black blade with a couple yellow spots, a short brass-and-orange-bead body and a black/yellow tail with a single piece of red yarn extending from it. I was 8 and it was my birthday and not five minutes earlier I had unwrapped my first real tackle box and real rod and and about two-dozen lures–including the Black Fury. We were staying with friends in their cabin in Wanekena, a tiny Adirondack hamlet near Cranberry Lake. The Oswegatchie River flowed by the cabin, tea-colored and deep and slick with braids of current flexing and twisting around giant boulders and their forever weight.
I made my way out onto a low boulder anchored to the shore, locked my lure into the swivel tied at the end of the line, pinched the line behind my trigger finger, flipped open the bale on my reel and pitched the spinner into an eddy just across and upstream from me. I barely had time to close the bale before my line went tight against my first Adirondack titan. All 6 or 8 inches of it. That fish was breathtaking, even to an 8-year-old.
23 years later I went on an actual brook trout fishing trip to the Rapidan River in the Shenandoah National Park. A friend and I fished the river from a pull off on Quaker Run Rd. upstream to the Rapidan Camp (or Hoover Camp) property line. Miles of plunge pools no more than 10 – 12 feet across retreated up into the foothill elevation toward the camp. Small chutes pouring between boulders. Blow-downs zig-zagged the stream every 15 yards, guarding pristine pocket water. Fish attacked every dry fly, wet fly and nymph that we cast. Pint-sized predators in black, orange, red and even a little teal. Bright, but not smart. We celebrated streamside with some jerky and a couple luke-warm beers while I enjoyed a pipe-full of slow-burning Virginia cavendish.
Back on that Adirondack stream, by around one o’clock Alex, Cole and I had fished our way over a quarter-mile up the mountain. Cole was a trooper for being only 10 years old and seemed to have the magic touch with the fish throughout the weekend, which is exactly as it should be. I on the other hand, had many bites and fish on-and-off, but landed my only fish just ten minutes prior to another thunder and lightning storm trouncing our valley. Electing to take photos all weekend instead of fish, Alex had said that he was happy to just help Cole learn more about fly fishing and enjoy his time as much as possible–that with all the fish (and big fish) he’s had the good fortune of catching, he might (might being the operative word) even be at a place in his life where he doesn’t have to feel compelled to fish just because he can. I understand exactly what he’s saying. I’m getting to that point with my own kids. And while he elected not to fish, and I simply did not catch fish, I felt the same zen-like satisfaction simply being out in it.
But I must admit that the euphoria I felt when I caught that perfect 6″ gem from a 5′ x 3′ spill-pool way up on that mountain was a mix of relief and child-like happiness and amazement. On one hand I didn’t get skunked. On the other hand, I could not get over the fact that something so perfect and giant (when you consider the scale of water vs. fish) exists in such a place, completely of its own accord.
That fish was breathtaking. Especially to this 39 year old.