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  • April 3rd, 2020

A HANDFULL OF SUNSETS

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

 By Joel M. Vance

                There’s something about a brookie.  Imagine getting all gooey over a fish that has to strain to reach 10 inches.  It’s like Mike Tyson getting sentimental about knocking out Pee Wee Herman.

                Still…there’s something about a brookie.

                I love the little fish with the fierce heart.  Maybe it’s that a brookie isn’t sophisticated.  I’m not either.  I don’t half know one fly from another and a brook trout simply doesn’t care.  If it looks like food, he’ll give it a shot.  I’m the same way.  I like beer and brats.  A brook trout is a beer and brats fish, designed by Jackson Pollock.

                Maybe I love brook trout because they are the mine canaries of a stream.  Rainbows and browns, cutthroats and bull trout can handle temperatures and pollution that will turn a brook trout belly-up.  Or maybe it’s something else.  Researchers claim that brook trout do have a fair tolerance for acidity and temperature, but don’t compete well with other fish.  Maybe that’s it.  I get grouchy when my stream has too many anglers.  Me and brookies, we like the stream to ourselves.

 

                 In the words of researchers, “Brook trout are vulnerable to angling.”  So what?  Just because a brook trout is naive is no reason to trash him.  He is a fiery fish of unlimited courage that lives where virtually nothing save the occasional osprey preys on him.  He is not stupid; he is noble in the sense that Sir Galahad was noble because of his naïve innocence.  Everything is black and white to a brook trout.  You’re either food or you’re not.

                Call it stupid.

 

                Just not in front of me.

 

                Fishing writers tend to disparage brook trout.  They damn them with faint praise: beautiful but stupid.  Sounds like rednecks telling dumb blonde jokes in a bar.  “How many brook trout does it take to change a light bulb….”Are brook trout dumb?  Famed fishing writer Joe Bates wrote about highly-selective trophy brookies up in the Maine woods where they didn’t see an angler a year.  They weren’t dumb.

 

                Other anglers admit they use 12-foot leaders with elf-hair tippets and tiny flies to catch those stupid eight-inch fish.  So what if a brook trout will attack a chunk of nightcrawler.  A rainbow trout will gratefully accept two kernels of Jolly Green Giant on a No. 12 hook, too.

 

                Could it be that today’s brook trout has been pushed upstream so far, ahead of water warming and trace pollution, that it’s eating out of a nearly bare cupboard and feels compelled to take whatever looks like food?  That’s not dumb–it’s desperation.  Brook trout belong to hidden little streams as intimate as a chat with a lovely woman in a dark bistro.  I grew up on brook trout on northwest Wisconsin streams like Sucker Creek and Thirty-Three and Weirgor. 

 

                  Only one time have I fished for brook trout that reached weight and length you read about in books written before I was born, a depressingly long time ago. That was in the High Uinta mountains of Utah where a wealthy contractor had built a resort that was half for profit, half for his own enjoyment.

 

                    Being a contractor with heavy equipment available, he gouged a series of small lakes out of the thin mountain soil and allowed them to fill with snowmelt from the nearby Uintas. Then he stocked brook trout. You fish from float tubes only—no boats or wading— and use barbless hooks, catch and release only. The grateful fish gorged on natural food, grew to astonishing size, posed obligingly for photographs with which one (me) could taunt envious fellow anglers back in the flatlands of Missouri.   Today’s angler is more likely to encounter a brookie of about 8 to 10 inches long and perhaps ½ pound in weight. The largest weight I’ve seen recorded for brook trout is an astonishing 17 lbs. 10 oz.   

 

                          Except for the often intrusive manipulations of man those brook trout shouldn’t even have been there. Brook trout are native to the Eastern United States, not to the high Uintas or Wyoming or any other Western state. They are transplants who have adapted to the two thirds of the country where they didn’t exist in historic times. And, for that matter, they are not trout but char, a distinction which matters more to another brook trout than it does to me, especially at spawning time. I’m just happy they exist at all, no matter where, for they are as a friend once described them, “a handful of sunsets.”

 

                         Long ago I fished with an old guy named George Mattis who knew more about the woods and wildlife than 99.9 percent of the outdoor writers of the time.  He was an outdoor writer, in fact wrote the best-selling book ever published by the Outdoor Life Book Club.  But mostly he was a chunky little bachelor who’d gone to high school with my mother and who took pity on a young guy whose idea of fishing tended toward dunking turkey liver for channel catfish and who didn’t know beans about trout.  There were better things in life, he thought, and he shared them with me. I was carp comfortable because that’s the fish I grew up with, a fish of muddy water which tasted pretty much the same. You didn’t need intricate little insect imitations to catch carp; you needed a concoction of Wheaties, combined with sorghum molasses, rolled into a ball and molded on a number 2 hook. If you got hungry you could eat the bait.

 

                George used some flies, but was partial to crappie minnows when he wanted to catch big brook trout (which he kept and ate).  One researcher found brook trout almost never took other fish–just insects.  Tell that to George.  His crappie minnows were fish candy to the trout on Thirty Three Creek. Bait fishing violated the canons of purist trout angling, but George was no stream killer.  He hiked farther than any other angler on streams where few others fished anyway and the few trout he took to eat were cream off the top.

 

                You had to fight through alder swamps and stinging nettle and swarms of deer flies and mosquitoes just to get to beyond where the rest of the crowd quit and went to the car.  That was where George put his rod together.  “I don’t start fishing until the cigarette butts and chewing gum wrappers run out,” he said, busting through another impenetrable jungle like an aging halfback going off tackle.

 

                “If there’s a fisherman’s path, just keep going.”  There was no path where we were and it was a brutally hot day and I had a terrible thirst, possibly the result of an overindulgence in a local Wisconsin brew the night before that, while it may have lacked the indefinable bouquet of craft beer, had the advantage of being cheap.  “I gotta have a drink,” I rasped.  “Is this water safe to drink?”

 

                George shrugged.  “Bears poop back here.  Up to you.”

 

                I chanced it, felt better, and we pressed on.  Finally we came to a bend far back in the Blue Hills where the stream charged into a pool, hit the high bank on the far side, then eddied, scouring a deep, tannin-dark hole.  George nodded, as if to an old friend, dug his Coke bottle from his hip pocket, and shook a minnow free.  That’s the way he kept his live bait oxygenated–a Coke bottle jiggling in his hip pocket.  The minnow swam around, wondering what the hell pass in life it had come to.

 

                I flipped a wet fly into the large, slowly swirling pool and a brook trout whacked it and I dragged the fish, flipping and wriggling, onto the grassy bank.  It was about eight inches long.  George, meanwhile, had landed a rich beauty whose dotted sides glowed with color, like the dabs on a pointillist artist’s palette.  It would go a foot, maybe 14 inches.  He whacked it on the head with his belt knife, expertly gutted it, and stowed it in a wicker creel that Theodore Gordon might have worn.

 

                George was from another time, another century.  He remembered when the loggers came to Birchwood and cut the woods over the first time.  In winter, he wore snowshoes that looked to be 100 years old. He ate venison and brook trout. The local grocery store was foreign territory. Sometimes he would take a small frying pan with him, a salt shaker and some oil and fry up his trout on the streambank and there, alone in the sweet woods he would dine luxuriously. George was a man of another century—the one before, not the one to come.

 

                Next morning, we had a fisherman’s breakfast, brewed up by my Aunt Vic, who had been dealing with smelly anglers for about 70 years.  She fried a bounty of eggs, heaped diced potatoes and toast…and a platter of fresh-fried brook trout.  You ate them like an ear of corn.  Nevermind the careful peeling with a fork that you see in upscale restaurants.  We’re talking fisherman’s breakfast.  You didn’t talk; you ate.  You ate with both hands as if there were no tomorrow.  You picked up a brook trout by head and tail and ate your way from butt to neck on one side, turned it over and ate the other side.

 

                The coffee was lustily constructed to float bricks.  After breakfast, there was a period of contemplation, punctuated by grateful groans.  Then you were ready for another day of brook trout fishing.

 

                This is the way I learned to fish for brookies.  It was a meat-gathering exercise.  Since, I have fished for them in Utah, the high mountains of Colorado and the remote streams of Wyoming’s Big Horns.  I’ve been back to Thirty Three and Sucker Creek, but George has moved on to more distant streams and it isn’t the same.

 

                      I went back to Thirty Three Creek a decade ago, on an uncomfortably hot early fall day. There was a small parking area at the bridge across the creek and I rigged up a fly rod and plunged into the faint fisherman’s trail alongside the stream. It didn’t take long before my T-shirt was soggy with sweat. The creek was narrow and so low that the pools were few and far between. I had a hit on a woolly bugger that, at first, felt like the tug of a trout, but what came to hand was a large sucker, about the right size for a pike bait.

 

                      After a couple hundred yards of unproductive, nearly dry riverbed, I realized this was not the trout stream that George Mattis and I had cherished so long before and I gave it up and trudged back to my truck. There was a conservation agent there, dutifully checking to see who would be fool enough to struggle through the brush alongside this barren stretch of former trout stream. “I don’t think there are any trout left here,” he said. “We’ve had several dry years and most of the streams around here lost their trout.” I resisted the impulse to snarl “thanks a lot!” I gratefully gulped down a bottle of water, gone as tepid as that from the stream…. although presumably free from bear poop.

 

                      The dutiful agent had no idea that that stream had lost more than its trout—it lost a big piece of me in the process. I don’t know if there is a heaven or not but if George Mattis is looking down, as romantics are fond of telling us those who have left us do in their off hours when they are not playing harps or whatever, George could only have been thinking “dumb kid, things change.” And not always for the better. Maybe 33 Creek went to heaven along with George. After all, it was his stream far more than it was mine. The legacy he left me was an appreciation for brook trout and the knowledge that no matter how thirsty you get be aware that bears poop in the stream.

 

 

 

 

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