Saturday, December 24, 2011
The Little Things
Long before fly fishing took over my life, before things had to be complicated to be enjoyed, and before the lust for trout in ever-expanding sizes dominated my dreams and nightmares, there were woodland brooks, filled with the smallest brook trout you have ever seen; it was the first of my many worlds of fishing.
As a young boy, before being granted the types freedom you would need to roam the woods alone, I fished with my parents, on small ponds and lakes in Vermont and New Hampshire, from a 12 foot aluminum boat, with trolling lines, spoons, and feather spinners. The fishing was easy, and you could daydream while cruising around, or keep your eyes alert for the animals living in, above, and around the body of water. We used an electric trolling motor. It was almost silent, and one could grow numb to the vibrations it sent through the structure of the boat after a while, not realizing the motor was on at all, until you beached it at the end of the night, and heard the propellar sputtering in the shallow water.
It was on these little ponds and lakes that I first fell in love with trout. My best memories as a child were those cool spring evenings, trolling in circles with my mother and father, taking turns reeling them in. The paint was still wet on my parent's relationship. They still fished together, and made use of their free time effectively, as young couples often do. They would go on off-road expeditions, hike, hunt, fish, and more. They were young, and life had not lowered it's jaws on them yet. There was no mortgage, no house projects, no big promotions with new strains of responsibilities; things were simpler. A couple of years later things would change. They would buy a house, get promoted, and have a baby. The routine of fishing after work on those quiet ponds would come to an end; but it was good while it lasted.
I was thrilled to not be the only child. I was also happy they did not have a girl, as at the time, at age 12, the company of girls was undesirable. I absolutely adored my brother Matt. I readily helped take care of him in his first three years, jumping at any opportunity to babysit him. I enjoyed it, and it made me feel more responsible and helpful in my parent's eyes. My only regret was the giant age difference between us; my childhood would have been much richer if we were only a few years apart, instead of 12. By the time he was six years old, I would be 18, and six is about the time a boy catches the fish-bug.
By the time he was three I was off to high school. I babysat when my parents really needed it, but no longer had the free time I did before my teenage years. I was consumed with the usual things that rule teenage boys: sports, girls, working, and getting behind the wheel of an automobile. Throughout my high school years I was so busy I became a ghost around the house: only present for short spells of sleeping, between sports, school, work, and chasing tail.
By the time high school was over, my brother would be ready to learn my little secret, and I would have finally slowed down enough in life to show him. See, in the three years before high school, when he was just a baby, and my parents no longer had the time to fish, I had discovered the magical world of woodland brooks, and the native Brook Trout of Vermont; it was my fishing salvation. Without those little trickles of water, and the abundant trout in them, I would not be as avid a fisherman as I am today.
My parents had bought a house in the country. We had moved from one of those big apartment complexes where you had to identify yourself over an intercom system to obtain entry into the building, to a small hunting town ten miles away. The only upside of living in the big complex for me was the amount of kids in the neighborhood, many of whom I got into several bouts of trouble with, over the course of our time living there.
This new house was in the country. It was surrounded by farms, woods, brooks and beaver ponds. I was no stranger to the country, I had spent the earliest of my years in a place that would make my new surroundings look like the burbs, before I actually moved to the burbs, of course. Now I was back in the country after a brief hiatus, and I loved it.
Before we had completely moved into the new house, my mother sprouted the idea that we should get a dog, and I agreed. I had already had a few dogs at this point in my life, but we had never stayed in any one place long enough to keep any of them. One had to be given away, one was shot after devouring an entire pen of rabbits, and one was lost in a divorce settlement; I had never really had a dog long enough to know what it was really all about.
My mother had an affinity for Black Labs, so when we went to the shelter to pick a dog out, I was pretty sure I knew which one was coming home with us. I hadn't paid him much mind that day. He was barking and keeping his distance from anyone who entered the kennel. I had several other dogs picked out for myself, one being a drooling, grunting Bulldog, but my mother had other plans, and we ended up leaving with a chubby, dopey, black lab named Bear, who turned out to be an excellent choice.
So at this point, I had a new house in the country, and a dog to help me explore my new surroundings; I was in heaven. All of this came at the head of a summer vacation. Bear and I would explore the woods, build forts, camp, and eventually fish our whole summer away. On my treks with Bear through the woods, I would discover Lull's Brook, which ran past our house, and went for miles throughout the town of Hartland, where we now lived. My stepfather would always talk about how they used to catch trout out of these little trickle streams when he and his siblings were kids. At the time I didn't believe him, and couldn't fathom the thought of trout living in such a small environment. All the trout I had caught had come from lakes and ponds, and the thought of them living here, in these tiny brooks, seemed impossible. I would soon find out the truth.
I had seen a couple older boys heading down the trail that leads to the brook by my house, fishing poles and worm-cans in hand, with a dog tailing them. I was the new kid in a small town, and hadn't made any friends yet, so I followed them, with my dog bear at my side. I followed them out of curiosity; “What are they doing?” I thought, “fishing in that tiny brook? And for what?Minnows?”.
Bear and I had spent the first summer at the new house trying to break off every dead tree branch from every pine on our property, using the big dead limbs to build tee-pees throughout the woods. We had been up and down the brook, and followed it's path deep into the forest, stacking flat stones from old walls meant for penning up cattle, to create dams in all the brooks deepest spots; this was an old Hartland tradition, among the town's boys too young yet to drive to the more popular swimming holes. Never once had I thought there were fish in these waters. And I had never seen them. At best, all I thought might become of the brook was a good place to cool off in the summer's heat; if only I had known...
That day when I followed those older boys into the forest I found out that there were indeed trout in these waters: lots of them. When I found them, I noticed they were dunking worms in the white bubbly plunge pools, as they meandered their way down the brook. The dog they had with them came rushing stoutly toward bear and I, barking loudly, but with the shrill pitch of a nervous animal. Bear was a hefty dog, and somewhere along the lines we had raised suspicions he wasn't of pure blood. The rumor around the shelter where we acquired him, was that there was some Newfoundland in him, how true it was we will never know. None-the-less he didn't back down from their dog, nor did he really get too aggressive; he liked most dogs, and most dogs liked him. Most cats never took him serious though, at least until he sped after them with the power of an ox. Bear loathed cats, enough so that my mother refused to get a house cat, until long after he had passed away; she knew it would never have worked out.
I introduced myself to the two boys. Being new in town I figured I needed all the friends I could find, and fishing friends were the best kind to have. Typical of fishermen, the two boys were not thrilled to see me on their water. I introduced myself, and told them where I lived. They told me about the kids that had previously lived in my new residence, making them out to be real oddballs, presuming perhaps that only oddballs would live there, and I being one of them, of course. I found myself with not much to say. I mostly stood there waiting for some kind of proof of life to come up out of that plunge pool. That's when one of the boys baited the hook with a fresh worm, hopped down to the next hole, and immediately pulled out what was the smallest Brook Trout I had ever seen, at maybe four inches long. I raced over to see his catch more closely. Indeed it was a trout, and not some sort of shiner, like I had originally believed it to be. I immediately withdrew from the boys, pulled Bear away from the other dog's asshole, and headed home to grab my rod, and roll a few rocks for some earthworms as bait.
It was already getting late by the time I made it home. I grabbed my rod, rolled one big rock, pulling from the soil beneath it the tails of two big night-crawlers, and headed back down to the brook. I fished every plunge pool on the way back to the spot the two boys started fishing, but did not catch anything until several holes past that point. I caught two trout that day, both of which were very small, but still came home with me for the frying pan. I rushed home with them, running up my long steep driveway and into the house panting, just to show my folks what I had caught. That night I ate those trout for dinner. I ate them not out of hunger, or lust for the taste of their flesh, but as some kind of sacrilegious ceremony; some kind of Indian “ode to the land”. My new ground was fertile, and that day marked what would blossom into a lengthy romance, with with a skinny, petite piece of water.
For the next few years I would spend countless days following the brook deep into the woods, going further and further down it's slope, until I started running out of the daylight needed to make it home. Some days I would skip right to the best stretches, and others I would meander slowly, fishing every possible trout holding spot in sight. The fishing was always easy, and the eager Brook Trout aided me in learning how to read water; something that would serve me well for a lifetime. There were the undercut banks, the plunge pools, the bend pools, and the big deep pools that always held the biggest trout. Eventually I stopped keeping trout. The decision came to me one day after I found that my favorite stretches were beginning to produce less and less fish. At one point I started putting fish in a bucket, and moving them back upstream, placing them in the deeper pools closer to my house, with hopes to have some sort of farm, or hatchery, full of my own fish.
Some days I wouldn't even fish. I would collect big night-crawlers the evening before, by walking softly and scanning the lawn with a flash light, chasing them down as they slithered frantically back into their holes. There were times I would fill a whole tomato sauce jar full of them, with what looked like a hundred worms, all writhing about in one big worm-ball inside the jar. The next afternoon I would walk the brook, tossing the crawlers generously into each pool and waiting for the darting shadows of Brook Trout to shred them apart, or carry them off into their dark hideouts. I always had more worms than they could eat, and at the end of the day I would toss the remainder into the fast riffles, imagining their bodies cascading down the river, one by one falling victim to a lying trout, until all were gone.
I was this brooks keeper, if only for a moment in time. As I got older, and my mind started gearing towards competitive sport, and pretty girls, I didn't fish that brook much at all. I had older friends with cars, and the means to find new and exciting waters. It was the mid 90's, and gas was less than a dollar a gallon. My friends and I would gallivant all over Vermont and New Hampshire, in search or fun and trouble, many times with rod-in-hand. My little stretch of brook did not get any rest, however. I started seeing a couple young boys, about the same age as I was when I first discovered the brook, roaming up my road and into the woods, buckets and fishing poles I hand. At first this made me mad, but I realized such a wild place could not be mine forever, so I let it go.
As the years went on, my fish, and the adventures that led me to them, got bigger and bigger. Every once and a while I would come back home and fish that old stretch. It was never quite as grand as I'd remembered, and eventually the stretch became barren for a couple years, and I wondered what had happened. Perhaps the boys fishing it never got tired of killing trout. Perhaps they emptied it early on in the season and moved to a different stretch; or maybe something else was to blame?
Eventually my little brother reached an age where he was old enough to roam the woods and fish. I showed him my old stretch and how to fish it. I dragged him on long treks, deep into the woods, and tired and exhausted him to the point of mental breakdown, on more than a few occasions; it was beautiful torture, and it was necessary knowledge for him to gain, as I was of age, and would be leaving him behind for college and adulthood. I knew he would find solace and adventure in these great little brooks running by our house, much like I once did. I knew it would be the first place he was allowed to roam free and feel independent, and it was. Whenever I would come home from college he would tell me about how many he had caught, or if the season was still open, we would fish that stretch together, or I would show him a new stretch he couldn't find without me. Today he is a teenager, and it makes me happy that he still fishes that same brook, for the same trout that I fell in love with so many years ago.
I haven't fished that brook in a long time. Lately I've been thinking about it though. So much so that I've ordered a 2-weight fly rod just for the occasion. I've never fished that stretch with a fly rod; it would be like fishing it for the first time, all over again.
These last 5 years I've spent primarily chasing big Pacific Salmon and Steelhead, and trolling bigger lakes in search of larger trout and Atlantic Salmon. I do find great thrills in the pursuit of brutish fish, but my heart still beats no faster for them than it did for those little, delicate brookies I grew up with. Those Brook Trout, as small as they are, were still truer fish than anything raised in a hatchery, and passed as wild. I appreciate them, and I relate with them, and as a small town boy from the country, I feel in-tune with them. No matter where life takes me, and whatever thrills I find there, you can still scrape my surface and reveal red dots with blue halos.