The best wild brook trout of the year

I’ve been very luck with my fishing adventures this year — with crappies, largemouths, smallmouths and trout — but my best catch and most interesting bite just occurred last Saturday up at camp. I held no great hopes for success that day, because the rain predicted for the weekend never materialized, and the waters were low and clear. I knew the trout would be spooky under those conditions.

The stream I chose for the outing features holdover stocked brown trout in its lower reaches and wild native brook trout upstream. But I rarely catch brown trout unless the pools have some depth and color in them from recent rainfall, so I hiked back in and pinned my hopes on the brookies.

I tossed a line here and there into crystal clear waters on the way in and managed to scare off four big holdover browns and catch only two small brookies over the first mile. I didn’t care, though.

The overcast skies and temperatures in the 60s reminded me that summer was ending and fall, the most precious season in the outdoorsman’s calendar, was well on its way.

The maple leaves were already turning to shades of autumn scarlet, and the shagbark hickory foliage was changing from green to yellow and falling to the ground. I breathed in the golden scent of autumn and smiled. Even a bad day fishing, I told myself, was better than a good day doing anything else.

Eventually I came to a certain out-of-the-way pool that I’d fished before with some success in the past. It was a classic-looking trout spot that was hard to fish. A strong current ran down the far s h o r e l i n e , drove its waters into a cutbank in the bend, then flowed out into a promising, deep pool. The problem was accessibility. Root tangles inhabited the undercut shore, and a large windfall hemlock lay half-submerged in the pool. It would be difficult to present an offering or to land a hooked fish without snagging up.

I tried a few casts with a streamer from the side of the pool into the edge of the current with no success. Then I moved downstream and cast up toward the far bank, with its cutbank and its root tangles, as closely as I dared.

Suddenly I got a small hit and rolled a five-inch native brookie that got away without biting the hook. I tossed in again, hooked the fish and began playing him toward the shoreline. That’s when it happened. A huge trout bolted out from the undercut bank and charged up behind the brookie, mouth wide open, ready to attack and devour. Instinctively I yanked the small fish safely up out of the water and then thoughtlessly put it back in, where it evaded the big fish once more and fled up under a ledge.

For the next two minutes, I stood and gazed at the pool in front of me. The big trout dashed back and forth upstream and down and swirled wildly from shoreline to shoreline in an extremely aggressive manner. Clearly, this trout was “boss fish” of the pool, and it was in no mood to tolerate trespassing or food-stealing from any of its younger, smaller brethren.

It was a wild native brook trout, one of the largest and most beautiful I’d ever seen, about one foot long, thick through the back and sides and colorfully marked. I could see the characteristic network patterns on its back, the bright fall spawning red of its belly and the liver-colored oversized fins with their black shading and brilliant white edges.

I stood motionless at streamside, captivated by the sight of this big fish dominating its territory, hoping it would not spy me. Then I slowly and carefully raised my rod tip and tossed in my line.

The big trout surged forward and took the bait, and I hooked him and guided him thrashing to the shore. I wet my hands and lifted him out of the water, admired him for three seconds, then lay him down for five seconds more on the poolside rocks, where I snapped two pictures. Then I gently released him back into his domain, this best fish of the year in my best year of fishing, ever.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, October 10, 2008

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