Thursday, May 28, 2015


The outdoor lifestyle is ruled by the seasons, and the seasons by traditions.  There is no tradition that enraptures me more than spring on a native brook trout stream.

A sprightly Virginia brook trout.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    Trout do, on occasion, live in ugly places, despite the popular sentiment.  Sewage-contaminated rivers and spillways thick with ground up baitfish and full of big brown trout come to mind.  Brook trout, however, do not—at least in my experience. 

    Their necessary fondness for clean, healthy, and cold water predetermines for them a life in the Appalachian Mountain streams, where they serve as groundskeepers of natural beauty and ecological vitality.  Their absence from such streams is a sure sign of a declining environment.  They are a product of their surroundings; and so it is no wonder that they are the most beautiful of fish. 

    In the dead of winter, when trees lie dormant, the ground hardens, the air chews at your extremities, and the vibrant color of a mountain empire is a faint memory tumbling somewhere downstream, brook trout hold fast to the pigments of God’s generous paintbrush from the bottom of the streambed.  Life resides within the river.

A picturesque plunge pool in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    As spring arrives, the air livens and color springs from water.  Dogwood, redbud, rhododendron, magnolia, mountain laurel, trillium, bluebell, and bloodroot take over the understory, accented by the faint green of budding hardwoods.  Grass, mountain daisies, and ferns cover the sunlit stream banks as the water warms.  Insects hatch and embark on their life’s journey; the brook trout become more active.

Mountain Daisies.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Anglers from Shenandoah, the Blue Ridge, and all over dream of these first signs of spring.  For spring is a strong emotion in the mountains—a sharp contrast to the doldrums of winter.

    It is during the spring months that brook trout will readily take a well-presented dry fly, and it is perhaps experiencing the combination of such pleasant purity and the overbearing gamut of hues and aromas present in the mountain landscape, culminated in the brilliant flanks of a quivering trout, that so accurately summarizes our reason for being anglers in the first place.  It is, at least, why I declare the beginning of the year on a brook trout stream.  I hold few stereotypes, but I can safely assume that where there are brook trout is home to me.

    Those with brookie fever are many, varied, and seemingly unlikely. 

    It is no secret that brook trout are a small quarry.  Three and four weight fly rods are common tools.  Streams are often just a few feet wide, and the fish rarely exceed 10 inches in length, though there is the ever-alluring opportunity for fish in excess of 12 inches.

    Regardless, it is mostly true that anyone with an inkling of Appalachian heritage has a fondness for the sprightly brook trout.  Even the most dedicated of big fish nuts can find excitement in the fish, both for the challenge and the opportunity.

    Though they are not especially selective feeders, brook trout are renowned proponents of the old Reverend Maclean’s philosophy on fishing, allowing no person lacking the particular set of skills required to catch them to do so.

    These skills include--first and foremost--stealth.  The vast majority of brook trout streams are skinny, clear, and full of pockets of water holding several fish.  Keeping a low profile, minimizing false casts, maintaining drag-free drifts, and walking softly are necessary skills.  Successful brook trout fishermen are bona fide Blue Ridge ninjas first, anglers second.

Approaching the fish from behind a boulder shield.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    The typical brookie fisherman spends more money on flies and tippet material over the course of the first two months of spring than the total worth of his or her own rod.  The tightness of cover and challenge of presentation is just another aspect of small stream fishing that adds to the fun.  There are no official testaments to my sanity, but I have often caught myself (on a good day) chuckling when my fly wraps around a limb on my last false cast.

    Gas and energy are equally expended resources.  For the small trout, a dedicated angler’s vehicle is stocked with marked gazetteers and guidebooks detailing even the smallest of mountain trickles, and the “good” fishing often doesn’t start before at least a half-hour hike upstream over rugged terrain.

Wild, beautiful fish in a wilderness setting is the essence of brook trout fishing.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Brookie fever is an affliction difficult to justify or explain except by the emotions experienced in the act of discovering it.  Such an unlikely target is the drive behind hundreds of miles of anxiously explored dirt roads; miles of rough mountain hollows navigated on foot; countless around-the-next-bend expeditions; and bruises, skinned knees, stubbed toes, thorn bushes, and mosquito bites sustained.  It is the focal point of our momentary distraction from civilization, and the medium through which we comprehend the grace of the natural world as it was meant to be.

*Originally published by The Rural Virginian

1 comment :

Matthew McLaughlin said...

Nice Piece. Thanks for sharing. Looks like you and I fish many of these SNP blue lines. Matt