Against the current

If Not Now, When?

by Bob Romano. Photos by Trish Romano

It’s been a tough year—a virus we can’t seem to control, economic hardship, social unrest across the country, the warmest summer on record, and a citizenry as divided as it has ever been. These are the thoughts running through my mind while driving toward Bonnie Brook on this fall morning. Alongside the road, tawny strains of summer grasses wave in the breeze that sweeps across the fields. A barn leans to one side. In need of painting, the roof sags like the back of an old mare.

Turning north, I ascend a hill draped with rhododendron and mountain laurel. At its peak, I stare at more distant hills that frame the valley through which the little stream flows. There is a haze in the air that mutes the autumnal colors of their forested slopes. Still lost in thought, I descend into the valley.

Braking on a little bridge, I look down at a pool, where for the last two seasons I’ve watched a rainbow trout feed with impunity, protected by the branches of a wild rose that grows along the edge of the brook. I’ve tried casting upstream and down, but each attempt ends with a thorn reaching out to grab my fly. I could snip off the offending branches, but where’s the honor in that?

A doe and her two twin fawns look up when I pull into the gravel lot beside the field where they are grazing. The fawns have lost their spots and, with them, their fear. They are nearly as tall as their mother. After buckling my hippers to the loops of my jeans, I grab my fly rod, the one with cane the color of maple syrup. I’ve cast many fly rods over the years, a few crafted from bamboo, but it’s this old friend, one with a number of nicks and one loose ferule that I choose for company on this afternoon.

My mind turns to the many extreme weather events that have plagued the region, as I head down the path that flanks the brook. In certain places, there is only dirt and rock where once there were brambles and bushes. Erosion has robbed the fish of the protection provided by streamside foliage and the shade required for the water temperature to remain stable through the summer months. I wonder how this will affect the wild trout that call this water their home. My attention is drawn to a rustle in the field on the far side of the stream. A black bear, not that large, most likely born this spring, lumbers toward the wood. The little bruin looks over its shoulder before disappearing under the crimson, gold, brown, and orange leaves of maple and oak, shagbark and poplar.

The brook will not recover from its summertime lows until the first tropical storm blows through the region. Sunlight dapples its surface that remains clear and cold despite the lack of rain. Although only a few yards across, and on average no deeper than my calves, it holds brook, brown, and rainbow trout—fish as wild as the deer, the bear, and all the other creatures that frequent its banks.

As is true of many smaller freestone streams, Bonnie Brook has few sustained hatches of aquatic insects, and none to speak of this time of year. The trout here must remain aggressive if they are to survive. They cannot be as selective as those fish living in water that has many and varied selections upon which to dine. For this reason, they are not fussy, and will rise to most flies in the hope of an easy meal. This time of year, an imitation of an ant, beetle or some other terrestrial insect should get their attention, as such bugs are plentiful along the banks of the small stream.

I remove a metal pill box from my shirt pocket and grab a #14 Stimulator from the various patterns that line its foam ridges. Knotting the bushy fly to my tippet, I work my way up the narrow ribbon of water, twitching the rod tip to provide life to the fly that can easily be mistaken for a hapless grasshopper struggling across the current. The first fish slips from a plunge pool to grab the imitation as it skitters across the surface. It is a brookie no longer than my finger. The flank of the tiny fish glistens in the sunlight before it slips back into the current. In my excitement, I miss the second fish, pulling back on the old rod a bit too soon. I find a third brook trout, slightly larger than the first, when it darts out from along the far bank. The flanks of these fish are a riot of color. No wonder Henry David Thoreau referred to them as fluviatile flowers.

I have found that it’s not so much the pattern I choose, but rather the stealth that is employed. These wild fish may not be choosey when it comes to a meal, but they’ve learned that a shadow may precede the beak of a Great Blue Heron or Kingfisher; a footfall, the jaws of an otter or mink. This morning, they are where you’d expect them to be—under the shade cast by a low hanging limb, along the edge of a sweeper’s spindly branches, in the lee of a lichen-covered boulder.

The sun catches the rose-streaked sash of a rainbow trout when it swings through the surface under the outstretched branches of a choke cherry tree. For a moment we are connected, but then the line goes limp, the fish but a memory.

What you might not expect, is that trout will hide in plain sight, holding in mid-stream riffles slightly darker, and perhaps an inch, maybe two, deeper than the surrounding water. It is there that a nine-inch surprise rises to strike the Stimulator. The worm-like markings on the brown trout’s moss-green shoulders are the perfect camouflage when viewed against the stream’s cobble bottom. It’s only when I hold the fish in the damp palm of my hand that its pumpkin-colored spots are revealed.

In years past, I might spend an entire day working up and then down this stretch of water, but those days are gone. After a few hours, I wet my neckerchief and wipe it across my face. Draping the moist cloth back around my neck, I turn to make my way back downstream. Tramping back up the path, I’m encouraged by these fish that have survived natural enemies, endured extreme flood and drought. Like the trout of Bonnie Brook, we too reside on this precarious orb for only a few short years. I’ve no answers to our current problems but take heart in the words attributed to Winston Churchill: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”

If you’d like to read more about Bonnie Brook and the natural world out your back door check out Bob’s blog.
This story was first published: Autumn, 2020