My first book, Fishing with Faeries, is an account of my encounters with the wild trout of a brook that flows a few miles from our home. It is the same brook described throughout this blog. I suppose it’s not much different than many freestone waters flowing down the sides of the Appalachian Mountain Range. In most places, you can cross from one bank to the other with only a single stride, maybe two.

Bonnie Brook (No, I’m not foolish enough to use its real name.) is no more than six miles long from its source—two ponds snuggled into the southern edge of the Kittatinny foothills—to its terminus, a large river that separates an adjoining state from the northwest corner of our state. Whether spilling briefly off the side of the mountain, meandering across fields that have grown fallow, picking up speed while falling through a gorge, or in its final mile, following a serpentine course through a swamp, the little brook’s depth, with only a few exceptions, is never higher than my calf.

It is a gentle stream. Depending upon the season, a slip or spill might result in a hip boot full of icy water, but never a life-threatening drowning. There is little else to fear here. Yes, there are the ever-present ticks that hitch a ride back to our house and must be picked off after I shower, and it’s true that I once crossed paths with a timber rattler dozing in the high grass of summer and that other time when I stumbled upon a black bear. (The bear was busy eating berries and I was concentrating on the rise of a trout, neither of us aware of the other until we were only a few yards apart.) But although both incidents left a large level of cortisol coursing through my body, I managed to walk away with life and limb intact.

The upper portion of the brook contains ankle-deep riffles that connect a series of plunge pools, which slip and slide under the shade cast by hundred-foot-tall hemlocks. There are a few deeper runs, and a number of holes gorged out by the current in front of or behind one of the many lichen-covered boulders that protrude through the stream’s surface, but for the most part the rush of water in this section of stream is easily waded.

This upper stretch is inhabited almost exclusively by brook trout. The brookies are small, ranging from pinkie size to perhaps six inches. But it is not their size that sets these fish apart. These trout are as wild as any you’ll encounter in Maine or for that matter, Labrador. They are ferocious! Watch one of these Lilliputians erupt through the surface, turn their tail in the air, and drop back down with your fly in its jaw and you can’t help but marvel at their outrageousness. At ease, finning under the dappled sunlight cast by the hemlocks, they display a delicate grace. But it’s only when holding one in a dampened palm that you can truly appreciate their beauty.

As the stream descends from conifers to hardwood, it straightens and narrows while dropping through a series of steps. Each contains a pool no larger than the average kitchen sink. By now, rainbows have joined the brook trout. On the whole these fish are larger, their average length six inches, with enough eight, nine, and even ten-inch trout to keep an angler guessing. While a brook trout will dive deep with a determination three times its size, rainbows will engage in aerial acrobatics that the Flying Wallendas would envy. If this doesn’t work, these scarlet-slashed warriors will zig and zag in mad dashes that can exhaust both fish and fisher.

Sweeping down out of the hardwoods, the stream now meanders at a slower pace, gliding out of the forest and into fields that have grown fallow over the years. It’s as if the current has slowed down to smell the roses, in this case, wild rugosas joined by sweet-smelling honeysuckle and barberries that grace the banks and combine to provide the brook with a sweet perfume from late May through the entire month of June. Wild grape, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy vines add to the perplexity that forms an impenetrable barrier along the sides of the stream broken here and there by a deer trail. The branches of maples, pin oaks and choke cherries offer shade to the fish, some of whom take shelter between the submerged roots of these trees while others hide in plain sight. Vermicular markings across their green backs are perfect camouflage viewed against the cobbled stream bottom.

Throughout this middle stretch, brook trout continue to enjoy the shallow riffles that bounce over rocks too small to be classified as boulders while rainbows dominate the deeper bend pools and those runs sweeping around fallen trees, where there is always the possibility of a thick-shouldered fish erupting from the depths to engulf your fly. A ten-inch trout may not sound like a challenge, but consider the tip of your bamboo rod bouncing up and down as the rainbow whirls around a pool no more than a few feet wide. Add a few tree roots, a rat’s nest of broken branches and other debris eager to free steel from jaw, and the encounter matches any I’ve had with larger fish on wider rivers.

After a while the brook sweeps over the remains of a concrete dam. I’ve never caught a brown trout above these broken blocks of concrete. Moody cousins of the naive brookies and rambunctious rainbows, the stream’s browns can only be found in the pools and runs below the dilapidated structure. As suspicious as any fish you’ll find, the brown trout of Bonnie Brook require extreme stealth, a well-placed fly and a drag-free drift to make their acquaintance.

A few of the adjoining fields have been planted with corn to encourage pheasant, turkey, and deer to browse. This is the State’s way of helping hunters. After a mile or so, the fields turn to forest. Hemlocks once again predominate as the brook swings down into a steep ravine. The current picks up speed, alternating between fast-flowing runs and deeper pools wherever debris collects around the trunk of a fallen hemlock. Mountain laurel and wild rhododendron flourish under the trees’ canopy.

At one point, the brook drops some fifty feet. The pool at the bottom of this impressive fall of water is the widest and deepest of the entire stream. From its waters, I’ve taken fish exceeding twelve inches. Once, during an evening in the latter part of May, as darkness fell over its surface, I released a brown trout that measured twenty inches against my rod.

Flowing out of the ravine, the brook enters swamp-like terrain bending in on itself as it twists and turns for the next mile or so before entering the big river. I imagine that if I could stare down from the treetops, its current, now dark and slow moving, would resemble one of those ten-foot black snakes I’ve seen napping on the hot pavement during high summer.

While tramping the banks of this little stream for more than thirty-five years, I’ve learned its idiosyncrasies and am on a first name basis with many of its fish. Even so, I’ve rarely entered this lowest stretch of water.

Like Nick Adams in Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, I’ve often wondered if fishing there would be a “tragic adventure,” and although, after all these years, time may be running short, like Nick, I tell myself that there will be plenty of days coming when I can fish the swamp.

nick adams (1)

5 Responses to “FORGOTTEN TROUT”

  1. Bruce Edward Litton Says:

    Very much appreciated this story about Bonnie Brook. And the Nick Adams stories have been back on my reading list since just this late August.

  2. forgottentrout Says:

    Thanks Bruce. Now get working on those Nick Adams stories.

  3. JZ Says:

    Nice story of Bonnie Brook and its tumbling ways. Something about brook trout that bring out the kid in all of us. Frequently, in each and every bend there are etched memories from past adventures. We remember those joys of learning and hope for many more returns. Thanks for taking us all back..

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