While July may be a month for tall glasses of lemonade and August a time for corn on the cob with melted butter dripping down the sides, September is a month of transition. Summer may be over, but fall has yet to truly begin. Although humidity still clings to the leaves and gnats continue to plague the gardener, schools are once again open. In most states, the end of the month brings with it the official close of the fishing season.
Little rain falls during September and the air is often still. The trout of Bonnie Brook remain languid in water as skinny as a young woman’s jeans. To catch a fish during this time of year, an angler must cast his flies “far and fine.” This advice was first given to anglers by Joseph Cotton in 1676. It was part of his contribution to Izaak Walton’s fifth edition of The Compleat Angler. Although Cotton’s fly line was comprised of braided horsehair rather than nylon coated with PVC and his rod constructed of lancewood instead of graphite, his words remain as true today as they did when first written one hundred years before our nation declared its independence from England.
As the month progresses, I find myself looking forward to those first weeks of October when brown, tan, and muted-orange leaves hint at the main event that will culminate in a canvas painted in varying hues of gold, orange, and scarlet. I spend much of October splitting billets for the wood stove and freezing soups cooked with the last of the garden’s vegetables while waiting for the rain to return and the temperature to drop.
With the rain, the current of Bonnie Brook is refreshed. With the drop in temperature, rainbow trout once again slide into the stream’s riffles, runs, and plunge pools. Shy throughout the season, brown trout become more aggressive, seeking to put on weight before winter’s semi-hibernation. By the end of October, the stream’s brook trout begin their spawning ritual.
Since the State does not stock the little stream, the fishing season closes when my fingers are too numb to feel the fly line, which usually does not occur until sometime in December. In the meantime, after this week of on-and-off-again rain, I put aside the maul and ladle and slide the hood of a rain jacket over my baseball cap. After buckling hip boots to my jeans, I drive into the hills where the color of the hardwood trees is muted by a fine mist.
When I stop at the little bridge that crosses Bonnie Brook, I’m happy to see the current running high, but clear. Driving on, I turn right. A few miles north, I turn right again, and after a short distance, pull to the side of the road.
Although brown trout dominate the lower pools and runs of Bonnie Brook, and rainbows its middle section, brook trout call the upper reaches of the stream home. I usually fish these headwaters in March and early April, when the winter’s snowmelt and spring spates raise the water level, but with this late-in-the-season rain it might be worth exploring.
Moss-covered boulders rise from two narrow ribbons of dark water that merge to comprise the brook’s main current. The origin of each tiny tributary is a pond—one, a few hundred yards to the north and the other, a half-mile or so to the east
Clouds press down as the mist periodically turns to light drizzle. The smell of the damp earth and decaying leaves is strong as I tramp alongside the stream. It mingles with that of lichen, moss, and the duff of the hemlock forest through which the upper stretch of the little brook flows.
Over the last few years the hemlocks that once grew to over one-hundred-feet tall, have collapsed across the forest floor like a set of Tinker Toys. In some cases, limbs cracked while in others entire trees are uprooted. Roots are raised twenty or more feet toward the sky. Spindly branches stretch along broken limbs like the spines of ancient dinosaurs. Rather than an asteroid or some other cataclysmic event, I’m told the destruction of these trees has been caused by the introduction of an exotic beetle that sapped their strength, making them unable to withstand the extreme-weather events we’ve been experiencing with increasing frequency. It’s a discouraging sight, for these regal monarchs of the forest have sheltered the little brook, their shade keeping temperatures down, their roots reducing siltation. In this way, they protected the habitat of the stream’s wild population of trout.
With the brook’s width no more than a yard or two across, I hop from one exposed boulder to another. The current is running high as I pick my way around, over, and through the downed trees. My first few casts are awkward, but I manage to avoid the outstretched branches. When the fly settles upon the current, a tiny brook trout rises to grasp it. A fingerling, the fish is no longer than my pinkie. The shoulders of the miniature trout are as dark as the gloom that pervades the doleful forest; its flanks as bright as a maple’s leaf.
A few moments later a second fish flashes in a shallow riffle when I strike too soon. On the next cast, another trout, a few inches longer than the first, grabs the fly. Over the next hour a number of brook trout rise to my offering.
In some places, a chaos of limbs and branches becomes an impenetrable barrier, and I’m compelled to hike in wide arcs around the tangle of decaying trees. Making my way back to the stream, I inch my way across the trunk of a fallen hemlock. After lowering the tip of my fly into a pool deeper than the rest, I skitter the pattern across the surface until it’s lost in a sudden boil. The severity of the strike takes me by surprise. With difficulty, I’m able to play the fish while continuing to straddle the tree. The palm-sized brook trout is larger than those I previously encountered, perhaps six, maybe seven inches from nose to tail. The fish’s jaw is hooked, with all the color of an autumn landscape splashed across its side.
Eventually, the tangle of wood becomes too much, but before turning back, I try one last cast. The fly drops between three trees that span the width of the brook. When their roots loosened at the top of a ridgeline, their trunks fell across the stream, their crowns reaching the far bank where I’m crouched among broken branches and split limbs.
The run that slides along the side of the ridge carries my fly under the trees where another trout splashes through the surface. After a brief struggle, the fish comes to my hand. Although as brightly colored as the others, I notice a wound on its back, a cruel reminder of the Spartan conditions with which the fish of Bonnie Brook must contend. Whether inflicted by an otter, perhaps a heron, or maybe a snake, I have no way of knowing.
Releasing the little warrior, I hobble back through the maze of downed trees. Although saddened by the loss of the hemlocks and concerned for the stream they once protected, I have faith in these wild trout that abide despite the odds.