As a young man, I read Hemingway and Steinbeck, Harrison, and McGuane. Along the way, the fly-fishing raconteur, Richard Brautigan, brought tears to my eyes while the rabid environmentalist, Edward Abbey, had me raising my fists in outrage. I took to heart the words of Gary Snyder, the acclaimed poet-turned-Buddhist, found in his thought-provoking book, Practice of the Wild:
“The wild requires…we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.”
Over the years, I’ve tried to follow the advice of the acclaimed poet-turned-Buddhist, attempting, from time to time to tell a good story when returning home from Bonnie Brook, the rivulet not far from my home here in western New Jersey. For more than forty years, I’ve played tag with the wild trout of the little stream. While doing so, I’ve learned the lessons taught by this tiny stream, and the wild trout that reside there.
As a young man, I’d wade the many larger rivers from the West Branch of the Delaware to the Housatonic to the Farmington as far north as the Androscoggin, casting large streamers and weighted nymphs in a manic pursuit to catch larger and larger fish. I wore a vest with more fly boxes than Samuel Carter had little liver pills and a pack heavy with all the paraphernalia familiar to anglers the world over. Angling requires time on the water, and so there I’d stand, in rain, sometimes sleet, even snow, while buffeted by bruising wind and under blistering sunlight, harassed by gnats, black flies, mosquitoes, and no-seeums, from first light to dark, swinging a streamer, drifting a nymph, casting a wet or dry fly, addicted to the tug.
But there is another type of fishing, one that can be employed on smaller brooks and streams, many not too distant from our backyards, streams that bend and twist through fallow fields and woodland, some of them through deep forest, headwaters of those larger rivers where the majority of anglers continue their search for trophy fish—streams such as Bonnie Brook. Along these secret rills, an angler can cast to wild trout, many times without coming upon another angler. To be sure, the fish here are diminutive compared to the trout in the big rivers, a few no larger than a pinkie, the largest fitting snuggly in the palm of a hand. In these narrow ribbons of water, hidden between thickets of barberry and wild rose, under shadows cast by hemlock or spruce, quite often an overhanging limb of a swamp maple, maybe the branches of a pin oak, I’ve come to appreciate what Thoreau described as “…these jewels…these bright fluviatile flowers, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there!”
On the losing side of middle age, I now seek out these waters too small to gather serious attention from other anglers; forgotten places, where trout live out their lives in the lee of boulders, under the trunks of fallen trees, along banks scoured by the current or as they sometimes do, in a set of sunlit riffles. These are fish that rarely hear the splash of an artificial fly.
This type of fishing requires an angler to heed the words of the legendary American naturalist, John Muir, who wrote, “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.”
No longer do I feel compelled to wing heavy nymphs past my ear, or make sixty-foot casts until my shoulder aches. Instead, I carry a single metal tin that fits nicely in the pocket of my canvas shirt. Once holding cough drops, these days it contains a handful of flies. There are pheasant-tail patterns, ones with parachute wings for fishing upstream and soft-hackled wet flies for when I work my way back down, maybe a few elk hair caddis or black ants if fishing during the summer months. While casting a stick constructed of cane by the Pennsylvania rod maker, the late George Maurer, my mind is free to be in the moment as a six-inch brook trout rises through the surface.
With less distraction, this uncomplicated method of fishing allows me to enjoy the creatures found along the edges of running water—the colorful flash of a tiny warbler or the song of the secretive thrush, the muskrat carrying a mouthful of reeds back to its nest, or perhaps a doe her head lowered toward the edge of the current or a black bear lumbering toward a patch of raspberries. I’ll catch myself smiling at the splash of a frog or while staring into the eyes of a bashful toad, my mind free to be in the moment as a six-inch brook trout rises through the surface to grab that bit of fur and fluff attached to my line.
These moments, like a Basho haiku, remain frozen in time.
Bonnie Brook, and streams like it, remain an escape from the madding pace of modern life that has allowed me to trod a trail less traveled, one alongside a stream where wild trout remain willing to share their secrets, and return to tell a tale or two.
Bob’s book, River Flowers, is a collection of stories about wild fish, the places they’re found, and the men and women who seek them out. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for an autographed copy! You can go to his website for more information about his writing.