Written by: William G. Tapply
I missed the woodcock, of course. A little farther along, Burt pointed again, and I missed again, which is how he and I generally do it. No matter. It looked like we’d found ourselves a nice woodcock cover.
We followed that string of alders along the boggy upstream course of the brook. It was good-looking cover, and Burt hunted it well. But the brook kept distracting me. It snaked through some swamp, curved around the edge of a meadow, and eventually dissipated in a hillside that was wet with springholes. The brook ran slow, narrow, and deep in most places, with dark undercuts, rock-rimmed pools, a few quick riffles. Willows and alders grew thick along its banks, and a lot of old blowdown deflected the current and gouged out deep holes. It was a typical New England woodland brook. In most places, I could jump across it. In a few places it widened to ten or twelve feet.
When I got home, I took out my topographic map and drew a red circle around my new woodcock cover. The thin snaky blue line that wandered through it was labeled Porcupine Brook. It eventually ran into a larger stream, and that stream emptied into a river that joined up with another river and on to the sea.
I remembered those quick shadows I’d seen panicking over the sand bottom and thought, hopefully: Wild New England brook trout.
The Hillsborough county trout-stocking records did not list Porcupine Brook. However, the stream it ran into, and the river that stream emptied into, were both stocked. So those shadows probably weren’t pure natives, uncontaminated with hatchery genes. But I figured I’d spotted some wild trout, fish that had had been born right there in Porcupine Brook, and I promised myself that come spring I’d explore my new woodcock cover with a rod instead of a shotgun.
Porcupine Brook reminded me of the little brook that my father and I fished ritually every Patriot’s Day, April 19, which was a state holiday in Massachusetts, when I was a kid. When Dad and I talked about it, we called it Trout Brook, secure in the knowledge that anybody who overheard us would never find it by that name on any map. Dad had stumbled upon Trout Brook during the woodcock season, the same way I found Porcupine Brook.
We parked on a dirt road and intercepted Trout Brook deep in a swamp after a twenty-minute trek through the woods. Then we leap-frogged each other, alternating pools, working our way downstream to where the brook passed under the road near where we’d left the car. Like Porcupine Brook, Trout Brook ran slow and narrow and dark, and its brushy banks precluded any kind of casting. So we dug some worms, impaled one just once (to give it plenty of wiggle) on a size 10 wet-fly hook, pinched a single small split-shot six inches up the tippet, and steered it through the likely-looking trout holes with a fly rod.
We didn’t wade. We slogged along the muddy banks and poked the rod through the openings in the bushes. We worked mostly from our knees, because the trout that lived there were plenty spooky. It took a lot of concentration to detect a bite. The leader would hesitate or twitch, or you might just sense something vibrating up the fly line to your fingers.
Dad believed that the brookies we caught on Patriot’s Day were pure natives. Maybe, maybe not. But they were certainly wild fish. Their spots glowed like drops of fresh blood, and their olive backs were sharply vermiculated. They were slim, but not skinny, and they felt muscular in your hand. They mostly ran from finger-sized to six or seven inches. We always kept half a dozen six-inchers for supper and threw back those that were smaller or significantly larger. Once I derricked in a fish from Trout Brook that measured eleven inches. Dad proclaimed that one a monster, and we returned it carefully so that it might pass its monster genes on to new generations.
Alas, one Patriot’s Day we found orange surveyor’s stakes scattered through the woods and along the banks of Trout Brook, and a year later the forest had been clear-cut and the hills bulldozed level. The brook ran warm and dirty through a straight muddy ditch.
Touching the Past
The April after Burt and I had stumbled upon Porcupine Brook, I went back. I suppose I was trying to relive some old and happy memories of fishing with my father when I was a kid. I also wanted to learn what manner of fish lived in this brook. But mainly, I just felt like going fishing on a nice April afternoon.
I brought an old seven-and-a-half-foot fiberglass fly rod, a four-weight forward-tapered floating line with a seven-foot leader, a spool of 4X tippet, some size 10 wet-fly hooks, a few split shots . . . and a Zip-Loc bag full of freshly-dug worms.
I hadn’t fished with worms for many years. When I was growing up, I fished every way that I could for every species of fish that lived, but I had the most faith in worms. No freshwater fish would pass up a worm, but you had to put it where the fish was living in a manner that appeared natural, and that took skill and knowledge. Fishing a trout brook with a worm demanded a stealthy approach, an accurate reading of the water, and a careful presentation of the bait. The bait had to tumble along with the currents at the right depth. I didn’t know the term “drag,” but I learned all about it by drifting worms in trout brooks. The fish told you when you’d done everything right.
My only rod back then was a clunky three-piece, eight-and-a-half-foot Montague made from split bamboo. I learned the feel of a fly rod by lobbing and roll-casting baited hooks. Casting flies came easily and naturally to me after doing that.
I caught a several pretty little brookies from Porcupine Brook that April day, working my way downstream from pool to pool the way Dad and I did it fifty years ago. I got muddy and scratched and bitten by bugs. It was a wonderful afternoon of fishing. It reminded me of where I’d come from and how I’d gotten to where I am.
The Right Reasons
A few days later I told one of my fly-fishing buddies about it.
“You didn’t keep any fish?” he said.
I nodded. “Put ‘em all back.”
“But didn’t they swallow the hook?”
“Nope. I debarbed it and tightened on the fish as soon as they hit the worm, just the way you do with nymphs. They were all lip-hooked.”
“You used a fly rod, though, eh?”
“But you didn’t try casting flies?”
“You can’t cast on Porcupine Brook. Impossible. Too narrow and brushy.”
“So you used your fly rod just to steer your, um, your bait into the holes.” He pronounced the word “bait” as if he were naming a disgusting waste product.
“Hm,” he said. “So tell me. Why didn’t you use nymphs? I mean, a caddis pupa or even a San Juan Worm . . .”
“I suppose I could have,” I said, “but what’s the difference?”
He frowned for a minute. Then he said, “Well, at least you would’ve been fly fishing.”
The fly-fishing snob was famously lampooned on the cover of the Spring 1933 L. L. Bean catalog in a painting which depicted a barefoot boy with a sapling for a rod showing a string of trout to a portly gentleman with a fly rod under his arm. The portly gentleman—he’s smoking a pipe and wearing a bow tie—is glancing around furtively and reaching for his wallet.
H. T. Webster responded to this cliched scenario in a 1940 cartoon that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune. Webster shows a smug even-more-portly gentleman holding a fly rod with half a dozen fat trout laid out on the stream bank and a barefoot boy gazing longingly down at the fish. In case the message wasn’t clear, the gentleman is saying, “Hm. You look like th’ boy in th’ illustrated calendars who always sells his string of trout to th’ old fisherman. Better take a couple of mine—I’d hate to see a nice youngster like you go home skunked.” And to drive home the point, the cartoon’s caption reads: “The fisherman with expensive tackle who is invariably humiliated by the boy with the hickory pole and a bent pin, finally comes through.”
Nowadays, the downfall of the fly-fishing purist is not that he might be outfished by a barefoot boy with a hickory pole and a can of worms. It’s that he’ll never spend an April afternoon catching wild six-inch brookies from Porcupine Brook.
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Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here.
Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
- Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany,
- Bitch Creek: A Novel, and
- Death at Charity’s Point (The Brady Coyne Mysteries Book 1).