“Trickle Treat,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply


A tiny stream that holds native brookies is a secret to keep.
Photo by Zach Matthews

After living most of my life within earshot of highway racket, where city lights blot the stars from the night sky, I finally did it. I bought a little farm on a dirt road in the New Hampshire hills. My new hometown has a post office, a cash market, a library, and an inn that has sheltered wayfarers since 1789. There’s a sheep farm and an apple orchard and a couple of cornfields. That’s about it for commerce.

Our town dump is officially called “The Dump.” It’s that kind of a town.

My neighbors own fly rods and shotguns and canoes. They raise goats and pigs and chickens. They park backhoes and tractors and pickup trucks in their barns. They read books and debate foreign policy and drive long distances for good theater and first-run movies and veal piccata, too, and they send their kids to college.

In my new town, stone walls line every roadside. Old cellar holes are scattered through the woods. From my windows I can watch whitetail deer, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, red foxes, black bears, and packs of coyotes hunt and browse in my fields. Barred owls and sharp-shinned hawks sometimes come swooping down to chase the chickadees from my feeders.

In my new town, there are twice as many miles of dirt roads as paved. It’s mostly forest and meadow and mountain and swamp. Rocky streams bubble through every crease in the hillsides. Pristine ponds nestle in every depression.

You could spend a lifetime tramping all those woods, driving all those back roads, and casting flies upon all that water. Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a whole lifetime. But I’m giving it my best shot.

And so I was bumping down one of those nameless dirt roads on an August afternoon last summer, with my topo map on the seat beside me and my old seven-foot fiberglass fly rod in back, going slowly, exploring, getting the lay of the land.

At the bottom of the hill, a brook flowed under a wooden bridge. Naturally, I pulled over to take a look.

On the upstream side, the brook came curling out of the woods and wandered through some boggy marsh. It was barely a trickle. You could jump across it without a running start. It flowed slow and deep and shadowy against alder-lined banks. It reminded me of another trickle that haunted me when I was a kid, and haunts me still. That one was called Job’s Brook.

Fifty years ago, before the suburbs sprawled, native brook trout lived in Job’s Brook. It meandered through a big trackless bog two towns to the west of my hometown. Of all the places Dad and I fished when I was a boy, Job’s Brook was my favorite. We hit it two or three times a year, and not once did we encounter another fisherman, nor did we even see a footprint or a gum wrapper or a cigarette butt.

Mostly the brookies ran from five to seven inches long, but once I caught a ten-incher from Job’s Brook. It felt cold and muscular in my hand, and its spots glowed like drops of fresh blood. My father admired it, proclaimed it a trophy and a treasure, and told me to put it back.

Native brook trout, he made me understand, were rare and beautiful, and so were the waters where they lived. He didn’t use the word “endangered,” but his meaning was clear and prophetic.

Today, Job’s Brook, the trout water of my childhood dreams, flows through a concrete trough behind a strip mall—reason enough to move to a farm on a dirt road.

In the summer months that I’d been exploring my new town, I’d cast flies upon all the water that I encountered. I caught bass from every pond—largemouths in the weedy ones and smallmouths in the rocky ones. Most of the rushing mountain streams were running low and warm, and I caught nothing from them. In a few, though, I’d found mixtures of browns, rainbows, and brookies that splashed happily at the foam beetles and bushy dry flies I floated over them. The browns and rainbows suggested that the brookies, too, were non-natives, but I was glad to find them, and I marked those little streams on my topo maps.

So I got out of my car, squatted beside this little nameless New Hampshire brook, and stuck my hand in the water. Almost instantly, the chill ran up to my armpit and whispered, “Spring seeps.”

On the downstream side, the brook opened into a pool, if you could call it that, before it continued its aimless journey around the rim of a horse pasture marked by a curving row of alders and willows.

The pool was about the size of the office in my new house—ten feet across, maybe. A big pool, by small-brook standards. Quite possibly the widest, deepest hole along its entire length, unless there were beaver ponds.

Where the current pushed against the left-hand bank of this pool, it had dug an undercut that exposed the roots of the alders that shaded it. If any trout lived in this little trickle, the oldest and biggest of them would surely live right there.

I captured half a dozen hoppers from the grass beside the road, knelt on the bank at the head of the pool, and dropped them in one by one. The first five kicked and wiggled their way along the current seam, disappeared in the deep shade of the overhanging alders, then reappeared, untouched, and continued downstream.

The sixth hopper disappeared in a little splash under the alders.

That was good enough for me. I looked up and down the dirt road, went back to my car, and grabbed my old fiberglass stick. It was already rigged with an Elk-Hair Caddis on a short leader. I knelt at the head of the pool and flicked a little roll cast onto the current seam. The fly bobbed along, entered the shade under the alders . . . and disappeared in a spurt of water.

I lifted my rod. And laughed. A tiny fish came skittering across the top of the pool.

I held it in my hand, all four inches of it. It was a miniature brookie, already beginning to show its spawning colors. A beautiful little trout.

It wasn’t a ten-incher. It was better than that—a truly wild brook trout, born in this water, and quite possibly a genuine native whose line of ancestors stretched back to the retreat of the glaciers. I doubted that anybody had ever bothered dumping hatchery brookies into this little trickle.

I slid the tiny fish into the water, hustled back to my car, stowed my rod, and got the hell out of there before anybody came along to see what I was up to.

When I discover a new trout trickle, I treat it like one of my secret grouse coverts. I mark it on my topographic map, and when I visit it, I park my car half a mile away and skulk through the woods to the water. I resist the urge to brag about it, and since my father’s not available, I invite no one to fish there with me.

Unless you take turns, there’s room for only one fisherman on a trickle, and most of my friends wouldn’t do it anyway. Catching a five-inch trout from a brush-lined brook you can hop across isn’t for everybody. It’s muddy, sweaty, buggy work. It’s a slog through briars and bushes and blowdowns. It’s not contemplative or even particularly relaxing. It’s on-your-knees, down-and-dirty, sneak-up-on-’em fishing.

You can’t really cast flies on a trickle. You drift them, you roll-cast them, you dab them, you steer them along, and you end up leaving a lot of them in the bushes.

Exploring a slow-moving trout trickle with a fly rod taps into some age-old strand of my DNA. I feel sneaky and stealthy, predatory and primitive and infinitely patient. I don’t get those feelings anywhere else, and I crave them.

So I returned to my newly-discovered brook the next morning and explored it to its source, right?

Actually, no. A day became a week, and then a month, and then it was winter, and I never did go back. I want to explain that life interfered, that I had appointments and deadlines and emergencies, that my car broke down or my back went out. You’d understand that, but it would be a lie.

The truth is, I’ve been putting it off. For now, I’m savoring the mystery of my unexplored brook. I’m letting it fester and grow in my daydreams. I imagine it will be like Job’s Brook, and I’ll raise some five- to seven-inch native brookies as I creep through the alders. I’ll miss more than I hook, but I’ll hook a few, and they will be beautiful. In my fantasy, I’ll come upon a beaver pond about a mile into the woods. Half a dozen fat eight-inchers will be Hoovering mayflies off the surface, and I’ll catch two or three of them before the others spook. Maybe one of them will stretch to ten inches, and I’ll hear my father’s voice, calling it a trophy and a treasure and insisting that I put it back.

Eventually, of course, I’ll explore the brook and learn its realities, and it will no longer be a mystery. But for now, the daydreams are better.

* * *

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.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone and the reissue of her Tally Whyte series.

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