Sometimes you need to re-connect with brook trout

A friend emailed me early one Friday several weeks ago inviting me to join him the next day to fish his favorite brook trout stream.

In spite of the relatively short notice, my schedule was clear, and the following morning we were in Clearfield County crawling up a rugged forest road that paralleled the little creek. After a mile or so of bouncing over and around rocks, ruts and puddles on that narrow corridor, we finally came to a pull off big enough for both our vehicles.

We parked there next to a small bridge, and the sound of the cold, clear water rushing over the stones was the perfect background music as we rigged our tackle that Saturday morning. My friend would use a light spinning outfit, while I chose my favorite small-stream fly rod. He was somewhat skeptical that I would be able to fly-fish effectively among all the rhododendron and overhanging hemlock boughs that guarded most of the stream, but I assured him I would be fine with it. As I adjusted my leader, my fishing partner stood on the bridge and flipped his bait into the run upstream where he hooked a fat little brookie on the first cast.

“That’s a good sign,” I said while walking over to admire the handsome little trout.

It took me a little longer to coax the first brook trout to my dry fly, but after that, rises and hook-ups became more regular. We spent the next several hours alternating pools and runs for a half mile or more. We each caught about a dozen brookies, most of them small, but all beautiful, wild fish. For those who love catching wild brook trout, of course, it’s not about size or numbers; it’s about being there and the chance to share the experience with a good friend can be a special bonus. When we returned to our parking spot, I grilled some venison burgers for dinner, and we sat there trading fishing stories and enjoying the evening breeze. It was the perfect end to a satisfying outing.

Brook will always hold a unique place in my fishing life. The first fish I ever caught was a brook trout. It was a stocked fish on an opening day so many years ago, but that trout ignited a lifelong passion in me for fishing. I was fortunate to grow up near a couple of streams that harbored good populations of wild brook trout, and my early years of trout fishing were spent learning to catch them.

Those spooky little trout taught me the value of stealth and a cautious presentation on a trout stream. When I began to tie flies, those eager brookies bolstered my confidence by eating some of the first, crude creations. And fly-fishing on those tight, brush-lined headwaters thoroughly honed my fly-casting skills.

By the time I reached my early twenties, I had discovered many of the wonderful limestone streams central Pennsylvania, such as Spring Creek, Penns Creek and the Little Juniata River. The appeal of those larger streams and the big trout they often surrendered was a strong enticement for a young angler, and I all but abandoned those little mountain streams and their wild brook trout for many years.

But with maturity, many aspects of the outdoor sports come full circle, and so it was for me with trout fishing. After decades of measuring angling success by the standard of “how many, how big and how often,” my paradigm for fishing satisfaction began to shift. Catching big trout and lots of them no longer seemed to be the primary objective for pulling on my waders and stringing up a fly rod. Returning to my familiar brook trout streams once again became essential and satisfying, and my reunion with those waters is one I have continued regularly ever since.

One of the greatest draws to wild brook trout fishing is the wonderful places those fish are found. Wild, mostly unspoiled places, which abound with hemlocks, mountain laurel and rhododendron, are the last holdouts for brook trout in most of Pennsylvania.

Another enticement is the casting challenges presented by those streams. But the biggest attraction is the brook trout themselves and what they represent. They are, of course, our only native trout in Pennsylvania. And, yes, I know they are technically a char, but I’ve always found that taxonomic nitpicking to be pointless. Brook trout are simply the most beautiful of freshwater fish and the crown jewels of the headwaters, a most precious natural gift to be protected and preserved.