Remembering my first trout season
This past weekend marks the earliest statewide opening of trout season that I can remember.
For my entire lifetime, the first day of trout season was set for the Saturday in April closest to the fifteenth of the month. Last year, due to COVID-19 concerns, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission enacted a surprise opening of trout season on Tuesday, April 7. The even earlier opener this year has also been attributed to COVID-19 concerns, but I’m really not sure why. In any case, trout anglers will get to enjoy an extra two weeks of fishing this spring.
As I work on this column, I haven’t decided whether to fish for trout or bass this weekend. During a couple of trips to the Juniata River last week, I encountered great action with hard-fighting pre-spawn smallmouths and that opportunity is a huge temptation to repeat. But the tradition of the first day of trout season beckons strongly as well. Of course, I could also do both.
Until I was 30 years old, the first day of trout season was the day I longed and prepared for all winter. Throughout those early years, I enjoyed many successful opening days, but none more memorable than my first one. I remember it like it was last year.
As I recall, it was just a month before my 12th birthday. Dad didn’t fish, so when I developed an interest in fishing as a youngster, I needed to figure things out for myself. I read every magazine and book about fishing I could get my hands on and cobbled together an assortment of hooks, sinkers and other tackle throughout the winter.
The closest stocked stream was about four or five miles from our house back then. Some of my friends from school lived near the stream and were able to give me ideas where to fish there. The prime piece of logistics for my first trout adventure was finding a way to the stream on opening morning. Around the beginning of April, I began negotiations with my mother for that all-important ride.
She relented with the condition I take along my brother Ron, who was two years younger than me. That was an easy concession because Ron and I were also close buddies and shared many special childhood escapades together. This would be one of those.
Back then, trout season opened at 5 a.m., and of course, I wanted to be on the water at that time. Mom, however, had other ideas about that start time. She pointed out that 5 o’clock was well before sunrise, and she was not about to leave two pre-teen boys along a creek in the dark.
Knowing I wasn’t going to win that point, I relented, and we hit the water sometime after 7 a.m. that morning. Mom told us she would return around noon to bring us some lunch or take us home if we were done fishing. I assured her I intended to fish all day, but the lunchtime rendezvous was probably a good idea in case I had caught my limit and was done for the day. What I lacked in skill and experience back then, I certainly made up for it with hubris.
Despite our youthful enthusiasm and energy, I don’t recall that either of us had a single bite that morning. When Mom arrived at noon with welcome sandwiches and drinks, I was sure Ron would return home with her given our lack of success. But to my surprise he was going to keep fishing too. Mom told us she would be back at 5 to pick us up, and we headed back to the stream with renewed eagerness.
We didn’t fare much better that afternoon, and around 4 o’clock the first pangs of disappointment began to set in. I left my brother at a small pool and wandered downstream a short distance. I stopped at a nice-looking run with a slight undercut back. Even then, something told me that was a great place for a trout to hide.
I flipped my worm upstream and let current sweep the bait under the bank. On the second or third cast, I felt two unmistakable tugs on the line. A bite! I jerked upward with the rod tip but brought nothing back except a bare hook. I threaded another worm on the hook with trembling fingers and cast again.
As my line drifted back into the hot spot. I was focused and ready when I felt another bite. This time I set the hook smoothly and deliberately and felt a struggling fish on the line. I scrambled the brook trout onto the bank and pounced on my catch. Back then, the size limit for trout was 6 inches. A quick measurement showed my fish was 9 ¢ inches long. Filled with excitement, I slid the trout into my creel and headed upstream to find my brother.
I soon met Ron who was walking downstream, towing a brook trout behind him. He had nothing to measure it with and didn’t know if it was big enough to keep, so he kept it on the line and in the water until he could find me. I could see that it was a little bigger than my fish, and sure enough, it taped 10 inches. We were sitting on the stream bank laughing and celebrating our success when Mom arrived to find her two oldest boys had become trout fishermen that day.
For me, that first little brook trout lit a fire inside that still burns brightly to this day. It was the first of a lifetime of countless fishing memories and the start of what would develop into a career. I hope all my fellow anglers of all ages who get out this opening weekend also come away with some special memories of the experience.