At the bottom of a creek, a reason for thanksgiving


November 25, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

I HAVE A keen eye for trash in pretty places -- not the big, obvious chunks of man-made debris that appear along riverbanks, or the bright blue plastic bags that blossom along highways, but the minutiae of trash. I can easily spot the smallest souvenirs of our premillennial society -- flattened beer cans, pieces of plastic from toys, stove bolts, roofing nails, fishhooks -- that end up in the pretty places where trout live.

The other day, as a friend and I hiked along a creek in a secluded stretch of rural-almost-suburban Maryland, I spotted something white on the dark creek bed from 30 feet away.

I assumed it was a plastic foam cup.

But it wasn't, and there's a story -- and a thought for Thanksgiving -- in what it turned out to be.

As we hiked deeper into the place, a mile or more from paved roads, and no houses in sight, it became apparent that no other human being had visited the place recently -- maybe not in a long time. That's not something you can know, but it's something you sense. I got the impression -- and it wasn't just wishful thinking -- that no one had fished the stream in a long time. I could nickname the place Forgotten Creek.

From a distance, which is how most people see the creek -- assuming they see it at all -- it's not alluring to people who fish. It looks like a creek of marginal health, battered by erosion from upstream farming, water flow a trickle. Certainly trout can't live in such a place.

One thing I've learned from the delight of fishing for trout -- browns, rainbows and brooks all prefer pretty places, where the water is clear and cold. They couldn't exist otherwise. They can swim among sneakers and old tires, they can forage for invertebrate lunch in river bottoms littered with beer cans. But they can't live where the water gets too warm.

Here in the East, wild trout live in streams fed by cold springs or in the bottom water of reservoirs; there's usually a thick canopy of trees, too. "Trout are the canaries in the mine," a Maryland conservationist once told me. "You can judge the health of a stream, the quality of the water, by whether wild trout can live and breed in it."

The other day, we went out to look for canaries in the mine.

We took our fly rods.

It was a warm day in the woods. We kept walking and wading, going farther upstream, sampling wild watercress. We hoped for something we dared not express -- that the stream would be cold enough and clean enough to hold trout.

Up close, the creek looked better than we'd thought. In places, the water was only 6 inches deep, but in pockets, along the banks, under the roots of giant trees, it was 3 or 4 feet deep. There were a couple of long pools. The water was crystal clear. I dropped a stainless steel stream thermometer to the bottom and let it sit for a few minutes. When I saw the results -- 54 degrees Fahrenheit -- I practically shouted the good news to my friend. At the end of the the fifth-driest October since record-keeping began in 1871 -- after the fifth-driest summer on record in the state -- this stream had a steady flow and a temperature suitable for a brown trout habitat.

We continued walking and wading. We started spotting small, easily spooked fish. We saw a crowd of them in about 2 feet of water under the exposed roots of a leaning sycamore. I caught one on a wet fly and, when it turned out to be a baby brown trout -- about 6 inches long -- my friend and I got excited. We felt, at that moment, like prospectors who'd panned a nugget of gold. We returned the little fish to the water.

The creek turned hard to the north, then hard to the east. I saw a trout sip at a bug on the surface of the stream, just below a sycamore. My friend cast to it. A brown trout poked its nose up and took the fly. It was 14 inches long and fat, colorful and strong. We took a good look, then slipped it back into the stream. We were too excited to speak. We'd found trout where we had not expected to find any fish.

We felt -- though we knew this could not be -- as though we had discovered the place.

Certainly, once upon a time, when there were no farms, when all around the creek was forest, natives had come here and fished. Or maybe the farmers who settled here fished it and took trout. Maybe years later, a wealthy landowner had stocked the browns, and now their descendants lived here. No one knows for sure.

Just upstream from where we'd landed the 14-inch brown, I saw something white in the water. At first, I assumed it was trash -- a wad of paper, maybe a plastic foam cup. It was one of the few pieces of trash I'd seen in this pretty place.

But as I approached, I realized the white was not trash from our premillennial society, but something from the stream itself.

I pulled up my sleeves, reached into the cold water and raised the large head of what had been a 4- or 5-pound trout. It was spotted, brown, green and yellow. The white I'd seen was the underjaw.

The head filled my hand. One of the trout's eyes had been poked out. The head appeared to have been ripped away from the body, which we figured to have been at least 2 feet long. A heron or osprey, both of which frequent the area, must have found Bubba before we did.

That's not a complaint.

My friend and I were awed by the size of the trout and humbled by the thought of a bird catching it. We felt privileged, that autumn afternoon, to have found such a place, to have had such an experience, to have been blessed with silence, sycamores, cold water and wild trout. For this we give thanks.

Pub Date: 11/25/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.