Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Brook Trout, Briar Creek & Memories

Brook Trout, Briar Creek & Memories


Picture Borrowed from "Small Stream Reflections"

            I recently read a post on one of my favorite blogs “Small Stream Reflections” about how the Hemlock is so much a part of our brook trout streams. That blog post took me back to my trout fishing roots and memories of my childhood stream of which I have written on over the years. I began browsing through essays and when I was done perusing what I had put down in print, it occurred to me that two of the essays which were written nearly 15 years apart encapsulated both the life of that stream and how it impacted me as a fisherman over the course of the first 42 years of my life. A period which ended with the 2nd essay and my last visit to Briar Creek around 2005.  Having no personal images of Briar creek or it's fish, the above photo from "Small Stream Reflections" is so close that the two waters could be one-in-the-same. PS: I promise to put it back where I found it Alan. :)


Brookies….

            I picked my way through the briars toward the sound of a creek about 30 yards ahead, but yet unseen.  I knew that the line of hemlocks up ahead would be my salvation from this tangle I was working my way through with a fly rod in hand. It seemed that every time I so much as glanced at the vines around my legs to avoid another puncture through my jeans, I would instantly tangle my fly line again. Yet this entire struggle was worth the trout fishing perfection that lie ahead.  I stepped through the last bunch of briars and stood in the shadow of a 100 yard long run of hemlocks.  Running through that grove was an 8 feet wide trout stream, known to the locals as Briar Creek. It wound its way through the woods after leaving a pond about a mile upstream.  About 1 mile from where I stood, it would join with its sister creek, and then continue a short distance into a county reservoir. 
                Crouching down to rest, I took advantage of the open area to inspect my leader and tippet.  All was intact and the #14 Royal Coachman on the end seemed none the worse for wear as well. I evaluated my approach to the pool that lay straight ahead of me.  The bank on the far side went straight up the mountain, and was undercut with roots.  The pool at its deepest point was about 3 feet, and it extended for about 30 ft into the next ripple. I crouched-walked my way up to the hole, and with a bow-&-arrow cast, popped the fly into the head of the hole about 6” from the far bank. It had drifted about 4 feet when out from under the bank in a flash came the take, and as quickly as it came it was gone. I lifted the rod tip just slightly and the little glass rod came to life.  In short order I had a gleaming native brookie lying in my hand. A fat little 8” fish, and a fine specimen for the creek for sure.  I dropped the fish into the creel with a smile, knowing that this would be a great day on the water. I loved this crick!
                That was 1976……24 years earlier. And as I sat contemplating my next move through the briars, I was seriously 2nd guessing my desire to revisit this creek of my youth.  I had left the Jeep parked at the same place I always entered the woods as a kid, yet it somehow seemed much thicker than before.  Whether it was actually thicker underbrush, or just a thicker man walking through it I was not certain. But either way, I was sweating & my legs already bore the puncture wounds of unbelievable large green thorns! I could however, hear the creek just up ahead.  And like years ago, I smiled with anticipation.
                Stepping out into the hemlocks, there it was!  The hole I remembered was gone however.  The bank had given way along with a huge hemlock, and the root system had carried rock into the streams path.  Feeling slightly let down, I turned downstream.  I was not to be disappointed a 2nd time. There before me was a pool twice the size as I recalled, and as I stood there watching I saw at least 2 distinct rise forms at its tail-out.  I was no longer carrying the old South Bend glass rod of my youth.  Instead, I now had a little 3 weight Orvis Superfine that seemed perfect for the water.  I decided to fish the hole below me from its head and feed line after a dump cast.  The 1st cast ended up in the branches overhead.  Cursing at myself, I was fortunate to pull my fly free….and this time with a side-arm delivery was able to pile up my line just below the riffle.  I watched the #16 Elk Hair Caddis drift for about 10 feet and the rise came with a sip. One minute it was there, and the next second all that was there was a bubble on the surface.  I lift the rod tip and found an acrobatic little fish on the end of my line.  Enjoying the moment, I let him take his frustration out on the little 3 weight, and then stripped line to retrieve him.  An amazingly bright little 5” brookie came to hand.  Removing the hook, he instantly flipped in my hand and was back in the stream.  20 minutes later I had landed 3 more identical fish and was reeling in line to search downstream.
                What I found was exactly like I remembered.  Pool after pool began with a smallish boulder choking the stream, which then dumped into a hole of a couple foot in depth, and a 10-20 foot tail-out would follow.  Each of which held a handful of hungry brook trout in the 5-7” range. I was in heaven.  As expected, I was 12 years old again.  Yet oddly enough, I hadn’t seemed to improve at all in my casting ability! At least not that my performance on the day had proven anyway.  I had been fishing exclusively with the same #14 Elk Hair Caddis throughout the morning up until that point, as I stepped out onto a little gravel bar formed by the stream and its sister fork of nearly identical size coming together.  Almost immediately a rise-form at the head of the hole caught my attention.  It was a larger fish from the looks of it.  Losing my bearings, I turned to cast directly to it, and instantly hung my back cast.  After the initial frustration, I smiled to myself. A lot has changed over the years, but just like a 12 year old kid, the sight of a larger fish had gotten me flustered and I instantly forgot everything I knew.  Right down to the fact that I was standing in an opening too small for a standard cast. 
                Having lost my fly to the hemlocks, I tied on a wet fly that I had actually tied for the day, but had not gotten around to fishing yet. I leaned out from the bank to my right, and with a sidearm cast skipped the fly up into the rifle above.  Stripping line in as the fly drifted downstream toward me the line quickly went tight.  I lift the rod and found myself hooked onto a fish considerably larger than any I had caught all morning.  The fight ensued, and after pulling him from roots & giving line multiple times, I was looking at a 16” brook trout and a monster fish for that stream.  Again, I was 12 years old and wishing for my creel.  My dad would love this fish!  But having no creel and with my Dad gone now, I was left without a camera and only me and the fish.  I smiled as it slipped from my hands and instantly disappeared back into the roots it had risen from. I looked at the little wet fly that had done the trick.  It instantly became the “Briar Creek Wet”.  From the confluence of the 2 streams I was only 75 yards from the lane I was parked on upstream.  Feeling like this was as good a place as any to wrap up the morning, I headed out toward the road.  It had been a nearly perfect day on the water & like 24 years earlier, I found myself walking back up that gravel lane….tired, sweated through & undeniably happy.  I was heading back home again, rod in hand, knowing that Mom would have something in the kitchen for lunch.  Coming around the corner I saw the grill of my Jeep staring at me, & reality returned again. Lunch would be at the general store, and maybe I would visit that pond I remembered just a short drive away?  Times do change…..and yes, waters do as well.  In the end we have our memories. 

 It’s been nearly 10 years since I re-visited that creek….maybe it’s time.


The Briar Creek Wet

Hook:  #14 2x Long Dry Fly
Thread:  Black
Tail:  Red Tippet
Rib: Flat Gold Tinsel
Wing:  March Brown Brahma Hen
Wing:  Wood Duck (Tipped on Original)

But for Memories….

                The Briar Creek that I grew up near was the epitome of a perfect wild brook trout stream. A fact that was not contemplated during my youth yet became painfully obvious as an adult as I traveled. It was a true rarity. A jewel of the outdoors that not only was in its prime as I knew it, but was also vastly left alone by local fishermen.  It was perfection within the trout world, and the best of trout streams to a 12 year old boy with a hand-me-down fly rod and a tin of wet flies. To that boy, it was water equal to any of those found in the pages of magazines, with brookies so brilliant and plentiful that no rival was possible. At least in my young mind it was so.
                The creek was formed by two forks. The East fork flowed from a spring near the base of Knob Mountain, and then traveled through farm fields and 2 beaver dams. From the point of the 2nd beaver dam downstream to its confluence of the west branch it was intermittently brush choked with a few stretches of hemlock shrouded runs. This was, an ecosystem of its own as the beaver dam was full of large fish, and the lower run was in essence a tail-water fishery. We would begin at the dam until we had caught a brace of keepers, and then move downstream, pool-hopping between us through the hemlock runs.
                The West fork was fed from a spring that had long ago been formed into a farm pond. From that point its gradient was increased rapidly and its pocket water tumbled down through a mile and a half of hemlocks, where it met with the east fork. This pocket water stretch taught me everything I needed to know about fly fishing so many of the waters I encountered later in life out west. I learned by trial and error how a drifting wet fly “needed” to be presented in order to even be looked at.  Later, I would come to realize that the fish on Briar Creek came to the creel with much more difficulty than most waters I had encountered since.
It was at the confluence of the two forks that a large pool formed in the shade of several old hemlocks, before gaining speed and heading out through meadows where it dumped into the local watershed. It was a beautiful place to behold. With just enough room for casting, small gravel bars to approach the water, and almost an ethereal feeling while in the shade of those huge dark trees. It was the genesis of this fisherman’s piscatorial memories and the birthplace of so many pans of frying fish in my mom’s kitchen.  Quite often through the years, I will find myself sitting along other waters, yet daydreaming about that hemlock pool. More waters than I can count have taken me back there. It seems that my mind has decided “that place” is fishing. Not able to understand exactly why my mind works in that fashion, I’ve willingly accepted that fact and not fought it. After all, it did treat me well, so who am I to complain simply due to a lack of understanding?
A few years back I realized that I had not fished the water in many years. So with rod in hand I took the trip back home and made my way through the woods from that familiar gravel road. However, things had changed. There was no longer a watershed as I had known it. In an effort to fix a damaged and dangerous dam, the watershed had undergone a complete transformation. At the beginning of those old meadows the creek was now routed underground. The entire area of the confluence was now open grass. Gone was the pool. Gone were the hemlocks. Gone was all that I had known and loved for so many years. Not giving it enough time to sink in, I turned away and began fishing my way back up the west fork and its pocket water. Some fish were still there, but most were in the 5” range. Still as beautiful as ever, but far fewer than I recalled. I fished casually upstream for about ½ mile, then turned around and strolled back down to the location of the old pool. With a dozen fish on the walk I still could not shake the sadness of what had become of my pool. Sitting on a stump on the edge of the tree line where the meadow began, I looked out over the old location. It was gone, but I could still sense it. Closing my eyes I could hear the streams currents converging. I could smell the thick heavy air under the canopy of the hemlocks, and feel the pea-gravel move under my high-top converse sneakers. I was there. It was there. Just as I had often found myself while sitting on the banks of waters far better known and heralded.  And it was then that I understood. But for memories…many things such as this small stretch of water would at some point cease to exist. Not just go away, but cease to exist as if it never had at all. Unless it’s existence and meaning was held in the memories of those in which it had touched.