Of flowages and fire

The ground was soggy as we sloshed back in on this early January day. We parked at a place that I’ll never reveal to walk in to a stream I’ll never name. Pennsylvania trout fishing all too often entails parking and casting a couple of minutes later into a small lake stocked with fresh trout. That wasn’t for us though and we had outsize backcountry trout on our minds as we made our way downhill toward the unassuming flow.

As things leveled off at the bottom, a channel of water rushing between the trees caught my eye that had never been there before. That wasn’t right – things had changed here. Crossing the main stem of the stream where it passed through a culvert, we headed off into the woods, following a compass bearing. From the higher terrain we hiked across, we could see the brook below or, rather, could see a sort of shallow wooded pond where there had been a brook just a few weeks earlier.

“Nige, I think the beavers have been here,” seemed the best estimation of our new situation. “Maybe let’s just see how far up their swamp goes and try to get some lines in.”

We did this and found we could get lines in but our floats never dove. No fish. The beaver carnage had fallen exhaustively and suddenly. Dozens of sharpened little stumps now fenced the former flow. What to do? We hadn’t walked all the way in here to pack up, return to the car and drive off.

“Maybe let’s just see the dam. Might find some fish nosing up to it down below,” suggested Nigel.

It wasn’t really hard to find though it was hard to access, pushing our way through flooded blackberry and greenbrier. We could hear water tumbling over something like a waterfall up ahead from the time we started moving and this directed us in to scene of the crime.

Our pristine trout water was barricaded with a woven heap of sticks. Surely no steelhead were leaping the four feet or so required to proceed upstream from here. What right did the selfish beavers have to impede our sport or block the noble steelhead from its spawning aspirations?

For readers unfamiliar with the steelhead trout of the Great Lakes, here’s a quick synopsis: Around mid-century or a bit later, state and provincial resource agencies began heavy-duty introductions of west-coast salmonids to all of the Great Lakes. In Lake Erie, steelhead were the only ones that stuck and, in fact, did quite well here. The lifecycle of these large trout (a sea-run rainbow trout) requires that they have access to a very large body of cold water in which to spend most of their lives feeding and growing. They also require accessible inlet streams which they can run far up annually to spawn over gravel beds. This run in now well-known to the sportsmen of Pennsylvania who throng to the Lake Erie tributaries by the thousands to cash in on easy access to, arguably, the state’s largest trout. We could safely say “the largest numbers of large trout.”

Having caught nothing below the beaver dam, we almost left but decided to cut our way through the underbrush and back upstream, if only to determine whether any fish at all had been able to leap over or bypass the dam. The new channel I’d observed when we’d arrived suggested that new channels had already been created and, against all odds, steelhead might be using these already.

Back upstream just a bit above the flooded lands, we crossed an even more tiny brook and I felt the tug of curiosity.

“Why don’t you go on up a bit, Nigel, and I’ll just take a little time to have a quick look at this one and see if there’s any chance that a steelie or two got lost and swam in here. Worth a try.”

With that we split and I sloshed upstream through the exceedingly shallow riffles of a really diminutive tributary of a stream that most would have found too small to fish anyway. Twenty-inch long trout just couldn’t possibly manage their way up over…

I gasped as a steelhead rushed from almost under my boot, thrashing up over a riffle on its side and taking shelter just around the bend ahead. I just stared with my mouth hanging open, confused thoughts crowding into my brain. That wasn’t a creek chub. It was definitely a steelhead trout. Or was it? Could have been some other really big fish that just happens to live in this tiny creek. Another type of shiny fish with a spotted dorsal. Surely, this one was a fluke; he was stranded here alone, a bit sad to see he’d lost his way. I’d just check upstream a bit more though…  And Nigel definitely didn’t need to know about this stream. He’d do fine on his own.

Around the bend, two more saw me before I could approach them. The water was almost perfectly clear and there wasn’t much of it. Stealth maneuvers worthy of the steelhead special forces would be required here; maybe the seal team.

I crept toward the next pool on my knees and watched a trout of about two feet long undulating on her side at the tail end of the relatively deep pool, a clean depression taking shape below her. Sitting on the bank behind some saplings, I knew what I was watching. Eggs would be scattered presently.

Two more steelies waited at the head of this pool. No, Nigel definitely didn’t need to know about this place. I would tell him about the barren water I’d seen, devoid of…

“Anything, anything at all?!” hollered Nigel, appearing over the low ridge behind me. I looked at the water significantly and held up three fingers. Nigel audibly held his breath and crouched a little. The steelhead seal team was in position.

I could recount the play-by-play over the next hour but suffice it to say that we worked our way through quite a bit of similarly shallow water over the next hour and a half, finding observant steelhead waiting for us in each pool. They were also some of the largest steelhead I’d ever seen – in the smallest stream. This was exciting but what they were most excited about currently was spawning, certainly not about eating. They rejected everything tossed their way, even when we could approach them.

Arriving at a good stopping point from which to loop back to start, we secured lines and got underway. Frustration might have been a reasonable expectation at this point but it’s not what either of us was feeling.

“Oh, that was just really, really good! A fine day on the water and a real find. That’s a treasure – just good to see them all up here,” Nigel summed up.

And it had been good. We now knew whether the steelhead could ascend four feet or so of beaver dam.

“You know, Nige, I think that if we can ever get these fish to bite, I’m not keeping any from this one. They can all go back. Good spawning sites are a bit scarce and if these fish are having some success, I just wouldn’t feel right about taking a fish full of eggs out of here. There are other places.”

Nigel had no argument.

A couple of weeks earlier I’d gone fishless over a day and a half of fishing my out-of-the-way waters. I actually hadn’t found, hadn’t even seen, any fish.

An acquaintance of mine, I later found, had been on the Erie steelhead streams on the same two days. He, predictably, had taken about seventeen.  His sport differed a bit from mine and Nigel’s however. He’d followed a conventional set of steelheading protocols, parking at an official Fish and Boat Commission access site, walking a hundred yards to an already crowded pool on one of the well-known steelhead rivers where even the best pools had names and elbowing his way in to the que of “sportsmen.”

The social affair that is the steelhead pool is well-known to most Pennsylvania anglers. Half a dozen to two dozen glum, hooded fishers will surround the pool’s perimeter, chest-wader clad and maybe knee-deep. A dank cigar fog hangs over the water, sometimes obscuring the view of dozens of hapless steelies fresh in from the lake, waiting for higher water or nightfall to leap the next obstruction. Floats jockey for position while some of the “pros,” modeling a couple thousand dollars worth of neoprene and Gore-Tex, loft chenille ball flies and wish the slob fishermen with their egg jars would just move on.

At some point the Russians will arrive and all hope is lost. These fisher folk will elbow their way in and catch-and-release hours are now at an end. Bait may not be entirely necessary either. Funny to see them back again so soon. Seems they just left with a limit a couple of hours ago.

I only repeat the stereotype because it’s true. (I’m still feeling a bit unhappy about a pile of huge walleye I witnessed a couple of years ago…)

So, the masses of steelhead fishers have their fun and Nigel and I have ours. We’re at liberty to have it our way and they theirs.

I can’t help but think though that if you return time and again to the same predictable pools and same fellowship of the ring of steelhead combatants, your view of conservation, well, it’s just not something Nigel and I share. If this is a social affair to you and a contest of numbers within very predictable constraints, maybe you come away from a day’s fishing just wondering how many steelhead smolts the state of Pennsylvania will dump in next spring and will they do your river justice or will they spread them out too much? How do you outsmart the other fishers all around as well as the very pressured steelhead trapped in front of you? How do you outsmart the Russians?

Nigel and I worked over a couple of seasons to find a prime spawning site, cut through miles of briars and blow-downs and saw whole stream systems from miniscule headwater runoff down to the mouths at the big lake. We’ve watched how rapidly the streams can change in just the few years we’ve been doing this. Whole stream courses have been altered in that time and the beavers aren’t always to blame (like the Russians, I guess). We see not only steelhead trout but birds and animal tracks and minnows and aquatic insects and winter mushrooms. We watch the interactions of things, all that converges to produce a place which produces trout, beavers included.

Our angling experience underlies our conservation ethos. I’m convinced of this. If we believe that fish come from government trucks, we’ll want more of that, and we won’t worry too much about how many we keep either.

If we value the connection between habitat and fish, we’ll see things, much, much differently. We’ll wonder how many brooks like this hold huge trout for a little while. We’ll wonder how many of their offspring are viable and how many make it back to the lake, having been born in cold gravel rather than in a shallow hatchery tray. What would have to change for the whole fishery to become self-perpetuating?

Among the parts of the winter trout explorations Nigel and I savor the most is the mid-day stop to light up my stove and make tea somewhere under the hemlocks. We typically won’t have seen anyone for hours, the silence broken only by gurgling water coursing over half-submerged wood. Maybe we’ll have beached a fish by then, maybe not, but that’s just a bonus – the day’s only half over and we feel sure the best water lies out ahead. The fire rises from the wood-burning canister, licking the sides of the tea pot, reflecting a brilliant cloud across a black pool.

The flame burning below oppressive conifers and skies seems symbolic of man’s presence here in this wild place. And unseen fires drive the determined spawners, burning in their bellies, impelling them upward through frigid flows.


Nigel returned without me a week later, found higher water in our new brook and caught more pounds of trout than he’s taken to this point in the U.S. as well as his largest trout.

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