I woke up in the tent, shivering. I could see my breath. My sweatshirt, hunting socks, sweatpants, and winter cap seemed completely ineffective against the harsh cold of the night.
No matter, it was almost time to go fishing.
I put on some more layers and left the tent, joining the other guys around the small fire in the center of camp. Bleary-eyed we slowly woke up. I went to my car and grabbed a small can of “espresso double-shot”– which seemed like the easiest and quickest way to get my necessary coffee while camping.
I cracked open the can with a “sq-squisshhhh” and everybody looked over at me.
“What the heck is that?” asked Rob.
“It’s espresso,” I said.
“That’s a first.”
I know full well I’m not a stereotypical outdoors-type, whatever that is.
I have a fine arts degree. Actually, two of them– plus a Spanish degree. I have plenty of skills involving music and computers, but very few that involve tools or anything outdoors. Sometimes I eat so many vegetables I might as well be a vegetarian. I’m extremely liberal socially and politically. I eat granola.
I didn’t grow up hunting or even fishing. In fact, I stayed inside as much as possible.
But now I wear flannel on a regular basis, and I don’t wear it ironically. I have a small collection of blaze orange clothing items. I carry knives with me. I can build a fire in the woods. I’m not the best at filleting or gutting a fish, but I can get the job done. I have multiple pairs of hiking boots.
From the outside, it seems strange how taken I am with the outdoors, but really it was inevitable. Once I discovered how fulfilling it was to cook my own food, it wasn’t much of a stretch to wanting to acquire my own food.
And nature is awesome. It’s a complicated web of plants and animals and bugs and bacteria that are all related; everything is eating everything else, everything serves a purpose.
And it’s pretty. Trees are great.
As I sipped my espresso I thought about this stuff, about how it was I came to be hanging out with a hunting party deep in the woods. My fleece flannel and blaze orange hat did little to protect me from the cold, but the fire did a great job heating my front.
Soon it was time to gear up and head out. The hunters dressed in orange and tan and guns, I dressed in orange and waders and fly rod. I hopped in the Mini Cooper and drove down the two track.
It took a while to reach my destination; although the dirt roads weren’t too bad, I didn’t want to go fast and possibly break my car. I would get in deep trouble with the wife.
I stopped by the ranger station, picked up some maps, and had a short conversation with someone I imagine was some sort of park ranger. He was an older gentleman with giant hearing aids and a microwaved cup of coffee. I think I overwhelmed him with my enthusiasm for exploring and fishing, but in his defense it was pretty early in the morning.
Back in the Mini, my destination was the Pigeon River, the namesake of the “Pigeon River Country” where we were. I turned down a paved road and eventually made it to the river. I got out to check it out.
It was beautiful and small; crystal clear waters flowing over trees and rocks. I considered fishing near the bridge but immediately decided against it. I wasn’t going to come that far and fish an “easy” spot– I’d hike in and get as far away from “civilization” as possible.
So I turned down yet another two track.
The Mini handled it admirably, it’s dubious clearance constantly in the back of my mind. I reached a clearing; down the track the path turned to sand, and I decided this would be a good place to park. The Mini wouldn’t go well in sand. I got out, geared up, and started hiking.
Compared to the Black River, the Pigeon River was a different beast entirely. The only similarity was the crystal clear water.
This water was faster and deeper; the bottom was sandier, and there were far more downed trees. It was tough wading. Many times I had to climb through thick brush or small beaver dams to make my way upstream.
I saw some small fish I guessed were creek chubs. After an hour, I finally landed my first Pigeon River fish: indeed a creek chub, hanging out in the slow water near an undercut bank.
I caught two more chubs. Although I was looking for trout, I’m never unhappy to be catching fish.
Wading through the deep water, it’s icy splashes reaching my chest, I kept casting, kept looking for my quarry. Then I saw a nice line of bubbles coming downstream. That usually means there is a nice set of riffles or some other obstruction upstream, so I powered through the deep cold water.
What I found was an awesome looking eddy, the water swirling around in such a way I knew there would be fish there; just upstream was a nice set of riffles as I expected. Upstream of the riffles was what appeared to be a deeper run, a bubble line outlining the main current.
I fished it all: the eddy, the riffles, and the run, and caught nothing. I missed a few fish, including one that felt like a trout that slammed my fly under an overhanging tree in the run. Subsequent casts could not generate a replay.
I sat down on the bank and got out my granola. I considered my options: continue exploring the Pigeon River, with its mud and sand and trees, or return to the somewhat easier-to-fish Black River and its eager brook trout.
I decided to wait a while, make a few last casts into the Pigeon, and head back to the Mini. I put my granola away, stood up, and made a nice cast upstream with my #6 bead-head olive wooly bugger.
Immediately I was into a fish. I imagined it was the same one I’d lost 20 minutes earlier. I reached for my net, and soon the fish was in hand.
A rainbow trout!
I admired its colors, thanked it for taking my fly, and promised to cook it as deliciously as I could. I grabbed a nearby stick and whacked it in the head and slid it into my creel.
Hiking back to the Mini, I stopped to look into the eddy. From my vantage point on the bank, I could see all the way to the bottom, and there were indeed fish there. Trout. However, the sun was behind me and all it took was a single false cast to spook every fish in the eddy.
A hike and a short drive later I was back at camp.
“You catch your limit?” somebody asked.
“Nope!” I replied.
They showed me some birds they’d shot, I showed them the rainbow in my creel. I put the fish in my cooler and, after a short lunch, got back on the trail and hiked to the Black River.
It was a hot day, and after semi-accidentally sliding down a very steep cliff, I decided a rest was in order. I pulled an ice-cold beer from my creel, opened it with my swiss army knife, and proceeded to drink it.
I’ve never had a beer in such a pretty place.
After some time I stood up and entered the water. The cool water was refreshing after my hike. The sun was out in full force, which I knew could hurt the fishing, but it was better than being cold.
I explored quite a bit of the Black River that afternoon. I fished constantly, tossing my flies into all types of water, hoping to learn where the fish were. Although they seemed to be everywhere– shallow, deep, fast water, and slow– I got the most hits in the deeper, darker water. I saw some bigger fish come to my flies in such water; plenty of smaller fish chased my flies in the shallower water.
Just like I’ve read: the biggest fish take the best spots, leaving the smaller fish to occupy the sub-prime areas. I suppose it’s their prerogative.
I wasn’t catching nearly as many fish as the day before. I wondered if the harsh midday sun had something to do with it. I caught a few here and there, but the action was inconsistent.
The recipe for success was this: deeper water with bubbles in the shade. Wherever I could find that, I could hook a fish– if only for a split-second.
Later in the day, having explored a mile or two of the river, I had fished back to my starting point, the fishiest spot I’d seen on the whole river. A wide bend in the river, dark water with bubbles on the deeper side; a large downed tree upstream followed by another large tree in the water parallel to the current.
I stood in the shallow mud and tossed my flies up and across, stripping them through the fishy water.
There must have been many fish there, because I almost always had follows. Often I hooked fish for a few microseconds.
I fished every inch of that area. I was amazed at the camouflage of those little brook trout. I still can’t figure out how something so bright and pretty can be so completely invisible in such clear water.
Especially the big one that was sitting next to the log.
I cast my wooly bugger slightly upstream of the log and about two inches from the opposite bank; it didn’t drift a foot before there was a splash and I saw a fish.
Immediately it ran everywhere all at once. It didn’t jump out of the water, but it fought at the surface causing splashes like a trolling motor partway out of the water. My rod was doubled over, my drag was being pulled. The fast water helped the fish, but she was no match for my epic giggling and celebratory profanity.
I grabbed my net, and after the magnificent battle my personal best brook trout was in my hands.
I remember being so excited and even jumping up and down; I think I was even shouting “Thank you!” to the fish, which seemed appropriate considering I was about to kill it.
I release 99% of the fish I catch, but that 1% always ends up in my cast iron skillet. Normally I release a relatively big fish so it can go make more big fish, but I couldn’t help but imagine how tasty this particular fish would be. Not to mention the remoteness of my location and the likely low fishing pressure.
The brook trout was far bigger than the 7 inch minimum keeper size, so I grabbed a stick, whacked in on the head, and slid it into my creel.
Elated, I continued fishing. The sun had a few more feet before it hit the treetops, so I decided to head downstream and cut through the woods to get to the trail. I skipped the shallow water and fished the deeper spots.
It was clear the fishing was better as the afternoon went on: the sun was lower, there was more shade, and there were even fish feeding on the surface. I missed plenty of fish skipping a heavily-hackled stimulator through runs, but only caught a small jewel of a brookie.
Then, casting my olive wooly bugger down into a deep pool and swimming it back, something enormous suddenly smashed into the fly and took off in the other direction.
My rod went from a straight line to a “U” in a matter of microseconds. I giggled like a crazy person.
Soon the fish tired, and I was able to bring it closer to me. I saw it through the water: amazingly beautiful jewel-like patterns on its back, a pure-white belly… As I admired it, as if the fish could sense my distraction, it tangled itself up in a branch on the bottom of the river, and suddenly my rod stopped throbbing.
Did the fish get off the hook? Did I lose it?
I kept the tension on my line just in case. I pulled slightly to see if it would fight back, and I felt something…
I waded deeper, closer to where my line entered the water. Looking down into the gin-clear water, I could see the branch. And I could see the fish!
The brook trout was tangled up in the branch, but still very much attached to my line. I waded closer, reaching my line under the water, I grabbed it with my other hand and tried to free it.
After a few tries, suddenly the tension was gone and the fish sped out from under the branch.
But it was still on!
The fight continued, but the fish quickly tired. I reached for my net and in an instant I was looking at my new personal best brook trout, even bigger than the one I’d just caught.
And this one was even prettier.
I thanked it, admired it, giggled some more, and then reached for a sturdy branch.
I feel I must reiterate that I do not enjoy killing animals even a little bit. However, we all must eat, and in doing so other things must die. The brook trout has no second thoughts about slurping a grasshopper, nor should I about procuring a meal of fresh fish.
The least I can do is provide my catches with the quickest, most humane death that I can. The alternatives they face are much worse and prolonged than a quick whack to the brain: hawks and eagles, bigger fish, raccoons, or even bears (yes there are apparently bears in that area).
I’ve said it before: wild animals do not die of old age, they are eaten by other animals. Perhaps it seems cruel, but nature is cruel. Everything must eat, and so must I. If I didn’t kill these fish, some other animal would have killed these fish, and I guarantee it would not have given any thought to the comfort of the fish in their final moments.
On the riverbank, I placed the fish on a log and got out my filet knife.
Five years ago I never would have imagined this scenario: kneeling in the grass in waders, my sleeves rolled up, my hands covered in blood, running a sharp knife through recently alive fish and pulling out the guts with my fingers.
I was surprised to find the smaller brookie– the one that came from behind the log– filled with eggs! I immediately knew what they were, mostly from fly patterns I’d seen on the internet. I collected them and sandwiched the sticky spheres in some ferns for safe-keeping. I didn’t want to waste anything from these animals if I didn’t have to. I could use those eggs as bait.
I rinsed the fish off in the cold water, placed them in my creel, and buried their entrails in the ground.
Back at camp we shared the grill: burgers on one side, cast iron skillet trout on the other. This was my first time cooking trout in a pan, I hoped they would be delicious.
Inexperienced as I am, they turned out very well. I cooked them simply: doused in seasoned flour, dropped in a hot pan, seasoned with salt and a squeeze of lemon.
I devoured the first two small fish in a matter of seconds. I ate the rainbow trout from under the tree on the Black River first. It was very tasty, but nowhere near as good as the small brookie next to it.
Then I cooked the two larger fish from the day, the female from the log and the striking male from the deep pool. Although they stuck to the pan a bit, it did not affect their deliciousness.
I offered the fish to my campmates, and soon the fish were gone. Luke, who had never eaten trout, devoured one of them single handedly. I felt great privilege to introduce a buddy to the delicious world of trout; I also was ecstatic I could do the fish justice when it came to cooking them.
Our bellies full of burgers and fish and beer, we retired to our tents. I’m sure the others dreamed of woodcock and grouse; I dreamed of beautiful delicious brook trout.