by Ted Williams
Having one’s rivers is important, like having family or a country. With rivers, though, you get to choose. I prefer mine rippling with wild brook trout, which is to say clean and secluded. And because my time and place coincide with an irruption of my species, this means my rivers also must be small -- headwater streams really, the tops of systems known even in Back Bay.
An hour west of Worcester is the rivertop I love best, Hyla Brook, I call it, because that is not its name. Here under bald eagles and turkey vultures, in woods demanding good boots, lunch, the better part of a day and, sometimes, a compass, it’s hard to remember you’re in Massachusetts. In the general watershed are dozens of other brooks, some bigger than Hyla, some smaller, none quite so lovely. All are as safe from human defilement as is possible for running water to be, not because people enjoy their beauty or revel in rich communities of plants and animals that flourish in and around them. Not because people in any way treasure them. Only because Boston drinks them.
Maybe Hyla Brook is someone else’s, too, but of the hundreds of other anglers I have met along it over the years, not one has ever been human. I first saw Hyla on a green topo map while ensconced in my easy chair beside a black-cherry fire. Having established that the brook was not on the state stocking list, a prerequisite for even casual consideration, I looked more closely at the map. Lots of unbroken green all around; I got interested. Gradient looked good; I got very interested. There were riffles and pools, and meadows where gaudy, stream-bred brook trout could sip mayflies and lounge in icy, air-charged currents that tumbled down from hemlock-shaded ledges.
I rushed there the next morning. I should note that finding healthy wild trout populations is like finding flying squirrels. You’ll tap 20 or maybe 100 hollow trees before a coal-eyed head appears. But troutlust is only one reason to find and keep rivertops. Rivertops are magnetized wires drawing and concentrating all the best things forests have. One may be equally infatuated with wildflowers or woodland butterflies or berries or woodpeckers or herons or deer or minks or beavers or drumming grouse or visions of silver spilling over moss. … Come to think of it, to me each of these good things are all of them and more, and if I didn’t hang around rivertops because of trout, it would be because of something else.
No day on a rivertop is ever better than your first. That magic morning on Hyla Brook 10 Mays ago I had found one of the few spots in Massachusetts where you can hike hard for 30 minutes and be deeper into the woods than when you started -- a secret, timeless place fragrant with skunk cabbage, leaf mulch and wet earth, where wood frogs quacked and redfin pickerel streaked from swampy shallows, where newts lay suspended in backwaters and sashayed into muck, where spring azures skipped among unfurling ferns and fields of watercress waved gently in clear current over clean gravel.
In and out of the brook, clumps of marsh marigolds were in brilliant yellow bloom and, as far back as I could see, the banks were carpeted with pale yellow trout lilies. A pair of wood ducks burst from an ancient beaver flowage and went squealing downriver. Trout were too much to hope for. Here and there, in the deeper pockets, I flipped out a puffy Adams on a two-pound tippet, but nothing rose to it save fallfish -- “chubs,” trouters call them, spitting the word. Fallfish grunt like pigs. The bigger they are the louder they grunt. Once I ate one, and it tasted like wet Kleenex. But something about Hyla Brook made me look hard at fallfish, and I saw them for the first time not as “trash fish,” but as a part that belonged. Really, they are quite beautiful, very streamlined, silver in their youth, bronze and pewter in maturity. Thoreau, who fished for them passionately, called the “chivin” and basically found them to be “cupreous dolphin.”
Not expecting trout, I naturally found them, suddenly and in astonishing abundance. They were rising to little blue mayflies in the deep, quick water at the head of the first meadow exactly as I had imagined the night before. I pushed through thick alders, wiping spiderwebs from my face and grimacing as ice water rose to my waist. Finally, I was in position. The fly drifted about six inches before it disappeared in a lusty boil. It is difficult for brook trout anglers to admit, but the brutal truth is that these noble fish not only are nonselective in their feeding behavior, but reckless, suicidal even. One can “match the hatch” if one chooses or one can toss out a Japanese machine-tied Bumble Boogie. Nine times out of ten the results will be the same – instant slurp.
That first trout from Hyla Brook was the third biggest I have ever taken there -- 11 inches. She ran the line around a beaver cutting, and I reached down and tickled her smooth flanks, lifting her toward the surface so slowly she never struggled until she was on the bank. She was perfectly proportioned, deep-bodied, with a smallish head indicative of good feed and fast growth. The markings on her green back resembled old worm trails on the inside of elm bark, and her chestnut sides were flecked with scarlet, each ringed with blue. Her belly was orange, fins crimson and trimmed with ivory.
I fished on for two miles, catching wild brook trout all the way – little fish of big country -- and at dusk a great horned owl floated out of the woods and settled on a drowned cedar under a crescent moon. I want more people on rivertops, but it does not follow that I want more of them on mine. Rivertops are very personal things, and I have shared mine only with an eight-year-old named Scott. Rivertops are not to be tattled on. To quote my friend John Voelker, the sage of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who quit the state’s supreme court in order to chase brook trout and write about them, “Any fisherman who will tell on the trout waters that are revealed to him possesses the stature of a man who will tell on the women he’s dallied with.” “Wild trout, unlike men,” writes Voelker, “will not -- indeed cannot -- live except where beauty dwells, so that any man who would catch a trout finds himself inevitably surrounded by beauty: he can’t help himself.”
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