Originally published in The Fisherman Magazine, NE Edition: Issue #4, January 27, 2011
By John P. Lee
I needed help. I wanted to catch a Rhode Island native brook trout. It’d been years since I targeted them. I understand that January is not the ideal month, and to help with motivation I gave myself a pep talk by saying, “Brook trout are not a trout they’re a char, and chars originally came down from the Arctic. Therefore brook trout must be better suited for extreme cold than browns or rainbows. This may not be bullet-proof logic, but it served the immediate purpose of getting me into the garage. I wanted to find my 4-foot spinning rod. The streams I was considering are cramped, narrow, and lined by brambles, bushes, and blowdowns. A rod longer than 4-feet would be difficult to maneuver.
Next on the to-do list was the ever-so-delicate extraction of information. I talked with a friend. He knows more about where trout live than I do. I had to handle the conversation carefully, padding the real question—where to go?—with enough small-talk that he didn’t feel used. I would pay him back later, take him largemouth fishing in one of the private ponds I have access to. That’s how I positioned it. He said, “Great, look forward to it.”
Then he delivered the goods. I held the phone in one hand, a pen in the other. Google Earth was open on my laptop. “Here’s a good stream,” he said, talking quietly as if someone else was in the room with him. “It’s a little brook. But there are natives in there. You pass the new Dunkin Donuts—the one by the turf farm. If you hit the CVS you’ve gone too far. Take a right just after the Dunkin Donuts. Down that road you’ll see three side roads, two are dirt. There will be three small bridges. Fish the bridges. Each bridge has a hole. One of the bridges is private.”
After I hung up, I double-checked the notes against Google Earth. They lined up. The stream was too small to show up on the satellite image, but I could tell it was there by how the trees grew along the serpentine wind of the brook. A very tempting stretch to fish—no stores or malls or cinemas with 100-acres parking lots. This steam eventually joins others. They form the Pawcatuck River, which drains most of southern Rhode Island and terminates in the Sound near Watch Hill.
I packed only essentials. Boots, no waders. I wanted mobility. I wore a wool jacket and a heavy sweater underneath. It was 25 degrees when I left my house, gusty northwest wind, blue sky. It had snowed the day before, dropping close to a foot. I took three lures: a tiny Yo-zuri swimmer weighing no more than a moth’s wing and two Panther Martin white spinners. I tied the swimmer on in my living room, stuffed the spinners into my pocket.
At the first bridge, the first thing I noticed was another set of foot prints. I bent down and studied the sole—definitely a boot. I stepped into his boot; the snow was deep enough that this was the easiest thing to do. His angle at the stream was the angle I wanted: facing down toward the tail of the hole. I watched the water, the amber color, like weak coffee. The stream and the woods looked cold, lifeless. I took eight casts, then my feet got cold. Uninsulated rubber boots with wool socks aren’t for winter fishing. My warm car began to sound good. I took five more casts, working the pool, quickly and lazily—lazy because I wasn’t thinking about where a trout might be. I threw and reeled. I tried the deep runs along the main current. Nothing. Two more casts and I was gone.
I drove down the road through the farm land. The road paralleled the stream. Then I saw something: two tire marks along the side of the road, pulled off near a big tree. I stopped the car. Then I saw a set of foot prints follow a tree line down the edge of a snow covered field. I pulled off, got out. I studied the sole. It matched the one at the first bridge. The tracks led into the woods by the stream. This bit of visual information tempted me: the idea that someone else knows a lot more than I do. I pictured through the tree line the killer pool, the virginal pool, the one on private property; the one where all this tributary’s brookies would be.
Tracks in the snow don’t lie. I looked at the barn a few hundred yards in front of me. I saw a car and a truck parked in the lot. Too risky. I got back in the car. It’d be one thing if I was 19. But at 40, the risk of getting hollered at by a turf farmer is more than I can bear. I drove on, knowing full well I’d left my best shot at a native behind. Funny how it’s always the spot we didn’t try that would have made the day. I hit the other bridge without a touch. At the last bridge, I saw a place on the bank where the snow had been packed smooth by the bellies of sounding otters. I’ve seen what otters can do to trout water. Seeing this didn’t help my cold hands any.
Back at home I considered the trip. Nothing was caught, yet I’d learned something. First, I’d studied new trout water, a native trout stream. More importantly, I’d learned I wasn’t the only soul doing this: Another man was out there thinking the same thing. He, too, wanted a native brookie. The difference between him and me was his willingness to risk the hike across private land. His error—if I can gently call it that—was that he didn’t cover his tracks.