Catch 'Em, Creel 'Em, and Cook 'Em
The trail I trudged was the remnants of a long-abandoned railroad bed that once bore the rattle and clatter of a log train towing virgin timber down valley to the mill downstream. The northern woods of Pennsylvania harbor these old rail beds in nearly every hollow, vale, and dale in the forest. The brook beckoned. I snuck off the trail toward the stream. I cautiously crept toward a likely spot using the thick trunk of a towering hemlock to hide my motion from wary, skittish trout. Evergreen branches drooped over the clear water, shading the brook. The tree’s roots, washed by woodland waters for a century, were scrubbed and scoured. The brook made a sharp turn at the tree and cut deep, forming a deep hole around the bare roots.
I pulled a worm from my bait can and pricked a number six hook through the wriggler’s mating band. A quick turn of the worm and I buried the barb into the tail, leaving two inches dangling from the point of the hook. I swung the bait upstream and let the rush of the run wash the bait into the roots. A brook trout darted out from its hidden lair, seized the offering and scampered back to the security of the depths. In one motion, I set the hook and lifted the trout, swinging it to my chest.
I grasped it with my free hand, calming the wiggling and squirming while I held it to a rule. A quick measure of the brookie indicated seven and a half inches. I stared for a few seconds at the fish. Orange and red and gold highlighted the pattern of the trout. It had met the length standard and it was a legal trout. I slid the trout into my creel, fished a worm from the bait box and rebaited, not moving a step. I finessed another tempting trout treat above the roots guarding the pool beneath the bank. The creeled trout had a big brother and it screamed out to inhale the bait in the open water, racing back under the roots to dine. I set the hook and carefully maneuvered the trout clear and lifted it out, swinging it to my chest again. It was a nice nine-incher...a really nice wild brookie for this small rill in the deep woods. I decided that was enough from one trout hole. I smiled as I remembered Granddad, sixty years ago, say, “We gotta leave some fer seed.” As I moved upstream, my mouth watered at the thought of crisp-fried brook trout.
The calendar read July 1. That’s my secret. While most folks who fish for brook trout assail the small streams in April, most are finished fishing for brookies by mid-May. I wait until late June before I concentrate on our state fish. And there are a number of reasons. First, the little trout have had all of May and June to gorge and grow—to legal size. Second, the streams are at a lower level and the trout are concentrated in the larger pools. Next, the trout will eagerly attack any presentation.
Lest some purists take offense, I’ll explain. I play catch-and-release with rainbows and brown trout. They’re all stocked for fun. They’re put and take trout. Besides, they taste pasty and bland. But brookies? They are delicious. I love the pink, tasty flesh of wild native brook trout. With brookies, I’m in the catch ’em, creel ’em, and cook ’em class. They’re lots of fun to catch, but the proof is in the eating. I’ll confess. The last time my wife and I had brookies for supper, we ate twenty of them.
And don’t sniff at the worms. I’ve used just about everything imaginable to catch brook trout. For years, I was exclusively a minnow fisherman. Once in awhile, when the time was right, I used grasshoppers. I flailed flies at the brookies. Once, when my worm can was empty, I stripped the hackle off a wet fly to get a bare hook so that I could impale a cricket I found under a rock. And I caught and creeled a nice one. I fish worms now because of the memories they kindle in this old codger’s cranium. I started with worms more than sixty years ago. But I also have a “secret” dry fly that trout suck in with abandon.
Bear in mind that a “nice one” for a native brook trout ranges from eight to ten inches. If you hook one that hefts several pounds and stretches out to a foot, you’ve got a trophy. Brookie anglers probably catch and release a dozen small trout before they can keep a legal-sized fish. I can usually pull the bait away from small ones. Once in a while, a four-incher stubbornly holds onto the worm thrashing left and right until it breaks off a bite and plops back to water. But it is July. Many of the smaller ones have grown to legal size by late June and I get to wade through acres of beech fern and enjoy the laurel in bloom. And that’s part of the fun. Brookie fishing is constant action in beautiful country.
You’ll find brook trout water in the mountain freestone streams and brooks throughout the Twin Tiers. Where do I go? As any brookie fisherman knows, brook trout are caught on “secret streams.” But just about any running water from two feet wide to twenty feet across will hold brookies. I’ve even caught them from sluice pipes under forestry roads. It’s great fun. I get to see awesome scenery, and the eatin’ is a gourmet’s delight. I can’t wait until brookie time.