And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Tribute to my Trials and Triumphs with Trout

As I walked around my neighborhood early the other morning, a light snow had fallen the previous night, leaving wintery highlights on the trees, grass and rooflines.  It was breezy and cold, but I wanted to get some fresh air while waiting for my coffee to finish brewing back home.  I walked around the corner to the point of the lake where we fish and launch kayaks (in warmer weather), and saw some ducks, and one of the resident swans resting in the cove, all curled up and fluffed up, posing and keeping warm in the brisk morning air.  It was beautiful.  I stopped and just looked at it for a minute, as it paddled around nonchalantly.  The ducks seemed preoccupied with looking for food, and irritated by my presence.  The swan didn't seem to care at all.  But seeing that swan, surrounded by a little bit of snow brought back some memories I hadn't thought of in years....
The swan didn't seem to mind my presence too much.  Perhaps the fact that the neighbors feed the waterfowl fairly regularly in cold weather has made the swan a little less cautious than the migrating ducks....

Some of my first memories of fishing, involve fishing for trout.  Rainbow trout, to be more specific, in freshwater -- not the saltwater speckled trout (which really aren't in the "Trout" or "Salmonid" family, anyway) that are native to where I live now.  No, my very first experiences fishing involved trout....

When I was two years old, my father was transferred from Charlotte to Geneva, Switzerland, and we lived there for five years.  We lived in a small subdivision outside the city, in Collonge-Bellerive, within view of Lake Leman, and the snowcapped mountains of the Alps way off on the horizon.  It was a beautiful and idyllic place to grow up, and I look back at some of the things I did then, and realize it was a much simpler time, too.
The Jet d'Eau in Geneva, Switzerland....  The landmark which immediately identifies the city.  We lived outside the city in Collonge-Bellerive.  Lake Leman, a large glacial lake, had two things I remember well -- lots of swans and lots of trout.

I learned to ride a two-wheeler at the very young age of three; and I'm convinced part of the reason was that I wanted to be able to hang with my brother Ted, who is five years older than me.  Ted would get his fishing rod, and together we'd ride our bikes down to the lake, and fish for trout from the shore or off some of the docks of the businesses that lined the lake.  Numerous swans and ducks swam freely around the lake, and I would often bring old bread to feed them if the fishing wasn't any good.  While my memories of the fishing, itself, are understandably foggy and limited, I do recall a time or two when we brought back a stringer of fish.  And I also remember one very unusual event.
If the fishing wasn't any good on Lake Leman where we went, there were always swans, ducks and gulls to feed.  Kind of like where I live now.  But we have panfish and bass in Lake Meade, no trout....

Geneva is a very cosmopolitan city with a lot of wealth.  And Lake Leman, the largest freshwater lake in Western Europe, was quite a draw for those who love the water.  Sailing and yachting are two of its biggest activities.  One of the businesses we would go fishing near, was a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating.  People could dock their boats, and enjoy a wonderful meal on a patio overlooking the lake.  And they could watch a couple of young brothers fishing.

But one time, the smaller of the two boys noticed that one of the restaurant patrons had a pet he had never seen before... a monkey.  It was causing quite a stir, and finally became too tempting for me to resist.  I went up to the patio with Ted, and started watching from a distance as the monkey went around from its owner to other people around him, who were feeding him small treats.  He was chattering and jumping from person to person, looking for more and more food, as the owner watched, smiling.  I couldn't take it anymore, and moved close enough where the monkey would see me.  I held my hand like I also held a treat, and sure enough, the monkey eventually worked his way over to me and jumped on my shoulders.  I squealed with delight, as the monkey went for my hand, opened it to find the (non-existent) treat, and promptly bit me right in the palm....

I don't remember a whole lot after that, except it hurt.  It was bleeding.  And Ted helped me ride our bikes back home so Mom could look at it.  She took me to the doctor, who treated it and where I think I got some sort of shot, and then we went back home and I rested.  And now, more than 40 years later, that is still one of the more prominent memories of my younger years fishing, living in Switzerland.

I do have other, vague recollections of fishing back then, both in Europe and the States -- especially in the summertime when we'd fly to upstate New York, and visit my mother's family in Ithaca.  Our picnics around Cayuga Lake were a highlight for a young boy, but at that point I didn't know there were trout in that lake....  That wouldn't happen for quite a few years....  No, at that point I only remember my Uncle Bob setting out fishing lines to catch large carp that we would then harness, and have pull us around his dock.

In the summer of 1970 we moved back to the U.S., to Wilmington, Delaware.  I no longer lived close to a body of water I could ride my bike to, to fish, so I was dependent on others who could drive.  But every spring, usually around the first Saturday in March, a wonderful thing happened around the area... the opening day of Trout Season.  None of the streams in the area of the Brandywine Valley naturally held trout, but they were stocked, and that first Saturday of March was when they were most easily caught.  I remember my Dad taking Ted and me to the Brandywine Creek State Park early in the morning, and dropping us off so we could catch some opening day trout.

Fishermen, young and old, would line the banks of the creek, and yes it is truly just a creek, with spinning rods or fly rods and wait.  People would arrive an hour ahead of time, just to find the right spot on the creek -- maybe it was a small swirling eddie, maybe it was a deeper, wider hole, maybe it was the bottom of a small cascading waterfall -- and lay claim.  And they would wait.  Surrounded by dozens of your now-closest friends.  We would wait.  The creek is so narrow in places, you could touch fishing rods with someone on the other side in some parts.  A jar of salmon eggs, or a small wad of Velveta cheese on a tiny hook was our bait, as we waited.... until 9:00 when we could finally put our lines in the water.
And boy, when that first person cast his line at exactly 9, everybody followed suit quickly!  Before you knew it, several people would have hooked up with the hungry, overstocked fish, and they would quickly put the fish on a stringer or in a trout creel, and cast again before they lost their spot.  Now that I think about it, this was really my indoctrination to the "combat fishing" that is the "conga line" on the Point at Buxton, NC, or on the Russian River in Alaska....

We would go a couple other Saturdays during the Spring, trying to figure out when the streams were restocked, to give ourselves the best chances, but there was something about opening day....  A few years later when Ted was able to drive, we'd go more often, taking our awesome 3-Speed, manual transmission  '74 AMC Gremlin to the Valley.  We'd put an 8-track cassette of the Eagles, Elton John, or Chicago in the player and roll!  "Click-click".
You had to love listening to an 8-track cassette, with its fades, clicks and continuous running....  The only thing that screams "the horrible 1970's" even more....
is this....  The 1974 AMC Gremlin.  A compact car that maybe got 20 miles to the gallon.... I drove it until it had 50,000 miles on it, and then it started falling apart.... And we wonder why American car companies haven't been a success.  The only thing uglier than this car was it's big brother, the AMC Pacer....
When Ted went off to college and I finally could drive, I inherited the Gremlin.  Woohoo!  Now my best friend Joel and I could go to the Valley on our own.  Now it was Pink Floyd's "The Wall", and Neil Young, "Rust Never Sleeps" on the 8-track. (All of my Springsteen albums were on LP's, for my stereo in my room.)

We each went to the local sporting goods store in the mall and bought identical 5 foot long ultralight rods before one season.  I loved that rod!  It cost $25.00, and that was a lot of money!  But we were ready.  (That was my primary trout and bass rod for almost 30 years.  I had it until very recently, when one of my kids used it, and lay it against the back of my car.  I got in my car, and backed up, running over it, never seeing it - just hearing a crunch.  It was a sad day, when I finally threw it away into the garbage can....)

Joel was my fishing buddy, especially now that Ted was out of the house.  We would hit the Valley frequently to fish private ponds for largemouth bass, the Brandywine River for smallmouth, and of course the park for trout in the spring.

One time, Joel went with us up to Ithaca, for a visit.  Both of my uncles had ponds that we could fish.  I remember going to my Uncle Jimmy's, and he told us to go catch some fish in one of his ponds.  You didn't have to tell us twice....  My uncle had several ponds, and he told us to fish one of the ones toward the back.  It wasn't big, but it was deep.  And it wasn't fished often at all.  We were excited, and took our rods and tackle boxes there immediately.  As my other uncle only had bass ponds, and Jimmy's other ponds were filled with bass, we assumed this one did, too, and tried rubber worms, poppers and other bass lures.  After about an hour, we had yet to have a bite!  I went back to the house and asked Uncle Jimmy if he had any advice.  That is when told me there weren't bass in that pond, but rainbow trout he had stocked.

We ran back to the pond, switched our lures to gold spinning lures and rooster tails, and we finally started catching fish!  What fun it was, too, now that we knew what we were fishing for.  There is nothing quite so beautiful as the shimmery, speckled pink sides of a torpedo-shaped rainbow, cutting through the water, and jumping clear out of it, with a tight line in its mouth....

Truly one of the most beautiful, and sought-after game fish around the world.  The rainbow trout.  It fights tremendously, with acrobatic jumps and driving runs....  And, it is also one of the most delicious, too.

And then we each went off to college.  Joel went to Vermont, and I went down into the Shenandoah Valley, to James Madison.

By the time my sophomore year rolled around, I had explored the valley surrounding Harrisonburg to know that the George Washington National Forest, as well as other parks in the region were teeming with trout streams.  The Shenandoah Mountains are truly beautiful in any season, and I took numerous opportunities to go up into them, to picnic, camp or fish.  Especially in the spring.

The streams that course through the woods and down the mountains in the heart of Virginia are picturesque and much longer, bigger and better than what I had grown up with in Delaware.  And in addition to the stocked rainbows that thrived in these waters, there also lived naturally reproducing trout -- both brown and brook trout.  They were much more elusive, tricky to catch, and smaller than their man-raised cousins, but the few times I caught one of these fish was always a treat.  I knew I had to have done something right to catch any of these wary beauties.

Early one Saturday morning in March of my sophomore year, I went into the G.W. National Forest, and went to a good looking section of a stream I had scouted out earlier in the fall.  I took my ultralight, a few gold spinners, rooster tails, and small gold hooks and salmon eggs, (as well as my license and trout stamp), and parked.  I walked through the woods to my section of the stream and was surprised that there was nobody else there.  What?  Something must be wrong.  I was used to shoulder to shoulder fishing, and couldn't believe I didn't have competition.  Was fishing prohibited that day?  No, I knew that wasn't the case.  Besides, I had seen other cars and trucks parked along the roads elsewhere.  Wow, I thought.  Oh well, just enjoy it.

Several hours of uninterrupted peace and quiet followed, and I went back to my dorm later that day with my limit of six trout.  My roommate at the time was a city boy from Washington, D.C., who had never gone fishing and had no desire to go.  But even he was impressed when I showed him my stringer of fish.
A tired but happy college kid who wouldn't have to go to D-Hall and settle for a cafeteria-style dinner that night!  Our dorm had a kitchen, so I went and fried up trout for many friends and me.  I was a popular kid that night.
I went again the next week, and this time took one of my fraternity brothers, Mark.  (Yes, the same Mark that I still go fishing with.)  We hit the same spot, and sure enough, caught another mess of fish.  We went back to campus, and Mark -- big flirt and ladies' man that he (liked to think he) was -- suggested we invite some girls who were little sisters in our fraternity for our seafood dinner.  We went out and bought all the fixings for a nice meal, bought a gallon-sized bottle of white wine (we were college kids; our pallet had yet to be developed for fine wines at this point) and prepared another excellent meal of fried trout. 
A much skinnier Mark, with two "little sisters" and a friend of the little sisters, enjoyed a nice trout dinner and some cheap wine. (Hey, we were college kids.  Finances were tight, and we didn't appreciate good wines back then.)

My junior year, I took a semester and went back to Europe to study in Vienna.  At that time, my grandfather still lived in Salzburg, and I had other family and friends that lived around Austria.  I took every opportunity I could get to travel and explore.  The streams and glacial lakes around Austria are crystal clear, and every time I passed one I'd look down into it and see trout swimming.  It only made me want to go back one day with my rod....  I did get one opportunity to fish a stocked pond with some borrowed equipment, and caught a few trout with a friend and fellow student.  But that was it.  I was over there to study and travel, not fish.

After graduating from college, I moved to Richmond to live with Mark.  I got married the next year, and my beautiful bride and I honeymooned in Wintergreen, outside Charlottesville, Virginia.  We hiked, rode horses, played tennis, explored the growing wineries, and explored the mountains.  One stream I made note of in the region was the Tye River.  It looked perfect for trout fishing in the spring....
With waters like this, the Tye River just looked too tempting not to try trout fishing in the spring....
Over the course of the winter, I talked to Mike and Mark and we planned a day trip from Richmond to the Tye on -- you guessed it -- the opening day of trout season.  For the next couple of years, we would wake up before sunrise, drive to Nelson County, sometimes driving through snowy landscapes, to be on the Tye River, rod in hand, waiting for 9:00 opening day.  It was usually cold.  I can't say we were extremely successful, but just like Boys' Weekend, the purpose of the trip wasn't necessarily catching fish to bring home, but the experience itself.

Having said that, this tradition didn't last too long, because a few years into it, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stopped stocking trout on set days, and just started stocking fish year round on an irregular, unannounced basis.  That meant we had even less of a chance of catching fish, if we didn't even know that any rainbows had just been stocked.  We were still trying to figure out surf fishing....  We didn't have time to learn trout fishing basics, all over again, too.

Then in early June of 1990, my cousin was going to get married up in Ithaca.  There wasn't going to be enough room for everyone in town, so a few people would have to stay at my uncle's cottage on Cayuga Lake.  We quickly volunteered.  We drove up that Friday from Richmond, and finally got to the cottage in the late afternoon.  I had never been to the cottage except in July and August, so this was new to me.  (I had always been told that the cottage had only two enjoyable months.)  I went down to the lake and dipped my hand into it from the stony shore.  It was cold!  Of course, even in July and August it never gets above 72 degrees, so it didn't surprise me.  As family members continued to arrive at the cottage above me, I got my fishing rod, put on a diving Rapala lure, and started casting, hoping to catch a smallmouth.

I cast straight out as far as I could, and started reeling in.  Something hit it hard.  Something big.  Definitely not the panfish or smallmouths I had been used to catching there through the years.  My rod, yes my same little ultralight, was bowed in half as the fish came to the surface, thrashing the water.  I saw a massive silver side, and knew I had hooked a lake trout!  Now the praying began...

"Please, please, please, please, please don't break my line.   (I only had 4 pound test on that rod.)  Please don't break my rod.  (It was an ultralight....)  Please let me catch you."

And then, from up above, I suddenly heard a voice calling to me, telling me what I must do to successfully land this monster fish.

"Take your time with it.... Let the fish tire itself out....  Don't try to horse it in....  Bring it around the dock and beach it on the shore.  Don't try and lift it up onto the dock since you don't have a net." 

An angel?  No.  St. Peter offering some fishing advice of his own?  No.  (There was no heavenly chorus.)

"I know what I'm doing, Ted, you can shut up now...."

My brother had just arrived at the cottage above, and still dressed in his tie from work, he was watching the whole spectacle from the landing 40 feet above me.  Truly, the best view around, as he could see the fish thrashing, jumping and running, while watching me fight it, below.  As I finally beached the fish, he came running down the steep steps.  And as soon as I had unhooked the marvelous fish and was holding it, my eyes filled with wonder at what I had just done.

Ted snatched up my rod, and started casting wildly in every direction, in hopes that the laketrout I had just caught wasn't alone, but was among a massive school of trout encircling the dock.  He didn't catch anything, and meanwhile I was admiring this fish so much, I was wondering if I should release it....

"Are you nuts?", Ted said.  "That fish is dinner!"

He was right.  I took it up to the cottage and showed it to everybody.  Then I took it down to the creek and started to clean it, when Ted came to take a photo of it.  We fed eight people on that fish that evening, and still had some left over when it was all said and done....  When we told my Uncle Bob about it, he said that in all the many decades they had that cottage, nobody had ever caught a trout from the shore.  Ever.  And it drove Ted crazy that I had been the one to catch one, and not him!  I would hold that honor and distinction over his head for almost 20 years.
For the last 20 years, this photo has hung proudly at Uncle Bob's cottage on the refrigerator.  It is the first and largest lake trout anybody has ever caught from the shore of the cottage.  It was delicious.  And worth every minute of the 10 hour drive each way to go to my cousin's wedding.  And the wedding was beautiful, too.

Trout are cold water fish.  Boats troll the middle of the lake, in the deep cold water, for lake trout during the course of the year.  But nobody targets trout from the shore.  Knowing trout like cold water, I surmised that they stay deep in the summer, but in the spring (and probably the fall, too) when all the lake is cold, they can come closer to the shore to stalk shallow water prey.  It made me want to go back every year in early June, instead of late July or August.  But since the rest of the family likes to swim, as well as fish, I knew that wouldn't fly with them....

Several years later, I took my family to Uncle Bob's cottage for the first time.  Parke was maybe eight years old, and he saw the fish on the refrigerator.  He was bound and determined to catch one of his own, even though I told him the season was wrong.  It was August, and I had caught that trout in late spring.  He didn't care.  During the course of the week, he and I went fishing every day.  We caught lots of fish, but no trout.  Why would we?  I had never caught one in 30 years of summers there.  What would make this summer any different?

But one day, while we were in the rowboat, he caught a fish.  We were out a bit from shore, in about 20 feet of water.  He brought the fish in and it was a lake trout.  It was only about 10 inches long, but he couldn't have been any more proud!

"I told you I would catch one," he said, with a cheesy smile that covered his whole face.  we took a Polaroid photo of him holding the fish, and placed that photo next to mine on the refrigerator.  It is also still there, to this day -- which is why I don't have a copy of it here....

I haven't taken my family to the cottage in the last several years, though my parents still go, as does my brother and his girls.  And I haven't been in the mountains trout fishing for probably close to 20 years.  But Parke and I did have our trip to Alaska to catch sockeye salmon -- which, of course, are in the trout family.  And I can't wait to do that again.

But in the mean time, my parents went up to the cottage for a week, last June.  Ted took his daughters up to visit them for a couple days, themselves.  Suddenly my cell phone vibrated with an incoming text message:  it was a photo from one of his daughters.

Ted had been fishing, and had finally caught a trout from shore.  It was a beautiful fish, and he called me shortly thereafter, to give me the blow by blow details of how he caught it.  It was a nice fight for him, and a beautiful fish.  And it fed all of them that night.  He was very happy and proud -- and maybe, also relieved.
A proud Ted, holding his trout he caught from the dock of Uncle Bob's cottage last June.  You'll notice the coloring on this fish is different, however, from my lake trout, and that is because it is a charr, or splake -- a crossbreed between a lake trout and a brook trout.  (If you take a "SP"eckled brook trout and put it with a "LAKE" trout you get a hybrid "splake".  According to Wikipedia, they are "easier to catch" than lake trout or brookies.  And it is also QUITE OBVIOUS that this fish is nowhere near as big as my lake trout.  So there!  I still win.

Parke and I each have fly rods that I bought years ago for us, and we practice casting down at the lake, and catch panfish and small bass.  It would be my other dream trip to take him up to Montana or somewhere like that, for a week of flyfishing for trout.  But that's not happening any time soon, as other financial obligations come first right now.

What is more practical, however, especially with Parke off at college in the western part of Virginia at Radford, is trout fishing on the Tye River again....  Or we can explore other streams and rivers closer to where he is at school.  I think the time has come, again, to hit the trout streams next spring.  Maybe I'll see if Mike and Mark want to join Parke and me somewhere in early March again -- regardless of whether or not there have been freshlly stocked trout.  It's been too long.  I want to be in my waders in a cold stream again, and have to work it hard for this awesome gamefish, the trout.  That way it will be that much more rewarding when I do finally get to say, again...

Fish on!


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