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Stream of consciousness

I can hear him now: "All that for that?" I can pretty much see him, too, inhis khaki trousers and white T-shirt, over in the small clearing by thehoneysuckle thicket on the little river I love. My father is watching me fishin the way I have chosen to fish in the years since his death: With a fly rodand tiny lures fashioned of feathers to look like the bugs that finicky trouteat. I can hear him now, as I stand knee-deep in the river and extend a small,delicate net for a trout that's all green, yellow and white with brown spots,about 10 inches of God's glory. I hold the trout in my hand for a moment sothat my father might appreciate it. But he only laughs: "All that for that?"And when I ease the little fish back into the river, he laughs harder anddisappears into the woods.

The stream is in Pennsylvania, a three-hour drive from my home inBaltimore. I have neither right nor title to a single acre of the woods aroundit. And yet I consider the little river my own. I've felt protective of it --as if I were the river keeper -- since the first time I set eyes on it.

Water the shade of dark tea ripples over the rocky bottom, plunges intodeep, spooky holes, cuts sharply through a rock gorge crowned in hemlock,rolls softly along a hillside covered with rhododendron. There are placeswhere it is no more than 20 feet wide, others where it opens to twice thatwidth. In early spring, the current can knock you off your feet as you try towade. In summer, the flow is reduced but constant, and the water never getswarm enough to harm the wild trout that call it home. Light swarms of yellowinsects emerge as evening falls in June, and trout rise to eat them.

I've named the place Father's Day Creek, and not just to cloak its trueidentity. I've fished it every Father's Day for 10 years, and I experiencedsomething special there on the third Sunday of June last year. Epiphany is agood word. If there's one place I've witnessed the divine -- the work of thesame Great Spirit to whom the native Delawares of the Pocono Mountains onceprayed -- it was in the second coming of the trout in Father's Day Creek.

It sounds like a perfect place, and it almost is. But it almost wasn't.

Ten years ago, a friend of my father-in-law, a fellow named Pierre, told meabout the stream during a Saturday night supper. He bragged of his ability totake trout there and invited me to join him the next morning.

I arrived at 8 o'clock. Sunlight was just seeping through the hemlocks, butPierre had been fishing for two hours. A tall man with a French accent, hewore a flannel shirt and rubber hip boots, and he fished with a spinning rodand a small brass lure shaped like a willow leaf. He grinned broadly andopened his creel -- 13 killed, few more than 6 or 7 inches long, several ofthem brown trout.

"You're lucky you don't get arrested," I half-joked. Most of Pierre's troutwere probably under the minimum size required for harvest by the Commonwealthof Pennsylvania.

"The smaller the sweeter," Pierre said. "Oh, yeah, the little ones tastethe best."

"Yeah, and you have to kill twice as many to make a meal."

He grumbled at my streamside moralizing and walked away.

There were several men fishing the river that day, and just about all weretaking full creels.

As a lover of rivers, I had learned enough about trout habitat to recognizewhat was happening that day -- the purging of Father's Day Creek.

From what I could tell, about a third of the fish taken were the smallbrown trout native to the stream. The other two-thirds were hatchery-raisedrainbow trout. There's a huge difference.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania stocks the rainbows annually. This is likeputting paroled inmates in a nursery school. The rainbows compete for habitatand food; they bring chaos to a delicately balanced ecosystem and stress thewild brown trout.

Fortunately, the invasion of the rainbows didn't last long in Father's DayCreek. Dozens of fishermen, armed with lures and worms and little balls ofVelveeta, came to its banks and caught them all in less than a month. Butthese fishermen made no distinction between the hatchery rainbows and the wildbrown trout. They caught everything and took it all, in time stripping awaythe population of wild trout whose presence made the river so special.

I returned in the summer and fall. The water was clean and cold. There wereimpressive afternoon hatches of caddis flies, the aquatic insects whoseemergence from a stream usually incites a riot of surface feeding. But rarelywas there a ring left by a rising trout.

So, I came to see the little stream as a lost opportunity -- perfectconditions for trout, but no protection. The river should have had ano-harvest rule, but it suffered from this oversight, and men came back eachyear and took what they wanted. Instead of singing the splendors of nature,Father's Day Creek howled of the excesses of man.

I know about all that. I had fished since I was six, mostly in thesaltwater of the New England coast, almost always with my father and uncle. Myfather might have enjoyed fishing as sport, but I think he saw it as anotherway of providing for his family. We fished with heavy poles, sinkers, barbedhooks and bait. We took flounder from bays, haddock and cod from the Atlantic.We brought home everything we caught in buckets and tubs -- striped bass,bluefish, mackerel and eels. Only sharks were returned to the water, and wealways killed them before tossing them back. Even when I was a kid fishing inponds, the notion of releasing anything but the tiniest fish did not enter mymind. I brought home bass, pickerel and sunfish. What was the point ofcatching them if you could not show them to your parents, especially yourfather?

But, as I grew older, my vision changed. I wanted no part of this greed. Iwanted to fix streams, not strip them. I could afford to buy trout for dinner;I didn't have to kill wild ones. For $35, I joined Trout Unlimited -- aconservation group, not a fishing club. I still enjoyed fishing, especiallywhen it took me to pretty places with a fly rod and good friends, but I becamea convert to the catch-and-release idea: Fool fish with flies tied on barblesshooks, land them, and gently release them; they'll be bigger when you catchthem next year. It's what I teach my son and my daughter. They might one daysee even this as a cruel invasion of the natural world. They might come to seemy kind of fishing the way I see my father's and not want to fish at all. Butthat will be their choice, not mine.

For now, I fish. I catch. I catch and I release.

My father, of course, would never have understood this. He'd been broughtup too poor to understand it, and he'd lived in a time when fish of all kindsappeared in endless abundance.

In 1971, he caught a 36-pound cod off the coast of Massachusetts. Thatwasn't simply a grand-looking fish that deserved to be photographed, thenquickly returned to the over-harvested Georges Bank to procreate. To myfather, that cod represented a week's worth of Portuguese chowder and a pileof fish cakes.

He probably would not have bothered to fish Father's Day Creek -- smallwater and small trout. "Dinky fish," he'd say.

But I found the place irresistible. A few times a year, I'd make a fewcasts to spots where experience told me I should have found a feeding trout. Ifound very few, and none more than 6 inches.

Finally, I decided to leave Father's Day Creek alone, making only one stopthere a year.

Then in 1994, something important happened. Someone put up signs by abridge: "These waters not stocked. Catch and release encouraged."

Apparently, the landowners had complained about the behavior of thebait-dunking spring fishermen who hiked through their woods to the river. Thecommonwealth had decided to stop stocking my favorite section of Father's DayCreek. And when word of this got around, the hunter-gatherers took theirappetites elsewhere. Pierre said, "There's no trout there anymore," and hewent off to pillage some other Pocono creek.

This meant the brown trout would be left alone. I suddenly felt, even inthe height of spring, that I was the only person on Father's Day Creek. I mayhave been the only man who still believed in it. I had been given theprivilege of watching what happens when people leave a natural trout streamalone.

Months went by, and years. The meadow trail into the woods to the riverbecame overgrown with thorns and brush; each time I used it I had to clear it.In all my trips to the stream since then, I've encountered only four otherfishermen, and they used fly rods and returned any trout they caught.

I kept notes in a fishing journal. Each year there were more brown trout inthe feeding lanes of the river, and each year they were longer and fatter. Inthis delicate and beautiful place, progress was measured in inches.

In 1993 I caught only six-inch browns; in 1997 I caught 12-inch browns and,in 1999, I caught one at 14 inches. In 1994 I hooked only two trout onFather's Day; in 1998 I caught 10. I caught native brook trout, too, andsmall, stream-bred rainbows. I released them all.

This little renaissance made me feel even more protective of the stream. Imade a point of never telling Pierre about the river's comeback, lest heplunder with brass and bait what had become a great river for fly-fishing.

Fly-fishing involves a lot of thinking about fish and their habitat, andmany dismiss it as arcane, too expensive and too much trouble. The attempt toprecisely and delicately cast a tiny artificial fly that imitates the size,shape and movement of the insects that trout crave can be a daunting exercise.The process looks to bait fishermen -- the descendant spirits of my father'sgeneration -- like a lot of work for little reward. "All that for that?"

But one can get lost in the challenge, the geometry of the cast, theattempt to drop a fly on the current for a few precious seconds, hoping a wildbrown trout sees it coming, recognizes it as food, rises to the surface andattacks it. They are exquisite little creatures, and they spend a moment inyour net or hand before returning to their holding spot.

Last Father's Day I rose at 7, drank some coffee and drove from my in-laws'home to the small, overgrown parking area by the bridge. The signs had fadedbut the words were still legible: "These waters not stocked." I pulled on mywaders, dropped my fishing vest over my shoulders and, with my fly rod in onehand, pushed and chopped my way through the meadow trail to the woods and thestream.

The water was higher than normal because of recent rainfall. I steppedcarefully into the stream to avoid spooking trout. I know all the spots wheretrout hold. I know this river. If I could, I would live in a small hut with aFranklin stove along its banks and ask everyone who comes there to fish itgently -- fool the fish, then let them go.

I dropped a fly known as a prince nymph into the stream above a subtleriffle and let it drift with the current. It sank slowly. I held the rod overthe river with my right hand and held the yellow fly line with my left.Suddenly the line stopped. Had I snagged bottom? Perhaps the spot wasn't asdeep as I'd thought. When I tugged on the line, something tugged back.Something started swimming.

You'll have to trust me here. It's my memory that sunlight fell through thegloomy hemlocks and hit the stream precisely on the spot where this trouttried to shake the fly from its lip. And so I could see the silver flash.

I had hooked a rainbow trout.

A large one.

The largest fish I had ever seen in Father's Day Creek.

He swam hard behind a rock and held there until I could gently pull himaway. I reached for my net. I was in mild shock as I squatted and scooped himout of the river. The net could hardly contain him. The fish seemed too big tobe true, out of scale with the 20-foot wide section of water in which I'dfound him.

I stepped to the low bank, placed the rainbow on ferns and measured himagainst my net, notching a spot in its wooden handle with my fingernail. (Ilater measured the notch at 17 and a half inches.) I then picked the rainbowup and looked him over. He was not a stocked fish from a hatchery because hehad the bright colors and full dorsal fin of one that had grown up in theriver.

I spoke to the river and congratulated it on its endurance and itsresilience, thanked it for its gift to me on Father's Day. I heard my ownexcited voice echo in the hemlock gorge. I held the trout for a moment so thatmy father, stirred by my shout, might appreciate it. "I've got the frying panready," I heard him laugh. Then I leaned down and returned the fish to thewater, feeling the muscle in its tail. He was still strong, but he did notdash away when I released him. Instead, he seemed to look back at me for aninstant as he drifted slowly sideways, before darting into the dark folds ofthe creek.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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