Father's Day Creek

I can hear him now: "All that for that?" I can pretty much see him, too, in his khaki trousers and white T-shirt, over in the small clearing by the honeysuckle thicket on the little river I love. My father is watching me fish in the way I have chosen to fish in the years since his death: With a fly rod and tiny lures fashioned of feathers to look like the bugs that finicky trout eat. 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 so that 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 and disappears into the woods. . . .

The stream is in Pennsylvania, a three-hour drive from my home in Baltimore. I have neither right nor title to a single acre of the woods around it. 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 into deep, spooky holes, cuts sharply through a rock gorge crowned in hemlock, rolls softly along a hillside covered with rhododendron. There are places where it is no more than 20 feet wide, others where it opens to twice that width. In early spring, the current can knock you off your feet as you try to wade. In summer, the flow is reduced but constant, and the water never gets warm enough to harm the wild trout that call it home. Light swarms of yellow insects 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 true identity. I've fished it every Father's Day for 10 years, and I experienced something special there on the third Sunday of June last year. Epiphany is a good word. If there's one place I've witnessed the divine -- the work of the same Great Spirit to whom the native Delawares of the Pocono Mountains once prayed -- 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 me about the stream during a Saturday night supper. He bragged of his ability to take trout there and invited me to join him the next morning.

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

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

"The smaller the sweeter," Pierre said. "Oh, yeah, the little ones taste the 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 were taking full creels.

As a lover of rivers, I had learned enough about trout habitat to recognize what 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 small brown trout native to the stream. The other two-thirds were hatchery-raised rainbow trout. There's a huge difference.

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

Fortunately, the invasion of the rainbows didn't last long in Father's Day Creek. Dozens of fishermen, armed with lures and worms and little balls of Velveeta, came to its banks and caught them all in less than a month. But these fishermen made no distinction between the hatchery rainbows and the wild brown trout. They caught everything and took it all, in time stripping away the 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 were impressive afternoon hatches of caddis flies, the aquatic insects whose emergence from a stream usually incites a riot of surface feeding. But rarely was there a ring left by a rising trout.

So, I came to see the little stream as a lost opportunity -- perfect conditions for trout, but no protection. The river should have had a no-harvest rule, but it suffered from this oversight, and men came back each year 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 the saltwater of the New England coast, almost always with my father and uncle. My father might have enjoyed fishing as sport, but I think he saw it as another way of providing for his family. We fished with heavy poles, sinkers, barbed hooks 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 we always killed them before tossing them back. Even when I was a kid fishing in ponds, the notion of releasing anything but the tiniest fish did not enter my mind. I brought home bass, pickerel and sunfish. What was the point of catching them if you could not show them to your parents, especially your father?

But, as I grew older, my vision changed. I wanted no part of this greed. I wanted 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 -- a conservation group, not a fishing club. I still enjoyed fishing, especially when it took me to pretty places with a fly rod and good friends, but I became a convert to the catch-and-release idea: Fool fish with flies tied on barbless hooks, land them, and gently release them; they'll be bigger when you catch them next year. It's what I teach my son and my daughter. They might one day see even this as a cruel invasion of the natural world. They might come to see my kind of fishing the way I see my father's and not want to fish at all. But that 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 brought up too poor to understand it, and he'd lived in a time when fish of all kinds appeared in endless abundance.

In 1971, he caught a 36-pound cod off the coast of Massachusetts. That wasn't simply a grand-looking fish that deserved to be photographed, then quickly returned to the over-harvested Georges Bank to procreate. To my father, that cod represented a week's worth of Portuguese chowder and a pile of fish cakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Months went by, and years. The meadow trail into the woods to the river became 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 other fishermen, 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 in the feeding lanes of the river, and each year they were longer and fatter. In this 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 on Father's Day; in 1998 I caught 10. I caught native brook trout, too, and small, stream-bred rainbows. I released them all.

This little renaissance made me feel even more protective of the stream. I made a point of never telling Pierre about the river's comeback, lest he plunder 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, and many dismiss it as arcane, too expensive and too much trouble. The attempt to precisely 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's generation -- 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, the attempt to drop a fly on the current for a few precious seconds, hoping a wild brown trout sees it coming, recognizes it as food, rises to the surface and attacks it. They are exquisite little creatures, and they spend a moment in your 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 faded but the words were still legible: "These waters not stocked." I pulled on my waders, dropped my fishing vest over my shoulders and, with my fly rod in one hand, pushed and chopped my way through the meadow trail to the woods and the stream.

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

I dropped a fly known as a prince nymph into the stream above a subtle riffle and let it drift with the current. It sank slowly. I held the rod over the 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 as deep 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 the gloomy hemlocks and hit the stream precisely on the spot where this trout tried 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 him away. I reached for my net. I was in mild shock as I squatted and scooped him out of the river. The net could hardly contain him. The fish seemed too big to be true, out of scale with the 20-foot wide section of water in which I'd found him.

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

I spoke to the river and congratulated it on its endurance and its resilience, thanked it for its gift to me on Father's Day. I heard my own excited voice echo in the hemlock gorge. I held the trout for a moment so that my father, stirred by my shout, might appreciate it. "I've got the frying pan ready," I heard him laugh. Then I leaned down and returned the fish to the water, feeling the muscle in its tail. He was still strong, but he did not dash away when I released him. Instead, he seemed to look back at me for an instant as he drifted slowly sideways, before darting into the dark folds of the creek.



@copyright, The Baltimore Sun, originally published June 17, 2001