First & Ten

By Nick Simonson

In all my fly fishing efforts, a brook trout has eluded me.  While I know some of the waters which I have fished, particularly small streams on the north shore of Lake Superior, have contained the fish so often found at the chilly head of creeks, I had yet to catch one.  I’ve been content catching the stocked rainbows I more often have a chance at and enjoy sneaking up on wild brown trout which populated many of the streams I have visited.  However, I made it a point to explore those waters on a recent trip to the Black Hills where I would have a high percentage shot at filling in the gap on my life list with my first brook trout. 

Above the trickle of a creek which flowed into a dammed 10-acre fishing area my brother and I would frequent so I could teach him the fly cast and how to manage line with a hooked rainbow trout, I slogged through the cattails of the upstream portion of the water. Crouch-walking my way up to the edge of the creek which fed the small lake, I loosened the pheasant-and-peacock wet fly from the cork of the handle and let it swing by the tippet and leader out over the small trickle. A light breeze coming from the lake where I left my brother helped my offering clear the cattails guarding the stream.  The fly touched down and an instant later I was shocked to feel a sudden tug as the brown imitator was pulled hard into the eddy at the front of the slack area in the bend to my left.  I tugged back, and a small fish splashed across the surface and up the chute in front of me. 

I raised the rod tip and lifted it off the creek and the fish came up, wriggling and flipping to my hand.  There, between my fingers was all five inches of my first brook trout.  It bore a dozen of the blue-ringed trademark spots on its side that I had seen in pictures and paintings, and while smaller than the only one I had personally observed in the last decade or so, the red-tinged fins with white stripes stood out against the dark water behind it.  It happened so fast, I barely recall readying my camera, snapping a picture and setting the small fish back into the tiny creek; but it did happen, and I felt the check mark go into place on the box of my life list that had remained open since I started with the fly rod 20 years ago.

While every first on the water has a bit of drama to it, I soon realized that there was a brook trout around every corner of the stream I was on.  Simply flip or dabble a wet fly or nymph where slow water met fast, or in those spaces where the stream undercut the bank and they were there. It became almost as easy as catching stock pond bluegills.  Some brookies I’d land, some I’d miss, and some would slip off the hook in the flow.  In the following days, as we’d ride UTVs along the gulches and creek bottoms, I’d stop to look and see more and more brookies finning in the sunlit pools and bends of each stream.  Some of them were in places so shallow and in stretches so skinny, it defied my belief of what type of areas could sustain fishable populations of anything.  Up and down from the lake, and on creeks around our vacation cabin, I’d repeat the tactics in between the more technical fishing for the brown trout on the bigger rivers and the reckless abandon that I threw at the stocked rainbows of 15-to-20-inches my brother and I found feeding in the corner of that same lake down from where I caught the first of so many brook trout, which I quit counting at 10.

On the final morning of vacation, with the rising sun, I went back and headed downstream of the dam, catching the five-and-six-inch fish, until a hard pull sent the residual caffeine through my system.  At first I guessed the fish to be one of the stocked rainbows that had washed down and I had encountered in the small water, but when the belly flashed red on the ten-incher, I knew it was the biggest brook trout of the trip.  Bringing it to my casting spot upstream and across the creek, I unhooked the nymph from its mouth and set it back down into the trickle, knowing the memory of the many first brook trout over the week will ultimately blur together like those bluegills on a summer lake shore of my youth.  In their place, however, will be the chance to check a different box of a bigger fish than the one in my hand with the fiery orange belly, blue-and-red spots and green vermiform mottling on its back that would sit next to the mental X in my growing list of species caught and to be bested, hopefully sooner than it took me to catch my first one.

Featured Photo: First! The author’s first brook trout from a small stream in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Simonson Photo.

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