Gary Berti once claimed, "Brook trout are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to water quality, and the presence of brook trout in a watershed indicates that water quality is excellent. Declining brook trout populations can provide an early warning that the health of an entire stream, lake or river is at risk."
Berti knows a thing or two about brook trout. He has been Trout Unlimited's eastern brook trout campaign coordinator for many years now.
During the heat of the summer, when water levels grow increasingly low on the rivers and the amount of dissolved oxygen begins to diminish, brook trout will often return to the smaller, tumbling mountain tributaries to seek relief from the warmer, oxygen-poor waters of the flatter, wider rivers in the valleys.
A morning mist rises over Spruce Mill Brook.
(Photo — Joe Hackett)
Brook trout seek the cooler, shaded tumbling waters as a place of refuge. Wild rainbow trout often follow the same pattern, and can usually be found in large numbers at the base of waterfalls, where the waters are rich in oxygen and food is plentiful in the swirling currents.
In recent weeks, I've fished the small brooks and the larger rivers as well. The results were quite telling.
By far, the largest fish I've taken this summer were found in the bigger rivers, often at the base of falls or a serious section of rapids. The largest was a big brown sporting a hook jaw that was nearly worn to the bone from grubbing nymphs. I took it on a slow section of the Saranac River, just below the junction with Alder Brook which is more of a tumbling, pool-drop-pool type of a stream.
I've also found great success while paddling and fishing on several of the smaller mountain brooks. I've rock-hopped up many of the smaller waters to get up high where the water is skinny and the pools are deep.
I've also floated many of the valley streams and rivers, paddling through the riffles and fishing in the holes. Above all, I've made a point to go places where others anglers don't.
On slower days, when no fish or bugs appeared to be moving, I've even employed a few of Rev. John Hatt's old tricks to "turn the trout on."
Rev. Hatt was one of the most accomplished fly tiers I've ever known. He was a stickler for detail in the flies he tied, and he had an uncanny way of imitating their action.
I once watched him raise the ire of several trout that were feeding on a hatch of caddis flies. He imitated the bumbling and bouncing action of the natural caddis flies to perfection as he slapped the water's surface with a perfect series of delicately delivered roll casts with two caddis flies rigged in tandem at the end of his line. I watched as he took three pair of trout on the end of one line that evening. Try though I might, I've never been able to duplicate the feat.
One day, after watching me fish (unsuccessfully) along a slow, flat section of the Boquet River near Elizabethtown, the good reverend donned his hip waders and literally chased me down. As he waded along the edge of the riverbank, he continued to slap and slash at the overhanging bushes with the business end of his old fly rod.
"Snakes," I wondered out loud to no one in particular.
I thought he had finally gone mad, until he approached me and whispered, "Now, you watch that side of the river. In just a few minutes, there will be fish jumping for certain. I wasn't chasing chick-a-dees in those bushes. I was just setting the table."
Sure enough, there came the slightest rise of a trout sipping a bug off the surface. And then another and a few more. Within a half hour, just before darkness stilled the valley, I took three nice fish and lost several others, mostly because I was overanxious.
As a youngster, I always wondered why the Reverend walked the riverbanks and beat the brush. An old friend had told me the Reverend was just chasing away snakes, when in fact he was chumming. He created his own hatch by beating the bushes. Then he matched it, often with flies that looked like beetles, crickets or grasshoppers.
The Reverend also offered sage advice on the need - or lack thereof - of a watch. He explained he never wore a watch when he was fishing, since the slightest glint of sun reflecting off the watch crystal would surely put the fish down, and off the feed.
I learned the lesson well. To this day, I refuse to wear a watch on the water, despite the height of the sun or the wail of the wind. I don't believe the glint of the crystal would actually put a fish off feed, but I do know there is no need to know the time when there are fish to be caught.
Time just doesn't much matter when you're on the river. Fish can't tell time, and an angler doesn't need to know. Whenever a rod is in hand, there's never a watch on my wrist.
Inevitability of change
Over the past weekend, I slipped away from the mountain streams and traveled down into the valleys to float a few of the smaller rivers and brooks. I passed by a few of the more popular fishing holes on my way to some of my old haunts, including the Branch, the North Branch of the Boquet and Spruce Mill Brook.
Of course, I fully expected to encounter remnants of the damage that was caused by the recent extreme weather incidents, just as I had a few years back when I floated the Boquet River two days after Hurricane Irene swept through the region. The river was lock-chock with debris and downed trees, several of which required long portages to continue my journey downstream.
Other obstacles I've encountered on the rivers and streams include an old 17-foot fiberglass motorboat, a sailboard, at least three lawn tractors and several bureaus and old dressers (all sans clothes).
I've also found several small sheds, a plastic dog house and more than a few kiddie swimming pools. I've hauled out several canoe-loads full of junk, and it doesn't seem I've even put a dent in it. The most recent flooding of this past spring served to unearth a whole new load of river trash, delivering a pile of intertwined logs and debris to the most constricted sections of the waterways.
Fortunately, the debris has not choked off any waterfalls, and most of the majestic towering pines still stand at attention along the riverbanks. Although the old familiar rivers of my youth have changed, it is a natural dynamic. Change is there, it's inevitable, even in the places that we know the best.