February 19th, 2007

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Forgotten Trout
By Robert J. Romano, Jr., NJ

Looking up at the hemlocks, one would never guess that they are dying. These trees, many over seventy feet tall, are plagued by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an exotic pest infesting many hemlock stands throughout the East Coast. I suppose I should be grateful that it has been a slow process, each season a few more trees falling to the forest loor, others losing their needles. The shade cast by this forest insures that the temperature of the little stream that runs through it remains cool. Even in high summer there are beads of water on the rocks and lichen.

The raucous sound of the current grows louder as my wading boots leave indentations in the thick layer of moss that has spread across the bank of the brook. I can almost grab the humidity with my hand.

These waters have not been stocked since the early nineteen-eighties. Since then, the descendents of those dull-witted, hatchery-bred fish have developed into a strain of cagey, wild brook trout, their sides a riot of blue and yellow circles, some with blood red dots in the center.

The fish of the little stream lack the lighter hues found in brookies of other waters. Instead, their backs are uniformly black. I like to think that it is because they spend their hidden lives under the shadows of the hemlock forest. I know they are doomed to perish without the dense shade provided by the trees, the stream no longer able to maintain the lower temperatures necessary for their survival. It is just a matter of time.

Standing here in the uncertain light, my calves resist the pull of the current. I flip a Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear wet fly, its tinsel worn, body ragged, toward a small glide along the edge of the far bank. For a moment the fly bobs on the surface. A flash of jaw appears and I can feel hook bite sinew, but then the trout is gone, my line slack.

The stream slips nearly unnoticed into the Delaware River, only seven miles long from its primary source, a small pond found along a ridge of the Kittatinny Mountains. The blueberry bushes that spread down to the water's edge make it difficult to hike around the pond's shoreline. Farther back, scrub oak, white pine and Norwegian spruce have grown close together. Although gnats, black flies and mosquitoes are considered a bother, it's the ticks that can be a real worry. Rumor has it that the rattlesnakes here are as big as your fear will allow.

The brook descends from the pond for a short distance, its depth no more than inches, sliding around boulders lush with moss until it passes under a single-lane macadam road. A few hundred yards downstream a second, smaller rill trickles down out of the east to join it. A quarter-mile from the road, runoff from the hills that rise up along the brook's western flank descends through a ravine, adding more volume whenever it rains. As the gradient increases, riffles are interspersed with plunge pools that are formed wherever the current slices around or over larger rocks, fallen limbs and other debris. The depth in some places is now two and even three feet.

I am an angler, a fly fisher to be more specific, and so I have always had a fondness for moving water, can't help but look over each bridge I cross, stop by every rivulet, gully or ditch. Most fishermen might not think of casting their lures here, preferring the certainty of bigger fish in the many put-and-take rivers and lakes that are within a few minutes' drive. But I have discovered a secret under the deep shade of the hemlocks, something more than bracken and bone. Beyond the mid point of my own life's journey, I have found that I can lie suspended in place and time, however briefly, with yesterday forgotten, tomorrow of no concern. It is for this reason, that these woods, this stream draws me back to cast my flies to forgotten trout for as long as a dying forest will cast its shadows.

I climb from the brook and lean on a hemlock. The trunk is strong although many of the tree's needles have turned gray. A few feet downstream, a fingerling turns to capture a caddis larva dislodged by my wading boot. ~ Robert J. Romano, Jr.
First Published in New Jersey Federated Sportsmen News

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