Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Jun 30, 2014

The Briar Creek that I grew up near was the epitome of a perfect wild brook trout stream. A fact that was not contemplated during my youth yet became painfully obvious when I became an adult and started to travel the country. It was a true rarity. A jewel of the outdoors that not only was in its prime as I knew it, but was also vastly left alone by local fishermen. It was perfection within the trout world, and the best of trout streams to a 12 year old boy with a hand-me-down fly rod and a tin of wet flies. To that boy, it was water equal to any of those found in the pages of magazines, with brookies so brilliant and plentiful that no rival was possible. At least in my young mind it was so.

The creek was formed by two forks. The East fork flowed from a spring near the base of Knob Mountain, and then travelled through farm fields and 2 beaver dams. From the point of the second beaver dam downstream to its confluence with the west branch it was intermittently brush choked with a few stretches of hemlock shrouded runs. This was an ecosystem of its own as the beaver dam was full of large fish, and the lower run was in essence a tail-water fishery. We would begin at the dam until we had caught a brace of keepers, and then move downstream, pool-hopping between us through the hemlock runs.

The West fork was fed from a spring that had long ago been formed into a farm pond. From that point its gradient was increased rapidly and its pocket water tumbled down through a mile and a half of hemlocks, where it met with the East fork. This pocket water stretch taught me everything I needed to know about fly fishing so many of the waters I encountered later in life out west. I learned by trial and error how a drifting wet fly "needed" to be presented in order to even be looked at. Later, I would come to realize that the fish on Briar Creek came to the creel with much more difficulty than most waters I had encountered since.

It was at the confluence of the two forks that a large pool formed in the shade of several old hemlocks, before gaining speed and heading out through meadows where it dumped into the local watershed. It was a beautiful place to behold. With just enough room for casting, small gravel bars to approach the water, and almost an ethereal feeling while in the shade of those huge dark trees. It was the genesis of this fisherman's piscatorial memories and the birthplace of so many pans of frying fish in my mom's kitchen. Quite often through the years, I will find myself sitting along other waters, yet daydreaming about that hemlock pool. More waters than I can count have taken me back there. It seems that my mind has decided that place "is" fishing. Not able to understand exactly why my mind works in that fashion, I've willingly accepted that fact and not fought it. After all, it did treat me well, so who am I to complain simply due to a lack of understanding?

A few years back I realized that I had not fished the water in many years. So with rod in hand I took the trip back home and made my way through the woods from that familiar gravel road. However, things had changed. There was no longer a watershed as I had known it. In an effort to fix a damaged and dangerous dam, the watershed had undergone a complete transformation. At the beginning of those old meadows the creek was now routed underground. The entire area of the confluence was now open grass. Gone was the pool. Gone were the hemlocks. Gone was all that I had known and loved for so many years. Not giving it enough time to sink in, I turned away and began fishing my way back up the west fork and its pocket water. Some fish were still there, but most were in the 5" range. Still as beautiful as ever, but far fewer than I recalled. I fished casually upstream for about a half a mile, then turned around and strolled back down to the location of the old pool. With a dozen fish on the walk I still could not shake the sadness of what had become of my pool. Sitting on a stump on the edge of the tree line where the meadow began, I looked out over the old location. It was gone, but I could still sense it. Closing my eyes I could hear the streams currents converging. I could smell the thick heavy air under the canopy of the hemlocks, and feel the pea-gravel move under my high-top converse sneakers. I was there. It was there. Just as I had often found myself while sitting on the banks of waters far better known and heralded. And it was then that I understood, but for memories many things such as this small stretch of water would at some point cease to exist. Not just go away, but cease to exist as if they had never existed at all. That is, unless it's existence and meaning are held in the memories of those which it had touched.

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