Where I live, I can leave the house and be fly fishing for brook trout in as little as two hours. For me, this takes some planning. Sometimes I get the pack loaded and the gear sorted the night before, but even when I think everything is ready I’m still running around grabbing this and that when I should be leaving. As I am not one to plan anything unless forced to, it’s amazing that I ever get out there. It goes against my natural tendency to wing it. For brook trout fishing, though, I do it.
Fly fishing for brook trout is not a lazy pastime. The nearest place I can fish for brookies is Shenandoah National Park. To get to the closest streams from my house, it takes an hour of driving, minimum. Most of that is on secondary roads and sometimes some gravel roads. Once I park, it’s at least another half hour of hiking to get to a good spot to fish, and more typically an hour. That’s a minimum of three to four hours round trip — two hours to drive and two to hike. If I fish for a couple hours that makes it at least a six hour excursion. Of course, there are better spots that take longer to reach. Any spot is an “all day” trip. In a pinch, there are a couple spots where I can just about drive up to the stream and start catching fish an hour from home. In these places the fish tend to be quite small even by the measure of a typical Virginia brook trout, but it works. Still, even a two hour drive round-trip and two hours of fishing is a four hour getaway. If I cut it to an hour of fishing? Well, who fishes for only an hour?
Contrast that with other places I can fish nearby. The Shenandoah River is very close, and I can be on the water in fifteen minutes from my house. That gives me some great smallmouth bass fishing, carp (which I have not actually tried to catch — but that looks like fun!), catfish and bluegills galore. I can cast from the bank or wade with a switch rod to reach some good water, or more typically and effectively get in the kayak and cruise around. All of this is great and I do it a fair bit.
There are also some stocked trout streams and a stocked lake or two within a 45 minute drive, and better ones a brook trout trip distance away. Ponds loaded with bass, crappie and bluegill are also around, a half hour drive in any of several directions. There are lots of possibilities for a day of fishing or even a quick trip after work to catch something.
So with all that water close by what is the appeal in spending a full day driving and hiking to catch tiny brook trout in the middle of nowhere? What is the deal?
This was a reaction I got from an acquaintance who fishes in bass tournaments. I could tell it was going to be lost on him even before we started talking about the details. For some people, big fish is the sole objective. Bigger fish are better. More bigger fish are best. A nine inch brook trout (if you’re lucky) in the wilderness? Fuggedaboutit.
The appeal for me is pretty simple, and it’s not an either-or policy of catching small vs. large fish. It is the wilderness experience that I love. Fishing for me is an escape. Getting away from visible traces of humanity and being on a small stream that tumbles down the Blue Ridge is a great experience, one I never have enough not matter how often I do it. No noise except wild noises. No trace of people except the trail. On a weekday you can be completely alone on these streams. On some of the thirty-plus streams in Shenandoah National Park, I’ve been told that if you fish on them you will have been one of two or fewer to do that in an entire year.
That is cool.
The effort to get out there adds to the experience. It also makes the sparsely traveled bit of it a sure thing. You really have to get charged up to do it. You don’t come home from work and say, “I’ll think I’ll drive and hike for fours hours and fish for two in between.” Not many others do, either. You have to commit to it. It is a very mini expedition, but small enough to frequently squeeze into a busy life. You are self-sufficient for those hours, off the trail, out of cell phone range, packing all you need in and out. You plan for the potential problems and prepare. It’s just you, or you and a small number of friends, but you’re out there and alone in a real sense.
And that is cool.
Wrapped up in all the get out there and be one with nature stuff is the creature we seek. The brook trout. Brookies are striking. Intense red and yellow spots on mud colored sides and bright orange and white tipped fins. Spectacular. These guys, biologists tell us, migrated down the east coast from Labrador during the floods after the last ice age. The floods receded and they remained, stuck in our little streams. No fish and game department stocked these fish. They are native to this area and thoroughly wild. So when you catch one and hold it while removing the hook, you think about this. You wonder how generations of these fish have managed to survive in these little streams for so long. You marvel at their stunning beauty. They hold on in these small pools where you wade when everything you see seems against them. Low water every summer. Snakes and raccoons. Acid rain. Rising temperatures. Careless or greedy fisherman. These things sure have done a number of fish in. It makes you realize how wily and tough these guys are considering that any are left at all.
Anyway, I still get the go-out-with-guys-in-a-boat-and-catch-bass-and-pickerel experience a few times a year. Spinning rods are involved. Sometimes chewing tobacco. A big tackle box. Guy talk. That is cool, too. It’s just different. Like I said, I don’t have a policy of one over the other. I like ’em both. But getting out into the wild is special, and holding one of those stunning little survivors in your hand is a unique experience. That is what makes fly fishing for brook trout special. It’s why some of us go through the trouble.