I recently heard a fellow fly fisherman—who should have known better—suggest that trout have an easy life; "What could be better than living
in a mountain stream?" he asked me. Now, you must understand that this is a guy who "camps" in something that looks an awful lot like the Madden Cruiser, and, following the advice of his overbearing mother, who coddled and terrified him as a child, never "camps" or fishes anywhere more than 60 minutes from a hospital. He hits the stream with so much gear I'm shocked he hasn't bought himself a brown person to schlep all his crap for him. Only fishes dry flies. Exactly. What a fag.
The truth, of course, is that your average high country freestone stream is an incredibly brutal environment. The habitat tends to be very marginal, with areas of relatively 'deep' water essentially confined to bathtub sized plunge pools, each with swirling vortex of white water at its center and the occasional narrow chute, where vicious currents have gouged a narrow channel from bare rock. With so little deep water, a hotter than average summer or a colder than average winter could easily prove lethal to trout. Drought in the summer. Floods in the spring. And that gin clear water? Just the visual consequence of an ecosystem largely devoid of the organic nutrients needed to sustain life. In these streams, only one fish in thousands will survive to adulthood, and a trout that lives three years (out of a potential lifespan of 15-20 years) might very well be the grand old man of the river.
One of my favorite trout streams is just such a creek. It is headwater tributary to another, somewhat larger tributary of a middling river of no particular importance. Inexplicably, on maps, it is called a "river," but nowhere is it more than 10 to 12 feet wide, and it is rarely more than shin deep. It is also the most beautiful stretch of water I can conjure to mind. In just over a mile, the river drops over 1100 feet through a laurel and rhododendron choked gorge, racing around boulders and over pea gravel and cobble, never falling very far at once, with rugged chutes and shallow riffles alternating with stair step plunge pools. Nestled in the lap of a temperate rainforest, it has always seemed like a secret temple, sacred if not sacrosanct. It's a place I rarely bring any but the closest friends and family, and only those I know will hold the secret with the same reverence that I do.
(Pay no attention to the fat goob on the rock.)
The fish are wild rainbow trout, tenacious survivors and descendents of some long-forgotten and thoroughly ill-advised private stocking. They have the sort of lean lines, fantastically vivid colors and fighting spirit that simply cannot be matched by any fish raised in the concrete raceways of a hatchery facility. And they are tiny. The trout in this stream average maybe 4-6 inches, and a real monster might top out at 10-11 inches, but they are wild and they are beautiful and in this setting they are perfect
There is another river I fish with some frequency. There's nothing remotely secret about the Davidson, which is among the premier non-tailwater trout fisheries in the Southeast. While it has many of the charms of any fast flowing, clear stream, the grip of civilization lies heavy on the Davidson. Paved roads parallel it for miles. Cars are almost always parked at the the regularly spaced pulloffs. On summer weekends, you'll find anglers stacked at intervals of 40-60 yards along the most popular stretch. One very productive series of holes backs up against a half rusted out rail trestle and an abandoned industrial property.
For varying reasons (drainage size, soil chemistry, altitude), the Davidson is inherently more fecund than most small high country streams. But the real draw here is the state trout hatchery, which draws water from the river, cycles it through its tanks, then discharges it back into the river. This cold, highly oxygenated discharge carries with it the accumulated effluent of 300,000 odd fish, as well as leftover feed pellets, turbocharging the entire stream ecosystem below the hatchery. From this point on, the river is a thoroughly unnatural bug factory, pumping out a vast biomass of aquatic insects, and able to support an enormous biomass of insectivorous trout, too, with enough leftover to support large numbers of suckers, dace, chubs, sculpins and crawfish, the sort of meals that truly large trout eat. And that is the whole attraction of fishing the Davidson; there are tons of trout, and a few of them are huge.
Davidson River trout are what some anglers like to call "educated," but this implies a level of agency in their behavior that fish simply do not possess. Rather, these are fish attuned to an environment of rich abundance. The constant availability of forage suppresses more opportunistic feeding instincts. The name of the game is convenience (i.e. minimizing energy expenditure), and strikes either have to be elicited through extremely precise casting and presentations, or by targeting fish during a major insect hatch, when the fish feed more actively. Like moderns, the largest Davidson River trout require fairly significant levels of stimulus just to attract their attention. They're chunky like moderns, too.
(Chunky modern with chunky Davidson River rainbow trout)
I find myself fascinated with the ways people experience a place and how they try and relate that experience to others. When folks talk about visiting the Davidson, they talk about the number of trout they caught or the unbelievable size of that one fish they saw. When they visit my secret spot or other high gradient mountain headwaters, they invariably speak of the beauty of the scenery of and the gemlike quality of the fish. Fishing the Davidson is a thoroughly modern experience. It's all about numbers. Quantification. Outcomes. Small stream fishing feels like a journey into the past, an exploration of long-vanished modes of thought and being. It is an experience of place, inextricably entwined with aesthetic revelation.
I have a sneaking suspicion that what makes such places seem so lovely is the thrill of mortality. Our appreciation for beauty is in some sense tied to our sense of impermanence. I believe that beauty cannot be disentangled from the awareness of frailty, of the tragic, glorious fragility of existence. The mountainside robed in the splendor of autumn; in a week, reduced to a skeleton of bare rock set off by the silent bones of trees. The lovely girl in the full flower of a youth that is always too brief. The Old Guard at Waterloo, in the moment before shell, steel and shot brought an entire age crashing down in bloody ruin. One tiny doomed fish, rising to dimple the surface of the water in the lee of a rock that is all that remains of a mighty peak, long since pulverized to sand. In some primitive, instinctual corner of our beings, we recognize the tenuousness of life, and all the challenges it must overcome to simply hang on. The real beauty lies in the tenacity of life in the face of certain death.