ESSAY: Still Life with Brook Trout
An unsullied creek is a rare thing, and an unsullied creek with brook trout much rarer. For much of the country these are the original trout, and for thousands of years they have adapted to the cold, clean waters of spring creeks. In the bluff and valley country of southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin rainwater percolates and is chilled and purified through limestone rock, or karst. This is the same rock which is exposed in beautiful vertical faces of high bluffs.
It’s a great pleasure, almost the greatest pleasure to fish beneath these bluffs, to throw a dry fly under a canopy of cottonwood or oak trees. The canopy keeps the grass down and inhibits the growth of watercress that can snag a fly. By positioning yourself at the foot of a broad pool with enough foliage behind to obscure your profile you can drift a tiny Hendrickson over submerged boulders for as long as the pleasure possesses you, not really caring if it brings a fish or not, a sort of dream fishing that has more to do with being there than catching fish. Like drinking wine with a beautiful woman, time slows down. Time is meaningless.
Brook trout can’t tolerate warm water. It has to be cold, cold and clear. The farming in karst country is narrow-gauge farming, limiting tillage between the bluff and the creek, and the creek must have a buffer of trees and heavy vegetation. The farmer has fifty or sixty rows (or seven or eight) for row crops like soybeans and corn. Next to the creek he has to leave a wide buffer untilled, otherwise the banks would progressively collapse and allow the plain to flood again and again in what would become a muddy, unfarmable mess.
The buffer is largely responsible for the health of the farmland, and for the health of the creek. You almost can’t believe these fortuitous circumstances exist, with native butterflies and brook trout and rare flowers and valley ferns and wild raspberries and water so pure you can drink right out of the creek (although I wouldn’t suggest it, especially south of the beaver dam). A lucky combination of requirements.
There were once spring creeks and brook trout throughout the Midwest, but with a zeal that can be compared only to war, men tore into the forest and prairie and gutted the wetlands. Cold-water springs were dredged and ditched and the ancient watercourses made ramrod straight so that today rainwater runs off in filthy culverts and corrugated pipes to the river. I fear the same is coming to our karst country. It’s just a matter of time. I don’t think the current generation will do it and I have a great respect for the farmer, but someday prices will rise so dramatically that his kin will be forced to sell.
Then it will be over. With enough money and science and equipment they will figure out how to tame the valley. They’ll expand the cropland, straighten the creek and warm the water, killing the trout and making way for some really big money. Compared to the big money and the grand ambitions of men, a trout or a butterfly is a very small thing.
I love fly fishing, but it carries with it a distant note of sadness.
So you try not to think about it, and instead drink wine with your wife. She is careless, passive, you can experience her but not wholly possess her and she knows it. Later you might go to dinner, or maybe not. Think of a joke to tell. Savor her eyes and tell her how enduringly beautiful she is. This is all she wants. This is all you want.