Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fresh Tracks

One of the last brushes with winter found me in the woods along a wild trout stream. The snowfall had just ceased but still clung to everything. When the sun poked out, it melted fast and poured down like rain from the canopy. The woods were quiet and my lone footprints meant the trout had yet to see a fly that day. It was one of the better days I had spent on the water in some time. 

Link to video.

Monday, April 9, 2018

A Confession

Editor's note: Opening Day of trout season is around the corner. It's a weekend that stirs memories and emotions for countless fishermen; some more so than others. This is the finale in a series of guest posts from my friend Chad Wilde. He's a great family man, angler and writer. I like sharing Chad's work here, but fair warning, this is the toughest thing ever posted on this blog. Tell your loved ones you love them.

my earliest memories of fishing involve being woken up in the pre dawn cold of an april morning by my father. he rousing my brothers and i for our annual opening day trip. his voice silent as to not wake my mother and sister; "wake up, pal." i remember the station wagon, the smell of coffee and the calm easy speak of the morning news on the a.m. radio. riding in the way back.

he had great patience and he dutifully baited our hooks with worms and worked out our remarkable birds nests from faulty casting. fishing until we were bored and hungry. then later, our town firehouse served fisherman's breakfast: pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, orange juice. i do not remember catching fish though i am sure we did. i loved the 3rd weekend of april, opening day weekend in connecticut, and i still do as a touchstone of spring.

years later, my dad gave me my first fly rod. i was out of college and stumbling around for a career, a woman, an anything or a something. i was drowning in debt, crashing through relationships, emptying bottles; a walking shamble of a young man. looking to be someone and not knowing still who that was to be.

i needed something new and when he gave me my rod for my birthday i thanked him and told him that he had given me a new hobby, and my mind bent towards the rod and its work instantly. i took the rod to a field and amazed myself by being able to lay a reasonable amount of line out on the grass. holy shit, i thought, i can do this. i reeled in and went to the river, where i caught a dace on a big dry fly. that fly rod was just what i needed, and i took to studying it and gradually my spin rods were left home. it is still what i need.

my dad and my uncle began 20 years ago our current opening day tradition of fish camp. he and uncle jim would drag out the pop up campers and load up wood for a weekends worth of campfires, fishing, drinking, and eating terribly unhealthy foods. our camp started small, but grew to its current stature of almost 40 people and 5 campsites. i look forward to it with trepidation and joy every year.

as i grew older, fish camp came to mean more and more to me. as life strangles the time from your days and you hew out what hours you can to fish. a full, unadulterated weekend becomes the carrot dangled in front of the ass: slogging through the winter you find your mind creeping towards spring days and trout fishing.

we camp beside and fish the natchaug river. the word natchaug comes from the nipmuc indians and it means "the land between two rivers". in 2008 i went to sleep semi drunk on the first night of fish camp before anyone else in our camp. i was excited to get a good early start on the fishing the next morning. my dad came into our camper for something as i was bedding down and he said "good night, pal. i love ya." even in adulthood he said that to me.

i dimly recall the gauzy morning light the next morning, the sounds of someone stirring. it is impossible to be quiet in a camper. it was still mostly dark outside and i rolled over and stole another hour in the warm sleeping bag. when i woke up again i dressed and walked to the camp ground bathroom to force the necessary shit out of me to allow concentrated fishing. i saw my dads shoes below one of the stall doors.

mildly hung over, no caffeine in me yet, i took my shit and realized that the air in that bathroom was far too still, oddly silent. my first thoughts were that my father, in the stall next to mine, had fallen asleep. i spoke his name. again louder. i wiped my ass and the panic began. looking over his stall door.

the sight that i saw there that morning. finality and so obvious, an undignified pose, not fitting of he or any man. i broke the door down and touched his neck. i ran from there, one shoe came off as i ran to our camp. i yelled for help. my brothers came. "its dad. the bathroom." they ran as i called 911.

we tried our best. i learned that morning that efforts at resuscitation put air into lungs that the body will force out in a low moan. we heard this sound, awful sound, and it gave us hope. "come on dad!" we called, pump the chest, breath for him, try, anything. the first responders were there before i knew it and they cleared us from the bathroom and tried their best too.

my brothers and i split up. my older brother to my mothers house to get her and my sister, my younger brother and i to follow the ambulance that had left 5 minutes earlier as we 3 blind mice made what plans we could. pearl jam song came to mind:

'i miss you already. i miss you always. 3 crooked hearts swirl all around.'

when we caught up to the ambulance what hope there was faded. no siren on. the lights flashing, but it wasn't going as fast as it could have. there didn't appear to be any urgency: indeed, things had been decided well before the trip.

it was a massive heart attack, sudden and unseen by any. my dad was in good health per his doctor but 2 weeks earlier.

my grief was black anger. pour blood on me, i boil. this is how i grieve. i was a mean son of a bitch, careening from tears and ache to the bile of hate. waking in the night on my now widowed mothers floor and thinking 'was it a dream? no.' being a shitty son to my mother, a shitty brother to my siblings, a shitty man to who is now my wife. a shitty self. so sad, so angry.

my confession is that in the aftermath of that day i was angry at my father as his passing had taken that weekends fishing from me. its there, in the grief stages.  his passing had tagged my life and like a nuclear event had blown it all up and the aftershock had pulled it back together all akimbo and staring outward with a thousand yard stare.

his wake was an opiate. the line of people there to pay respects snaked around the town for a half a mile. i do not believe i over estimate when i say there were thousands of people there. as he had touched me, he touched so many others. a very, very good man. my family stood there and went through the sad chores for better than 2 extra hours than were planned, so as to allow everyone to say goodbye. in between the greetings and tears, i thought of fishing. stripping streamers. stupid white zonkers I could see in the water.  again, i confess. so selfish.

a week later i was back on the water in that hazy grieving state. interface with the new normal: each new day the new longest time since i've spoken with you. the future stretching out in front of me saying figure this out and learn what you can. a stocked trout hits and takes the hook deeply in the gills. try to save it, fail. new tears, for the trout? angrily let it float away and down, down, down. not even saving it on a forked stick to be eaten. fuck you trout. this time i'm god and you lose. i confess that.

don't it make you smile? when the sun don't shine.

and all these years later, i still confess this: that morning, when my father woke up and i stayed in bed for that extra hour....i think deep down that maybe i could have helped him. if i woke too, that extra hour earlier, and we went together to the bathroom maybe he would have said "i don't feel so good." maybe i would have seen it. the doctors told me there was nothing i could have done, but i disagree. i confess that if nothing else i could have helped this man cross over. not alone in a camp ground bathroom. i confess that i don't believe i will ever feel there wasn't something there i could have done and didn't.

but through all that, i’m still out there strippin’ streamers.  and that rod he gave me is still up here on my wall.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Tale of Alan's Tiger

Editor's note: This is another good story from my friend Chad Wilde in the Quiet Corner of CT. It's about tiger trout, a sterile cross between a male brook trout and a female brown trout. Most of CT's tigers are raised in hatcheries and stocked as adults (3,768 tigers stocked in 2017), but once in a blue moon anglers will catch wild tigers in streams with good spawning habitat and populations of native brookies and wild browns.

Chad noted that listening to this song while reading along will enhance the story. 

Living on the brook, I sort of got to know some of its fish.  Like a particular tiger trout that found its way into a prime hole.  It’s an angler’s culvert sort of place.  Easy to fish, consistent.  I got him there three times over the course of a year.

The funny thing about that particular tiger is that I caught it on three different flies and three different fly rods.  So after a while I just stopped fishing that hole.  I started saving it for a friend.

Each time I caught him over the year, he looked a little more colorful, a little more robust.  I could swear he had grown an inch. Vermiculate back like a convolute network of misevolution.  Black pupil that looked oddly innocent.  But it was a brawler.  Not leader shy, this fish.  He fought well, and ruined the hole each time I got him with his ruckus.

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice, shame on me.

Fool me three times, ah fuck it.

I knew my friend Alan had never caught a tiger trout.  So I held off on the easy fish to hopefully put him on it.  Alan is a good friend, and a helluva rod builder.  He can tie a good deer-hair bug, and he’s handy with a stick.  I haven’t fished with him as much as I’d like, but I have fished with him enough to know that he could figure it out pretty quick, whatever it was.

In the past I had brought him to some of the places I knew on the brook, but never to the hole with the tiger in it. 
I debated the tiger, mind you.   I knew and know there are wild fish in the brook.  I knew this dude was voracious and would eat just about anything.  Maybe I should have offed it.  But of the stocked fish in Connecticut they are perhaps the most interesting.  And I struggle with killing anything.  Even for a good reason.

We got up one day, went directly to the spot with the tiger in it.  I gave him the tit water.  I said, “Right out there buddy.”  I was already proud of myself.  The water was low.  It was late November.  There was ice in our guides.  Naturally, since I had talked the hole up so much, we didn’t catch shit. 

Now, I had been thinking about the Fenton River for some time around then.  It was badly damaged when UConn sucked it dry in 2005.  Where I used to find wild fish in high school now I only found stockies.  But when I’d catch them in the winter I’d tip my hat to them and say go on and lay down some roots.  I’d hope for them.  Against hope.  We’d try it anyway.

On the drive, I wondered if the tiger was dead.  I have always handled my fish with utmost care, but after you release a fish you never really know if it survives unless you catch it again.  Do the chances of its life decrease with subsequent catches?  I know there is stress in catching fish, but I do my best to reduce it.

My friend Dave caught a dubious fish in the Fenton years ago.  A 29- inch brown trout.  The hypothetical fish that could be.  A leviathan of a small stream.  A beast.  He caught it out of an out-of-the-way hole.  I wanted to check out a series of these type of holes I knew of and they weren’t buying what we were selling in the brook.  Alan was game.

I secretly hoped the tiger in the brook was dead since the thing would gladly eat a two-inch fry.  I secretly hoped it alive, stalking some deadfall or tucked into a bathtub sized two-foot deep plunge.  Treating it like a conveyor belt of forage, chasing off all others.  Eating them.  Grown fat and greedy, and strong.  I just hoped for fish.  So we’d try the Fenton.

I couldn’t get it out of my mind that the tiger wasn’t there.  I was disappointed, they’re pretty rare to catch and I thought I could put a buddy on his first.  Maybe it wised up, went feral as stocked fish will and learned to hide better.  Find deeper culverts to haunt.  Mice to eat.  It had, after all, grown an inch in a year.

I had just begun to tie flies at the time and was working on a squirrel leach pattern.  I gave a couple to Alan.  Purple squirrel with a green bead head.  “Broom Hilda-style,” I told him.  Halloween and all.  These flies were the first of my own that I was successful with, and they remain a staple in my box 10 years later.

I worked some water below him and he found his way up to a nice cutbank.  He approached it from below and took a small trout.  After a while he put on the squirrel leach and began to fish it.

I called his cell to find out what he was doing.  He told me he saw a big fish go for the squirrel leach and miss.  I began to head up.  I had just arrived at the cutbank to watch him roll cast upstream along the deep foreboding grey November cutbank.  He began to take short strips.  I looked away.  He said aloud, “I got ‘em.”

I turned and saw Alan on a nice fish.  It’s always exciting to see a friend get a good one.  You want to help, share in the experience.  I saw the fish boil the surface.  It was very light in color.  Was it a huge washed-out brook trout?  I couldn’t tell.  We had a great view of the fish, in the deep colored late fall water.  I enjoyed watching him fight it. 

It was a good fish.  After he fought the fish, I was able to slide a net under it.  This too is special, to help a friend net a fish. 

“No way,” I said.  I couldn’t even believe it. 

It’s a big tiger.

He released it and I never saw it again.  Though no doubt I went looking for it.

Alan's tiger

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Fight for Roaring Brook

Editor's note: Whether its fighting for hatcheries on the chopping block, historic homes facing demolition or precious natural spaces at risk of development, I'm all for taking a stand for what you believe in. That's why I'm happy to share the following piece form my friend Chad Wilde, who makes a heartfelt call-to-action to help protect a special blue line in Northeast Connecticut. 

According to Indian legend, brook trout were not always the speckled beauties we know today.  “Once, long, long ago,” said old Jesse Logan, of the Cornplanter Reservation in Warren County Pennsylvania, the last (in 1928) of the Shikellemus tribe, “when Manitou visited the land of the Iroquois to lead His lost children back to the Happy Hunting Ground in the Far East, He grew weak with hunger and cold on his long quest.  Toward night He stopped beside a pool in the Seneca country [New York] which was overshadowed by colossal white pines and hemlocks.  Noticing that it was full of handsome trout, as black as ebony, He reached in His hand and easily caught the largest of the superb fish.  Looking at it He was struck by its beauty and agile grace, and decided to control His hunger and let it live, so He dropped it back into the deep pool.

“The trout went its way, but instantly its sides took on a silvery hue where the fingers of the Great Spirit had held it, and all of its kind became marked with the same silvery sheen and many colored spots and halos, as a token of their having been handled by the kindly Manitou.  For that reason, the Seneca Indians and others of the Six Nations would not eat brook trout.  Brook trout were sacred to the highest instincts of their race.  But what the redman spared,” said Logan, “white men destroyed by the millions.”
                                                                                                                     ~From Nick Karas' book Brook Trout

As an angler, I have seen first hand what mans intrusion into our wild places can do to fish.  I have watched it with my own eyes.  Over the past 4 decades, if you looked in the right places, these subtle but nefarious changes were impossible to miss.  Today, we must protect what natural resources we still have.  One such resource in dire need of our stewardship is Roaring Brook in Willington Connecticut.

I grew up on a circle of tract housing laid into the side of Village Hill just upland from Roaring Brook.  I caught my first trout in our backyard.  It was a brook trout, and I caught it out of a drainage pipe.  This was sometime in the early eighties when I was a child.

There was a small stream that flowed into a culvert at the top of our road.  The water ran through a storm drain under the street to another culvert in front of my house where some of it spilled out.  From there this trickle flowed behind our home, through the woods, downhill and into Roaring Brook. 

My brother and I had been fishing with our father before.  I don’t recall how old we were but we were old enough to go out on rainy nights and harvest night crawlers to fish with.  I remember walking and exploring the stream and coming to small pools where the rocks were covered in green moss, in them we saw small fish dart about.  So quick, and then hidden.  Gone. 

We caught these fish, on bits of worm, cast up into the drainage pipe from the mouth of the small culvert.  We didn’t know what they were.  Naturally, we put them in a bucket with stream water.  When our father got home from work, he identified them as brook trout.  As we grew, we followed the stream down through the woods, it was a tributary of Roaring Brook.  When we were old enough to do so we rode our bikes to this slightly larger stream and spread our wings in exploration.

We would swim in the deep pools and explore the stone foundation of Eldredge Mills, a site recognized by the National Historical Register.  To this day you can see the great stone circle of its turbine pit, which I tell my children is a castle.  I show them the stone walled sluiceway that the early millers used to divert the water and power their saw and grist mills.  Above these links to our colonial past rise tall hemlock, oak and maple trees.  Below them flows Roaring Brook.

As a child my friends and I would find crayfish and hellgrammites below stones in the brook.  There were great mechanical looking stonefly nymphs that would leave their molted husks on the streamside rocks.  We found salamanders beneath moldering logs in the forest, their skin slick and their tiny hands so delicate.  There were brook and brown trout in the water.    

Most people don’t consider the link brook trout have to our heritage as New Englanders.  Brook trout are native to waters throughout New England.  This means that their lineage developed indigenously in the water that drains our region.  Their natural range encompassed a good portion of the eastern United States, extending from Canada to high mountain streams in northern Georgia and west to the Great Lakes basin.

This habitat range has been drastically reduced by mans infringement.  Brook trout require cold, clean, well oxygenated water to survive.  They require highly specific pristine habitat conditions.  These native fish developed in the place that was right for them and they were entrenched in these places long before European men set foot on North American soil.

Like brook trout, some people develop in the right place.  When it was time to buy a home with my wife and start a family I chose to do so in the neighborhood where I grew up, in Willington.  I was elated to do so.  I envisioned my children exploring the same watershed I did in my youth.  I was back on Roaring Brook, our home is less than a mile from its banks.

I consider this my home water.  Throughout my life, I’ve always lived around Northeastern Connecticut.  As an angler I have spent more time on Roaring Brook than any other stream.  I’ve always caught fish, and many wild fish.  I have walked and fished a good portion of the brook from its mouth at the Willimantic River in Willington to its headwaters in northwest Union.  Throughout its entire length it contains good trout habitat.

I know there are no more brook trout in the small stream that flowed behind my parents home.  There is sand and water grown too warm to support fish.  Sediment and warm water are lethal brook trout.  Sediment obscures their spawning gravel and chokes eggs.  Warm water carries less dissolved oxygen than cold water.  Luckily, Roaring Brook is still suitable to support wild fish. 

Not truly trout, brook trout are actually considered char.  Trout and char are both members of the Salmonidae genetic family, but only char are native to the Eastern seaboard of North America.  Char differ from trout in appearance in that they have lighter colored spots against a dark colored body where trout generally have darker spots against a light one.

Brook trout are gorgeous fish.  Their backs are shades of steel blue and olive, they have tan vermiculate patterns descending towards their flanks.  Their spots are yellow, and they also carry vivid red spots haloed by blue.  Their fins are tipped with white.  In autumn, when they prepare to spawn, the male bellies take on a deep orange hue. 

As I have fished roaring brook over the past decade I have caught wild brook and brown trout.  I always approach my angling here with trepidation.  I realize we stand at a pivotal point in our species development with regards to protection of our natural resources.  Each time I set foot on its banks, I hope deep in my heart that there are still trout swimming in the brook.  To this point, my hope has been confirmed by my catches and release of wild trout.

I am always relieved when I see one at the end of my line.  These aren’t huge fish.  A mature wild fish will often only be 6 to 8 inches long.  Coldwater fish are the litmus test of a New England stream.  Where they are found you will find clean water and a healthy natural environment.  Connecticut has classified Roaring Brook as a class 3 wild trout stream, meaning that there is natural reproduction occurring, and populations are supplemented by stocked adult and fry (infant) trout.

Roaring Brook’s habitat is currently threatened by a proposal by Love’s Travel Stop to build a truck stop and restaurant off of exit 71 westbound on route 84.  This facility will be 40 acres and will cover parts of roaring brook and two crucial wetlands that drain directly into its water. 

In 2012 Love’s received approval from the Willington Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission to develop land off Polester Road.  In 2013 they were granted additional approval from Willington’s Planning and Zoning Commission with certain conditions applied.

At that time, senior fisheries biologist Brian Murphy of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s assessed and documented the proposed building site.  What he found was a site bordering a brook that is deeply shaded by thick woodland, helping to keep the water cool for trout to live in.  He saw cobbled gravel on the streambed, creating a place for trout to spawn.  He found riffles and runs that tumbled the water, creating oxygen and places where trout could feed.  He found woody debris and boulders, hiding places, what is known as a micro-habitat where juvenile trout make their homes and where insects provide forage. 

In essence he found the heart of my home water, a nice healthy little trout stream.

Murphy observed 2 wetlands that directly fed Roaring Brook.  In one of them, he found yearling brook trout.  This indicated that in the fall of 2012 brook trout had successfully spawned in the wetland channel.  Brook trout eggs are laid in fall.  They incubate until early spring when they hatch.  The fry emerge from their gravel beds and seek out microenvironments to live and grow in.  Wetlands are crucial to trout streams.  They provide spring water, which is cool, clean and well oxygenated.  They provide nurseries for trout. 

The project as proposed by Love’s Travel Stop will amount to a 40 acre development within a stones throw of this delicate ecosystem.  Any habitats health is directly tied to that of its immediate surroundings.  Symbiotic relationships develop between waterways and surrounding areas.  A riparian habitat refers to the buffer zone between any open water and upland areas.  These areas act as filters where vegetation absorbs pollutants and sediment.  They also prevent erosion, and offer shade to the waterways they protect.  This will be compromised by the truck stop.

Love’s proposal will damage this environment through the removal of forest, disturbance of soil, and creation of runoff into the brook.  Runoff from rainwater that falls on asphalt is warm.  It collects gasoline, oil, heavy metals, road salt and silt.  All of these harmful substances will find their way from the proposed truck stop into Roaring Brook.  This will damage the health of the stream. 

The proposed development features construction of a leaching field capable of handling 6,000 gallons per day of wastewater.  This leaching field will be roughly 120 feet from the wetland where Mr. Murphy observed wild brook trout in 2013.  The actual construction of the leaching field will bring development to within twenty feet of the wetland.  It is difficult under any circumstances to believe that measurable damage will not be done to this watershed, my home watershed.  This septic system will adversely affect the water quality of Roaring Brook.

I understand that the town of Willington will benefit from the increased tax revenue that this project will generate, however I cannot support it in light of what it will do to a pristine brook.  I have walked all my life below the forest canopy that shades this brook.  My family and I swim in its cool waters in the height of summer and I have fished it successfully in January snowstorms.  We must protect what native fish remain in our world.  Doing so is the golden rule embodied, doing to others what you would have done to yourself. 

I showed my daughter Marin her first brook trout from Roaring Brook in 2017.  I was thrilled I had caught it since I had again confirmed some few still lived called the brook home.  It was some ancestor of the trout my brother and I had found in a drain pipe all those years before.  This thought struck me: in a drainpipe.  There once were so many trout in these parts that they had permeated the very sewers below our feet.  And now I am thrilled to know that even one still lives in the watershed I so dearly love.

A shadow passed my face when I thought about the now vacant stream where I had caught those first brook trout behind my parent’s house.  It is my hope that my daughter will be able to show her own children some progeny of that fish I showed her, when she was 3 years old.  She will only be able to do this if we fiercely protect this resource.

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.  You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.  They smelled of moss in your hand.  Polished and muscular and torsional.  On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes.  Of a thing which could not be put back.  Not be made right again.  In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
                                                                                                        ~From Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road

Please consider standing with me against the damage this project will cause Roaring Brook.

You can help support Roaring Brook by signing the petition to stop the proposed development of Love’s Travel Stop found here.

You can also write directly to the DEEP Hearing Officer to voice your concern:

There is a public site walk on Monday April 23rd at 10 a.m. taking place at the Polester Road development site.

There will be a public hearing held on Tuesday April 24th at the Willington Public Library.  Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. for discussion with a formal presentation to begin at 6:00 p.m.

Lastly, follow Nectar Community on Facebook to stay in the loop about the fight for Roaring Brook and other things happening in eastern CT.