By Reid Bryant
First published in Gray’s Sporting Journal July 2012
Mine is a landscape of little fish. Not few fish, not by any means, but each set in miniature against a palette of unremarkable features. I live in the center of New England, where land and people describe themselves in muted tones, and we live, like our fish, in close proximity, though I’d venture that we the people care far less for our brethren. The water here is the color of English tea, and it slips off of hillsides that go from green to gray in a disconcerting splash of color each fall. The water seeps through soils where pastures blend into woodland, creased here and there by stone walls laid up dry and straight by Puritan ancestors. Our politics and prayers flow slow and sticky as the maple syrup that we make in Spring, and our fish, our native fish, are small.
There are brook trout here in the streams with wormlike streaks on moss-green backs. They emerge from the tannic water and slash dry flies because that is what brook trout are good at doing. They are both easy and bold, innocent of the very confidence that threatens them; we catch them the year over. The singular challenge they pose is, in fact, the angler’s conviction of their very presence, for it grows harder every year to believe that they persist in the trickles where they do. But they do persist, and we catch them, cradling them in wet palms to reveal the vivid blue-white haloes on their tiny flanks. A big one spans the hand and a whopper might barely fill a hotdog roll, if ever a man possessed the indelicacy to keep and nestle one in such a place. They are so finely camouflaged against their lies that only in oil can their likeness be duly re-created, and they are beautiful, perhaps more so for their tininess.
On the fringes of Boston I worked for a spell on a farm that was passed gingerly through the generations by a family whose wealth was banked in development potential that would never be realized. Without the means or the energy to fight, the family watched as the state highway and water authority shaved the old place to a sliver and stifled the whisper of returning barn swallows under a flow of commuter traffic. Rising from the alders behind the big house, a spring-fed seep swelled into a pond, and gurgled through the property to the west. It flowed under a town road in it’s first hundred yards, and under a farm road in it’s second hundred, and in each place it was enveloped by a monolithic arch of New Hampshire granite. The slabs made a mockery of the tiny stream, but protected it too, from the rumbling cars and the curious boys who might, as I did, inquire after its inhabitants.
The tomatoes were ripe before Julie, whose name was on the mailbox, let slip that there were brookies in the thing… brookies, she said, whose population her father had supplemented until his death some years earlier. Julie and I wiped tomatoes of their flyspeck and set them in boxes, and then walked over the pasture edge to the brook. The hay was tall in the pasture, near ready for a second cut, and Julie parted the stems in front of her, and bent to swipe a grasshopper where he clung swinging, still too dewy of wing to fly.
“Proof” she said, cupping the wriggling hopper in her hand, and smiled.
We made our way to the brook. It was not much to look at where it compressed behind the barn, and in the upstream flat there was only an undulating mat of watercress. On the downstream side, though, Jule and I kneeled and crawled to the last granite slab and lay on our bellies looking into a small pool. Every feature of the bottom was coppery-clear, as in an old photo, and each swaying strand of algae I hoped to be a tiny trout.
“See anyone?” asked Jule, and I shook my head no, reluctant to believe her implication.
“This is where we poured my father’s ashes…” she said, and I looked over to see how she meant it. Her chin was propped on her hands and tomato sap had stained her fingertips black. She looked as she must have as a girl, staring through the pool and downstream, near enough a daydream to believe there was magic somewhere there beneath the surface. A strand of gold-silver hair lay beside her chin on the granite. She flicked the hopper over the edge, and he splotched onto the surface of the pool, then quick-kicked upstream on folded legs, towards the darkness under the bridge. I was considering the splay of his legs on the water when the pool came to life in a kaleidoscope of darting shadow. A slashing rise, and another shadow, far too big for a pool of its size, bulged the surface. The hopper rose on a pedestal of water and in a flash was reduced to silent rings. The dark bolts then stilled to tarnished bronze spear-points, sinking back to their lies against the shadows. There below us, the victor and his kin heaved gently against the bottom of the pool, plainly in sight where I’d not seen them moments before.
“See what I mean” said Jule, easing back from the edge and onto her knees, wiping her hands on her shorts. And indeed I did, and I wanted badly to catch those fish. In the ensuing weeks I fished the pond and brook daily, often at sunset, laying out choppy casts and swimming un-weighted nymphs across the surface. The takes were heartbreaking in their sincerity, and the fly line would convulse out and away, disappearing into dusk with a dip of the leader. The trout themselves were so far outsized for the place as to be almost absurd… twelve, thirteen, fourteen inches, and deep through the glorious secret white of the belly. These fish in a pond that I could cast across with ease, in a brook that I stepped over to gain better angle, and all of it lined with a marl that rose within feet of the water’s surface. My father, laying out an awkward roll cast, once pulled an honest sixteen-inch fish from the spring pool. He held the fish in both hands and lifted it for me, and he could have been in Labrador, had he not been framed against the Boston skyline.
I fished the brook last with my daughter. We’d returned to the place to live for a year, having travelled in the North and the West. In those places, the fish were painted with rainbow streaks over shining silver slabs, and their brilliance winked against skies of thin-air blue, reflected up through rushing water. The land was big and the fish were bigger yet, and I returned to Julie and our suburban stream and saw it for the fragile thing it was. The spring hole, the pond, swallowed by weeds and reclaimed by that sucking marl, were almost gone, and the top layers of watercress had gone to brown. My daughter, sneaking along as Julie and I had done, was possessed of a child’s conviction though, and we crept to the downstream bridge for a peek. One angry hopper and an eruption of shadow, a splash, and a hovering blade of darkness once more retreated to the bottom, lying there against the algae. My daughter had believed in what I couldn’t have fathomed, and she had come prepared, a stick and a length of gossamer tippet to which I’d tied the only fly I’d been able to scrounge… a horrific purple streamer. The fly was fully the size of my daughter’s thumb and she flicked it out and was, as you’d imagine, fast to the resolute progeny of the fish I’d caught those years before. She horsed the trout in, unaware as yet of delicacy, and learned a thing or two about just that as she gently traced the blue-white haloes on heaving flanks there in the shallow water. We released the fish and saw him disappear before us, in a pool he could not escape, could not even hide in, but he disappeared and was gone to us, and we never fished the brook again.
Mine is a landscape of little fish. It remains so, perhaps, because to dream of anything else requires a faith I do not yet have, a faith in freckled children and women who see through the copper water. Cool waters rise on the edges of cities, and our places endure, and are loved even as they recede into memories. Somewhere in twilight, under the tree-root cut banks, big things linger on, long after the belief in big things has grown dim.