(c) Jack Ballard
Deep in slumber, I awoke with a start. Something was pounding on the tin roof of the old homestead cabin where I and my two brothers slept during the summer months. Just rods from the ranch house, the failing log structure lent a sense of adventure to vacation from school and a heady respite from the watchful eyes of our parents.
In the inky darkness I recognized the demon on the roof. Huge drops of rain beat loudly on the corrugated metal. For just an instant, the interior of the “bunkhouse” was lit from outside the single, square window with a searing flash of lightening. Snug in bed, I rolled over and drifted back into the dream-world of a ten year-old boy, happily intimate with the awesome but soothing sounds of nature.
When the roosters woke us the next morning, I shucked on my pants and shirt, then bolted through the door toward the house and breakfast. Across the cracked ribbon of concrete that spanned the earth from the bunkhouse to the back door lay a thin film of soil, washed onto the walk by the downpour. Here and there, worm tracks wound sinuously through the silt. Though my bare feet were damp and chilly, I stopped to stare. Scanning the ground with the seasoned eye of a veteran worm-catcher, I noticed a few fat earthworms that hadn’t yet made it below ground. For a moment I considered tossing them in a can. But no can was at hand, goose-bumps prickled my skinny arms and the soles of my feet were now wetter, and colder. Then the unmistakable clank of a cast iron skillet came faintly from the kitchen, driving all notions of worm-hunting from my brain with heavenly visions of steaming pancakes, fresh fried eggs and warm chokecherry syrup. In three leaps I burst through the back door, wiped my feet on the rug in the porch, and padded expectantly into the kitchen.
At the dining room table, my two brothers were already into their second stack of pancakes. Dad had finished his breakfast, and was sipping appreciatively on a steaming cup of tea. He was thinking.
I fell to my eggs and pancakes, but my fork paused in mid-air when my father cleared his throat.
“It’s too wet to knock down hay. I suppose we could work on the fence on the east side of section 35, but it rained enough it’d probably be afternoon before gettin’ out there in this mud.”
Then he smiled. “Let’s go fishing instead.”
Fishing, at least on days like this, meant one thing. First we’d scrounge up an old one-gallon coffee can. While dad turned the soft, dark soil in the garden with a spade, I’d snatch the wriggling earthworms before they could borrow back into the dirt. We might also turn over a few stray bales of straw, left from last winter’s small stack that insulated the carrots that we dug snapping and sweet from the garden when snow covered the straw mound and the thermometer registered temperatures in the single digits. Now, under the partially rotting bales, annelids relaxed after their own earthy breakfast, unaware that in a few hours’ time they’d be on a non-volunteer scuba mission in a creek.
On this particular outing, our destination was the ranch of a friend who swathed hay and ran bawling Hereford cattle on the winsome bottoms along the North Fork of the North Boulder River. A fairly small stream, but flush with deep holes and undercut banks, the creek teemed with trout, fish with light patterns traced on their dark, greenish backs that appeared astonishingly similar to the worm tracks I’d seen in the silt along the sidewalk. For anglers intent on nothing so grand as relaxing to the sound of murmuring water and wondering at all manner of streamside life, like portly muskrats, flashing yellow warblers and the thrilling music of sandhill cranes, there’s no place so fine as a brook trout stream in a meadow.
However even though they’re greatly appreciated for their willingness to engulf a drifted worm or snatch a spinner flung by the chubby hands of a preschooler, brook trout remain somewhat misunderstood by the average angler. For one thing, they’re not a “trout” in the truest sense of the word. Brookies share the char genus with Arctic char, Dolly Varden and two other species also dubbed with the “trout” misnomer: bull trout and lake trout.
Of the char family, brook trout and Dolly Varden are the most colorful. Interestingly, the word “char” derives from an ancient Celtic term meaning “blood.” Referring to color, not the life-sustaining liquid that warms the veins of all creatures warm-blooded, the brilliant red and intense golden hues of a spawning brook trout vividly demonstrate how aptly “char” captures their essence. More technically, all char are distinguished from other “true” trout by their lack of the black spots that adorn the bodies of species such as rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout. Brook trout are sprinkled with yellow spots across the sides of their bodies. Interspersed with the yellow are red dots encircled in bluish hues, giving something the appearance of tiny bulls-eyes. Fins on the lower side of the brook trout’s body are generally gold or reddish. Among other distinguishing marks are the white streaks that adorn the forward portion of the lower fins on all brookies.
Once at the creek, we piled from the car, three boys scrambling frantically toward the trunk and the worn, one-piece fiberglass rods that represented our ticket to a bucketful of fish. Rod in hand, I sloshed purposely through the wet, glistening meadow grass. Not far from the car was a deep hole that my older brothers bypassed in their dash upstream.
Bait on the hook, with a small weight to sink it to the bottom, I flipped the squirming earthworm toward the head of the pool and reeled the slack from the line. In as much time as it takes to say “I wonder if they’ll be biting today,” an unmistakable tug on the line set me to reeling an eight-inch brookie toward the bank. Joining me at streamside, dad smiled his approval then cut and trimmed a forked willow limb from a nearby bush. I slid the fish onto the improvised “stringer.” Turning to re-bait my hook, I noticed my father grinning again. Another bright brook trout, twin to mine, had taken his gold Mepps spinner. Bursting with happiness, I gazed long upon the rolling water of the brook and the verdant mountainside beyond with its emerald tapestry of evergreens. Sunshine enveloped my shoulders, warming my whole body despite the chill of my damp jeans. Earnestly I wished that each night, for the rest of the summer, I might awaken to rain on the roof.
Though I thought naught of it at the time, I’ve since wondered about the origin of the brook trout in the North Fork of the North Boulder. A tributary to the Jefferson River, when moccasins tracked its banks prior to settlement of Montana by Europeans, mountain whitefish and native cutthroats likely finned its waters. The whitefish remain, but the cutthroats are long gone (as they are in many similar creeks across the state), extirpated at least in part by the very brook trout that drew us to the stream.
Firmly established in innumerable creeks and lakes across the Rocky Mountain states and westward toward the Pacific coast, brook trout are nonetheless interloping Easterners. Historically, brook trout prowled the waters as far north as the tributaries of Canada’s Hudson Bay and southward to the upper reaches of northern Georgia’s Chattahoochee River. As close as they came to Montana were populations found in the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northwestern Minnesota.
Transplanted to the west by folks seeking a more “sporting” fish than the native cutthroats, brook trout were plopped by bucket and barrel into the majority of small mountains streams habitable to salmonids. Like other species of char, brookies thrive in cold, clear waters and feed opportunistically on a variety of aquatic organisms. In favorable habitat they reproduce with astonishing efficiency, soon filling every watery nook and cranny with their kind — and persistently nudge out other species unable to compete with this adaptable char.
In the small streams where they’re most prolific and mountain lakes with ideal spawning habitat, brook trout rarely achieve impressive size. Indeed, after fishing the North Fork of the North Boulder for numerous years, the largest brookie I ever encountered was a specimen that might have stretched the tape to fourteen inches, a true giant in a crowd where six to eight inch fish are the norm. Are brook trout naturally smaller than other common species like rainbow and brown trout? The short answer is “yes.” In the large rivers and lakes of northeastern Canada, virulent member of the salvelinus fontinalis clan range to 10 pounds and beyond — sizeable fish, but still much smaller than the largest specimens of rainbow and brown trout that might weigh twice as much or more. However, in the typical Montana creek or lake, brook trout often reproduce to ghetto-like populations whose numbers simply exceed the amount of forage needed to attain a length longer than six to eight inches.
While those tiny, tasty brookies make succulent table fare, the prospect of landing larger specimens of this gorgeous char is a life-long ambition of numerous native anglers.
Where do you go to find a brook trout that might stretch the tape to fifteen inches or beyond? What about really large fish, those that might nudge the scale to three pounds or more?
For the most part, you’ll need to confine yourself to waters that have relatively low numbers of brook trout and a consistent food base. Some larger reservoirs in the southwestern part of Montana fit this bill, such as Georgetown Lake west of Anaconda. Where brookies fin the waters of larger streams or lakes along with predatory species (such as brown trout) that limit their population, at least a few of the bright-bellied char grow to some size.
One radiant afternoon in early October, I fished a lake on the edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness from a float tube. Brown trout and a number of brookies were stacked near the inlet of the lake, just where the current lost itself in the glassy waters of the loch. A lake known more as “kiddie pond” where youngsters entice flaccid, hatchery-raised rainbows with bait and bobber during the summer, I knew other species also finned the water, but had no idea of their size or numbers.
Anchoring my belly-boat just beyond the perceptible flow of the inlet stream, I cast a weighted woolly bugger into the current and let it sink. A twitching retrieve yielded a scrappy male brown trout with light, buttery flanks and the vigor of a fish much beyond his sixteen inches. Three smaller brookies and another brown also took the fly. Then a commanding jolt bent my rod. Assuming the antagonist to be another sizeable member of the salmo trutta contingent, the appearance of a much darker fish momentarily roiling near the surface seemed to indicate something different. When the trout began to tire after a lengthy test of will and tippet, I at last identified my prize as the largest brook trout I’d ever caught on a fly rod. In hand, the plucky male shined with the spawning radiance of the species, a glowing red-orange belly afire beneath a back of deepest green, appearing almost black in the fading light of evening. In retrospect, the presence of a large brook trout in this lake shouldn’t have surprised me. With low numbers and a sufficient food base, young brookies that avoid the toothy jaws of their brown cousins can grow much larger than those in overrun populations in a small creek.
If you hunt big brook trout long enough, expect some surprises. I know of two lakes, deep in the mountains, where poor spawning habitat severely restricts the reproduction of resident brookies. Though the fish are few, there’s little competition for food and the backcountry nature of their habitat keeps most trout-hunters away. For big brook chasers, these are the true gems of the trout world. With luck, you may find one in your lifetime.
Though I can lament the brook trout’s spoiling of native cutthroat populations in many places, these eastern transplants have so thoroughly naturalized in Montana habitat and are so appreciated by rank and file anglers that it’s hard to imagine the state without them. How we’ll ultimately decide to manage salvelinus fontinalis is a question worth pondering. In the meantime, I’m prepared to enjoy these perky fish to the fullest — in the stream and on the table.