The Upside-Down Brook Trout
In any discussion of beautiful landscapes, the mention of Iowa invites paradox. Most travelers bustling through the state on I-80 would probably describe — with no criticism intended — the drive as boring, as the green sameness of row crops of corn and beans flashes by at 70 miles per hour.
On the other hand, the paradoxical part of Iowa in the northeast part of the state, a kind of a Methuselah Granny over 12,000 years old, was never glaciated during the epic Ice Age of eons past. While there were various juxtapositions of mile-high glaciers surrounding the region, that corner of the state was never covered by layered ice of oh-so-long ago.
A rather loose geological categorization resulted in the curious sounding name, The Driftless Region. When the surrounding mass of ice receded, it left behind till or drift (rocks and boulders of various sizes). Since drift is glacier-centric, Iowa was left with no drift. Sounds like a sad tale replete with some kind of privation. The term has a rather pejorative flavor to it; as does ‘witless,’ ‘penniless,’ ‘feckless,’ ‘clueless’ and so on.
Actually the region in question was left with … well … with itself! A beautiful hunk of country, this land is not just corn fields and crickets but rugged, with heavily forested hills buttressed by limestone ridges, with spring water seeping from their yet-frozen cores as old as the mind can imagine. Absent the spore of modernity, it looks pretty much like it did 12,000 years ago.
This place is where the heart can rest in a cradle of the almost eternal and where my heart thumps with joy at the beautiful, clear trout stream whose trickling head waters dance in my head when I should be attentive to the rigors of modern life.
One of my many preoccupations has been with this place, and my attention has begun to center on pretty, little South Pine Creek. DNA testing of the resident brook trout indicates they came from progeny as old as the last epic glacial event.
There are over a hundred lovely trout streams in the area but I couldn’t get this one out of my head. However, it was hard to find and after a few cursory attempts I gave up on the idea, opting for some brown trout fishing in one of the many other readily available streams.
Finally the idea of that mysterious place holding jewels of brook trout, in their bright fall colors of the perennial spawn, had nagged at me long enough.
So on a particular beautiful fall day in October when the air was filled with the scent of the burning leaves of autumn, I packed up the ole Buick (a car that has gone where no vehicle should go), kissed my wife adieu and promised my dog, Katie, I would return with a rabbit.
I have always considered the somewhat long ride from my home in Nebraska to northeast Iowa as something of a penance to endure in order to clear my conscience for shrugging the yoke of societal responsibilities time and time again. Oh, how I love that feeling!
This time I was determined to be successful as I traveled a network of back roads, turning seemingly far too many times as I referred to a state fishery map supposedly designed to make my task an easy one.
The Iowa DNR Fish and Fishing information piece found on the internet has this happy cautionary, ‘It is approximately a one-mile hike through rugged country to get to South Pine … its small size does not allow for much fishing pressure,’ a statement not really very enticing I suppose but it would keep the head-hunters and the curiosity-seekers away.
Since it was reportedly a long hike down to the creek, and I didn’t favor the idea of walking that distance in hip waders, I back- packed them in along with a bottle of water, a beer that I would cool in the stream, an apple for luck and a candy bar that would keep some particular demons away.
What I saw when I finally arrived at the creek was pretty much what I expected: a beautiful, bright water stream, tiny by width, but full of switch-backs and meanders, with nice holes at the bends. A few brookies scurried away if I got too close so I sat down nearby, drank some water, and waited. It wasn’t long before a fish began rising along a shady stretch of creek.
Slowly, I went from sitting, to moving quietly on my knees, just a couple of feet for a better cast. While I was pitching a cast just above the trout’s lie, the fly overshot and barely hung at the tip of some bank grass. When I gently popped it loose, a brook trout nailed it nicely.
It was an eleven-inch male brook trout, resplendent in its beautiful fall spawning colors, with a kyped jaw, a dandy dressed up in his wedding tuxedo. I’ve always been curious why we fly fishers have such an affection for this particular trout, why it pulls at us as a needle to some magnetic center and why it size, big or small, caught from little waters or far away, acclaimed and damn expensive venues, has little bearing on this love affair.
I held that little brookie in my hands, loving his beauty but longing for his simple truth, a genetic history beginning thousands of years past, actually held in my hands but forever a riddle. Finally letting it swim from my grasp and disappear like smoke in a mirror, seemingly invisible, in spite of its gaudy colors, I couldn’t help but ask, “What in the hell happened back then, 12,000 years ago?” No answer of course, so I drank the beer and napped for ten minutes before hiking back up a roller coaster of hills.
On the drive back to my home in Nebraska, I had no more insight about the brook trout in South Pine Creek or about the creek itself. I do know that since going there, I “feel” somehow “informed” about the matter. But don’t press me if you don’t want to see my eyes glaze over. I do find it curious that I spent the better part of a twelve-hour round trip, to-and-fro from a faraway place, to voluntarily catch and release one eleven-inch brook trout and feel damn good about it.
Nearing the end of the long drive, where Iowa meets Nebraska, pushing through the trailing edge of a light rain shower, I could see a lovely sunset in the clearing skies ahead. Bright yellow and orange colors were fusing into a rose glow and the head and tail lights of vehicles, coming and going through a diffuse rain shower, looked remarkably like an upside down spawning brook trout, belly emblazoned with gold and rose, and its greenish flanks dotted with white and red aureoles. I had a strange sense then that somehow the trout, and that place with no drift, meant something I would probably never really understand.
Now it doesn’t matter very much but, as I alluded earlier, I have some kind of a connection to something uniquely old. My poor old dog Katie never got the rabbit promised, but all in all it was a good day to drive in the rain.
Illustration by Ross Denton