I saw the line tighten just before I felt it. A smooth flick of the wrist downstream effectively set the hook, and I was into a good trout. That’s four, if I can land it, and halfway to my creel limit, I thought. I was four fish away from trout dinner and the primal satisfaction that comes from harvesting one’s own protein. I would later share the trout with my uncle and some friends. We’d enjoy every moment of the meal, wiping melted butter from our grins and trading stories below a dim porch light.
I grasped my red-handled pliers and rapped the rainbow trout’s skull, just above the eyes. A quick shot to its brain, and the trout shuddered for a moment. Then it was still. I put the dead trout in a sealed bag with an ice pack, stashed it in the back of my vest, drew the zipper, thrust the vest over my shoulders and made a repeat cast into the same good run, hopefully on my way to four more fish and a complete day.
When I finally hooked the last trout, my excitement and anxiety over landing the eighth was just as great as the first seven. Smaller or not, it was a legal trout, a keeper, and I was relieved to put the net under it. For this one, I laced my fingers through the bottom of the gills. Then I bent the trout’s head back quickly and cracked its neck. There’s no shudder from a trout killed this way, just the animated feeling of life and spirit in your hands, until it sinks and relaxes into death for the end.
Laurel Run was heavily stocked with trout in those days. The arrival of the big white trucks was an event in itself, and each year we volunteered to float-stock the forested section between road crossings. If it wasn’t float-stocked, all the hatchery plants sent by the state to Laurel Run ended up at the bridges, making an artificial situation seem even more counterfeit.
I didn’t think of it as fake or artificial back then. It was just trout fishing. It was part of my Pennsylvania surroundings, and a place where the water remained cool enough for trout all summer long. But the raised PH level from acid mine drainage made the cool water insignificant for the reproduction of wild trout.
So we float-stocked it, and through the middle of May, the fishing was always good. A couple weekends into trout season, most fishermen accepted the deadbeat line that Laurel Run was “fished out.” But that’s just when the fishing got interesting. Sure, there were fewer trout as the season wore on, but the challenge grew. It became more like fishing should be — an honest contest with rewards sparingly granted for patience and persistence. I stalked through the woods, covered water and slung straight-line, accurate casts back into the darkest corners of brush to fool a trout.
I was good at it. And I kept every fish I caught. My fishing days ended when I landed my limit — eight trout at that time. (It took years for me to innately understand — or even care — that my removal of trout made the fishing season shorter.)
After the eighth trout, I set up on a gravel bar next to a good riffle. Vest off, and kneeling in shallow water, I slid the stiff, dead-eyed unlucky trout onto pea-sized gravel. And one at a time, I gutted them.
I used the small pocket knife my uncle had given me as a boy. It was my first blade, and the gift was a proud step toward manhood. I kept it in razor-like condition, often sharpening it on a small mill stone and telling stories with other trout-crazed teenage boys in the glowing smoke of a campfire.
I slid the knife into the anus of the trout and cut smoothly upward, toward the head, where my bloody fingers ran through the gills to meet in the middle. My knife sliced through the trout’s belly, deep enough only to cut skin and flesh, not the organs. I then pierced the soft membranes on either side of the fish’s jaw, a pair of patches underneath the jawbone, and I made small slices, sliding away from the nose and toward the tail. With those slits made, I secured the head with my left hand and the separated jaw with my right. In one swift motion I pulled the guts from the fish. Then I cleaned the bloodline underneath the spine with my thumbnail. I dressed each trout, and the water streamed red down through the riffle.
Before discarding the organs, I faithfully checked the stomach contents of each fish. If the guts are right there, why pass on an opportunity to see what a trout eats? I can tell you for certain that the closer a hatchery trout is to the white truck, the more likely it is to have ridiculous things in its stomach, like twigs, pine needles, plastic, gum wrappers and cigarette butts. Sidenote: the best trout eat a lot of crayfish.
That’s what I did back then. I fished hard and kept what I caught. I thought nothing more of it because that’s what I was taught.
One season we heard rumor that Laurel Run received fewer hatchery trout. Apparently, the big white trucks came unannounced and were stocked only at the lower bridge. We never got the chance to float stock it, and the stream was different that year. I kept fishing the wooded section, hoping for the success of years past. But the fish were few and far between. I caught some holdover trout, apparently stocked the years before, and I caught the occasional hatchery rainbow. But I left many evenings without my creel limit of eight trout.
The following year saw the same routine from the big white trucks. The grumbling of locals persisted (my own voice included). But Laurel Run started to change.
That May, I caught a wild brook trout in Laurel Run. Being only five inches, I didn’t kill it, and it was the first wild trout I ever caught and released. I didn’t think much about that fish, honestly, but as the brookies were joined by small wild browns the following year, I started to consider what was happening to my trout stream.
Apparently, the AMD in the headwaters of Laurel Run was redirected into a settlement pond before seeping into the stream. And in just a couple seasons, the plants in that boggy basin made all the difference. Once the stream was designated as Class A Wild Trout by the fish commission, stocking was ended on the upper sections. Eventually, most anglers who wanted an easy fishing fix moved on to other streams, and within a decade the commission stopped stocking at the lower bridge too.
I still fish Laurel Run sometimes. It now holds an excellent population of brook trout with a decent mix of wild browns. The browns are cropped around ten inches, and I assume that’s because Laurel Run still sees fishing pressure, especially early in the season. Slot limits would probably help to establish an even better population of wild trout, but as it is Laurel Run is a pleasure to fish.
I don’t begrudge anyone keeping their limit of trout on Laurel Run either. I’ve done it. In those early years, I filled my creel with wild trout long enough to be legal. I’ve knelt by the water and sliced open the orange flesh of small wild trout. I fry them in butter. They’re delicious.
Eventually though, I stopped killing wild trout on Laurel Run, and I’ve stopped killing wild trout anywhere. I came to realize they’re too rare, too special to be caught only once.
My transition to a catch and release angler paralleled the wild trout takeover of Laurel Run. And like that stream and its wild trout, it was a gradual process. I eventually replaced the excitement and anticipation of a full creel with the joys of fooling trout and knowing that I might catch the same fish again.
I changed. But it took a while. And I don’t think it’s fair to say I “evolved” into a catch and release angler. C&R is not a higher form of angling, it’s just another choice. And after years of catching one creel-full after another, I gradually decided to leave the creel empty on most days. I do still keep trout, but I do so selectively, and I usually target hatchery fish that have held over for a while. I know some places.
So I think we should take it easy on other anglers who don’t see things the way we do. People need their own Laurel Run. They need time to watch a stream develop over the years, to hold the magnificence of a wild trout and recognize all the differences from their stocked counterparts. They need to feel the value of a wild trout rather than read about it on a page. It takes time.
Trout fishing is in transition. All across this country, anglers are backing away from a hatchery mindset, toward valuing wild trout wherever they’re found. And state officials tasked with managing the waterways are starting to see the success of putting wild trout first. Hatchery fish still have their place; where wild trout cannot thrive, hatchery fish can be a good solution.
Change is happening. Led by wild-trout-first management policies in states like Montana, and spawned by the group efforts of organizations like Trout Unlimited, a new picture of wild trout is coming into focus. Change takes time, but it’s happening.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N