One of my favorite places in the world is a deeply shaded valley that runs north and south between two towering mountains of mixed hardwoods. The forest floor has enough conifers mixed in to block much of the sunlight, even in the winter. The ferns of spring grow tall, and thick moss is spread throughout. The ground remains soft enough here that all large trees eventually surrender to the valley. When they can no longer support their weight in the soft spongy ground, they fall over, leaving a broken forest of deep greens and the dark-chocolate browns of wet, dead bark. It’s gorgeous.
The conifers and shade also define the wild trout stream flowing through. From the upper dirt road access to the lower two-lane hard road, the stream twists and dips for five miles and more, gaining the flows of unnamed tributaries and various springs along its course. This water grows and feeds the trout within — wild brown trout dominate in the lower reaches and speckled wild brook trout take over from about halfway up the valley and into the headwaters.
Fallen timber also dictates the course of this cold water stream. The fresh tree-falls force the creek to bend away from the hillside. Rolling water carves away the earth and lays bare the rocks — these stones of time, as Maclean puts it. And when water cuts into a neighboring channel, previously dry for centuries, new river banks are undercut and fresh roots exposed. Years later, they too succumb to the destructive and creative forces of water, falling and redirecting the stream to force a new path once again.
Time passes in this lonely valley, on and on. And it’s a place visited more often by bears and bobcats than anglers or hikers.
I’ve shared these woods and water with a few good friends. I’ve taken my Dad here and I’ve made the trip with my sons.
A few weeks ago, Smith and I found ourselves heading north before dawn. With no set destination, we had decided only on the watershed. Where we would end up was an open-ended question. We were equally content to let the river and some intuition fill in the rest.
We fished. And by mid-morning, the pull of my favorite valley grew too strong to ignore. I asked Smith if he minded traveling another thirty miles north, and of course he didn’t. Windows down, sunroof open and the heater cranked against a fifty-degree chill, we ended up at the lower end of the shaded valley by noon.
I told Smith we’d walk at least a mile upstream before we fished. There is no trail, but over time I’ve discovered a few ancient logging roads now overgrown and sunken into the surrounding hillside. Still, they provide swifter navigation than beating the brush.
I told Smith the fishing would be good.
There’s a minor dip along the eastern ridge that I use as a marker to signal about one mile in. That dip widens as it picks up water traveling west. With heavy rains, water barrels down the gap and dumps into the stream in a narrow floodplain. This was our destination. But before we arrived, Smith and I were attracted to new timber in the flow.
I later learned through a bit of internet research that the local Trout Unlimited group had made selective, strategic cuts of mostly streamside hemlocks through the valley. All of those cuts were within the first mile above the hard road. It was the same stretch we now walked. (So much for just me, the bears and the bobcats.) Whomever made the tree-falling decisions and the cuts had skills. These trees were dropped perfectly into positions across the river and angled into it. The new timber was so tantalizing that no curious angler could resist. And surely the trout couldn’t either — at least that was our thought. Smith and I discussed our original plan to walk up to the gap, but decided to start here instead. How could we pass it up?
So we made cast after cast around the new timber. We fished for hours, walking upstream, moving a few random fish, and generally feeling confused about our lack of success. We considered blaming it on the high water. Or maybe the cold spring weather had the trout turned off. After all, the buds were still on the oaks and maples, just waiting to burst free with inevitable warm fronts.
After so much focus on the newly fallen timber, I eventually decided to ignore it for the next few hundred yards. And I cast to the more average looking bankside rocks and a meager riffles.
Fish on. And then another.
I rounded the bend and did the same, ignoring the gorgeous three-foot-wide hemlock and still-green branches that angled into the flow. Instead, I passed the log and hit the head of the level above. Fish on. Another brookie.
Minutes later, I sensed Smith standing behind. And he told me he’d discovered the same thing. Trout weren’t holding by the new trees. We both understood, now. And we spent the next half-hour confirming our theory — with as much fact as trout can ever grant an angler.
Smith and I decided to head upstream to the gap. We finished our mile-long hike into the wilderness and moved up a little further, just for good measure. Here, we found trout holding near all the old structure, the naturally fallen wood, around the logs that were embedded into bankside mud and next to tree trunks that had seemingly grown into the riverbed itself. Trout once again held close to the woody stuff. They were right where we expected them.
Smith and I fished together, wordless among the sounds of whitewater and gusts of wind in the treetops. Our occasional nods and hand motions communicated all that was necessary. The mostly-small trout ate regularly for the next few hours. Where they should hold, they held. When the drift of the dry was good enough to eat it, they mostly did. It was wonderful.
An hour before dusk, I saw Smith double back toward me. It was the first southward motion that either of us had made for many hours, and I knew what he was thinking.
He was right. It was time to walk out and start the long journey home. It would begin with a long hike downstream through my favorite valley, and it would finish with a drive out of the wilderness, dodging too many deer and the occasional fox until we would eventually cross the interstate.
On that hours-long journey, Smith and I talked at length about new structure and old structure — how something new to a river takes time to catch on. We had no doubt that the trees cut by the TU group would soon become home to many trout. Eventually, the river accepts the additions, whether fallen naturally or felled with a saw.
But most of that acceptance comes with time and with water, as it flows around the tree, under the largest limbs and more. A riverbed is dynamic. It changes over the seasons. It can make sudden adjustments too. But it takes time for a new gravel bar to form on the down-current bankside of the latest fallen log. It takes more time for water to scour out a channel under the heaviest trunk or to complete the spillout created by an immovable, fallen sycamore.
Smith and I talked about this at length. As dozens of deer crossed through the beams of my headlights on the plateau, I slowed the truck to thirty miles an hour. We’d seen the same thing when the dam was removed on our home stream. Boulders were placed, diversion devices were anchored in, and bankside logs were placed to lend stability to a freshly structured bank. At first, when all was new, some small fish made it their home. But within a few seasons, the currents made their own natural path around those rocks and logs. Nature found its course, and trout responded.
That’s the difference between new structure and old structure. And it took a lesson from one of my favorite northern, shaded valleys to remember it.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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