(Author’s note: This story is being republished because of a faulty link in yesterday’s post, which when clicked rendered a “Not Found” memo. Please excuse the double posting if you have already seen this piece. Thank you.)
“Once there were brook trout in the stream in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
—Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
The pool filled the creek bed like ink in a well. Glassy and unusually dark, it had an eerie and mysterious blackness to its depths that hid from sight all there might be within. The boulders forming its edges were swallowed in darkness not far below the water’s surface, and although I couldn’t see or focus on anything at all, I couldn’t stop gazing into the opaque water, mesmerized by the rare liquid gem I had just happened upon.
I had spent the last nine hours strenuously hiking when I walked up on this secluded, seldom seen pool I previously had no idea existed. It was one of those treasures a person may luck upon, if they spend enough time exploring the forest for no other reason than just to see what it all looks like and what may be found.
The pool is not labeled on maps and not written about as a destination. My guess would be very few people know about it, still fewer having been there. I did not see sign of humanity, not so much as a telltale trace. An anomaly in a section of creek with few notable pools, this pool was located high up a mountain, far off-trail, and below a long section of dry creek bed. It seemed to be the last perennial pool in the creek.
I stood there alone in late afternoon shadows cast by rocky cliffs gazing into the water. There had to be fish in there. Trout. Steelhead! Well, at least at one point in time there must have been. I needed to keep getting on down the creek, maintain my pace out, for it was getting well into the afternoon, the fall of night a concern. I had a long hard hike remaining, but I could not leave this pool so fast, could not take my eyes off it.
And then it appeared, floating through the darkened water without concern. I knew it!
“Finally there is a glimpse of the snowfed mountain stream, the Santa Ynez River, where dwell the speckled beauties sought by the nimrods and found in abundance.”
—Sausalito News, March 29, 1913
In the weeks and months that followed I pondered the trout, there in that small pool, hole up in a tributary of a tributary, protected from people by a long boulder-filled trench of a brush tangled creek with no trail, and that required near crawling at times just to pass through, and no publicized destination at its end to attract anybody, ignored by all but the most determined explorers, those whom can’t resist beating themselves to a pulp knowing they may find nothing remarkable, yet still seek the satisfaction of seeing a place in person.
One day I would return.
There was nowhere to sleep anywhere near the pool that would afford a wink of rest. It was nothing but uneven bedrock, boulders, and cobblestones and fractured sharp and pointy rockfall. A tent would be completely useless, a minimalistic bed roll no better. A hammock slung between two trees would serve best.
Fresh trout barbecued over an open wood-fired flame for dinner. Not wanting to be wasteful, but respectful of its life, I thought about simmering the bones and head for broth to be filled with its roasted meat as a soup, possibly accented by a few wild herbs and roasted wild bulbs. The entrails and whatnot used as bait in a small trap to catch crawdads. Roasted miniature lobster tails dipped in a wild sage-tinged hot drawn butter plays well in my mind for lunch the following day.
Then it occurred to me that I had taken for granted this one trout I was lucky enough to spot in this lone desolate pool I was fortunate to happen across. I was surprised to see it gracing waters I otherwise thought long emptied of trout, because I believed other people had fished the creek into decline.
Yet I plotted my own attack to take it for myself as soon as I saw the fish. A sort of tragedy of the commons playing out in my mind, I was acting the lead role of plunderer. So rare was it in my experience to find a sizable native trout swimming carefree in a creek in the year 2015 in southern California, that I had felt compelled to get mine while I still could and to hell with everybody and everything else! If I didn’t take the trout somebody else would. And if nobody did Mother Nature would. I had resisted catching other trout in previous years only to return and find the pool holding them had gone dry.
I hadn’t questioned my ability to catch the trout. I know how to fool wary fish in small and calm pools from years of experience. And this particular fish would be even easier to catch, as it had not been acquainted with, and thus wary of, every lure known to mankind like most fish in nearly every other trout hole or lake in southern California.
The trout had glided ever so slowly out into open water, not far below the surface, away from the immediate safety and security of surrounding structure, evidencing an uncommon degree of carefree confidence; another sign of the absence of humanity at this remote location.
I felt I could take the unsuspecting trout with one well-placed cast. But was that the point of all this, to so easily hook an unwary fish?
The longer I pondered the matter and thought of the fish and what it represented, symbolically, metaphorically, the more I knew that that was not the point. It would be a meaningless exercise of dominance with little lasting satisfaction.
I might regret it later, might rue the day for decades to come. “There was this one trout,” I might tell my grandchildren, “that I was obsessed with catching,” before trailing off into a woeful fable of shortsightedness and greed.
I began considering ways to take the trout with true skill and ingenuity worthy of the fish; perhaps crafting a rod from a willow or elderberry branch nearby, a hook and line from natural material collected in the area. (Ray Mears: Hooks from thorns; Hooks from twigs and roots; Cordage from willow; Cordage from nettles.)
If I was lucky I might be unfortunate enough to spend years trying to hook a single trout in this fashion. If I ever did, then it would form a memory of angling worth far more than any fishing experience I have ever had.
At that point maybe the previous daydreams of a wild-caught, fireside meal in a distant creek would alone suffice, and I’d ever so gently release the beautiful specimen, a living reservoir of rare and priceless DNA, back into its natal waters to carry on “a thing which could not be put back” once taken for no other reason, but to satisfy the hunger of one man for a few measly hours.
Maybe that is how this game should be made to play out. That the thought alone will serve sufficient.
The trout left in peace.
And remain uncaught.
* * * * *
Last-Ditch Plan Aims to Prevent First Drought Extinction of Native Fish – Scientific American, July 30, 2015
Shasta Lake, California: “The tanks of Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery are providing refuge this summer for salmon nearly out of water. There, staffers are rearing the only insurance policy that the Sacramento River’s winter-run Chinook have against extinction: a living genetic bank of 1,035 baby fish, selected to reseed the population should it extinguish in the wild.”
Heat, Drought Cook Fish Alive In Pacific Northwest – USA Today, July 31, 2015
“Freakishly hot, dry weather in the Pacific Northwest is killing millions of fish in the overheated waters of the region’s rivers and streams.
‘We’ve lost about 1.5 million juvenile fish this year due to drought conditions at our hatcheries,’ Ron Warren of Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. ‘This is unlike anything we’ve seen for some time.'”
Native Steelhead of Yore on the Santa Ynez River
Steelhead Fishing, Santa Ynez River (1948)
Salmon Choking the Santa Ynez (1896)
Santa Barbara County Trout
Hand Caught Trout in the Sierra