The stream is in Pennsylvania, a three-hour drive from my home in Baltimore. I have neither right nor title to a single acre of the woods around it. And yet I consider the little river my own. I've felt protective of it -- as if I were the river keeper -- since the first time I set eyes on it.
I've named the place Father's Day Creek, and not just to cloak its true identity. I've fished it every Father's Day for 10 years, and I experienced something special there on the third Sunday of June last year. Epiphany is a good word. If there's one place I've witnessed the divine -- the work of the same Great Spirit to whom the native Delawares of the Pocono Mountains once prayed -- it was in the second coming of the trout in Father's Day Creek.
It sounds like a perfect place, and it almost is. But it almost wasn't.
Ten years ago, a friend of my father-in-law, a fellow named Pierre, told me about the stream during a Saturday night supper. He bragged of his ability to take trout there and invited me to join him the next morning.
I arrived at 8 o'clock. Sunlight was just seeping through the hemlocks, but Pierre had been fishing for two hours. A tall man with a French accent, he wore a flannel shirt and rubber hip boots, and he fished with a spinning rod and a small brass lure shaped like a willow leaf. He grinned broadly and opened his creel -- 13 killed, few more than 6 or 7 inches long, several of them brown trout.
"You're lucky you don't get arrested," I half-joked. Most of Pierre's trout were probably under the minimum size required for harvest by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
"The smaller the sweeter," Pierre said. "Oh, yeah, the little ones taste the best."
"Yeah, and you have to kill twice as many to make a meal."
He grumbled at my streamside moralizing and walked away.
There were several men fishing the river that day, and just about all were taking full creels.
As a lover of rivers, I had learned enough about trout habitat to recognize what was happening that day -- the purging of Father's Day Creek.
From what I could tell, about a third of the fish taken were the small brown trout native to the stream. The other two-thirds were hatchery-raised rainbow trout. There's a huge difference.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania stocks the rainbows annually. This is like putting paroled inmates in a nursery school. The rainbows compete for habitat and food; they bring chaos to a delicately balanced ecosystem and stress the wild brown trout.
Fortunately, the invasion of the rainbows didn't last long in Father's Day Creek. Dozens of fishermen, armed with lures and worms and little balls of Velveeta, came to its banks and caught them all in less than a month. But these fishermen made no distinction between the hatchery rainbows and the wild brown trout. They caught everything and took it all, in time stripping away the population of wild trout whose presence made the river so special.
I returned in the summer and fall. The water was clean and cold. There were impressive afternoon hatches of caddis flies, the aquatic insects whose emergence from a stream usually incites a riot of surface feeding. But rarely was there a ring left by a rising trout.
So, I came to see the little stream as a lost opportunity -- perfect conditions for trout, but no protection. The river should have had a no-harvest rule, but it suffered from this oversight, and men came back each year and took what they wanted. Instead of singing the splendors of nature, Father's Day Creek howled of the excesses of man.
I know about all that. I had fished since I was six, mostly in the saltwater of the New England coast, almost always with my father and uncle. My father might have enjoyed fishing as sport, but I think he saw it as another way of providing for his family. We fished with heavy poles, sinkers, barbed hooks and bait. We took flounder from bays, haddock and cod from the Atlantic. We brought home everything we caught in buckets and tubs -- striped bass, bluefish, mackerel and eels. Only sharks were returned to the water, and we always killed them before tossing them back. Even when I was a kid fishing in ponds, the notion of releasing anything but the tiniest fish did not enter my mind. I brought home bass, pickerel and sunfish. What was the point of catching them if you could not show them to your parents, especially your father?