Let’s get one thing straight: the Brook Trout, salvelinus fontinalis, is the most beautiful fish on the planet. I’ve believed that ever since catching my first one, on a worm, in a shady pool of the Oyster River at the edge of the Bog, off Beechwood Street in Warren. The worm had been liberated from the manure pile behind Paul Woods’s barn and enlisted for angling duty. My companions included Paul and a couple of Sanborns. The equipment I don’t remember but we probably had a couple of old bait-casting poles. We lobbed a hookful of writhing worm into the pool, let it sink and waited for the twitch of a fish.
I knew a bit about fishing. I had wrestled many a frisky harbor pollock to the dock in little Pigeon Cove harbor, on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, where I spent part of my boyhood. In those days there were still a lot of fish in the sea and some took refuge in the harbor. One day my pal Freddie Hillier and I untied some fisherman’s skiff, rowed out to a moored lobster boat in the middle of the harbor and caught forty pounds of flounder on handlines using sea worms for bait. We sold the flounder to a fish dealer who visited the harbor daily and got ten cents a pound, which made us quite wealthy for at least a week, maybe two.
By the time we moved to Maine and I cast that worm into the Oyster River I was already solidly hooked on fishing, but I was unprepared for the love affair that began when a tiny bejeweled fish came flying out of the dark tannic water, soared over my head and landed with a soft thud in the grass behind me. I had struck as though a marlin had taken the bait, and I still do despite years of efforts at self control. (Many years later when I read Howell Raines’s Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis I empathized with Raines when he wrote about his own flying-fish experiences.) The fish I pounced on in the grass was only about seven inches long but already a thing of beauty with its dark vermiculated back and the ruby-red, blue-haloed dots along its flanks. After that first encounter I turned my back on the sea, reoriented my angling aspirations to the inland waters of Maine, and abandoned bait for artificial flies. In my several copies of DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (one for home, one for camp, one for the truck) the Fly Fishing Only waters are splashed with bright yellow highlighter.
The beauty of the Brook Trout itself is reason enough to pursue it, but the fish lives in places you’d want to be even without a flyrod in hand — tumbling mountain streams, backwoods ponds, swift rivers that course through spruce forests. My baptism into flyfishing came on the Alder Stream in Eustis, whose riffles and pools offered just the right level of challenge for a twelve-year-old, wading wet in sneakers and dungarees, waving a ten-dollar flyrod and learning by repeated failure how to drop a dry fly on a chosen spot of water without snagging the fly in the alders or snapping it off with a whip-cracking forward cast.
As years went by I expanded my range, honed my skills, and caught bigger fish, such as the one at the top of the page, but the passion I first knew for the Brook Trout and the places it lives remains undimmed.