The outdoor world is seasonal, ruled by nature and climate; the sports and traditions, tied to the lives of the beings they revolve around. Far be it from my level of intellect to comprehend how and why photoperiod and temperature trends trigger certain species into embarking upon certain journeys, but I do know that I’m not exempt. The sportsman’s world is seasonal, too, ruled by the lives of fish and game, and by an innate infatuation with the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of the passage of a year.
I’m at a point in my life in which there are things that I used to do. I used to live in central Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and on the fringe of the Shenandoah National Park. I used to fish for native brook trout incessantly, during the trout season. Smallmouth occupied my summers.
I now live in southwest Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, where wild trout streams abound, and “trout season” refers to the year as a whole. Smallmouth bass still occupy my summers, and I’ve become infected by a pestilent love for musky fishing.
The wild trout here are largely rainbows and browns—making the region a novelty amidst the trout resource of the Old Dominion. Brook trout fin the tiny headwaters, shrouded by near-impenetrable rhododendron and a minimalist demarcation on a map. Southern blood courses through their veins more purely than in the fish of Shenandoah. My brook trout now are smaller, fewer, and harder to get to.
When I first moved to this corner of the state, I all but quit brook trout fishing. The novelty and possibility of a wild, two-foot trout was irresistible.
Still, something happens to me around mid-August, when the water temperatures in my smallmouth rivers have peaked and begin their slide into autumn. Overnights crispen and daytimes grow comfortable. The days lose minutes daily, and a golden tint burgeons in the sycamores. Pawpaws, wild apples, and persimmons bulge amidst bouquets of fading leaves. In the quiet of afternoon, squirrels cut hickory nuts.
I caught my first native brook trout on a fly in a small stream in Shenandoah on an olive Elk Hair Caddis I tied. The date may have been August 15 or 16, but the creek ran full, and a crisp night air flooded the truck on the route home. It was the same creek I’d walked many times with my dad, a training shotgun, and, later, a real shotgun, across my body, my eyes and ears keen for the pitter-patter of a bushytail. The same creek where I learned to skip rocks after a successful hunt. The same creek I’d fish in tradition, after a foggy morning at the apple harvest festival, welcoming in fall in the Blue Ridge.
By the time the squirrel season opens, some of the year’s best smallmouth fishing is still to come, but a sliver of my mind abandons the big river, sneaks into fall, and finds a native brook trout in a dark pool bedded by golden leaves. I’m drawn to the idea of making a ceremonial trip to usher in the changing season. Just where that trip will take me is the question.
And so the root of it all emerges. Here, there are just a few streams with catchable brook trout populations. Some offer more robust populations than others. Most are quite small, with small fish. Nothing to write home about, dimensionally. Then, they all look nearly the same, too, save for the minute differences in coloration between creeks, of which I have no strong preference. I’d certainly wait until October, when pre-spawn vigor and amplified coloration makes them as fantastic a fish as they’ll be all year.
What I find myself wondering about is venue. Do I yearn for that high-gradient creek draining a dark hollow, plunge pool by plunge pool? Or the gentle meadow stream, where a harvest of wild apples can complement the fishing? Or, is it return to Shenandoah, soaking the crisp nights in through my tent wall and reacquainting myself with the brook trout of my youth? This year, I chose the meadow and apples.
I’ll admit—brook trout are not my favorite trout to catch. That distinction belongs to the brown trout, which becomes predatory and wary early in life, and which can reach giant proportions, even in Virginia. But, as an Appalachian, brookies are my favorite trout, for what they represent. The autumnal flames and pastels of spring; dark, coursing hollows; raspberry, blackberry bushes; apples; grouse and squirrels hidden in the ridges. Virginia. Home—painted on the flanks of a single fish and stowed way up the hollow behind all of those things. There, waiting for those who cherish them to go and find them.