April 01, 2022
A trout eating a dry fly is a marvel—a little wonder that becomes ordinary when present every day. By the end of May, I find myself releasing brook trout without even looking at their colors. Hooking them, then stripping line without watching the fish flash like light between birch leaves.
I watch dad’s fly disappear at the head of the riffle, replaced by the small flash of a brook trout retreating back under the rock it darted from. He brings the struggling brookie closer, its moss-green back bending in an effort to escape the pinch, and the pressure leading it downstream to the two human shapes standing on the bank. But a new marvel, a bigger fish, intercepts the hooked brookie on its path toward us. The brown trout’s impressive heft was previously hidden somewhere below the riffle.
We’ve all witnessed this predatory scene before. Largemouths blowing up bluegills. Smallmouths smacking yellow perch. Bull trout torpedoing cutthroats. Yet here on this stream, narrow enough to step over, we didn’t expect a brown of this length.
Dad’s 3-weight arcs with a new urgency, the fish’s sharp runs bend the tip low to the water. He slowly steps back over the downed trees that line the bank. I crouch to lessen my silhouette, knowing any shift in the moment—an unexpected splash, a change in light—could spook the trout into surrendering the fish in its mouth. But before Dad can swing the fish close to my outstretched net, the brown’s ivory belly brushes the sand piled in the eddy. Teeth loosen the hook, and the brookie pops free.
Stunned, but alive, the brook trout rests in my palm, making no effort to swim away, petrified in its good fortune. The brown carved three windows in the brookie’s flank: long, thin openings to the pink flesh of the fish. Frayed yellow spots flap against a fin. I unhook the brookie and release it downstream into the pool below, thinking of all the blue scars I’ve traced on aged, black-mouthed fish. They are maps of the mouths they’d swum through.
I hand Dad a streamer and he immediately dissects the run, like a black bear clawing apart a honeycomb. No crevasse is unexplored, no visual mystery left to search. The brown trout doesn’t follow.
Small streams along the Allegheny Front don’t meander, they topple. In a few miles, water drops over a thousand feet. Fish can move from pool to pool, but with significant effort, and usually only after a storm deepens the riffle. We’ve watched the tail of the pool and the waterfall at the head. I know the brown is still somewhere beneath the white water.
Dad wants to move on upstream along the cobble. The spectacle of our day is spent. There are more runs ahead, with trout willing to rise to a dry fly. I argue that the brown is still catchable. It’s here somewhere. He shakes his head.
Besides exploring wild places, forever climbing up thin blue lines to even more secluded, unfrequented pools and trout, the reason I fly fish is for intimacy, to touch a beautiful creature I would otherwise be unable to hold. I reason that even if we can’t catch the brown with our flies, we still have a chance of seeing this fish again.
Growing up at the northern tip of southern Appalachia, stories of trout tickling seeped into the mythology of the hollows I called home. Trout tickling is the practice of catching mountain trout with your bare hands, an act of immense tenderness. A feat of dexterity. It isn’t fish wrestling, like noodling for catfish. There is no lurching grasp that leaves the fish crushed in an over-excited grip. It’s more like when a preacher gently lifts a child’s head from the river after baptism.
I give breath to my belief in the tickling as Dad and I step into the run. Neither of us wears waders this deep into May, and water creeps up my thigh. I keep my hands in the current until my muscles are thoroughly chilled by the stream. Camouflaged in cold. After the blood has settled somewhere in my forearms, I move deeper. Dad probes the right bank where a boulder lips the eddy. I stay left in the current. The water blips slightly just halfway down the run. I feel a submerged force there that wasn’t noticeable when we were fishing with flies. No trout shoots between my legs as I creep closer to it.
The underwater disturbance is made by a rock shelf—the back end of a slab secured by years of shifting gravel. I hug the rock’s shape, crouching now, trying to feel how far back under the shelf I can reach. I expect the trout to brush my leg or forearm as it dashes out, but for now, I feel only water running around my stomach. Fears of turtles with hard beaks and muskrats with orange incisors make me flinch as I drop to my knees to reach in farther still. Water runs across my chest and back, lungs shuddering with the cold. Deeper and deeper I stretch until my shoulders touch the underside of the stone.
Then a trout tail strums my knuckles. Twice, three times. My hand follows the path of the tail to the raised lateral line. Up along the side between the pectoral fins. If I was true to the folklore, I’d bring my fingers to the fish’s soft underside and run them along the length of the stomach up and back again until the trout lilts, dazed like a bird drunk from eating fermented fruit. But I don’t tickle, only steadily trace the side. My left hand closes around the wrist of the tail as my right curls around its chest. My fingers can’t wrap completely around the body. I tell Dad to grab the net.
I cup the trout securely and bring it three feet out from under the rock and then into the air. It doesn’t struggle. Despite the warm air, I’m shivering. The marvel I hold is dark and glistening. Water runs off my body back into the stream where I set the trout and let it fin back into the wash.
Noah Davis grew up in Tipton, Pennsylvania, and often writes about his fishing experiences along the Allegheny Front. He graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts from Indiana University and shortly afterward published his book of poems Of This River (Wheelbarrow Books, 2020).