We rounded the corner at the exact same time. The dense streamside foliage kept the other person obscured until we were only about ten feet apart. Happening upon someone relatively unexpectedly, deep in the woods, wasn’t the startling facet of our interaction. That was this:
“So, have you caught anything?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, “a brown up top and three rainbows on streamers.”
“No,” he stated, matter-of-factly. “You didn’t catch any rainbows.”
His accusation took me aback. Not only did I indeed catch three rainbows, but they were fat, strong, and less than a quarter mile from where we stood. In a rare turn of events, I was speechless.
I think he realized that his gruff allegation was a bit off putting. “Well, I mean, I fish here every week and I haven’t caught a rainbow in this stretch of water. Maybe old what’s-his-face stocked some in the feeder creek that runs through his yard. Or, I mean, there is always the chance that the state dumped some in. But they haven’t done that in a while… I don’t know how you caught those.”
“Me either,” I offered. “But I guess I did.”
Fish pop up in unexpected places. With a handful of environmental thresholds as limiting factors, fish can live in and move throughout all manner of interconnected waterways. It isn’t uncommon to see a picture of a giant bass pulled out of a subdivision pond or a big tarpon caught from a canal. Fish are as resilient as they are opportunistic.
For some reason, we think that trout ought to be the exception to the rule. Rightly, we understand that trout have a relatively narrow window for survival. That doesn’t mean that salmonids are feeble and frail. They do some uncanny things and show up where they shouldn’t.
I had fished this stream a dozen times. Like most mountain streams in Pennsylvania, the small creek was filled with brook trout. I would always park as high up as I could, seeking solitude. From that lot, there was only one road that crossed creek upstream. I would routinely work past that point, finding more and more brookies in smaller and smaller places.
Then one day, I found something different. A small brown trout. It passed the eye test for being stream bred. The colors, the proportions, the size all pointed to a fish that was from that spot. But how? Ambitious upstream swimming? Eggs stuck to bird feathers?
Chances are there was some human influence. I looked – there was no record of Fish & Boat Commission stocking. That doesn’t mean some random person didn’t do it. Irrespective of their intentions, this little brown trout was living in an extremely unlikely spot. And chances are he wasn’t alone.
Even when the particular human influence is known, it doesn’t mean that we understand what the fish are doing.
In my mid-20’s I volunteered at a fly fishing camp that was held for teenagers. As important as learning about conservation and how to become better anglers, we wanted them to catch trout. We partnered with the local trout hatchery to put hundreds of fish into the stretch of river that the kids would be on that week. For the sake of diversity, I split my order between browns and rainbows.
Both species, along with some brook trout, lived in the spring-influenced river all year. Routinely I would catch all three species in a single day. But for the camp’s budget, browns and rainbows were cheaper. So that is all I bought.
A nightly activity at camp was tallying how many fish were caught by the students each day. Some of it was about bragging, but it was also a teaching moment for the students. One year, it was a teaching moment for the adults. Hundreds of trout were stocked, a 50/50 brown and rainbow mix. The teens were catching browns left and right. It took days before the rainbow tally hit a dozen.
Why? We didn’t know. We had done the same thing year after year, and never saw this result. The fish were healthy and put where they had always been put. The water levels and temperatures were consistent. Some men went down to try to catch a rainbow, with no success. The best that the biologists had to offer was “they must moved.” Some of us joked that the hatchery sold us steelhead by mistake.
Fish are mysterious. Admittedly, that is some of the fun. Catching that fish there adds a level of fascination on top of the baseline joy that catching a fish brings. But the thing about mysteries is that there is an explanation. The explanation might be lost to us by time or secrecy – but there is always an explanation. It adds to the wonder and the intrigue of the already enigmatic underwater world.
Sometimes the best we can do is enjoy it, even if we don’t understand why we caught what we did.