COAL COUNTRY TROUT
REFLECTIONS ON TROUT, MINING AND MOUNTAIN STREAMS WHERE NATIVE FISH ARE STILL FOUND
I fish the streams of Pennsylvania coal country, where past and present collide to the cackle of kingfishers and the scream of steel wheels. By NOAH DAVIS
Tan caddis begin to fall into the river’s current as the street light on the opposite side of the tracks crackles to life, ghosting the purple blossoms of bull thistle along the gravel railroad bed. I’ve already broken down my rod when my friend Kurt hooks his first trout, the familiar sound of flesh fighting against water breaking the stillness of early evening.
Under the circle of light beneath the street lamp, I tie on a size 16 elk hair caddis and scamper back down the bank to cast toward the white splashes that interrupt the steady flow of black.
Three hours earlier, I had crawled under a stopped train to reach the water. The rail yard is no more than a quarter-mile south of this section of stream, a line of street lights guiding the lengths of steel to where cars are repaired and loaded with coal. Pennsylvania outdoor enthusiasts have come to see the railroad as a kind of geological formation: the river’s cheeks stitched with ties, and the sides of mountains cut to hold the bands of track. The cackling of kingfishers accompanies the scream of steel wheels. Along the larger rivers that connect mill towns, the tracks run above the floodplain, and the passage of time is measured in cubic feet. I cast to non-native browns and rain- bows, with men who crowd the banks. They have driven from Harrisburg or Philadelphia, emerging from their air-conditioned trucks and complaining about the lack of cellphone service. The deep, native wild has left this space.
Just three miles above this river, the seam I walk in the mountains is nearly as wild a place as I could hope to find south of Maine. Bear, bobcat, fisher and coyote slink through the mountain laurel and rhododendron while old-growth hemlocks, free of the destructive woolly adelgid, crown the seep where the stream leaves its home between two rocks. The
And for all this, nature is never spent. — Gerard Manley Hopkins
native trout are so small that most days my 2 weight and fluffy wulffs are too heavy for the finger-length brookies. The past three winters, my father and I have found the carcasses of deer that predators killed. Yet even here, in the cold fold of this brookie stream, the skeleton of a narrow-gauge railroad lies rust-brown against the green carpet of ferns. How pervasive, I marvel, has been our hunger for coal.
Abrown rose on the far bank earlier in the evening. The trout was unimpressed by my imitations, the sun exposing my tying flaws. Now that it is darker, the rhythmic rises display more joy than wariness, and my fly is accepted on the first float. Once in hand, its belly is as white and smooth as a stone polished by water. From the bottom of my secluded hollow, I can see the tops of ridges that were clear-cut by timber companies and desecrated by strip miners. Midway down the ridge the trees are older, grouse flush from tangles of grapevine, and tulip poplar and cucumber magnolia trap the cool of the stream. In this crease I forget that a hundred years ago men dug into these mountains and that to the east a great orange tongue of acid drainage still slides into a small feeder stream, where nothing swims. In this ravine I am fooled by the illusion that this is wilderness.
I can no longer see my fly and set blindly to every rise that appears within 2 feet of where I think my hook floats. Kurt yells from upstream that he’s just released his third in four casts. Bats dart across the river and around the wires. I retrieve my line to cast and feel the weight of a fish on the other end. It’s a bettersized trout than the one before, and his sides hold fewer spots, with more caramel brown. The 9:13 train comes around the bend, its light flooding the shallow water.
It is difficult in the East to elude the waters of
a stocking truck, but the browns and rainbows that I sight-fish in the spring are wild and actively reproducing amid the submerged shopping carts and tires. During the past century, the paper mill leaked yellow into the river. The crayfish grew unusually large, and the surviving trout left. The passage of time removed the jaundice film and eventually brought back mayflies and caddis, and with them the anglers, some of whom are too young to remember when the the only fish that used to roll on nymphs were suckers and carp.
The native brook trout of my mountain streams battle for survival as German browns and Mckay rainbows push up the small flows. Milder winters and the disappearing shade of ancient trees warm the waters, further reducing habitat. And heavy metals from mining continue to leak farther down the hollows with rain and the moving ridges.
Still, the trout swim.
Kurt stands on the bank as I fight the best fish of the night: a 14-inch brown with teeth so sharp it draws blood when I push the hook back from its jaw. The moon is high and full when we return to the truck, amid the smell of waders and sweat.
“I knew we’d get something once that hatch started to come off,” Kurt says. I nod and suck my cut thumb. I look at it as we drive under a street light. A drop of blood grows and fills the lines of my skin. Tiny red rivers flowing through the grooves.
A working railroad trestle over a lower section of the Little Juniata River in central Pennsylvania.
Exploring a small stream along the Allegheny Front.
This natural logjam makes a nice haven for native brook trout.
A locomotive from yesteryear pulling coal cars near Walston, Pennsylvania.