COAL COUN­TRY TROUT

RE­FLEC­TIONS ON TROUT, MIN­ING AND MOUN­TAIN STREAMS WHERE NA­TIVE FISH ARE STILL FOUND

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By Noah Davis

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.

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