To me, trout fishing, in particular fly-fishing, is many things, but above all, it is a conversation, a communication — with a creature to which we are connected by common ancestry not so very long ago (420 million years, give or take). The rod, the line and the hook are the tools of this communication, but the fly or lure is the ultimate translator between languages, between our world of names, structures, systems and hierarchies and theirs of instinct, impulse and experience. Trout fishing connects us not only to our ancestral past, but to our legacy as hunter-gatherers, to a time when we needed to catch and kill in order to survive. This, I have concluded after many years of doing it, must be primarily why we fish, to satisfy some latent impulse deep in our evolutionary fabric — even if now, as we release the fish, it is more of a kind of predatory performance art. (One could argue that many, or all, sporting activities are.) It is not, however, nor has it ever been, simply about the predation itself, but the whole assemblage of steps before and after, about engaging our senses with a larger interconnected whole (from anticipation and pursuit to the preparation and eventual ingestion of our prey).
We stand in the stream and we become part of the circulatory system of the planet — the rivulets, brooks, streams and rivers that pulse throughout our lands and connect the land to the sea, and those seas to other seas (and through water vapor and clouds, and migratory birds and fish, those seas back to the land). Through fishing, we can, for brief moments, achieve a kind of immortality when we step into this perpetual flow, and see our reflection in the water, and become part of it.
In spring, at the start of trout season, this flow is pulsing harder than ever. Snowmelt has filled the water table to overflowing, insects are emerging from their larval exoskeletons, birds are hatching from their eggs, spring wildflowers are unfolding from the ground, thrusting their heads through dry leaves. The eggs of brook trout, buried in the gravel by their parents the previous fall, are hatching, and tiny fish are trying their tails and pelvic fins in the cold currents. Spring fishing for trout allows us to participate in a physical and spiritual emergence, shed our winter coats and also our human skin, and melt into an experience that cannot be quantified or named.
The anglers’ art is artifice — using feathers and fur tied to a hook to imitate life. The methods evolved out of necessity: People witnessed trout eating insects that were too small and fragile to impale on a hook as bait and had to create durable counterparts to catch them. The earliest written account of fishing with an artificial fly is from Claudius Aelianus’s “De Natura Animalium” from the second century in Macedonia — although the tradition is very likely much older.
These translation devices are as beautiful and diverse as the fish they are meant to deceive. They imitate not only insects, but anything that might fall prey to a fish.
THE STREAMER is an elongated fly intended to attract fish when cast and retrieved. It can imitate any number of things, from a minnow to a large insect larva.
THE DRY FLY is the classic type of artificial fly made by winding a hackle feather around the shaft of a hook to get that buggy look. It rides on top of the water and imitates an adult insect — in this case, a mayfly that has just emerged from its larval stage underwater.
THE NYMPH imitates the aquatic larval stage of winged insects like mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies, and is fished under the water or on the surface film. Usually it is drifted as naturally as possible with the currents of the stream.
THE TERRESTRIAL FLY imitates insects like crickets and grasshoppers that might fall off a grassy streambank into the water. Trout are opportunistic feeders and generally will eat anything they can get their mouths around. I once found a cutthroat trout that had swallowed the head of a large snake, but it could not get the whole thing down. Both died in the struggle.
All around the Northern Hemisphere (trout are native only to the Americas, Europe, Asia and North Africa), people in other cultures are celebrating the spring trout emergence. Trout are universally treasured for their aesthetic beauty, for sport and as food.
Trout is a bit of a misleading term that encompasses some of the most diverse vertebrate species on the planet. The three most common trout — brown, brook and rainbow — used to be classified in the same genus. It is now known through genetic analysis that the brown trout is more closely related to the Atlantic salmon, the rainbow to the Pacific salmon and the brook to the Arctic char. The phylogeny of fish in the family salmonidae is still being illuminated and the taxonomy unraveled. In any case, setting aside the limitations of names, here is a sampling of the fish called trout around the world.
GEGHARKUNI Sevan Lake, Armenia
In Armenian, the word for trout, ishkhan, means “prince fish.” Legend in Armenia has it that an ancient prince lost his beloved to drowning in Sevan Lake. He wanted to live with her forever, so he asked a local sorcerer to turn him into a silvery trout.
MIYABE IWANA Lake Shikaribetsu, Hokkaido, Japan
The Japanese have highly evolved fly-fishing techniques for catching iwana (or char) in small mountain streams where they coexist with another salmonid fish, the yamame. The yamame is a landlocked form of sakura masu, or cherry salmon, so named because its spawning runs coincide with the blossoming of the cherry trees in spring. The char of Lake Shikaribetsu is one of many forms of iwana in Japan.
GOLDEN Volcano Creek, Calif.
This fish, with its deep orange and red hues, is among the most stunning of North American trout. Its native habitat is the headwaters of the Kern River below Mount Whitney in California. It is a close relative of the widely distributed rainbow trout and is threatened by loss of habitat because of livestock and by introductions of non-native fish.
The landlocked cherry salmon of Taiwan are possibly the southernmost native salmonid fish in the world (in close competition with the native trout of mainland Mexico at 24 degrees north latitude). They are also among the most endangered. There are said to be fewer than 400 remaining.
MARBLE Southern Europe
One of the largest European salmonid species, the marble trout is named for the markings on the fish’s sides that resemble the wavy veins in marble. It is native to streams of the Adriatic Basin from Northern Italy down through the cold spring-fed rivers of the Balkans in Bosnia and Serbia.