Letting go. The feeling of letting go has a reward, Freedom. As we let the fish go to freely return to it’s haunts, we also set free and release our own personal desire to take the fish home to show it off. When I was younger, letting go meant no evidence, no picture or proof. Cameras were not so commonly carried in those days. Somehow it meant more to release a big one in those days. Today releasing a fish is an important step in every fisherman’s life, a Right of Passage. The act of placing a value on the life of a fish over our own desires, whatever they may be. Releasing a fish because Dad said, is not the same as releasing the fish out of admiration and respect earned through a relationship, over time. A greater level of respect for the Brown Trout can be gained by a better understanding of them, what they are and what it means to hold one and this is how we protect them. Along for the ride, with a greater understanding of them, comes a vision. A vision of a greater potential for Brown Trout and our waterways. This has been the goal of my guide business, my presentations, this blog and my life as a fisherman to this point. It is also my hope to equip the Conservation minded angler with the tools to find and protect these amazing fish, the likes of which the Sport of Fly Fishing owes no other.
Everyone remembers the American original and Disney classic movie ‘Old Yeller’. The movie is notorious for making everyone cry during the scene where young Travis puts down his dog, Old Yeller. Not unlike the boy we as fisherman need to put to the back how we feel, to do what is right, by what we love. If young Travis had protected his own feelings towards his dog, the dog would have paid the price by suffering for an extended period of time, needlessly. If my outdoor pursuits have taught me anything, they have taught me that “How I Feel”, is completely irrelevant to the truth. I believe this fundamental and humbling connection to something that we didn’t create, that we can’t change the laws of, based on how we feel, is paramount to our understanding, growth and development as conservationists. Protecting our feelings is a converse conservation detrimental to the conservation of the natural. To connect to the ever-changing natural environment on another more meaningful and humble level we must let go of ourselves. This seems to be particularly difficult for the angler that has achieved some notoriety as an expert. All fishermen have a sense of self worth and when challenged with an opposing thought, it is natural to feel threatened and to protect an opinion. I include myself in this group. The world around us is a living thing and ever-changing. Our understanding of it must also change as it changes. This requires the acceptance that what we knew yesterday may not be entirely true tomorrow and every day is a new day. Wild trout live in a fluid flowing environment that is ever-changing in-depth, volume, clarity, food availability and temperature throughout the year. The trout are forced to adapt to every change day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute to optimize fitness and successfully procreate. The learned angler can never become stagnant or fixed in his understanding of the ever-changing.
This is why, I am amazed today to see the number of traditionally accepted assumptions made by fisherman and conservationists that run contrary to effective management. The greatest example of the many, directly relates to one of the most heralded trout streams in America and possibly the world, the Letort Spring Run. The Great Assumption first told to me many years ago by someone who has since risen through the ranks by attrition in the Cumberland Valley as somewhat of a Conservation authority, whose opinions often go without open question or debate. I asked him on that day, “Is it possible the big brown trout of the Letort were coming upstream from the larger Creek?” He replied, “They can’t get up the falls.” Thus, ending the discussion and completely dismissing the possibility. Done! As they say, “It’s a wrap.”
Today, thirty six years later I can think of no other stream in North America that more funds and effort has been applied to restore a stream to its former glory than the Letort Spring Run. The Letort of Legend was polluted from the town of Carlisle downstream. The upper end was where the story was written by the Legends as they plied their craft to outwit the wary trout of the Letort. Now, protected under the appropriately named special regulation, ‘Heritage Water’. I ask you to consider what Heritage and Tradition are of? Heritage and Tradition are exclusively of us. It’s the protection of the past. The trout created the Legends by driving and motivating them to advance their skill and adapt, like the trout themselves, in order to catch them. Together, they changed the game in this pursuit. The Legends sadly have passed on, leaving a void, a vacum that has never been filled. Anglers to this day come to pay homage from all over the world to the great Letort and it’s Legends by fishing this water. Perhaps a feeling of greatness by association is attained by wetting a line in these hallowed waters. Tradition became a worship of the past, a religion and stagnation of our progressive learning. The trout themselves and the most deserving part of this story of the Letort; Well, They don’t have time for tradition. The Letort changed, the pollution was abated and in turn the trout also changed and adapted. Our focus of protection and restoration remained concentrated on what once was. Charlie Fox and Vince Marinaro humbly gave their respect to the trout of the Letort in their game of nods. They gave their respects to the fish and we gave our respects to them. To fill the void left by the legends a new relationship to the Letort must be found and accepted. A relationship specifically to the trout of the Letort, before it is too late.
Even now as we have photographic and video evidence proving otherwise, some will still argue vehemently, as one angler did earlier this year, protecting the traditionally accepted Great Assumption; (They can’t get over the falls.) The fellow became enraged, offensive and insulting. I dared to question him. He was protecting his desire to fill the authority figure void by repeatedly explaining how he spends 200 days a year on the water and they can’t get over the falls because; Well, he said they can’t. I replied, “Because, you’ve never seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.” I then stated “I am trying to protect a fish”, and asked, “What are you protecting, right now?” He claimed, He didn’t understand the question.
As a result of the accepted Great Assumption and to this day, the remaining trout like the ones Charlie Fox described and wrote about in his letter to the Harrisburg Fly Fishers titled “Super Trout”,can be caught and harvested from Carlisle to the mouth and anywhere they roam as they hunt in post spawn aggression to regain lost energy.
The amazing story of the Letort did not die with the Legends. The story has moved downstream and lives in these forgotten and overlooked trout and is being written by fisherman who utilize all forms of gear, and to them, a trout stream is where they can catch one. Apparently the trout don’t have regard for signs. These anglers are having success catching large wild brown trout from the lower Letort and the larger Creek that it flows into. Many are being captured and killed and fewer appear to be returning every year. This is not a new phenomenom, it has been happening in this manner as long as I can remember. It is a testament to their resilience that any still exist. Recently when speaking at a local Trout Unlimited Meeting, I asked the group to ask of themselves, “Would it bother you more to see a large wild brown trout killed and carried out between Charlie Fox and Vince Marinaro’s monuments by the gills and thrown into the back of a truck than to see a large brown trout drug up the bank in the open water below, when it’s potentially the same fish?”
Nature only rewards success. If they can’t get up the falls, begs the question, Why are they there? Everything about a wild Brown Trouts existance dictates that it’s movements not be random. If they make a poor move they don’t grow and if they make a bad move they don’t make babies. They don’t hand down stupid. The movements are precisely what is honed by the natural order. The falls at the mouth, a challenge of course, serve to ensure that only the fittest can enjoy the cool waters of the Letort until the spawn before returning once again to hunt the larger open water.
Accepting that the Brown Trout can get over the falls changes how we should look at the management of the trout and the stream. The trout are gaining their size from the larger Creek which is open and undesignated and returning to the Letort as a nursery water. Making spawning habitat the primary need of the fish. Each year they are forced to run the gauntlet between the descending hoards of anglers on the mouth leaving behind cigarette butts and ‘Y’ sticks. The Legacy left by the Legends exists in the genetics of these special River Salmon, Loch Leven strain trout and it’s time we free ourselves from the protection of ourselves and protect these fish, where they choose to exist.
No trout were hurt in the writing of this story. Peoples feelings, maybe?. But, that wasn’t the point of it. I want to protect fish. We can’t conserve both ourselves, our feelings and a fish. Protection of ourselves, tradition and accepted assumptions is how things remain the same and there is no greater example than the Letort and the history of Pennsylvania’s Trout stream management to this point. To restore the Letort to it’s former Glory and come to the realization of a different potential for our waterways we should be able to point to Ed Koch’s Goliath 9 pound, dry fly caught brown trout hanging on the Museum wall on Shady Lane and say to ourselves, “That is what is missing from the Letort as well as other waters today”. Otherwise, What is the measure of our success? It’s time to make our protection about the fish and stop chasing our own tails. After all, they (the fish), deserve it most of all.
I chose this discussion to be the important lead into the step by step approach of this blog to take the reader down the path to a new future with a vision of a different potential for Brown Trout and our many miles of flowing waters in Pennsylvania. It’s imperative because, nothing changes until we free ourselves and make it about the fish. Hashtag #itsaboutthefish