Gnats and Natives
This five year old article from one of our favorite outdoor writers still tickles our fishy hearts. Thanks to JD Mader.
I am a lucky fisherman. No, I don't catch more fish than other fishermen (I totally do). I am not better looking than your typical angler (I totally am). No, my friends, I am lucky because my parents live in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, where my dad grew up. We were a Navy family, so we moved around a lot and I got to fish in a lot of places, but we always returned to trout fishing in the small, beautiful streams in south central PA.
When I was a kid, I fished with corn or worms or crayfish I caught. Then I got a little better at fly-fishing. Now, I am equally happy to do either. Heck, I'm happy to sit by a little stream with my dad and listen to the water gurgle by. There is something about a small stream, solitude, and absolute concentration that just puts my mind in its happiest place.
I do pretty well, now. When I was a kid, I was happy to catch a fallfish. Now...well, I can't remember the last time I got skunked in PA. I am not in possession of a large enough ego to ignore the fact that the streams are stocked...that the big German brown trout I love are an invasive species. I've helped stock the streams. I visit the hatcheries often, in fact. Something about seeing all those trout in one place...
Last trip I took out east, we caught rainbows and brookies. I think my favorite time to fish is when my family goes out for Christmas. My dad and I are the only people fishing for miles around. And catching a big brown on a snowy day...and then going back to the house for a hot, home-cooked dinner (my mom can cook!)...well, that's about as good as it gets for me. Family and fishing.
I've caught rainbow trout, brook trout, and brown trout. I've caught paliminos, which is what we call them. Some people call them golden trout. They are genetically manipulated rainbows as I understand it...very unique. These are all fun fish to catch. They are all stocked (some breed, but they do not 'belong'). This is part of the reason I like bass and bream so much. They are supposed to be there. And where I fish in California, no one stocks anything – the places that are stocked are overrun by overzealous types who reek of powerbait – not my scene.
The last time I went fishing with my dad, I caught two native brook trout - much different than the designer import models. Both beautiful, the native trout are small and aggressive. I caught one about 8 inches long that was the biggest I have ever seen. They are stunning little fish. And they will hit almost anything, which means they are very hard to find. In fact, the two I caught on the last trip were the first I caught anywhere near civilization, so maybe they're coming back. When I was a kid, catching a native brookie was like seeing bigfoot.
A decade ago, when the main streams were absent of natives, Dad and I decided to go hunting further afield. He had scouted a tiny stream (like you could jump across parts of it, tiny) way up in the hills. There were still native trout there. Very few people fished this stream (in no small part because you have to drive by a scary white-supremacist compound to get there). Undaunted and pigmentally 'under the radar', we loaded up two light fly-rods and hit the road.
Pennsylvania is a beautiful state and, hate-mongers aside, it was a lovely drive. At this point in my life, I had never caught a native brookie. I had only seen a few. I had caught native trout in Idaho, but never in Pennsylvania. I was excited. It was cold, and I was ready to catch a 'real', native fish. And then, came the gnats.
When you fish, you get used to creepy crawlie things. I've had ticks on me, bugs in my eyes, spiders down the back of my shirt, deadly snakes too close for comfort. Bears in the bushes (they don't really creep or crawl, but I digress). I would gladly fish with a bear biting my leg rather than fish in the swarm of gnats we encountered that day.
Gnats are annoying little creatures. If you fish, you deal with them. I have never seen gnats like we saw by that stream, however. We stepped out of the van and, instantly, my eyes, ears, and mouth were FULL of them. My dad and I looked at each other with that 'this is stupid, even for us' look...and then we saw a little trout finning in the crystal water downstream. Damn.
We doused ourselves in bug spray, grabbed our rods and psyched ourselves up. I took a slug of bourbon for the cold and gnats and, well...it seemed like the right thing to do. I headed upstream and my dad, down.
I crept along the bank while my dad went to work on the first native we'd seen. The water was glass. I had walked a hundred yards or so, spitting gnats and cursing, when I saw a nice 6" native lazily finning in a small pool under a big tree. Bingo. I hid behind the tree, made the kind of cast I wouldn't be able to recreate if my life depended on it, and a few seconds later, I was gently removing a barbless hook from the lip of the beautiful little fish. Then, I blew my nose on my shirt, evicting about ten thousand gnats. I spit out a mouthful. I tried to wipe them out of my eyes. I waved goodbye to my little wild friend, who was now back at his station. Then, I went to find my dad. In a much less stealthy manner.
He was easy to find; the sound of a man choking on a mouthful of gnats is a pretty distinct sound in a silent forest. I told him about the fish I'd caught. He'd had similar luck. 'Great," I said, "let's go!"
Now, I'll fish in freezing weather, scorching heat, torrential rain. I have fished with cuts that probably could have used stitches. I have fished sick. But, I have my limits. And ingesting gnats through every open orifice (by the freaking handful) is where I draw the line. I'd had my Walden Pond moment. I was ready to go live deliberately someplace where there wasn't an insect infestation. Of course, my dad is a masochist.
I'm not going to lie to you (I totally am), but I marched right back to the van and sat sipping bourbon and watching the swirling blackness outside. That's right, I gave up. A whole ten minutes before my dad did. Of course, now the story lives. And all you have to do is say the word 'gnat' to make my dad and me flinch.
As I said, the last time I was out east, I caught two natives without trying, and I hope with every fiber of my being that this means they are coming back. I don't know. All I know is that I was fortunate enough to catch a few the last time I was there. And I will happily keep catching them and gently releasing them forever. As long as they leave their gnat buddies at home.
JD Mader is an award-winning novelist and storyteller.
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