If you want to hike fast and efficiently, don’t follow a mountain stream. Only water travels quickly in these fractured channels, where a jigsaw puzzle of rocks and trees makes feet seem like a dumb way to get around. But trout don’t live on trails, so I’m bushwhacking up Secret Creek, in Colorado, to see if I can coax a few brookies out of the water.
Secret Creek is not this stream’s real name, of course. Revealing it would be like a gold miner divulging the location of a mother lode. But even if I did, Secret Creek doesn’t easily give up its treasure. Scraggly shrubs claw my body and snag my fly rod as I burrow through thickets along its banks. After 45 minutes of shimmying around boulders and scrambling over downed trees, I’ve made it just 50 yards upstream. I could spare myself this slog by fishing in big ol’ lakes and rivers, but dams and hatchery stockers have transformed most of those waters into freshwater zoos. The truly wild fish live up here, in the remote zone.
Pine boughs extend over the water, giving me little room to cast. But I suspect I’ll find trout in the shade beneath those branches, so I don’t go in search of a more open area. These fish are notoriously wily, and to catch them, I have to know what they like: pockets of calm water that let them conserve energy. Preferably below a current that delivers them a steady stream of food. And with a riverbank or a tree-branch pergola overhead that can shield them from predators and other air-breathing marauders—like me.
I arrive at a trouty-looking spot where a strainer of downed trees has formed a quiet pool. I concentrate on casting to a plate-size target in the water, and promptly forget about the branches. My fly snags on a willow and I have to haul myself onto a rock to unsnarl the line. After the 15-minute delay, I slowly ease myself back into the water to avoid spooking any fish. Trout don’t feed when they’re scared.
Why terrorize innocent fish this way? It’s a question I’ve debated with the editor-in-chief of this magazine. Why do I chase and torment them, only to release them after they’ve flailed desperately at the end of my line?
Because I want to get to know these amazing creatures, but I can’t watch them graze in a meadow like deer, or fly overhead like hawks. I can’t live in their watery world, nor they in my terrestrial one. Our spheres are as separate as Venus and Mars. If I want to hook a trout, I’ve got to first understand its strange existence—where it rests, what it’s feeding on, how surrounding currents affect its behavior. Once I decode those mysteries, a fish might rise for my fly.
My second cast on Secret Creek goes much better than the first. The imitation mayfly floats on the surface, exactly where I want it, and there’s a bullet-fast flash of the trout’s belly beneath the surface, then the electric tug on my rod. The fish dashes around the pool, seeking shelter behind submerged logs or rocks, but my line holds fast. Within five seconds, I’ve landed a brook trout, no longer than my hand but so gorgeously colorful that I marvel at how it manages to conceal itself at all. Its fins display black racing stripes; its silver sides are splashed with pink, turquoise, crimson, and yellow.
I bend close to the water to let the trout go, submerging it below the surface and then gently opening my hands. As it darts away, I feel as close to its strange aquatic life as I’ll ever get—like I’ve managed to bridge the gap between two worlds.