Black-Speckled Trout

Jumping out of the cab of my truck, I tried to suppress the roller-coaster sense of urgency that flooded my senses whenever I went trout fishing. Call it what you want, but I was anxious. I took a deep breath and delighted in the welcoming coo of a mourning dove. A gust of wind rolled up the sweet, musky odor of blooming cottonwood. Field grass stirred, then stopped, as if someone shut a door. The black-soil bottomland signaled home.

The day’s plan centered on getting a fix of black-speckled trout from Couse Creek, one of a passel of “cricks” where my serious stream-fishing life began. As a relentless teenager, I crawled under its pasture fences and worked stealthily through thorny blackberry and stinging nettle in search of a limit of “six-inchers.” Although these youthful experiences paved the way for catching bigger trout in bigger water, the thrill of fooling small fish in small water has never waned.

Couse Creek is what stream ecologists call a first order stream. To put things in perspective, it is three steps wide and no more than thigh-deep. As a consequence, I rarely invite anyone along. East of the streamside pasture, a short draw dropped steeply from the Blue Mountain foothills. The surround was what locals call scabland, featureless except for exposed basalt and smooth sumac that appeared tucked into hillside pockets. To the west, peas covered hill slope flat enough to be plowed. By early June, they would be knee high with succulent white blossoms as large as my thumb.

I assembled my four-piece Redington and selected a size 12 Renegade from a collection of flies I tied over the winter. Renegades have all the essential elements: white saddle hackle for visibility, brown saddle hackle for buoyancy and impression of movement, and a body of iridescent peacock hurl to attract. They can be floated dry, bounced along the bottom, or drifted somewhere in between. Ninety percent of all self-respecting rainbow trout go for them on the first pass. Why start with anything else?

Reaching the creek, I adjusted my sunglasses to scope out a shallow run. The water was slate-green and turbid after recent rainfall, but had cleared to expose a medium-sized trout finning lazily next to a basalt outcrop. I crouched on one knee and flipped a short cast just upstream of where a fish held. As if scripted, it turned and took the fly. A brief run to the head of the pool, two jumps, and it veered towards me under pressure. I lifted my rod tip and swung it, still flopping, against my armpit. Without further thought, I slipped it headfirst into my willow creel. Sometimes the instinct to harvest is too strong to ignore.

I held position and cast again. As the fly settled where current swirled to create a foam line, another trout rose from the shallows and struck to battle at the head of the pool. Like the first fish, its backside and caudal fin was dotted with jet-black speckles. Nickel-sized parr marks, bisected by a pencil-thin red stripe, contrasted with silver-bronze flanks. This one I carefully unhooked. I watched it catch its breath in the shallows next to my feet, before it turned and sprinted for the shelter of the opposite bank. Satiated with my early success, I headed upstream.

Every shift of the creek presented a scene as interesting as a small town bar on Saturday night. I waded around one bend to find an old tractor tire wedged between elbow-shaped alder roots. Grapefruit-shaped balls of foam collected in the back corner of a deep swirl pool only to break loose after reaching the main flow. A narrow shaft of sunlight spotlighted mayflies dancing on the waters surface. Farther upstream, a riffle was draped with reggae-like honeysuckle vines. Multi-colored lichens, laid down as thick as a kitchen sink sponge, covered a shaded outcrop.

Yet other stream features triggered fond memories. I recognized the remnant outline of a pool where my son Matt caught his first stream trout when he was 6 years old. I’ll never forget his determined stance, how he dangled a worm in the swirling back eddy, refusing to budge until he caught the small bait-stealer.

Being entertained within the protective canopy of Couse Creek is much more than about stealth, precise casting, and fooling a trout. I’ve flushed whitetail deer bedded down for a morning nap, flagged tails raised in alarm as they crashed into the undergrowth. Water striders race across the water’s surface as if to demonstrate the subtle power of surface tension. I marvel at the undersides of smooth stones crusted with stonefly larvae, tiny snails, and crusty sponge. In shallow tailouts, pebbly cases of caddisflies line up like trailers in a RV park. I’ve encountered great blue herons posing on one leg, hoping to lull a minnow into fatal complicity. A trip to Couse Creek is like making love on a lazy afternoon. Casual study pays dividends.

On another early season trip to Couse Creek, I kept track of all the fish caught, stopping to record facts in a pocket journal. Two hours and 10 minutes of fishing produced a total of 28 trout landed and released, ranging from 4- to 9-inches-long. I lost the granddaddy of the day, a foot-long trout that resided in a shaded pool under an exposed root wad. In a moment of inattention, I hooked just enough lip to pull it to the surface for a “volitional release.” It seems that being slow on the draw is not limited to aging gunslingers.

When the roof of an 80-year-old farmhouse came into view, I sensed my brief sojourn to Couse Creek was almost over. I couldn’t help but notice that the fence marking their property boundary functioned more as a debris collector than a deterrent to trespassing. Captured by loose strands of wire was a microcosm of rural life: hand-split logs, rusted-out hot water tank, beer cans, a ragged sweatshirt, garden hose, an empty Purina dog food sack, and, overtopping it all, like a maraschino cherry, a red plastic antifreeze container. A classic example of how one farmer’s junk can create another man’s fishing hole.

Downstream of the debris jam, a deep pool swirled languidly in the shade of a giant cottonwood tree. I tied on a yellow Stimulator and cast into the lower end. No sooner did my offering hit the surface when a large trout—easily 14-inches-long—rose and tried to “knock out” my offering. I missed its broadside strike and, in my haste to return a cast, got hung up on overhanging alder. Luckily, my tapered leader was shorter and stronger than when I started the day and I pulled the fly free. I then casted into a loose jumble of branches on the opposite shore. It was the kind of do-or-die delivery you make when you know your day is coming to an end and you need an excuse to quit.

This time an even larger trout swallowed my fluffed-up tuft of deer hair after which it immediately churned downstream. He was the Mike Tyson of Couse Creek. It was all I could do to hang on while he looked to serve up a knockout punch. The battle included head-shaking splashes, spinning twists, and one half-ass jump. I eventually worked the fish back to the middle of the hole where it circled wildly before burrowing into the loose pile of debris at my feet and breaking off.

Left with a broken tippet, my one consolation was that Couse Creek still held an occasional lunker trout. I backtracked along the creek bottom until I found a narrow opening in blackberry vines that led to the horse pasture. Only after arriving at my truck did I pause to take in the scene. A lone cumulus cloud appeared tethered above the western horizon. The sapphire-blue sky was backdrop to bright green pea fields, and heat waves that shimmered off bedrock. Not a creature stirred except for a lone raven that sidestepped nervously on the crosspiece of a nearby telephone pole. It was like a picture put down on canvas.

Thankful for being raised to not feel guilty about harvesting an occasional dinner fish, I transferred the black-speckled trout I had killed to a small ice chest. There was a feeling of melancholy. But mostly I felt grateful for the good fortune that allowed me to visit the same tiny creek over a time span of four decades; a place where every trip leads to discovery.