Though it’s revered by modern anglers, the brown trout wasn’t well received when introduced to American waters.
[by Will Ryan]
Anglers of the 1870s were no different from today, in the sense that come spring, they were ready to do some trout fishing—and often scratched that itch by scouring their favorite sporting publications for the latest word on the new season. So you can imagine the surprise that greeted some readers when they read the headline of a letter published in the April 4, 1878, issue of Forest & Stream, which proclaimed “No More Trout Fishing in the Upper Beaverkill.” The writer was George Van Siclen of the newly formed Beaverkill Club, and he was putting the word out that the water in question was posted.
The reason was because of the perilous status of its brook trout population in that water. We like to think of the late 19th century as the glory days of brook trout fishing, but unless you were floating on an Adirondack pond or a Maine lake, angling for speckled trout had fallen into serious decline, and the Beaverkill was a good example. Lumbering and tanning operations together with increased fishing pressure sent native brook trout populations dropping like stock prices during the panic of ’73.
Average size plummeted, too, and anglers “fished for count,” in the saying of the day, meaning they kept everything. Ed Van Put in his rich history, Trout Fishing in the Catskills, reports on “Two fishermen from Saugerties who caught 1,473 weighing a total of 120 pounds from the Beaverkill and Balsam Lake.” (You can do the math on the average weight.) He also tells the story of the proverbial last straw for above mentioned George Van Siclen. The summer before he had encountered “three men on a buckboard who boasted of catching ‘over 400 trout’ which they kept in a ‘twelve-quart butter firkin.’” None, apparently, reached the vaunted six-inch mark.
The response of wealthy sports like Van Siclen was to post waters. Meanwhile, the angling response on public streams, as reflected by the boys on the buckboard, was to “git ’em while you still can.” Such a tension suggests that American fly fishing could have gone the way of England, with the best fly fishing waters inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. But it didn’t, for reasons that have to do with history, culture, and social class—and also to a certain immigrant from Germany—the brown trout.
Nascent state fish commissions had tried to buttress populations by stocking brook trout, rainbows (or California trout, as they were called), smallmouth bass, and other species. But no fish moved in and made itself at home like the brown. And certainly no trout has had a comparable impact on the development and practice of American fly fishing.
The browns arrived by ship, like other immigrants. Through friendships in Germany, American author and fish culturist Fred Mather ended up with multiple shipments of brown trout eggs in 1883 and ’84, which he distributed to the right people, and before long, brown trout were swimming in waters around the state and the country. Their capacity for avoiding capture, as a 19th-century angler might have put it, proved their (and our) salvation. They were here to stay.
In the Headlines
By the mid 1890s, the brown trout were making headlines, mostly having to do with their size, which is basically what editors of any century are looking for in a fishing story. “Big Trout In The Catskills” exclaimed the New York Times in an article about two brothers who landed 10 trout of an aggregate 17 pounds. (That these are “headline big” does give a sense of the size of the brookies anglers were used to catching.)
Not all anglers were so lucky, of course, and not all anglers were enthralled with newcomers. Then, as now, brown trout often became fish-eaters at around a foot, which fit the larger cultural fear about immigrants at the turn of the century. “The European variety is piscivorous, and it preys on the American trout,” is how one newspaper article put it.
Articles also trashed their aesthetics— even taking to what some might today call “body shaming.” A good example comes from the Hartford Courant, “Of course all trout are beautiful but the English fish [the brown] is chunkier and blunter. The curve of the back, which in the American [the brookie] is said by artists to be the most beautiful line in animate nature, is flattened slightly by the increased size of the head.”
In the small-town world of 1900, people spent a good deal of time around rivers and often gave the large brown trout in certain pools names—old Charlie, Caesar, what have you. But they still couldn’t catch them—which might have been the real reason for the growing anti-brown sentiment. As Cecil Heacox observes in his charming book The Compleat Brown Trout, “the state of Montana officials [writing at the time] came closer to the truth: ‘the brown trout is a good fish, but the average angler is not skilled enough to catch it.’”
This feature of the brown trout was no secret—at least to anglers across the Atlantic. As early as 1847, Hewitt Wheatley compared the wariness of a previously hooked brown trout to “a miser, when his son begins to beat about the bush, introductory to some pecuniary hint.” For anglers used to filling a firkin with trout, encounters with brown trout no doubt had more than one of them reaching for the shotgun. As Field & Stream editor Dave Hurteau, writing a century later, puts it: At the time, “the joys of being tortured by this fish were not widely appreciated by American anglers.”
A Star Is Born
That would soon change, thanks to the growing popularity of dry fly fishing. Browns basically gave dry fly fishermen something to catch. Of course, we’ve never been comfortable with such social constructions, preferring to think the reverse (that the fish dictates the method). And the fact is that the brown trout developed a reputation as a fish that could be caught more readily with drys than with other methods because of its inclination to feed on the surface.
Reports of the day suggest as much, as reflected in the New York Times article from May 23, 1915: “Though many fishermen, especially the old-timers who resent innovations, insist that wet flies are still the best, the records of late years in brown trout fishing, seem to indicate that the dry fly is far more effective.” So whether we need drys to catch browns, or browns to catch fish with drys is a good question. Twenty years later, Preston Jennings would explain, for
instance, that most American anglers had ignored realistic imitations because the native species—rainbows and brookies, were “deep feeders” and given to flies such as the Silver Doctor and Parmachene Belle. By contrast, the “imported trout” preferred “sober-hued flies, more nearly the coloring of the natural flies found on the stream . . .” and seemed most inclined to the flies on the surface.
But, if nothing else, fishing brown trout with dry flies meant more water and rivers to fish. As Ed Van Put notes, “Although they [brown trout] did reduce the native population dramatically, their introduction also created many more miles of trout fishing water, as browns began inhabiting the stretches previously avoided by native brook trout because of water temperature.”
More to the point, dry fly fishermen began to argue that the brown was more than an acceptable substitute, but in fact a superior fish. The venerable Theodore Gordon, an early and very important innovator and advocate of dry flies, often wrote in support of the brown trout and noted, “it is natural and patriotic to exaggerate the fine qualities of our own trout to remember with delight our early fly fishing experiences . . . but the sport is better, upon the whole, in this part of New York than it was in the days of fontinalis only.”
George La Branche’s 1914 book, The Dry Fly and Fast-Water, the most important fly fishing book of the day takes Gordon’s point a step further by explaining “that the brown trout . . . is a fish of moods and often seems less willing to feed than the native trout; but for that reason alone, if for no other, I would consider him the sportier fish.” And, in La Branche’s mind, fly fishing owed its sport to the notion of challenge. As he concluded, “a full measure of satisfaction is obtained only when the taking of a single fish is accomplished under conditions most difficult and trying.” Or, as Hurteau puts it, “the joys of being tortured.”
The Trout as Teacher
This new ethos involving the fairness of the pursuit rather than the number swimming in the firkin led to several very important developments, not the least of which was the survival of trout, as more anglers took to the streams, aided by better roads and Model Ts—and catch-andrelease remained somewhere in our future. Then and now, the brown trout was suited to living next door, a quality captured beautifully by English writer Romilly Fedden, who wrote, “As I peered over the bank, a good trout backed like a phantom into obscurity.” And how vital the brown’s general wariness! Art Flick wrote in The Streamside Guide in 1947, “When you are next complaining about the selectivity of trout, bear the thought in mind: were it not for this fortunate trait, how long would our stream fishing last?” The middle-class fly fishers had a future for their sport.
The implication of Flick’s point becomes increasingly apparent with each passing decade: Anglers have learned a good deal about the art of fly tying and fishing from such a crafty quarry. Rivers with brown trout in them began being noted as “brown trout rivers”—the Beaverkill, the Salmon, and West Branch Ausable in New York; the Battenkill in Vermont; the LeTort in Pennsylvania; the Au Sable and Pere Marquette in Michigan, and eventually the great rivers of Montana. These waters became the laboratories that led to the imitative explosion of Jennings Flick, Marinaro, Schweibert, Swisher and Richards, Caucci and Nastasi, and all the other great innovators from the 20th century that were great angling minds, without a doubt. And they also had one helluva teacher.
Will Ryan teaches expository writing at Hampshire College. He is also a columnist with our sister publication, Gray’s Sporting Journal. His most recent book, Gray’s Sporting Journal’s Noble Birds and Wily Trout was published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.
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