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.