Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sacred Trout Opener

The second Saturday in April is a sacred day for many Vermonters. After a long cold winter of sitting by the woodstove, the ice has finally retreated from many of the shorelines and the frigid mountain snowmelt  has begun to roil the streams and rivers of our little hamlet. Many of us will rise early, have a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausages, then fill our thermoses full of hot coffee and head out to celebrate Opening Day of Trout Season.
The day is more about commemorating the end of winter, the beginning of sunny days and warm southerly breezes, even if sometimes a short round of flurries should blow through the valley. Standing on the shore of our favorite stream, perhaps beside a classic wooden bridge, all I can hear is the rush of water as it gurgles around rocks, forming eddys and emptying into deeper pools, where lies the prince of piscatorial delight, the evanescent rainbow trout.
This early in the game, the purist will try to coax this wise old salmonid out of his lair by bouncing a nymph along the bottom, perhaps a bead headed prince with some peacock hurl wrapped with rust chenille, tied over the winter, in anticipation of this glorious day. Or for the spincaster, maybe it’s a simple Panther Martin steelhead patterned spoon, or a straightforward salmon egg on a circle hook. Whatever the lure, it is our first offering to the aquatic world that so captivates our imaginations with the hope of hooking into one of Vermont’s most beautiful assets, the majestic trout.
Rainbows, browns or brookies, it matters not. These are, in most fisher-people’s opinion, the essence of the Green Mountain state’s wild allure.
Our friend, Sara Blum, fishing the great Winooski River
I have not been able to discern the origins of the quote but my friend, Chris Thayer, loves to repeat it at nearly every opportunity; “If you want proof that there is a Higher Power, look at  brook trout and orange juice.” Even the pagan can appreciate that whatever it was that created or caused evolution to unfold the genetics of the brook trout is nothing short of miraculous.
As we stand on the shores, dappled sunlight waving through the shadows of the still barren maples and willows, we are lost in the reflection of our faith that somewhere underneath the surface is lurking a monster rainbow, hungry from a long winter of hibernation and ready to strike with a voracious lunge. The line tightens and then runs slack. Is he running toward us? I lift the rod above my head and lean back to take up the belly of the 4 pound test.
Suddenly, the rod throbs hard downward and the fight has begun. He sprints into the rapid current and pulls out line, the drag whining in my hands. Across the riffles he horses himself toward the far shore where the rock wall plummets into the depths of the hole. He throws his shoulders into the line and flexes it until I think it’s going to snap, then releases the pressure. Is he still there?
I reel in some line and say out loud “Dang it! I lost him!” Then as I begin to accept that I have been beaten and reel in the line for another cast, a sudden wild thrashing echoes over the water.
He is airborne and headed back across the current. The sunlight flashes over his powerful rainbow-lit flanks and to my surprise I can see that the hook is still set in the corner of his jaw. I reel quickly to take up the slack as he make s another run toward me and then downstream, being careful not to create a snapping line when I get to the end of the slack belly.
I step into the stream and am now immersed in his world. The same earthly element that protects him unnerves me. I am now longer on stable ground. I must navigate the underwater environment of moss-laden rocks and small pock-holes. My goal is to meet him halfway to the center of the stream, working him into the current to tire him out.
Slowly, I reel in a little line, keeping the line taught but not stressed. Finally, as we both grow weary, he of the fight, and me of standing waist deep in rushing water, balancing my body by leaning into the current and staying off of slippery rocks. As he nears me, he finally relaxes and rolls up on his side, rainbow colors dancing in the sunlight and reflecting off of the surface. I tenderly draw him into the ash net with the rubber mesh (rubber mesh allows the fish to be unharmed by rough textured braided twine).

The Author's Wife, Katie Carleton, with a nice Opening Day Brown
 I cradle him softly in my left hand and gently remove the hook from the corner of his jaw. I support his belly with my left hand while with my right hand, my thumb and my forefinger come together in front of his tail. I tenderly swish him back and forth in the slack water allowing the oxygen to pour over his fiery red gills. He is regaining his strength.
Suddenly, he thrashes his powerful tail and pulls free. I utter a heartfelt “Thank you, my friend” and let him swim back into the rushing stream.

It is my habit to always release the first fish of the year. It’s a sacred ritual that I feel brings me good luck for the rest of the season.

Our friend, Kazmin Williamson, with a beautiful brookie
Bradley Carleton is Executive Director of Sacred, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature and raises funds for Traditions Outdoor, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.