I’ve always felt tied to water in some way and have long relied on it to help others get to know me by name. Growing up, I’d introduce myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Brooke, like the stream,” which made sense to all those New England folks who call a stream a brook. Here in West Virginia, I have a new and improved introduction: “Hi, I’m Brooke, like the trout.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, I was the pesky sister that would tag along with my big brother and his friends when they went down to the causeway to do some fishing. I had zero interest in putting a worm on a hook, so hot dogs were my preferred bait. Needless to say, I was far from a purist and I wasn’t very good at the actual sport of fishing. I wish I could say things have changed for me but after another fishless evening, I don’t think they have.
When I found myself in West Virginia working in fisheries conservation, I knew it was now or never to learn how to fly fish. It’s a sport I had long admired, but had only made half-hearted attempts to learn. My boss at the time took me out on my first brook trout stream and handed over his fly rod. To this day, I’ve never landed more fish in a single outing, which I’ve realized I shouldn’t admit out loud. Again, I don’t think my fishing has improved since I was that little girl, but at least I’ve upgraded from hot dogs to flies. Although the fly I typically use is called a greenie weenie, so perhaps it’s not that much of an upgrade after all.
People travel the world to see the kind of beauty that can be seen in just one fish hiding in the tiny streams that carve the deep hollers of West Virginia.
Like countless others, I was hooked ever since that first day of fly fishing. I find the sport to be as dramatic as they come. It’s romantic, exciting, filled with adventure, and funny, but more often than not, it’s incredibly frustrating. Given that most of my time spent fishing doesn’t involve actually catching fish, it turns out to be a lot more about just being alone with the river and your thoughts. Just when it starts to feel lonely, one good cast and the subsequent netting of a fish transports me back to bliss.
Oftentimes, fishing isn’t about fishing at all. When I think about why I keep going back for more, I know it can’t be about catching the Big One, or even catching a bunch of small ones for that matter. What I truly love is getting to see and interact with these beautiful fish. The rod and reel is but a simple tool with which to make that connection, even for a brief moment. The brook trout is a stunning creature: the vermiculations squiggling across the top, the pink-on-black-on-white fins that somehow don’t clash, and the seemingly innumerable red dots with blue halos scattered across the sleek body all combine to take my breath away. People travel the world to see the kind of beauty that can be seen in just one fish hiding in the tiny streams that carve the deep hollers of West Virginia.
I guess I’ve always been a big fan of watching fish, more into the concept of keeping them as a pet rather than as dinner. When I was a little kid on a coastal camping trip with my family, I made my brother carry some poor little sunfish in his hands back to our tent to keep as a pet. The poor thing traversed the whole campground in a quickly draining handful of water as my brother and I rushed him home into a cookpot for safe keeping. I think we would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for our parents, who were less than pleased that the pot had become our makeshift aquarium. If I can’t keep a fish with me to enjoy whenever I please, I guess I’ll just have to keep coming back to the stream for quick visits to say hello.
Although there is by far enough value in fly fishing as a solitary sport, the extravert in me loves having hobbies I can share with others. Sometimes the sport takes place while standing in a stream, but it can also take place while sitting at the bar with fellow fisherfolk swapping fishtales. I actually went fishing to get some inspiration for this article because it had been a little too long since my last stream wanderings. It wasn’t until I stopped in at the local brewery to share a beer with some folks, that same cast of characters with whom I’ve long missed sharing the stream, until I felt like I had a story to tell.
I live for the days when you don’t know what time it is and really don’t care to find out, the slow days when you don’t feel like you ought to be doing something else, those precious days when you’re completely and fully present. One of my all-time favorite outings occurred with a couple of pals down in the Otter Creek Wilderness. It was a scorching hot summer day, and we just wanted an excuse to hide away in the natural air conditioning along the wild river corridor. Fishing, as it often does, provided that excuse. All we needed for the day were fly rods, hammocks, books, and beers. We bounced back and forth between fishing, reading, and napping. I think only one of us caught a fish that day. Eventually, we all gave up and jumped in the creek, because if you can’t catch ’em, join ’em. But as usual, that magical day wasn’t really about fishing at all.
Brooke Andrew is a stream walker who doubles as a good swimmer. She is most patient when placed next to a fish tank.