I just killed a thing I love. A living thing I revere. But it doesn’t belong here in Montana. It’s more than 2,000 miles from its home range, that place in the Appalachian Mountains where I’ve lived much of my life, falling in love with its graceful movements, with its spectacular colors — speckled, as the old folks say.
I’ve hiked mile upon mile, tracing tributaries with my feet, scanning the waters along the Allegheny Front, to catch brook trout, to hold them for the briefest of moments in my hand and say a prayer of praise before opening my fingers to feel their finely muscled bodies wave-splash back into the current. And now I’ve taken my index finger, pushed it into the throat of this fish, bending the flailing spine to a right angle in the hopes the brookie will feel very little as the last bit of consciousness fades from its eyes, body twitching with the ghost of its former life.
I’ve been forced to play assassin because, decades ago, other men decided to transport brook trout across a continent, uprooting it from its rightful place, sending the fry into Western waters that stay frigid year-round, where they compete with native trout. Like cutthroat. Like bull trout. And it’s the bull trout I worry about. In this country, they’ve been extirpated from most of the streams where they used to swim. Hooked and netted, tossed onto the stony banks to die, mounds of flesh reminiscent of buffalo carcasses that littered the plains as White hunters killed their way across the tall grasses, as colonizers tried their best to erase the many tribes and cultures who lived here, leaving a trail of blood others could follow.
After that, the pit mines were dug. The water poisoned. And the bull trout, and so many other lives — piscine and human and other — grew sick and ceased to exist in these places. When water can kill, most everything dies.
The Salish people suffered as this trout they called aay vanished, and along with the fish’s demise a way of living, of feeding the body and the spirit, recognizing an essential connection that should never have been severed, a union destroyed that’s nearly impossible for humans to put right. Today, the bull trout’s range has continued to shrink. In most cases, they were replaced by trout from Europe, people prizing the splendor and ferocity of brown trout, never considering the consequences for native species, for native peoples. Yet there are still places the bull can live, even thrive.
How to tell people about such places without opening a path for their decimation? How to convince those who’ve never seen this mighty fish that they merit a bit of sacrifice, that they’re worthy of our attention and devotion, the possibility a remnant might be saved? To witness one of these behemoths flash out from beneath a log and envelop a smaller fish in its jaws is to understand that this should be the predator in the river’s biome: food chain ending in its mouth, sliding to fill its stomach.
Bull trout and brook trout are both char. They spawn in the fall months, preparing their redds in gravel as the world changes colors, readying their house for birth in the spring. This native and non-native inevitably mix their seed, their eggs, birthing a fish that spells the end of each family tree, lineage stopped by the progeny of crossbreeding, an act that leads to the offshoot’s sterility.
But what I have to tell, what I began with, is a story based in awe, which ultimately leads to reveling in the sacred: Why I broke that brook trout’s neck; how I knew the bull was in the pool and needed to be fed. On that day in July, with my son Noah and his wife, Nikea, I fished ahead to a slow, deep bend, water a clay-turquoise allowing a clear view of the trout that I reeled toward the bank, a 9-inch cutthroat, pinks and purples flashing, the bright slash under the jaw shining.
And then a shadow from beneath the willows transforming itself into a fish of unreal length. I hadn’t hooked the cuttie all that well, and as it swam and shook with fear of what might come next, it freed itself from my fly, only to vanish, in the next instant, into the maw of a bull trout that was somewhere north of 30 inches.
Nearly every trip up this tributary, Noah and I have watched the shovel of a bull trout’s head dig the side of a fish we were attempting to land. Each time a primal rush, an adrenaline surge. The ancient hunter that resides in us stares back in disbelief at what’s been lost, the power we almost had the good fortune to touch.
Still shaking a bit, I moved to the next pool and landed an 11-inch brookie, oranges and reds kaleidoscoping the sides. We often carry a skillet with us, frying this fish streamside, enjoying its sweet, pink flesh. But on this day we were not equipped, the truck miles away: The meat would meal like an apple before we could eat.
Instead, after killing the fish, I walked back to the bull’s pool and made an offering to this ancient god of water, the only one among us who truly belonged here. I tossed the brookie into the current that was filling the top of the riffle, and Noah, Nikea and I witnessed the fresh corpse of that recently departed life twirling in the current. The bull trout lifted from the depth’s glare, nosed the fish into position and opened its jaws.
We’d been given the chance to partake in the act of feeding and being fed, and all I could think was out of death something beautiful lived.
One life assuming the shape of another.
A part of each of us swimming back beneath the shadowed bank.