A flame along the belly and flank oranged by autumn so that as they work their redds it’s as if fire crackled on the bottom of the stream, denying the elements the logic of their power.
Of all trout, and all the beauty written on their flesh — skin stippled, circled, colored in shades that would make an impressionist blush.
Of all the strength in the magnificence of their shaking muscles.
All the speed that allows them to burst toward prey.
All the grace they muster leaping and rising into the air, as if their very will — and anyone who has landed a trout knows these are fish possessed of preternatural willfulness — could suspend time’s passage, or at least slow its pace, so we might witness in an extended motion their fishly pirouette, the feat of their gymnastic splendor, their perfect entry after a well-executed dive, the flash toward the far bank or beneath a free stone as they escape.
Of all the beautiful fish we call trout, to choose among cutthroat, golden, brook, rainbow, brown, bull, the many others that swim with hunger and joy and fill our eyes with wonder, hearts bewildered at the charity of the gift given freely by a river or creek.
To choose among these is to tempt the angling gods, to risk impunity and suffer a curse. To be consigned to waters for the rest of our days where fish are never fooled by the fly we float.
But to be chosen by one of these trout.
To be taken by a creature whose elusive design allows it to vanish even when it rests at your feet: fly removed from its mouth, muscled body cradled in moving water, your hand opening to release it back into the world.
Yes, to be plucked from our mundane existence by the fish itself. To be told that we are not our own anymore.
Reborn as acolytes whose lives from here on will be devoted to this particular creature, a puzzle piece in the ancient story of creation.
Well, that’s different.
Let me state plainly: I cannot deny the loveliness of any trout, their allure, the manner in which they seize my attention.
Nor do I wish to enter a pissing contest with another fly-fisher to debate the qualities of each species.
Folly is found in denigrating or raising one above the other.
For this reason, I’m grateful that long before I fished for a single trout, while I was still a pond-angling boy in the state of Indiana, reeling in catfish and carp, bass and bluegill, I was already captivated by the beauty and far-off story of an Appalachian char that was misplaced by the movements of glaciers, by the retreat of seas, to spend thousands of years in the watery remnants of these ground-down mountains.
The long-ago boy I was never dreamed he’d live less than a mile from a mountain run, from hollow after hollow that sought to hide and protect that precious fish he already loved.
And so I’m transfixed.
Arrested and jailed.
A happy prisoner to the brookie, the speckled, the native.
While my neighbors search for the largest brown trout in the river, seeking a trophy to carry on their phone to show folks at the barbershop or grocery store, I’ve been consigned to the remotest of places along the Allegheny Front, where I hike for hours on a pilgrimage for a fish that seldom is longer than 10 inches.
Miles from any road. Acquainted with bear and fisher. Stepping respectfully around timber rattlers. Slipping and scampering talus and green moss. Urged forward, ever forward, by the sound of moving water, by the promise of untouched fish higher in mountain recesses.
And beneath the boughs of rhododendron thickets and laurel hells, a bow and arrow cast often the only option, I see the jaws of that fish open, head and back cresting the water, consuming the caddis I’ve drifted in the current.
The delicious swirl as the fish disappears, only to realize it’s caught. Then the burst into air.
Colors bedazzling, bewitching.
The speckled returning to the stream, running across the pool.
My rod swaying joyfully, thankfully, in communion.