Like most anglers, my fishing life began by exploring the waters around my home. Home for me is Concord, Massachusetts. From an early age, I became aware of my hometown’s historical significance and prolific literary tradition. In particular, the transcendental lessons of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden made the biggest impact on me. His credo of simplistic living and immersing oneself in nature was one of the key influences that drove me to the sport of fly fishing.
Fly fishing connects me to Thoreau’s message, and not because Thoreau loved slinging dry flies (in fact he never even mentions fly fishing). The connection lies in the values and emotions that fly fishing provides me, and most likely you readers as well. Experiencing the wilderness while preserving the habitat, stepping outside the bounds of society in hopes of discovering one’s true self—these are all critical elements of Thoreau’s transcendental spirit. And fly fishing is one of the few activities that’s still as romantic as it was in Thoreau’s time.
The landscape, however, has changed dramatically since the days of Thoreau. The industrial age of the late 19th and 20th centuries wreaked havoc on wildlife in Massachusetts, especially the eastern portion of the State. Also, Massachusetts ranks third in the US for population density, meaning the pressure on at-risk fisheries is significant. The reality today is such that anywhere with native brook trout in Massachusetts is a very, very special place.
Consequently, I spent years making long drives to access water that still possessed my beloved brookies. Though the state Fish and Wildlife Department stocks local waters with brook trout, the purity and rarity of a wild fish in its original habitat is simply unrivaled.
But things started changing around Boston. Major conservation and restoration efforts began to take place. For the first time in decades there were widespread surveys taken in the few remaining uncompromised brook trout habitats. I first heard about micro populations of sea-run brook trout on Cape Cod. The surveys of secluded pockets of nearby towns revealed small, isolated Brook Trout strains native to the waters. It was truly stunning news for folks like me.
Imagine that – while eastern Massachusetts was experiencing the industrial revolution and thousands of miles of streams lost their fish, these tiny pockets of brookies were marking the time. They carved out just enough of an existence in tiny spring creeks to last through more than a century-long onslaught of pollution, deforestation and climate change. Now that is a fish I want to experience. I became determined to explore for potential brookie streams in my town, and began my search up from Concord’s famed North Bridge, along the Sudbury River.
A recent survey found wild brook trout in micro-streams in neighboring Dover, Marlborough and Hudson. Thus, tracking up the Sudbury’s inflowing streams seemed logical. But guess what? I left skunked. My many “expeditions” turned up nothing but pan fish. The streams were too slow, warm or small to support trout.
There were plenty of false alarms as well. Once I found an unmapped spring-fed pond in the heart of Walden Woods. This small, yet gin clear pond maintained the perfect temperature, sported a sandy bottom and a hill on one side. It had a beautiful outflowing stream that snaked through deep, wooded cover down to the Sudbury River. Most importantly, it was relatively far-removed from the labyrinth of trails throughout the woods. I toyed with what I thought were brookies throughout that stream, only to land one and found that they were some sort of fall fish. Concord, it seemed, had no remaining native trout in town. I must confess I had ended my search.
Concord Outfitters is a premiere fly shop that has been a fixture of the community for nearly 20 years. The staff is entirely local fly fishermen armed with immense knowledge. I told an employee with a flawless topographical map stored in his head what I was after. He cited the surveys I heard about, but offered nothing on Concord.
Finally, after over a year of conversations and questions, the fateful day arrived. I had just entered the store on a routine stop, when the employee’s voice called out from behind a fly-tying vice.
“Tom, breaking news! Brookies in Concord…”
My heart started beating out of my chest. I whirled around and addressed the shocking announcement.
“They’re back?!” I asked.
He took a long pull from his steaming coffee and smirked. “They never left.”
Not having the courage to ask where, I began rattling off locations I had explored. Eventually one particular spot piqued his interest.
“A spring pond in Walden Woods?” he asked.
“Yeah, water comes right up from the ground. It has a sandy bottom and a small hill at one end,” I told him. He sighed, chuckled and then shook his head. After a slight pause, he looked directly at me. I remember thinking this must be what death-bed confessions look like.
“Next time you’re out there, check what’s behind the hill.”
I woke up at sunrise the next morning and headed back with my 3-Weight rod. Eventually, through outstretched branches and thin fog, the pond and hill appeared. I trudged up the hill and peered over. There, in all its glory, was a small stream. The water trickled gently right out of the ground at the base of the hill and gradually widened. Tracking the bank of the stream was one of my more powerful and memorable experiences with nature. About halfway down, I found a small pool. After a few moments admiring it, a pair of rises broke the gentle riffle. They are here! I thought. They really are here…
To be perfectly honest, at that point I barely felt compelled to actually catch them. Though I may have thought so initially, finding a new fishing spot was not my payoff. It was the discovery that Eastern Brook Trout are still in places you’d never expect.
Soon after my discovery I stopped into Concord Outfitters. I was eager to share my experience with the man who exposed his secret. Though to my surprise, he was gone. He moved out west just a few days after his big reveal. I wish I had known, so I could bestow a proper thank you. But it helped me recognize that this water needed a new steward. Perhaps this was the message he hoped I’d realize.
I’ve been back to the stream once, early this spring to check in. Never again will I fish this water. I prefer to be a permanent observer. I ask the same of any anglers reading who may know this spot. While this stream represents hope and promise for the future, we are a far cry from where we need to be. I think of the Latin phrase, Sua Sponte, which translates to “it’s of your own accord” or “it’s in your hands.” Each of us affects the wilderness for good or bad. What impact will you make?
Please act in support of localized conservation and restoration. In New England, there are several stellar organizations:
Special thanks to Ted Van Sickle, Alex Ford and Concord Outfitters.
Follow Tom on Instagram @fishatlas