Trout Leanings

[a guest column by Lorne Fitch]

Like stalking a deer, my approach to the pool was slow and stealthy. The mountains forming the valley and the stream had an ancient quality to them and yet as I threaded my way through the willow, spruce and alder, they appeared new and fresh to me. As I peeked over a downed spruce log into the pool, a trout—the trout—aligned itself, nose into the current, the equivalent of a magnetic compass bearing.

Easing myself into the run at the end of the pool I was instantly aware of the force of the current. Unlike a sleek trout I felt more like a piece of plywood oriented perpendicular to the flow and as manoeuvrable. By comparison the trout kept its position with effortless undulations of its tail, almost heedless of the current. 

Water is denser by multiple times than air and is thus foreign territory to us air-breathers.  Being transported to Jupiter where the pressure of the overlying atmosphere and the force of gravity is greater than Earth’s might provide a comparative, crushing feeling of the aqueous atmosphere of trout habitat. It was in this wet crucible that trout took their forms, forged in a dense medium tumbling with the force of gravity, ever downward.

If trout were airplanes, they would be of the needle-nosed, svelte, ultra-maneuverable and fast, fighter jet variety. The tail is the equivalent of the jet engine, offering propulsion on demand as well as serving as a rudder. As the trout is propelled forward the dorsal fin prevents it from rolling and yawing. Twined pectoral fins prevent rolling and pitching, help the fish to turn and provide braking power combined with the paired pelvic fins. As a drag-racer, a trout’s 0 to 60 acceleration rate would be breathtaking, as is the ability to turn on a watery dime. 

The patterns on the backs and sides of trout, the blushes of color, the artful array of brilliant spots are maps of a world at its beginnings, amidst mountain building, glaciation and violent weather events. They, their kin and their ancestors were able to adapt to an environment of dramatic change, of chaos and of stunning variability. Trout have an ecological taproot thousands upon thousands of years old that anchors them to a landscape. To have survived so much, they are now at risk of having their essential landscape anchors swept away in an orgy of accelerating human land use desires. 

Trout are the oracles of their watersheds. Their presence, distribution, abundance and population viability provide both a wise and an insightful counsel, and a report card on our stewardship of watersheds. These same properties and the trends in them are also prophetic predictors of an impoverished future if we do not heed the silent messages from the trout.

Oblivious to me and the human world, the trout slipped silently under a root wad and remained there with only an occasional flick of a pectoral fin. From above it almost disappeared from view, intricately camouflaged from an avian predator. A grasshopper failed to make a leap landward, falling short onto the surface of the pool. The ripples spread out from its struggles, telegraphing to the trout that something of interest had landed.

From its lair amidst the roots the trout rose slowly. I assumed it was to get the trigonometry right—distance, vector and differential velocities. Calculations completed, then the muscular tail drove the trout upward. Mouth open, like the maw from hell, the grasshopper disappeared into the void. The trout continued skyward, escaping into another medium momentarily, until burst speed was overcome by gravity.

With a mighty splash the trout slapped the pool surface and darted into a rock cleft, out of the current. In due time the grasshopper would become trout flesh, trout energy, trout memory.

Time passed and an aspen leaf floated by, under the vigilant stare of the trout. Not a food item, not yet, but in the fullness of time as the shredders dismantled it, the leaf would have become the fuel for a caddisfly or a mayfly and them for a stonefly, all definitely trout food units.

This trout was large enough to have survived mergansers, kingfishers, osprey, mink and maybe even river otters. Beyond a certain size the risk of being something else’s dinner declines. It sat on the bottom of a pool with only two motivations—food and seasonal sex.

In the cold water of that mountain stream, with winter ice cover persisting for months, metabolism slows, as does growth. The combination lent itself to a long life span for a survivor of juvenile times. This trout, I reckoned, must have been an octogenarian in trout years.

Another grasshopper floated on the pool’s surface. It had a different shape and drifted somewhat erratically, like another trout had taken an unsuccessful bite at it. An easy meal is never something to be ignored, so the trout rose again slowly to mid-pool depth to reconnoitre. There it stopped for a moment,  pausing, ever so attentive to danger. You don’t get big and old by being neglectful of caution. Sensing no danger it accelerated and hit the grasshopper with full bore enthusiasm.

But after another skyward orbit the trout found itself attached to, impaled at the end of an almost invisible monofilament line, unable to break free. The grasshopper was a fake, an artful rendition of the real thing, with a sharp hook hidden amidst the wrapping of the fly. I admired the trout in my grasp—sleek, muscular and torsional. It was like hanging onto a writhing, greased and decompressing coil spring.

After having escaped many predators and enduring floods, drought, a forest fire in the watershed and sediment from logging clearcuts and roads, the trout had fallen prey to a two-legged predator. Later that evening I ate the trout and just as the grasshopper had become part of the trout, the trout became part of me. As the stream flowed through the trout, it then flowed through me, binding and bonding me to both.

No longer do I kill native trout, whose range along the Eastern Slopes has shrunk, populations have cratered, and all species are imperilled, by whatever the scientific designation might be. I also cannot bear the thought of killing a trout, however inadvertently, with catch and release. Admittedly, I relax this principle for catching (and eating) non-native trout, many of which compete with their native cousins.

That does not stop me from walking beside or wading in a stream, seeing the surface shimmer and dimple with the energy of the current, hoping to see a trout rise to break the surface tension. In that is enough joy, without the feeling of the tug of a trout at the end of a line. Although I miss the contest of angling in streams with wild, native trout, I realize that if catching fish is the only objective, you miss so much more of what is arrayed around you.

I still find I can make an association with trout, be continually inspired, by observing them in the riffles, beneath the overhanging banks, tucked into root masses and in the pools of crystal clear water. The way trout orient themselves, how they both resist and work with the current, their tenacity in the face of many odds, gives them a grace humbling to observe. 

It is in those wooded glens and valleys, the quiet beaver ponds, places with the backbone of the Earth exposed, where native trout still swim, that one is reminded of things older than man, of mystery and of humility. 

Trout are the embodiment of all of the elements of a stream and its watershed, writ large by their presence. They are creatures that once lost, cannot be put back together again. Cannot be made right, populations restored, even with the wealth of a thousand mines.

Taxonomists place trout in rigid pigeon-holes of the standard, Linnaean scientific classification. But there are some creatures so emblematic of their environments they might be placed in separate categories—based on uniqueness, symbolism and connectedness. For me, a biologist and an angler, trout occupy a separate place, one of the heart.

February, 2022

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired provincial Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct professor with the University of Calgary.

Valentines Wheat

Farmers grow wheat to feed the world, or at least that’s the way I hear it.  So it must be frustrating when they see bushels of the stuff dumped at highway verges where the roads lead up into the mountains, or spilled along the railway tracks where bears, deer and pigeons gather daily to glean the squandered wealth.  There’s something wrong with a farm-to-markets transportation system that tolerates so much wastage.  If farmers had to wait until the grain reached tidewater before being paid for what arrives, one can’t help suspecting the system would get fixed in a hurry.

I can only assume that those truckers dump grain in order to lighten their loads before they head up over the mountain passes. Apparently they get paid regardless of ultimately arriving with less in the hoppers than when they set out.  It doesn’t make much sense, but the ravens and rosy finches are okay with it.

And, to some extent, so am I.

At Gail’s request, a couple years ago, I threw a shovel and an empty cardboard box into the back of our vehicle and started watching for grain piles. Coming home from the cabin one evening I saw the telltale golden mounds at a pullout on Scott’s Lake Hill.  The wheat was fresh and dry, so I got out the shovel, loaded a few kilograms into the box and took my harvest home.

In our home, we live with the heat turned down to reduce our fuel consumption.  We spend a lot of time sitting under blankets, nostalgic for the warmth we enjoyed in our more profligate and less responsible youth.  So we cheat a little. Gail sewed some bags, filled them with the wheat I’d salvaged, sewed them shut, and they became magic bags — throw one in the microwave for a couple minutes and it warms you for an hour, wrapped around feet or under a blanket.  The grain inside may not be feeding the world, but at least it helps keep the chill at bay.

We’re an old couple now; no getting around that. Gail has gotten brittle; I’ve gotten stiff. We make strange, often-embarrassing, sounds and mutter a lot about aches and pains. Things we did and took for granted when we first met just aren’t on the menu any more. But the relationship, like the years, goes on.  This winter has been especially challenging, isolated yet again by a virus that seems likely never to go away, further isolated by one of Gail’s brittle bones having snapped when she fell in front of the mail box, and by the icy sidewalks that seem to be more a feature of winter than ever before.  Maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s just that we notice things differently when we age.  Whatever: we seem to be trapped indoors more often than we used to be.

The other day Gail was working on her weaving and it occurred to me that she must be kind of cold up there.  Her weaving room heats up nicely on sunny days but cools off way too fast on cloudy ones, and this was a cloudy one.  I popped one of her magic bags into the microwave and when it was done I took it up to her.  She gave me a grateful smile as I handed it to her: something she hadn’t expected. 

Later that evening, as I quietly cursed my cold feet — another feature of the aging process —after having gone to bed, Gail came in and tucked a magic bag under the covers for me.  Equally unexpected, and no less appreciated.

And that’s what it’s come to. Love evolves over time from the tireless passion of those early years, to the shared worries and joys of raising kids together, to the rekindled adventures of late middle age when the nest has emptied and the world beckons… to now, when a bag full of wheat can be enough to put that glowing ache back into the deep centre of one’s chest that reminds you of why, all those years ago when you said “I do,” it was actually the most brilliant thing you ever said.  Winter is cold and claustrophobic and there really isn’t much to talk about from one day to the next, but that magic bag says everything that matters because it was brought to you in kindness by the one person who thinks about you, and cares enough, to have made that effort. A small effort, but quietly huge.

I’d prefer more wild prairie and fewer grain fields.  If we have to have grain fields, I’d prefer to see that grain go to feed people who need it.  But even what’s wasted on the roadside can still have value.  Sometimes it can become part of the way old couples say, “I love you.”