Field Notes Featurette
The trail to Parched Corn Creek drops through the woods like a freefall so that the trees tower with surprising dominance. So rich is the solitude that when you finally reach the stream, you’re a tad surprised to discover such a bubbly, noisy little thing cutting through the basement of the woods.
Although drinking from the creek is not advised, the gurgling stream is as clear as the water that pours from your kitchen tap. It has to be. Brook trout live here; their mere presence a testament that you are amid some of the most pristine natural surroundings Kentucky has to offer.
Brook trout are finicky and fragile and have no tolerance for soiled surroundings. Water must be clear, clean and cold—anything warmer than the mid-60s and the fish generally won’t survive. Mud, silt and pollutants are killers, along with heavy-handed pressure from predators, including fishermen. Consequently, their surroundings can seem almost paradise-like, infused with Garden of Edenishness. When it comes to aesthetics, all trout know where to live, but brook trout get the penthouse suite.
A brook trout—which actually isn’t a trout but a char—has a color and bearing that suggest aquatic royalty. To say they are pretty is like saying Niagara Falls is noisy—accurate but woefully inadequate. Were it possible to grab a piece of a rainbow and drop it into a sunlit stream, and then add a sprinkling of gold dust and a pinch of silver, the result might reflect a brook trout. They are simply splendid creatures.
Sunlight pierces the October woods in arrow-like shafts. From a safety standpoint, it’s probably foolish to be here alone, where a minor injury or mishap could have troubling consequences. From a fishing viewpoint, however, it’s idyllic. I condone this potentially reckless behavior by telling myself that those not willing to assume a little risk should stay out of the woods.
I follow the creek downstream to where it bends against a rock shelf to form a small pool. The opaque surface hints that the pool is deeper than one might guess. I decide on a No. 16 Royal Wulff. This is a dry fly about the size of a pinky fingernail. It resembles no specific insect but is surprisingly effective. I like to use it because the fluffy white wings are easy to see, especially when fishing in shadows.
This spot is so small I’m not really casting but standing aside and dropping the fly onto the water with enough loose line that it drifts freely with the current, skirting the rock ledge, and then swinging into the pool.
A third time.
On the fourth drift, just as the current begins to carry the fly away from the rock shelf and into the pool, the water dimples and the willow switch-size rod springs to life.
There is scant evidence that brook trout were ever native to Kentucky, but there is really no evidence that they weren’t. Their historic range extended from the near the Arctic southward to along the Appalachian spine into what is today northern Georgia.
Today, Kentucky has six designated brook trout streams, each carefully managed by the state game agency: Bad Branch and Poor Fork in Letcher County, Dog Fork and Parched Corn Creek in Wolfe County, Martins Fork in Bell and Harlan counties, and Shillalah Creek in Bell County. Bad Branch is closed to fishing, and angling is prohibited on sections of Martins Fork and Shillalah Creek. Restrictions are otherwise strict and stringent. Bait is off limits in all but a few areas, and all brook trout must be released. Details are at fw.ky.gov.
The state game folks consider Kentucky’s brook trout “wild” fish, and they are, being stream-bred descendants of brookies that were reintroduced 40-odd years ago. The state’s six designated brook trout streams have not been stocked in years. Brook trout were recently introduced into the Cumberland River tailwater, where no one expects natural reproduction to take hold.
Brook trout are spirited fighters but rarely jump. This fish plunges for the safety of the rock ledge but soon wallows to the surface and then erupts with a burst of splashing frenzy that leaves creek droplets on my eyeglasses. About 9 inches long, radiant in a sliver of afternoon sunshine, worm markings along its back that fade to iridescent spotted flanks. The distinctive squared tail.
A wild fish from a wild place.
Readers may contact Gary Garth at email@example.com