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The Magic Trout Fountain

Jeff at the Magic Trout Fountain.
Jeff at the Magic Trout Fountain.

Every year the state of Virginia stocks more that 1.2 million catchable size trout into 180 streams and lakes.

According the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries official webpage, there are five cold water hatcheries that raise rainbow, brown, and brook trout that provide millions of hours of recreation for anglers all over our commonwealth. The Paint Bank hatchery is just a short drive from Roanoke and a great place to take kids for a visit.

But I have a confession to make.

I’ve never caught a single Virginia trout. Truth is, I’ve never even tried to catch one. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve got a thing against stocked trout. I know it’s wrong and it doesn’t make sense. I realize that these are perfectly good fish that I should be happy to catch; but somewhere along the way I developed a irrational bias against them. It doesn’t make sense, because I grew up fishing for stocked trout.

My brother and I would get up before dawn and peddled our bikes to small ponds and narrow streams where the state had dumped thousands of fish the night before. Fiberglass rods with closed faced reels lashed across handlebars. Canvas packs stuffed with gear we pinched from our dad’s tackle box, and mustard covered liverwurst sandwiches our mom had made the night before. We carried globs of soft cheese and a can of corn to bait our barbed hooks; every semi-urban fisherman knows that stocked trout feast on processed food that taste like the pelletized gruel they were slopped with at the hatchery.

On opening morning we stood shoulder to shoulder with other fisherman anxiously waiting for the hour to arrive. Then all at once, the air was filled with the sound of misty water being punctured by the sound of lead shot being cast in all directions. Soon fish were being strung on stringers and being slipped into creels less than twenty-four hours after their release.

It was not too many years later that I caught my first native born trout. The occasion was a poorly planned camping trip when my buddies and I ran out of food on the first night of our two night trip. We made a poor child’s supper of crayfish and a few native brook trout I was able to pull out of a pond in the Adirondack’s. It was simple fare to be sure, but the taste of that orange meat and the day-glow colors began to exercise an influence over me.

In my last column I shared about fishing in the Wyoming high country. Another thing happened up there, something we stumbled upon that has furthered my indifference for hatchery grown trout.

My son-in-law Joe and I were prospecting for brook trout along a stream with steep sage brush escarpments on both sides. We climbed down to a section of the stream that was blocked by two large beaver dams. He caught a nice one almost immediately in the upper section, but I was having no luck on the lower section, and decided to explore the water beneath the dam.

Making my way through the willows I came to a shallow pool at the base of the dam and stood next to a three or four foot deep cut where the tail waters flowed. Almost immediately I noticed the water was full of fish, dozens of trout were darting into the bathtub sized channel at my feet. Shocked by what I saw, I knelt down and peered into the current. I didn’t see dozens of trout. I saw hundreds.

The trout were packed together like sardines in the bubbles. There would be a flash of color as they changed lanes in the current. I put away the fly pole and baited a spinning rod with a small piece of worm. The first fish to come out was a nice brookie. The second was a small cut throat. I called to Joe who came scrambling along the steep edges of the ponds to see what I was yelling about.

Wonderment, bemusement.  Call it what you will. The discovery of this mother-load of native trout spun me back to hatchery field trips when biology teachers explained the facts of fertilization to the rest of the class while I gazed into the concrete tanks and dreamt about fishing in a place where trout were shoulder to shoulder.

I know it’s hard to believe that more than a hundred trout could squeeze themselves into such a small place. It’s why we made a video of it with a phone, and took our local friend up there after he asked me if I was fibbing about the place Joe dubbed the magic trout fountain. A prodigal place where we could catch a glimpse of America before we came here.

One of these days I’m going to catch one of our state’s stocked trout. But until then I think I’ll be dreaming of all those native fish swirling by the hundreds in that brook.

Jeff Ell is a pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s is the author of Ruth Uncensored and blogs at pastorjeffell.com.

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