This single word brought more excitement to me while I was a teenager than just about any other. Natives meant brook trout, our state fish. But why does this fish build such excitement?
Native brookies are dinky. Natives of this era are usually sardine-sized trout found in small waters. A native of eight inches in length is a bruiser in most waters, a real monster given trophy status.
But, brook trout ten inches long or longer are regularly caught in Pennsylvania waters. True, but these aren’t natives in the sense of stream-bred fish. These bigger brookies are raised in hatcheries and stocked. To me, a true native in Pennsylvania is a naturally occuring, stream-bred brook trout.
Why would anyone want to seek out miniature versions of what the state stocks?
A native displays colors like jewels. The purples, reds, oranges, blacks and contrasting whites of a native pop and dazzle the eyes. The color scheme of a native is the most beautiful in our waters. And befitting of such a spectacular display, the saturated colors on a native can only be seen on a fresh-caught, living speciman. The colors mute and fade upon death. This is a fish to be observed only when freshly hoisted from its home. After the momentary appreciation for the catch, it needs returned to the water to continue its status as a living jewel.
Much of the excitement for fishing for natives can be attributed to the environment in which they are found. These fish thrive in smaller headwaters – brooks and runs, many only feet across. These tumbling brooks cascade down mountains. Much of the brooks’ banks are lined with mountain laurel and hemlocks. Any angler exploring these rivulets can expect to see a whitetail deer. These mountains are their habitat, too. On occasion, just as you are mesmerized by the solitude, your heart pushes up toward your eyes as a ruffed grouse rockets from a nearby bush.
The native is our state fish, the whitetail our state animal, the grouse our state bird, mountain laurel our state flower, and hemlock our state tree. They all join in a common habitat in our mountains. How tremendous is that!
Many of my excursions seeking natives yielded small numbers of fish. The small, shallow, clear waters produce a very sensitive and spooky fish. Natives, while generally very gullible, bring skittishness to a new level. It can be very difficult to approach and make a soft presentation. A shadow from your head, a flash of sunlight off your rod, or one step taken too firmly on the ground will send every native in the pool darting under a rock or log. Fishing for natives is not a practice of fanciful casts and working large tracts of water. Rather, one stalks along the bank making pothole presentations.
I’ve caught gorgeous natives too beautiful for a photo to capture. The native trout itself is the focal point of the trek. Just as the eye of the storm is the focal point of a much larger system, the native is the focal point of the mountain experience. I’ve already mentioned the deer, grouse, hemlock and mountain laurel. Amongst these, the mountains have a cool air flow even on the hottest of days. Sometimes clouds settle to form a thick fog, giving a ghostly appearance to the entire area. At other times blinding rays of light stab down toward the rippling currents, bouncing off waxy laurel leaves.
Exploring a mountain stream and breathing deeply of the fresh air exhilarates the soul. I feel sorry for the non-fishermen who never seek natives, who pound on asphalt and breath the shimmering heat vapors the tar spews upward. Nothing compares to the awing cathedral deep in our Pennsylvania mountains – the natural environment of shading hemlocks, sparkling waters, and our dainty natives bedazzled with every color of the rainbow.
I charge you, before summer’s end, to ferret out a small native brook trout stream and explore its length. It’s healthy for your body. It’s healthy for your soul.
Soak up the mountain environment. You will soon find yourself mesmerized by that one exciting word.
While any mountain run may have a population of natives, a good starting point is to check the Wilderness Trout Streams listed by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.