Looking up at the hemlocks, one would never guess that
they are dying. These trees, many over seventy feet tall,
are plagued by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an exotic pest
infesting many hemlock stands throughout the East Coast.
I suppose I should be grateful that it has been a slow
process, each season a few more trees falling to the forest
loor, others losing their needles. The shade cast by this
forest insures that the temperature of the little stream
that runs through it remains cool. Even in high summer there
are beads of water on the rocks and lichen.
The raucous sound of the current grows louder as my wading
boots leave indentations in the thick layer of moss that
has spread across the bank of the brook. I can almost grab
the humidity with my hand.
These waters have not been stocked since the early
nineteen-eighties. Since then, the descendents of those
dull-witted, hatchery-bred fish have developed into a strain
of cagey, wild brook trout, their sides a riot of blue and
yellow circles, some with blood red dots in the center.
The fish of the little stream lack the lighter hues found in
brookies of other waters. Instead, their backs are uniformly
black. I like to think that it is because they spend their
hidden lives under the shadows of the hemlock forest. I know
they are doomed to perish without the dense shade provided by
the trees, the stream no longer able to maintain the lower
temperatures necessary for their survival. It is just a matter
Standing here in the uncertain light, my calves resist the pull
of the current. I flip a Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear wet fly, its
tinsel worn, body ragged, toward a small glide along the edge
of the far bank. For a moment the fly bobs on the surface. A
flash of jaw appears and I can feel hook bite sinew, but then
the trout is gone, my line slack.
The stream slips nearly unnoticed into the Delaware River,
only seven miles long from its primary source, a small pond
found along a ridge of the Kittatinny Mountains. The blueberry
bushes that spread down to the water's edge make it difficult
to hike around the pond's shoreline. Farther back, scrub oak,
white pine and Norwegian spruce have grown close together.
Although gnats, black flies and mosquitoes are considered a
bother, it's the ticks that can be a real worry. Rumor has
it that the rattlesnakes here are as big as your fear will
The brook descends from the pond for a short distance, its
depth no more than inches, sliding around boulders lush with
moss until it passes under a single-lane macadam road. A few
hundred yards downstream a second, smaller rill trickles down
out of the east to join it. A quarter-mile from the road,
runoff from the hills that rise up along the brook's western
flank descends through a ravine, adding more volume whenever
it rains. As the gradient increases, riffles are interspersed
with plunge pools that are formed wherever the current slices
around or over larger rocks, fallen limbs and other debris.
The depth in some places is now two and even three feet.
I am an angler, a fly fisher to be more specific, and so I have
always had a fondness for moving water, can't help but look over
each bridge I cross, stop by every rivulet, gully or ditch. Most
fishermen might not think of casting their lures here, preferring
the certainty of bigger fish in the many put-and-take rivers and
lakes that are within a few minutes' drive. But I have discovered
a secret under the deep shade of the hemlocks, something more
than bracken and bone. Beyond the mid point of my own life's
journey, I have found that I can lie suspended in place and time,
however briefly, with yesterday forgotten, tomorrow of no concern.
It is for this reason, that these woods, this stream draws me back
to cast my flies to forgotten trout for as long as a dying forest
will cast its shadows.
I climb from the brook and lean on a hemlock. The trunk is
strong although many of the tree's needles have turned gray.
A few feet downstream, a fingerling turns to capture a caddis
larva dislodged by my wading boot.
~ Robert J. Romano, Jr.
First Published in New Jersey Federated Sportsmen News