The Great Brown of the Millrace Pool
The large pool was quiet, deep and dark. From above the pool, the color of the black water courted transformation; it lightened as it squeezed through the millrace sluice, tumbled brighter over the dam and turned milky as it crashed to engage the rocky bottom. Here it frothed to brilliant white foam before marrying into the darkness of the giant pool. Near its shallow tail beneath a willow overhang, a pair of spawning catfish darted about each other unaware of the menace rising from the depths behind them.
The trout was unusual, a yellowish tan. Innumerable dime-sized, orange spots, each with an areola of black, painted the fish's flanks. Other spots of gold, crimson and amber diminished in size towards the tail and upper body, reducing to dots, then specks of darker hues that finally shaded into the blackness of the trout's ebony back. The uniqueness, though, was not its color, but its size.
As the trout rose, it veered left near the surface. Its great breadth swirled even the swifter water cascading into the Millrace Pool through a sluice in the dam of the ancient gristmill above. The fish made the whirl with jaws agape, surging the cooler water through its gills, absorbing the oxygen of the more turbulent flow. Its course took it towards the tail of the stream's deepest pool. Five yards ahead frolicked the small catfish that would be doomed.
The maws of the enormous trout snapped shut! Its needle teeth ahead of the force sliced through the back and underbelly of the hapless prey, the male catfish. The attack was swift and unsuspected. It came from behind and above and its savagery was deadly. The little fish's life was over, but at the instant of impact, an emission of milt issued from the victim and dispersed into the churned waters of the Connetquot River.
The power of the great fish had pushed the water past an ovulating catfish. Panicked by the event, she darted away, skirted the bank and thrust herself beneath the soft mud, only a few feet away from where the big, brown trout had sounded.
The pool was silent again, save for the rumble of water tumbling into it from the backwaters above the spillway. The great brown, hunger unabated, undulated its three-foot form to surge forward and upward to again stalk the shallows of its domain. The pool was his and he surveyed it with an impunity dictated by his bulk, massive head and sinister hooked jaw.
As the mammoth brown slid through the placid shallows where it had killed the catfish moments before, the great fish fanned its tail to push itself toward the depths of the black pool. The thrust once more disturbed the water. It swirled up traces of milt and carried it to join a cluster of eggs in a turbid mixture. On that April night, the union initiated life.
The gestation period of mud-catfish eggs varies. In late May, with the conditions as they were in the Millrace Pool, the eggs, miraculously fertilized weeks before, began to hatch. Each ovum pulsated into life beneath the ooze of the river bottom, emerged as tiny fry and by early September grew into adult mud-catfish.
The great brown shared his waters with a seven-pound rainbow and several smaller brook trout. None of these ever took a lie in the center of the pool. For their awareness of the big fish, these trout stayed at the very head, the far tail or the more shallow sides of the hole. The big rainbow took a position in direct alignment with the gigantic fish—but reverently, several yards behind.
Sometimes a large fish would have the temerity to take up the coveted spot, but these intruders were transient, only there for a short time, and only in the absence of the great brown trout. Upon his return he did not have to chase these interlopers; merely sidling abreast of these fish sufficed. They would seek a more comfortable lie. This was not necessary for the pool's local denizens; each knew the great fish and witnessed the fate of those not heeding his sovereignty.
Occasionally, huge trout were caught in the Connetquot. One trout, the seven-pound rainbow, had been caught and released in early June. The fisherman who caught it was an old man. For seventy-five years Grenville Lyon was dedicated to his sport. He held a total commitment to the craft; it possessed his waking hours and became a tryst for his dreaming. Though it takes as much luck as it does skill to catch such a fish, few are ever taken by men of less resolve.
The grizzled fisherman who caught the rainbow was a master. Grenville Lyon knew not to rush so large a fish. He made the trout tire itself gradually, gave it time to sulk to lessen its fatigue, and fight afresh.
It was during one of these respites that it happened! The great brown swam up to and lingered near the hooked fish. This afforded the trembling man a look at the two trout side by side. The most enormous fish in the river dwarfed the seven-pound trout, and the old fisherman had never seen one that made his trophy appear so small. The weathered angler had caught trout as large as the rainbow, but he always released them. He recognized that fish so large were old and tested, and he felt they deserved whatever time was left to them.
Grenville Lyon was well known among the regulars who fished the Connetquot. His repute, however, was for never having caught a trout of substantial size.
"Hey old man. Watchya got in yer creel? Six inchers?" boys teased.
"Three," came the reply in a voice warped by age. "Good eatin' though."
The men who knew him were more kind, but not much. "Lyons. Catch a big one today?"
"Nice size rainbow," he stuttered, "Go well over six, I'd say."
"Turn 'im loose again ol' timer?"
Grenville knew disbelief. He simply nodded his head.
"Sure you did old man," came a skeptical remark as they'd watch his smile fade to a misty gaze.
After that day the old man fished the pool frequently, not because he thought he could catch the great fish, but because he hoped he might see the majestic trout one more time. Of those few he told of the colossal trout he saw, none believed him. He was saddened to know that others thought him less than forthright, but he too began to doubt the incredible fish, so he kept the vigil nearly every day. For the rest of the summer he did not see the great brown, nor did he forget it. Even he began to think of the trout as an apparition and dismissed any notion of catching it. The possibility was remote, and he knew it.
One of the first mud-catfish fry to hatch nearly became a meal for a swift brook trout. The fingerling escaped when it dived beneath the muck near the bank where it had hatched. Less fortunate hatchlings became meals. For this, the young catfish population was decimated until only a few remained. These were nearly three inches long, while their frightened brother beneath the mud was nearly one inch larger because of his bold attempts to seek food in a very hazardous place.
The brazen catfish spent little time hiding and it emerged from the mud with negligible heed for that which sent it scurrying. Watchful, it scooted away. It hurried past current changes, tarried near shadows, a protective habit. It darted nearer the bottom and along a sunken bough. Its journey had destination. Finally, the catfish reached it, a very sheltered place where it could watch for food and not fear attack. It was the only spot in the huge pool where the fish could grow to its fullest potential in the shortest time. This shadowed place beneath a vast shroud was where it would always go. It was its secret feeding place, the choicest lane in the entire stream. It was a station that no other fish in the river dared use, except one, its principal owner and landlord, the master fish of the millrace, the great brown! The catfish dared dwell beneath the belly of the behemoth.
As the summer lengthened, so did the daylight hours. The darkness that the big brown loved was less abundant and the fish became more lethargic as the waters warmed. This caused the other inhabitants of the pool to be less cautious, but they still became uneasy whenever the big brown trout wandered. The catfish too would become uneasy. Its concern was not for the presence of the big brown, but for its absence. The nearness of the big fish protected the little one. Except to occasionally take in more oxygen in the faster water, the great brown rarely left his station in daylight. So, the catfish was seldom without his shelter. Nighttime was different. The monster trout prowled regularly then, so after sundown, the catfish had to secure itself elsewhere. The middle of a pool filled with hungry trout was no place for even the most circumspect little fish.
The catfish depended on the brown. The catfish knew that whenever the big shadow drifted off, enemies drifted near. This was not comfortable, so the tiny catfish developed a strategy to avoid it. As the days grew longer, the young fish followed close beneath the big trout wherever it went. The great brown was aware of his little follower, but was loath to chase it away. The big fish tolerated the small one for the five months since they were together; now that the fall approached, they were inseparable. The big fish tolerated this too—but less.
Grenville Lyon knew that when a trout gets to be the size of the great brown it becomes totally nocturnal and nearly impossible to catch. Feeding exclusively at night, it is less vulnerable to the most expert of anglers. The more weight a fish has, the more the rod, reel and line are taxed until the fish's size becomes an indomitable obstacle. The aged angler knew that the advantages all go to the fish, frustrations to the fisherman.
Once, however, an oddity did intervene. The great brown was foul-hooked, snagged by a fisherman's lure. While casting across the current, a novice angler using a large Gray Ghost streamer mended his line upstream. The oversized fly sank deeper into the pool, bumping along the bottom on the opposite side of the great brown trout. As the fisherman retrieved his line, the leader crossed over the trout's head and the sharp hook inadvertently lodged into the brown's gill plate. The sting of the hook shocked the fish, and its recoil of sixteen-pound fury snapped the leader abruptly! The great fish was free, but not unaffected by the ordeal that would ultimately threaten its life.
Two days had passed, followed by a driving October rain since the great brown was hurt, when the old man returned to the Millrace Pool. He had not seen the huge fish since that fateful day months earlier, but he never lost the hope that he might sight the trout again before the season closed. He thought his dream to catch the fish would never be realized, nevertheless he would try each time he visited the intriguing pool.
Alone, he approached the stream. Quietly, slowly, with the patience of age, he slipped his frail frame down the bank and into the chill of his beloved river. He painstakingly edged his way as stealthily as he could to the tail of his favored pool. There he could cast upstream for the advantage of presenting his flies to the fish and the great brown he knew was there. The old-timer could not resist challenging the overwhelming odds. He had seen the fish. He knew the fish. It beckoned him. He obeyed.
At the bottom of the pool, positioned close to the large trout, the catfish was more restive than it had ever been. Its discomfort was not unwarranted. Several times that day the big fish turned and swiped at the small catfish. The great brown had become more irascible of late, and its nasty disposition nearly brought an end to the catfish. The big trout had taken to charging anything of significant size. The cause was the infuriating Gray Ghost stuck in his gill-plate. It had the monster fish in a belligerent mood and every fish in the pool was afraid. The titan's temperament had it charge at every sighting of another fish. The menacing brown was constantly in motion and this did not bode well for his pool mates, the little catfish notwithstanding. It too became a target. The brown's ominous mood had every fish in the millrace on guard and afraid to feed.
The white-haired angler who worked the pool had no way of knowing why his offers were refused by any of the stream's trout. His skills were methodically applied with adroit casts that belied his age, but the frightened trout refused his efforts.
Puzzled not to catch a single fish, Grenville Lyon tried changing lures until he exhausted every pattern in his fly wallet. Finally he took an oversized Muddler from his tattered hat brim. He had put it there to use at the onset of darkness when he knew fish big enough to accept the large fly would start to feed.
A Muddler Minnow fly resembles nothing in particular; it was never tied to resemble a catfish. Its color, however, in the tenebrous water of the Connetquot after a rain, is precisely that of a mud-catfish. When the large fly drifted down to the testy trout, he would attack. The great brown would vent all of his fury on the fly resembling the little fish he grew to disdain. He would finally be fooled. He would strike. He would be hooked.
On the first cast up and slightly across the rapid flow from the gristmill, the Muddler sank; its attitude in the current was perfect for the ill-tempered brown. When he saw the lure, the biggest trout ever to live in the Connetquot River made his move. The ferocious attack of the fish nearly snapped the leader, but the ease of the old angler's experienced hand softened the strike just enough to keep the tippet intact. The #2 hook lodged deeply into the bony jaw, and the fight began.
At first, the fish did not panic. When it felt the hook, it swam immediately for the depths of the pool where it applied a steady force against the resisting line. When it could not realize its freedom, the first issue of fear set into the fish.
The trout made a quick run for the rapids and turned its side to the swift current to enhance its bulk against the steady pull at its jaw. The fisherman was equal to the task; he gave slack when the fish ran and offered none when it hurried toward him. The old man's skill was severely tested, but he adjusted adroitly to give and take line as the fish altered its fight, pressuring the line with the current and then charging the slack. The pool was big, but not big enough to spend the length of the fly line, and now a stronger fear coursed through the fish's body and it made another run and a leap. All was futile. The hook held. Now the trout knew real fear. For the first time in its life it felt panic.
The aged fisherman knew he had hooked a very large fish, but until it jumped he did not realize it was the great brown of his dreams. The old man knew that brown trout don't usually jump, big ones, hardly ever. So when the great brown took to the air the fisherman panicked too.
"How did I fool you great fish?" he cried. "How could I hook you?"
Now that he had done it, his panic was as deeply felt as that of the fish he was fighting. He was terrorized at the thought of losing the great brown of the Millrace Pool. He must win the fight! The old angler concentrated more acutely on every move the fish made, applying pressure when the fish sulked on the bottom and adjusting when it ran. All was working for the man, nothing for the fish. As minutes passed, the man paid more mind to the time. His worry was that the leader might fray if it continued to contact the razor teeth, but here too, he was lucky. The long shank of the big hook held the leader away from the sharp teeth, and the trout had no chance.
Try as it might with flurries of speed, quick twists, strong surges and violent shaking, the great fish could not get free. Slowly, struggle and fear took its toll and the fish began to tire. Gasps for oxygen now preoccupied the fish. The tremendous monarch was humbled and began to give up. Try as it did to keep its equilibrium, the brown's exhaustion began to tilt the fish to its side. This was a sign to the fish and the fisherman that the end was near. For the fisherman, it could not have come any sooner; he too was exhausted. To the fish, dizziness and the need to rest were so overwhelming that its very will for life began to wane. To the fisherman, the sight of the fish turning on its side meant victory, and the love for life waxed within his heart.
To kill so noble a fish was not the man's want, only to catch it. By the time the great brown finally succumbed, floating limply on its side, Grenville Lyon had waded to a grassy bank to sit and rest. The conquered trout was still in the water at the old fisherman's feet. When he extended his shaking, gnarled hand to release the fish, the old man saw the Gray Ghost streamer lodged in the side of the trout's head. He then knew why the fish was caught. With trembling fingers he removed the Ghost. He was about to unhook the Muddler when he looked around the stream to see if anyone witnessed the capture. When he saw no one, he felt the sting of disappointment. Who would ever know he actually had caught the great brown? Who would believe an eccentric old man who spent his life in pursuit of an apparition? For an instant he thought of keeping the fish as a trophy to show what he alone had done. It was an evanescent thought, dismissed as quickly as it had appeared with an urgency to revive the fish.
After removing the hook, he lovingly supported the gasping trout with one hand and affectionately stroked the grand fish with the other. He gently coaxed water through the fish's gills by holding it upright and rocking it to and fro. After a few minutes the trout no longer gasped and the man could feel the strength returning to the fish's body. Finally, with a huge sigh and one more glance around the pool, arthritic hands would allow the trout its freedom. With both hands cradling the vanquished, the old victor gingerly pushed the magnificent fish forward and released his grasp. With tear filled eyes he watched in amazement as the fish undulated to make a turn back toward him as if to bid farewell. Then the big trout turned again and the old-timer admired the great brown of the Connetquot as it slowly swam away towards the depths of the Millrace Pool.
Late that night the Millrace Pool was quiet again. In its darkest depths lay the great fish—alone. The catfish, now relocated near the pool's shallow tail beneath a willow overhang, was darting around a smaller mud-catfish, an egg-laden female. The two mud-catfish frolicked about. They were unaware of the menace slowly rising from the depths behind them, the great brown of the Millrace Pool.