My Favorite Book on Brook Trout

My Favorite Book on Brook Trout

One man's lyrical obsession with brook trout

  • By: James Prosek
Dr. John D. Quakenbos is the high romantic of the brook trout. His unromantically titled book, The Geological Ancestors of the Brook Trout, 50 sparse pages "read at a regular meeting of the Anglers' Club of New York, Hotel Navarre, March 9th, 1915," is an elegy, a pastoral fantasy and an amateur natural history all wrapped into one. Three hundred and fifty copies of the book were published by the Anglers' Club (it was the club's first publication) with a quotation from Tennyson's poem, "The Brook," printed in gilt on the green leather cover: I wind about and in and out With here a blossom sailing And here and there a lusty trout And here and there a grayling Before I owned a copy of the book, I visited one in Yale's Mudd Library while an undergraduate.It was not in good condition, but they allowed me to make a photocopy of it (maybe I didn't ask permission; I can't remember), which I bound and kept for my own use. I had that photocopy for about three years before I was given my own copy by Tony Lyons, of The Lyons Press. I assume it had once belonged to Tony's dad, legendary angling editor Nick Lyons, but I am not sure of its provenance before that. Tony had it re-bound for me in forest-green cloth, and it looks very nice. Besides Quakenbos' signature, there is an inscription in billowy cursive in the author's hand: "Yours for the joy of living under the forest boughs, April 25, 1916." Though the prose is poetic, you want to believe the fantasy it creates. For instance, speaking of the angler, Quakenbos says: "He naturally informs himself also regarding the plant life associated with his sport, the pink and snowy chequer of the spring; the mosses, and fungi and ferns; the rose purple fire weeds, blue gentians, cardinal clusters, and silvery clematis tangles of the summer; the waxy stems of Indian pipe nodding their corpse-white flowers over the roots on which they feed, and orchid beauties that tessellate the forest floor or hide their blooming wonders in the wannish-gray light of the fens." But I get it, because I too have been obsessed with a small char commonly known as the brook trout, as well the places they inhabit. Quakenbos summered on Sunapee Lake in New Hampshire, and besides catching brook trout in nearby streams he caught and admired the native char of the lake, the Sunapee, which is a close relative of the brook trout. His description of its spawning habits, for me, is one of the most absurdly beautiful passages in angling literature: "As the pairing-time approaches, the Sunapee fish becomes resplendent with the flushes of maturing passion. The steel green mantle of the back and shoulders now seems to dissolve into a dreamy bloom of amethyst through which the daffodil spots of midsummer blaze out in points of flame, while below the lateral line all is dazzling orange. The fins catch the tones of the adjacent parts, and pectoral, ventral, anal, and lower lobe of the caudal are striped with a snowy white band. There are conspicuous differences in intensity of general coloration, and the gaudy dyes of the milter are tempered in the spawner to a creamy white or olive chrome, with spots of orient opal. The wedding garment nature has given to this char is indeed agleam with heavenly alchemy." Did the brook trout and its ancestors somehow reflect Quakenbos' own wish to be beautiful, live in cold, clear lakes and streams, spawn over gravel and stone, swim and eat? Judging by the author photo in the book, in which he holds his pocket watch and wears a black tie and a big white mustache like a frozen waterfall, the man was not so simple, perhaps. But for some reason he loved this fish, the brook trout. "Can we wonder," he asks, "that the brook trout is the one perfect fish in all the world? God be praised that he had the good taste to abandon in the course of his evolution the lacustrine depths where we never should have known him, and give his life to the riffles that chatter through the enameled champaign and to the stately flow of the silent river under the demitints of the soundless forest." And since there are no reprints of the book (except for my photocopy), and only 350 copies floating around, I will leave you with Quakenbos' conclusion, which mirrors my own romantic urgings so well I won't attempt to write my own: "And last is our transcendent beauty, the Angel of the Brooks, among all the fishes the Lord Paramount of our affection, the brook trout. It has taken millions of years at the hands of the Divine Artificer to bring to its present perfection the finished product. In our comprehending admiration of it, we are indeed carried into the very presence of the God who fashioned it in the aeonic march of events-the God who kindles and extinguishes suns and constellations. "When I was a lad of eleven, good old Dominie Fowler of Monticello introduced this fish to me. I was captivated. I lost my heart then and there, and never, in the long years of my life, have I felt impelled to ask the object of my passion to return it."