Brookdown Palace- Chasing Brook Trout on the Savage River

River gonna take me, sing me sweet and sleepy

Sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home. ~Grateful Dead

If you’ve never flipped a middle finger to an entire body of water, I can confirm that it’s a satisfying emotion. It’s a powerful gesture to show contempt in such large volumes at once. Screw this whole lake, I’m going home.

In all honesty though, going fishing is usually the goal, and catching fish is just the bonus. Personally, I’m somewhere between professional skunk artist and occasionally showing up right place, right time. I have a rod in both family vehicles at all times. But on certain shores, what I’m doing sometimes would hardly be classified as fishing as much as it is casting and retrieving in the water. If I’m being perfectly honest, I can say that on more than one occasion this year the number of lures I’ve lost was greater than the number of fish I’ve caught. An unavoidable hazard of fishing thin freshwater shorelines lately, at least that’s what I tell myself.

Admittedly, ignorance often plays a part in my forgone skunk conclusion, especially if I’m not necessarily at the shoreline for the fishing opportunity. When I’m researching a new location to visit, the fishing prospects are often an afterthought or more likely a spur of the moment decision once I arrive. “Well, let’s just see what’s here.”

A lack of commitment feeds into these skunks as well though. In these situations, the modus operandi is to toss about 5 casts, shrug my shoulders and come to the scientific conclusion that this body of water is devoid of all life. “You want the chatterbait, you can keep it…It’s not what I’m here for, anyways” I mutter to myself as I walk away.

In most of the Chesapeake, this is all fairly common for me. At this point, summer is winding down, and summer rains and high turbidity make for generally murky water in a lot of the region. it’s easy to assume that there’s not much below the surface (besides endless snags) since we just can’t see it. But some of the water is still clear- if you know where to go.

The clearwater streams of the Savage River in far western Garrett County, MD produce some of the cleanest (and most scenic) forested freshwater I’ve encountered to date. The river system eventually drains down into the Potomac-which makes me partial to it for homebound reasons- and makes its way down into the murkier tidal region. But here in these streams and valleys (can you call ‘em hollers if you’re still in Maryland?), this is about as clear as it gets in Maryland waters.

You’d think it’d be a good thing, and almost across the board you’d be right. But the water clarity also means that you can see the fish you want to catch more often than not. So when you’re an under-accomplished journeyman angler with a noncommittal brook trout staring you in the face, you might just wish for murkier waters.

The clear water in the Savage River streams makes it a prime location for environmental indicator species like hellbenders and stonecats. Several species which are otherwise rare throughout the Chesapeake watershed can be found here in relative abundance. But like most anglers we were here for brook trout. Brookies have been on my fishing list for a while, and as such the Savage River has been on the One Hundred Shores list since the very beginning.

This was one of those right place, right time situations I lucked myself into. We found a nice little hole off from some swift moving water which looked promising. After scouting around for a minute or so, we spotted a fish rising near the opposite bank, and sure enough, a second fish on the near bank holding beneath the surface in shallow water. Clearly visible white lines on its ventral and pectoral fins marked it as our target species, and a decent sized target as well. Normally on the more diminutive end of the trout family, a large brook would be in the 10”+ range. Under the surface at least, this one fit that description.

But you can only throw a lure at a fish lurking beneath the surface so many times before you start hurling insults instead. That quickly fades into the urge to just throw a rock at it and be done. Needless to say, after about 40 minutes of tirelessly throwing different flies, crickets and streamers at these fish, our naïve confidence at landing these fish ended up proving to be misguided.

I guess after all the research into where to find the fish, a little more research into actually landing one would have been helpful. Truth be told, if there’s a brand name on my fly rod, I don’t know what it is. If you’re here for advice, all I can tell you is what doesn’t work. The only strike we managed was- I kid you not- on a saltwater streamer meant for stripers. As I mentioned before, this was one of those shores where we lost more lures than we caught fish.

In the pursuit of optimism though, the afternoon on the Savage River shoreline embodied the exploration that is the life blood of the One Hundred Shores project. Satisfying experiences comes from the exploration and learning that happens when you immerse yourself in discovery, and this was one of those moments. And on a crystal clear stream like the Savage River, any skunk day is as good or better than catching run of the mill white perch or schoolies on the lower Potomac creeks. This far up, you get a sense of how immensely different the various parts of the watershed actually are, while also feeling the connection from one point on the river down to another.

On top of that, this was a shore chosen in pursuit of brook trout, and brook trout is exactly what we found. It’s hard to leave fish when you know fish are there though. So, with the odd feeling of being largely successful while still immensely frustrated, I flipped it one last rude gesture and we made our way back up the bank.