That marked the third time I impaled myself with that counterfeit insect. The tiny hook clad in decorative feather and wire went by the name “Copper John.” I suggested to my guide we could rename it “Bloody John.” My hand was the only creature that succumbed to the hook on this outing.
Nonetheless, my outlook was cheery, like I had a full creel of trout.
My fishing prowess leaves much to be desired, yet I compensate with enthusiasm. Given the high water and muddy conditions, an empty creel was to be expected. Trout country in Iowa is so beautiful in its own right any catch is merely like icing on a cake.
This was my second go at Bear Creek in two weeks. The first attempt was truncated by a surprise bull in the streamside pasture and then a thunderstorm. That was a stream in idyllic form: gently gurgling and gin-clear. The second visit followed days of heavy rain. The tons of topsoil working through that little creek turned it into a veritable torrent of chocolate-looking water.
Although precious, life-giving soil was an unwelcome addition to the stream. The introduced rainbow and brown trout were benign amendments — as long as you don’t solicit the brook trout’s opinion.
All those additions got me wondering about what was missing. The stream’s own namesake has been conspicuously absent for hundreds of years. Is Bear Creek something less without a complementary population of black bears? I for one think so.
I wondered how the stream, its tangled shores, and wooded uplands were changed without bears. Atop the biological pyramid the trophic cascade from bears must be meaningful. Probably not as dramatic as the return of wolves to Yellowstone but still important. Yet their absence from any living memory has left us to normalized the void.
I was at Bear Creek to learn to fly-fish. My casting improved quickly with the personal instruction that could not be duplicated by a book or video. Because of the water conditions I was taught to use the “European” technique of high-sticking dual nymphs (think miniature jigs imitating insects) through a stretch of stream.
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My grandfather’s fishing vest brought no luck in the catching department but I like to believe it helped me in the thinking department. I got to think backward about all the anglers who waded this stream, all the eagles that hunted its waters — near extinction notwithstanding. I felt compelled to think about the present state of erosion, and the cool waters surrounding my middle-aged knees.
I thought ahead, too. Who will fish here after me? Will our society be kind to this place? Will the black bears return to Bear Creek?
My teacher suggested we take our leave from the stream — we had been bested. I promptly disregarded his advice and made one more cast.
Hope is what we anglers and nature lovers cling to, whether it’s for another chance at a fish, for clear-flowing water, or for bruins to return and make more whole the biological web.
I’ll be back to Bear Creek, and soon. Of course I will have trout on my mind, but I’ll also be thinking about what was, and especially of what might be.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
l John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.