All my life I have been fascinated by culverts. There is something about them, not from a civil engineering perspective but from a fisherman’s standpoint, that inspires the imagination and fuels a vague optimism that despite all the rapid changes taking place in our landscape, there was still a faint glimmer of hope that life could sometimes flourish in the unlikeliest of places. Since early childhood, creeks have always played an important role in my streamside education where it was quickly learned that brook trout, the gleaming jewels of these bodies of water, only thrived in the most pristine and beautiful places where the water flowed cold and clear and clean from the hills. From beneath the logs and stones that cluttered these little creeks, dark shadows would quickly dart out into the current to hit your fly or worm and then just as quickly, return to the safety of cover. Sometimes the creeks ran under the gravel road through a stone or steel culvert, spilling into deep pools that formed beneath that often harbored large schools of trout. Culvert pools were veritable magnets to trout in the summer for they offered cold and deep water that remained well oxygenated throughout the entire year and held an abundance of food. All in all, a perfect micro habitat for trout to reside although admittedly, not all culverts were created equally, nor do they all hold fish. A good culvert, in my estimation, would usually hold a dozen or so trout.
One of my favorite culverts is located up North in the Laurentians mountains where my childhood friend Marco had an uncle who owned a summer cottage somewhere on a large lake near L’Annonciation. We spent many countless summer days exploring the surrounding countryside, fishing creeks and their headwater lakes in the mountains, undertaking many futile prospecting expeditions that required arduous portages with either canoe or inflatable boat in our relentless pursuit of brook trout. We were young and eager and followed the time-tested catechism of brook trout fishing which, simply stated, was that if the water was not easily accessible and didn’t involve suffering of biblical proportions, plagued by black flies and mosquitoes and tenuous treks through muskeg and swamps and involving a degree of physical agony theretofore only suffered by the early Voyagers who were the first to discover this country – it was not worth trying to get to. For brook trout only lived in the wildest and most beautiful places, away from civilization and people, and conditions needed to be exactly right for them to survive. But despite our immature fits of trout induced sadomasochism, which saw us driving down every dirt road we came across in our attempt to discover new frontiers and the promise of undiscovered waters, we also happened to stumble upon the unlikely fact that sometimes the shortest path to trout was often the one of least resistance that virtually lay right at the side of the road, in the undistinguished form of a culvert.
It was a hot summer day and we were hopelessly lost, as usual, short on gas yet high on hopes, and we had pulled over to the shoulder of the road to study a map and assess our relative position vis-a-vis the nearest trout lake holding suicidal fish. Off to the side of the gravel road, coming from the middle of nowhere, through the thick brush and bramble and warble of songbirds in the trees, we overheard the hush of a slight trickle, faint yet certain, almost as if somebody had left a faucet running in the kitchen. At first, we thought our minds were playing tricks on us but a closer inspection of our surroundings revealed that there was indeed a trickle running through the ditch on the other side of the road. Not large enough by any standard to be confused with a creek or brook, but much smaller, perhaps best described as a rill; for it was merely a three-foot wide swath of shallow water that barely cascaded a few inches over some pebbles and stones for about fifty feet before suddenly disappearing under the road. We crossed over to the other side, scaled its muddy bank, and suddenly descended into a magical world of darkness where it was cool and humid, musty with the smell of wet earth and shaded from all sunlight by the massive maple and oak trees that stood guard. A thick carpet of moss carpeted the forest floor and tall rhododendrons and ferns rose luridly from the humid earth. We were immediately drawn to the faint sound of water. A small corrugated steel pipe of around three feet in diameter jutted out from the bank like a broken tap and spilled its contents into a small and well-rounded pool of crystal clear water. The basin that had formed beneath, eroded by countless years of run-off water, was a few feet deep and the size of a bathtub that barely had enough overflow to trickle through the large boulders stationed at its tail out, into another nanocreek that trickled into a lake further below. But more incredibly, a few large shadows flitted about the pool, sending us scurrying back to the truck for our rods. On the first cast the water erupted and we soon hoisted a huge brookie from the basin. It was close to fourteen inches, a gleaming bar of orange across its ivory belly, speckled with lilac and red spots along its flanks and a vermiculated olive markings along its back, creek camouflage from overhead predators. It was a huge fish for this size creek, despite its small size compared to its brethren in lakes or larger rivers, fully matured in every physical way, including the small kype indicating it was a male and the fine white lines on the caudal fins, maybe a six year old fish. We marvelled at the brilliance of its colors as it flopped around on the wet ground. We decided it would make an excellent supper and tossed it in our creel, continuing to fish the basin and getting a fish on every cast, until we finally limited out at ten apiece. It had taken us less than fifteen minutes to fill our quota for the day with the added bonus that and there was no suffering involved and we would not go to bed hungry.
This secret culvert became our go to place whenever we got skunked elsewhere and really wanted to eat fresh trout for supper. For years we continued to fish this place and it always produced the same miraculous results. It became known as the trout tub. No matter what changes were occurring to the surrounding landscape, the trout tub below the culvert remained a guarded secret and very few people even knew of its existence, although many drove right over it. As we grew older we lost touch with each other and rarely visited our secret creek. It became an afterthought, often when found travelling alone through the area coming home from more distant waters. But curiosity and the bet of a sure thing always got the best of me, and every so often would take the side road off the highway to go check in on my little creek and say hello to the trout and see if all was still well in their world. If they were there, and they always were, it was a reassurance that nature was still holding her own, as their existence was the best barometer of the creeks overall health.
It had been over a decade since my last visit to the creek until recently, when both schedule and circumstances allowed me to roam across the places of my youth, still hopelessly in search of trout, or rather, the beautiful ideal of what they represented in my mind, a perfect fish that lived only the wildest of places yet to be touched by the hand of man. But change, so relentless and constant in its sometimes blind march towards progress, had finally reached my little creek. The gravel road whose dusty passage led to the foothills had now been gussied up in a dark suit of asphalt that was both ill-fitted and looked slightly out-of-place, like a man in a cheap tuxedo attending a country fair. A few designer homes had sprouted up like weeds along the roadside, a sure sign the neighborhood was going to hell. It was surreal, disheartening, and maddening. There was also a brand new no parking sign posted next to the road. How dare they?
With heavy heart, braced for bad news, taking a deep breath like the kind you take when the police or a doctor calls in the middle of the night, I stumbled down the bank to survey the inevitable damage left by the road work. Surprisingly, the trees had been spared and still stood their ground, their voluminous branches continuing to shelter the area from sunlight. The original steel pipe had been replaced by another, the new one slightly wider but the basin below its trickle still remained intact as somehow the workers, perhaps through conscientious design, managed to delicately work around it and avoided allowing earth to fill in the hole. Everything looked exactly the same as it always did, except that the precipitous rocky bank along the road had been tarred and covered by some sort of geotextile to prevent further erosion. The first cast into the dark basin produced one of the most beautiful trout I had ever seen. Its colors were so perfect, so vivid, a vibrant work of living art that wriggled between my fingers. But it was more than that. It represented a victory for mother nature, however small and slippery its form. Like a proverbial canary in the coal mine, its simple existence proved that all was still well in my secret trout tub, that its waters still flowed cold and clear from atop the surrounding mountains, undisturbed by developement, and that change had not yet discovered my secret corner of paradise.