SI Vault
Mason Smith
May 23, 1977
God made a splendidly stippled brook trout, but Bill Flick created a hybrid that lives longer, grows bigger—and, alas, has an equally low IQ
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May 23, 1977

Glory Be To Man For Dappled Things

God made a splendidly stippled brook trout, but Bill Flick created a hybrid that lives longer, grows bigger—and, alas, has an equally low IQ

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Once each fall he shows up at a sporting club in the Adirondacks for a venison dinner and a game of poker. He always brings along a couple of plastic bags full of smoked trout. The fish are young, sleek trout, and every one of them is bigger than the largest old cannibal the club members catch. The smoked trout weigh a pound and a quarter or a pound and a half each. They are brook trout—native to the northeastern quarter of North America from Georgia to Hudson Bay. Once found weighing as much as 10 and 12 pounds in certain lakes and ponds in more northern waters and in smaller sizes in every cool stream, brook trout have now been driven back into little creeks and headwaters and remote ponds, and are very small or very scarce, or both.

The fish that Bill Flick passes around like clam dip are straight out of an old guide's reminiscences. He doesn't brag, but the club members know that these aren't even the big ones. Moreover, they know they come from the next property up the road. The word is that Flick is doing research on brook trout there. Works for Cornell. Whole thing fairly quiet.

Brook trout need research, the poor, dumb, gorgeous things. When Flick got this job with Cornell, he had just spent three years surveying all the Adirondack waters listed as "inaccessible, unseen" in the original New York Biological Survey. Employed by the state conservation department to complete the survey, he had flown and paddled and beat his way into what should have been prime brook trout waters and had not netted a single trout longer than 16 inches. He had rarely seen one that had reached three or four years of age.

The trouble is, brook trout can't stand fishing pressure. Their recklessness makes them unfit for a world with humans much in evidence. Any worm dunker can catch them. Flick says it like a litany: "They're so damn dumb, so damn dumb." Anybody can catch them and nobody will catch them without killing them, and so now you can fish a lifetime in the Northeast and never see a brook trout like Flick's.

When the brook trout began to decline around the turn of the century, it seemed as if the new science of fish culture could reverse the trend. But brookies have been raised in hatcheries and stocked in northeastern waters for nearly a century and their numbers are still dwindling. Some waters were lost unintentionally by the introduction of competing species, such as bass and yellow perch. In most of the remaining waters, fish and game commissions gave up on the brookie and established the more skeptical and phlegmatic species of trout, the browns and rainbows. Few recall that there was trophy brook trout fishing on Long Island once, never mind Maine. Fishermen have gradually adjusted their expectations, or have had them adjusted. You might see an article in one of the sportsmen's magazines extolling the early dry-fly fishing in Maine. The author will be pictured with the usual expression of simpleminded blessedness, holding a string of 10 or 20 fish, none more than seven inches long.

If it weren't for the Cornell program, even the place where Bill Flick lives and works would be just another 40-odd square miles of great mountain country, high, pure and well patrolled, its priceless array of sharply differing ponds and streams producing about 100 pounds to the water-acre of perch, bullheads and suckers. Even before Flick it had the best brook trout fishing around, because in a few places you could pull out seven- or eight-inch brookies. Twenty years ago the landowners tried to improve the fishing. They stocked the waters, netted out the weed fish, manipulated the water level to kill the perch eggs, stocked some more—but they had no trout like those Flick brings to the annual poker game.

Trout anglers will recognize that name—Flick. The son of a famed fly-fisherman and stream conservationist, Art Flick, brought up to hunting and fishing and guiding out of a Catskill mountain lodge, might well turn up doing what is, indubitably, the most important and encouraging brook trout research ever done anywhere. Bill Flick served in the Army, took a B.S. from Cornell and got outdoors again as quickly as he could on the remote-waters survey. Then one day he came home from bushwhacking and found the grass a foot tall, the washing machine broken and his daughters complaining that he didn't know which of them was which, all per usual, plus a phone call to return to college. Dwight Webster, professor of fishery science at Cornell, was proposing that Flick quit the conservation department and become Cornell's resident fishery biologist on this large and beautiful preserve.

The Cornell fish scientists watch for privately owned waters suited to their research. They need wild ponds and streams in which fish populations can be manipulated and the fishing controlled and monitored. Cooperating groups, like the Adirondack League Club, and private landowners large and small agree to these conditions and pay the fish-research costs in the interests of improved fishing and the long-term public benefit of turning the decline of the native brook trout around. If the arrangement seems elitist, the melancholy fact is that no significant populations of wild brook trout have been preserved in New York except in private waters.

Flick lives in a handsome, umber-colored northwoods house with a pine-and poplar-shaded lawn. There are Brittanies and beagles and a Labrador in runs out back, a flat-water stretch of river and a horizon of forested mountains in front. Past a gate and down the road there is a complete aquatic biology laboratory and storehouse of gear—nets, scales, outboard motors and refrigerators. Up the road is a dandy new fish hatchery. And in all directions through the high country there are about 20 ponds, all reachable with a moderate amount of jouncing in the Wagoneer through terrain that suggests the Rocky Mountain West. At each pond an Old Town canoe is inverted on racks under a shelter of just the necessary length and width. There are loons, geese, ducks, snipe, otter, beaver, fisher, mink; the deer actually get in the way along the roads.

Continuous research in the wild, in so many waters, with successive generations of trout, is unprecedented. Bureaucratic, political and budgetary pressures are nowhere else so light. The results until now have been published only in scientific journals and offered without fanfare to New York, New England and Canadian provincial fisheries people. But last spring a visitor was given a demonstration of what Flick has been doing.

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