The sign at the precipitous edge of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River warned that this was grizzly-bear country. It was also Friday the 13th, but Charles E. Brooks, former secret agent turned angling writer, paid no heed. "Come on," he said. "Those salmonflies are hatching down there." When a companion asked what they would do if they ran into a grizzly, Brooks, a bear of a man himself, said, "I'll sing. They don't like noise."
Five hours and seven miles later, Brooks clambered out of the canyon. There had been no grizzlies, but plenty of plump cutthroat and rainbow trout, all released. Brooks had gone down into the canyon because he was interested in checking on the salmonfly hatch and seeing what his fur-and-hackle imitation of the adult would do. It outfished all the other ties. Salmonflies, as they are called in Montana, are actually huge stone flies, insects that grow to two inches in length, and Brooks has been studying them for years. Indeed, ever since he retired as an Air Force major in 1964, he has been examining almost everything that creeps, crawls, swims or flies in the trout country of southwestern Montana in an effort to make himself a better fisherman. As a friend once put it, "Charlie's trying to climb into a trout's head."
Brooks' books, notably Larger Trout for the Western Fly Fisherman, The Trout and the Stream and Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout, have won him a growing reputation. His style is clear, direct and without pretense, and his works are packed with telling detail gleaned not only from scientific studies but also from the thousands of hours he has spent creeping, crawling and swimming—often underwater—to get a trout's or salmonfly's view of the world.
Brooks, now 60, is not a trout fisherman to the fly rod born. He was a hillbilly raised in the Missouri Ozarks during the depths of the Depression. His father was badly hurt in an industrial accident in 1929, and the family, which included his mother and six brothers and sisters, lived in a succession of shacks. The Brookses kept body and soul together by chopping cotton. When Charlie was nine, he traded a bagful of deer tails to a local flytier for $2.50 in cash, a big box of materials, 100 hooks and an hour-and-a-half lesson in tying—"the greatest bargain I ever made in my life." Fishing the Current River with his own flies, cane pole, chalk line doused with linseed oil and horsehair leaders, Brooks "caught fish like nobody's business, and they were always welcome at home because we ate everything."
After he graduated from grammar school in 1933, Brooks became a migrant farm worker. He sent all his wages home to support his family, except for the 5� a day he kept to buy bread and buttermilk. "I had that for supper," he says. "The farmers usually provided some kind of dinner, and I never did eat breakfast until I was 25 or 26."
After his father died in 1936, Brooks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked in the West. Impressed by the trout streams of Montana and Wyoming, he promised himself he would live there one day and write about fishing. Eager for a high school education, he left the CCC in 1939 when the football coach of the high school team in Milan, Mo. promised him a job if he would play. Brooks was the outstanding defensive player in the history of the school, led the conference in punting and scoring, and also lettered in baseball, basketball and track. He completed high school in three years with a straight-A average. All the while, he held down two jobs, rising at five in the morning and going to bed at 11 each night. The first month he was there, several teachers complained about his whistling and singing in the halls, and when a teacher asked him why he did it, he said, "I'm so happy to be here. But I'll stop. I can be just as happy inside."
In 1942, Brooks joined the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. In time he was commissioned as a bombardier. He flew 50 missions over Europe. His pilot, Richard Witkin, now transportation reporter for The New York Times, says, "Charlie's the only man I ever met in my life who enjoyed war. I don't mean he liked to kill people, but when I was going through flak and enemy fighters, I was scared witless. To Charlie it was a thrill. To him, flak and enemy fighters were exciting. He's the last of the great adventurers."
Released from active duty in 1945, Brooks got temporary work as a park ranger at Yosemite but was turned down for a regular job because he lacked a college degree. He thought of going to Stanford, but felt he couldn't learn any more there than he could from books or life. By now married, and knowing he wanted to write, Brooks decided that the best thing he could do was to reenlist in the Air Force, put in his 20 years and then retire to explore and write.
Brooks was assigned to counterintelligence. One of his favorite assignments turned out to be scouting possible invasion sites of the Alaskan coast. He quickly discovered that the tide went out too far to allow an amphibious landing, but his superiors were slow in digesting this information, so he spent several months fishing trout and salmon streams in the cover guise of a wealthy sportsman. When Brooks left the Air Force for good in 1964, he and his wife, Grace, lit out for West Yellowstone, where they built a house.
Brooks soon began his research in Montana by observing the nymphs and larvae of insects that serve as food for trout in the Firehole, Gibbon and Madison rivers. "My aim is to fish the nymph imitation at the right place with the right motion," he says. "I wanted to find out what nymphs were in the water, and what action I should impart to the imitation." In one 100-yard stretch of the Madison, he observed Mayfly nymphs of the species Siphlonurus occidentalis, the gray drake, as it is known to anglers. "I found that the gray drake has to have a silt bottom around weeds, a current speed of not more than 1� miles per hour and a depth of about 20 inches," he says. "The nymph is slow-moving and clambers around weeds. It moves about in the early morning or late afternoon. It doesn't like bright sunlight." While Grace fished an imitation gray drake nymph so that it either swam along the bottom or seemingly climbed the weeds, Brooks watched the reaction of the trout underwater. As a result of this type of investigation, Brooks ties his nymph imitations without a wing case on the back so that if it should be turned over by the current, a fish won't wonder why it's upside down. "A live nymph never turns upside down in the water," he says. "A nymph imitation has to have color and form and life, and the more signs of life, the better." The ultimate in life simulation is Brooks' imitation of any of a number of large dragonfly nymphs. It is basically a one-eighth-inch-wide strip of natural brown seal fur, left on the skin, wrapped around the hook shank. In the water it pumps and breathes enticingly. "It's a rough, scraggly fly, but so is the natural," says Brooks.