Brooks’s Books

This week our columnist Rob Brown talks about the books of Charles E. Brooks

Charles E. Brooks built a pole from a length of bamboo. He fashioned the line guides from old guitar strings, dressed some crude flies and set out fish the ponds and creeks near his home in Venice Illinois. It was 1930. He was nine years old. So began a life long love of trout fishing with flies.

Brooks joined the Army Air Corps in May 1942, became a bombardier, and was soon in the skies over Europe. At the war’s end he was demobilized. A year later he married his wife Grace, and the year after that he reentered the Air Force. Over the next 17 years his career took him to places as disparate as Alaska and Morocco, where he worked for the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations, whose mission is to identify, investigate, then neutralize criminal, espionage, and terrorist threats to the Air Force and the Department of Defense.

In Alaska, Brooks had plenty of chances to fish. The Alaskan fishery, like ours, is dominated by salmon, but trout fishing was Brooks’s boyhood love. He and Grace made excursions to Montana. They fell in love with the place. When Charles retired, they moved to West Yellowstone and he embarked on his next career as a fly fisherman, amateur entomologist, and author. It was move of great benefit to trout fishers because it resulted in six books replete with gold plated advice on how to become an effective trout fisher. In 1970, Brooks penned Larger Trout for the Western Flyfisherman. It’s success inspired The Trout and the Stream four years later, Nymph fishing for Larger Trout in 1976. Then came The  Living River in 1979 followed by Fishing Yellowstone Waters and The Henry’s Fork, both published in the mid eighties.

Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout was the first of Brooks’s books I bought. In clear, unaffected prose, Brooks set out how one can most effectively fish patterns that imitate the nymphal stage of aquatic insects.

To assist with his research, Brooks snorkeled the rivers of Yellowstone. The central object of his interest were the giant stoneflies, Pteronarcys Californica. Little was known about the behaviour of these, the largest of stoneflies.

It takes three years before these big brutes are fully developed. Once they are, they clamber out of the water onto rocks and logs where their exoskeleton splits and they emerge as adults. They are magnificent creatures, 7 or 8 centimetres long, with veined gray translucent wings, pale orange underbodies and a bright hot orange band between their heads and thoraxes.

The fact that it takes 3 years for the nymphs to develop means that before the annual hatch there are 3 year classes of stonefly nymphs in the river. On his dives, Brooks noted that the one year old nymphs emerged from the interstices on the rocky bottom and grazed on detritus like cattle on grass. One they retreated, the two year olds emerged, and when they were done, the 3 year olds emerged, Once the oldest had fed, like their younger cousins, they retreated to their dens with only their antennae exposed. In the low evening light, this process was repeated.

Once he discovered the best time to fish the large nymphs, Brooks set out to create a fly that would not only resemble the large clambering nymphs but behave like them. To imitate the grayish brown gills of Pteronarcys nymphs, he used the gray barred feathers of barred rock rooster. For the tails, he used two stiff dyed biots from a goose quill. To imitate the abdomen of the nymph, Brooks used black mohair, wrapping it over a hook heavily weighted with many turns of lead fuse wire.

The lead alone was not enough to keep Brooks’s nymph on the bottom. To do that in the fast freestone rivers of Yellowstone, he developed a technique that required affixing the  stout pattern to a stout leader. This he tied to an eight-weight, full-sinking line wound on a Pfleuger Medalist fly reel that was attached to the reel seat of an 8 foot 8 weight rod. Using this robust outfit the nymph was cast upstream at a steep angle. After the fly found the bottom and bounced downstream toward then past the fisher, the line was to be retrieved with the line hand while the rod hand followed the fly. Through the entire drift a slack line was to be maintained. Though it violates all the notions of delicacy commonly associated with fly fishing, Brooks’s nymphing technique remains the only way to imitate giant stonefly nymphs.

After reading and rereading Brooks’s book. I had to try the technique. Having no large rainbows nearby, I substituted summer steelhead reasoning that, like Rainbow Trout, they feed on stonefly nymphs, at least for part of their lives. Once I got the rhythm, it proved a pleasant and efficient way to fish. It wasn’t lacking in excitement either. It was also gratifying to catch steelhead on an imitation of an insect rather than a gaudy lure.