Driftless Terroir: Home Is Where the Trout Is

Bill Robichaud

By Bill Robichaud

I write this column fueled by a breakfast of pan-fried brook trout. Several months ago, in early January, I looked at my canning shelves and freezer, and on a whim decided to see how long I could go without a trip to the grocery store. I’m still at it (I last went grocery shopping on Dec. 23, 2019), living on what I have on hand, and what the Driftless terroir provides — from garden, forest, stream and sometimes barter with my neighbors. It’s been an interesting experiment, and less difficult and more durable than I expected. This summer, my sustenance has included a fair bit of wild trout, including that icon of the Driftless Area, the brook trout. 

Brookies are the original native trout of Wisconsin and the Driftless Area (browns and rainbows being later imports). They are also the most beautiful, the smallest — typified by an elegant slenderness — and the one most adapted to and reliant on the clear, fresh water of the most pristine Driftless streams (a brook trout’s scientific species name, fontinalis, is Latin for “of a spring or fountain”). The Audrey Hepburn of fish.

Indeed, brook trout are one of the most beautiful things on the planet: Neon spots of pink, blue and yellow cascade along dark green flanks, above an orange-rimmed belly — like the night sky meeting a sunrise. Imitation or interpretation by art can enhance many things, but it would be a stretch to imagine art adding anything to the masterpiece of a brook trout. Catching a brookie is like pulling a constellation from the water. And it carries a similar sense of sacrilege; if you don’t feel both grief and gratitude at killing a brook trout, then some soul work might be in order.

I’ve never had much feel for exclusive catch-and-release fishing (although I do release far more trout than I keep); and studies increasingly reveal that sport fishing has a comparatively minor impact on trout populations, much less than water quality, weather events and the sum of other predators such as herons and kingfishers. I prefer to immerse myself more deeply in the circle of life, and it is a privilege to go there with a brook trout. In some religious traditions the Son of God is consumed on a weekly basis, and so eating an occasional trout, even a brookie, seems acceptable by comparison.

Finding brook trout on my home turf of Iowa County takes exploration — another thing I love about these fish. Brookies are here, but often hiding in small, easily missed streams, streams sometimes shielded within thick woods, or by phalanxes of stinging nettles — and often both. Patience is needed to find (and cast for!) trout in such waters, but the suitable reward can be wonder. No other food I know so thoroughly feeds both body and soul. 

Recently, not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, I explored a clear ribbon of stream early on a fresh morning — one of those moments of a beauty contest between water and sky. On one of my first casts a trout struck and took my imitation grasshopper. The backs of most fish are camouflaged to protect them from death from above, particularly piscivorous birds such as herons, kingfishers and ospreys. As I brought the swirling trout closer, I could see the scrolled, dark olive back of a brook trout. As I eased the 10-inch brookie to my net, it rolled on its side in the riffling water, and my God … its rainbow palette of spots glowed in the morning sunlight. Imagine coming upon a drab square of canvas on the floor, and turning it over to reveal a Pollock or Monet.

We often use the words “overwhelming” and “breathtaking” to describe experience, but rarely is it literally true. This time it was. Every brook trout I catch is a small miracle, which I never dull to — as likely as dulling to the sight of a shooting star. Yet this particular moment and sight of this trout was so beautiful I couldn’t take it all in. It filled me completely, and my cells were left with insufficient space to absorb and hold it all. 

I unhooked the brookie and returned it to the water — a pardon of gratitude. After doing so, I felt some grief move in, at the realization that this time I had seen the world truly, in all its beauty — and by the same token that such moments are rare. This head-down, half-blind, half-asleep amnesiac is destined to go through life missing much of it, even though it surrounds him every day — especially in a place like the Driftless. 

Brook trout are my teachers, and my favorite homegrown of the Driftless Area. They are the best of us, and if I can just resolve to pay attention, they open the best in me. 

Bill Robichaud is a writer and an award-winning conservation biologist. (His work in Southeast Asia is chronicled in the book “The Last Unicorn” by William deBuys, published by Little, Brown and available from Arcadia Books in Spring Green.) He lives in a century-old farmhouse north of Barneveld — near Trout Creek, natch — and blogs about his “no grocery store” endeavor at www.birdinthebush.net.