Call this a voyage from the sorry to the sublime.
Trout season opened Saturday on a number of Maryland streams, including Beaver Creek in Washington County. That's a 1 1/2-hour drive west into the Appalachian range and you'd think by then you'd hit some pristine country.
So what do you get?
You get 14 guys in the snow in hunting caps fishing one bend in the creek with cheese ball baits. You get nine pale rainbow trout out of the flooded roots of one sycamore tree.
You get a grinning angler who expains, "They stopped hitting on cheese about 7 o'clock so I switched to corn and filled out my limit."
You get a man with dogs. "Fishermen came in here last year and broke down my fence," he said as the exhaust stacks on his pickup threw white clouds of vapor into the blizzard. "So I got these dogs."
Two dobermans jittered around the yard like canine speed freaks. An angler tried to befriend them. "Hey, buddy," said the man, "pet that dog and he bites you, don't come knocking on my door."
Everyone deserves his simple pleasures, as hard as they are to find in this busy world.
But opening day trout fishing is no simple pleasure. It's a hoax, a mirage. It has nothing at all to do with trout, sport, peace, solitude or nature. Beaver Creek brings that message home in a hurry.
A little over 10 years ago this creek, part of the Potomac watershed, was a weed-choked wonder, a perfect spring run alive with aquatic vegetation which supported a happily reproducting trout population.
"It looked like the Letort," said a fly fisherman who knew it then. He was invoking the name of one of Pennsylvania's rich, revered limestone trout streams.
Before 1970, Beaver Creek in summer was a mandering channel winding its way through emerald vegetation. In the aquatic weeds lurked big trout, which enjoyed the cover, and their tiny offspring, which fed on the smorgasbord of life the vegetation shrouded.
Then the weeds disappeared.
Now Beaver Creek is just another ditch in the foothills. The state stocking truck comes every spring and fills the creek with hatchery trout; the people still get up before dawn on opening day and jerk the trout out.
Only a handful seem to notice the difference.
Trout Unlimited is working to find out what happened. The current theory is that the grass decline coincided with the advent of no-till farming, where herbicides are sprayed on farm fields and may kill aquatic weeds when they run off into the streams during rainstorms.
Maybe TU will figure it out. Maybe there still will be time to reverse the trend. Then again, maybe not.
That's the sorry side of this tale. Now for the sublime.
My role at Beaver Creek was to ask fishermen how they'd done and what they thought of the creek. It was part of a state census. The survey was supposed to take all morning but there were so many early departures because of the snow that we had all we needed by 8. We went fishing.
One in our party, the one who remembered the old Beaver Creek, knew of a tiny stream nearby where there were naturally reproducing rainbow trout, a rarity in the East.
He swore us to secrecy and took us to these tiny waters, no broader in places tha a city sidewalk. Magically the clouds parted and we fished crystal waters among the rocks and the rills under a brilliant blue sky.
We took none of these wild, spooky trout. They were too smart and a little to languid, given the brisk water temperatures. But by creeping up on the bank you could see them in the shallows doing their wild trout thing, feeding on the insects and larvae that the rich waters produce.
On the banks a rabbit jumped and ran. A pheasant burst out of a thicket. In the mud were the soft tracks of deer hooves.
I caught sight of my partner, lying on his belly on a rocky bar, dangling a tiny dry fly into a tangle of undercut along the bank. A four-inch trout darted out and nipped at the fly, missed it, and the fisherman's face lit up with a smile.
This was trout fishing.
There was more. On the way home we stopped at Little Hunting Creek near Camp David, where President Carter used to fish occasionally.
Little Hunting is Maryland's most picturesque trout stream. It has naturally reproducing and stocked trout, which find homes by the thousands among the pools, riffles and waterfalls of this quick-descending streambed.
Jay fished upstream, Jack went downstream and I sat in the middle listening to the water.
Then Jay gave a shout and I ran to take a picture of the only fish any of us caught all day, a fat, healthy rainbow. I was one more than we needed. He turned it loose.