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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More photos from the mountains..


Not so much a fishing report as the notes scribbled in a notebook during a tour of the streams of western North Carolina/eastern Tennessee...

 Stepping carefully, aware that it might be quite some time before another human ventures near, I pick my way down the last few precipitous feet to the stream. Shrugging off the pack, I find a huge flat rock and sit, sinking back against another equally huge stone. In front of me the view has contracted to that of a small room. A room walled in by steep hillside, rhododendron, hemlock and the ancient rock of the smoky mountains. An immense dead tree burnished by the water and as bleached as old bone lies in front. And thru all this runs the stream. The river is broken by rocks ranging in size from that of an easy chair to the size of a moving van.  The stream drowns out all sound other than it's own.

  I sit back and close my eyes. The sound of the river washes over me. I take a deep breath and exhale, letting at all go. Work, bills, disillusionment, uncertainly, compulsion, all slowly drain out and wash  downstream. After a while, ( ten minutes, two hours, who knows) I open my eyes and watch the river. At first it is all of a piece, a huge rush down the mountain. But then it begins to separate, a vortex here, a small calm there, joining separating, recombinant spaces and flow. And slowly the river separates into possibility, places that might hold a fish. And so it begins...

All winter I tie thread and hackle and wrap dreams and wishes on tiny hooks. Each my version of a Tibetan prayer flag, an offering to the fish gods. Clothed as much in hope and expectancy as grizzly hackle and peacock herl. A winter's prefiguration of the possibility of trout. As a middle aged man fast approaching old age I sometimes feel a bit put out by the current "fad" of fly fishing. Nowadays, with enough money, a person can stop at any of the small towns surrounding the national park and emerge outfitted in a couple thousand dollars worth of tackle an hour later. I don't begrudge these people their fine tackle and fashionable outdoor wear. It just seems their fishing has an empty space at the core.  I'm not sure everything can be bought out of a catalog or taught on the grass out back of the fly shop. Or perhaps that's just the rantings of that middle aged man fast approaching old age. Like a leaf in an eddy grumbling at the river rushing by.

 The winters rust has now been finally broken out of my cast. The small four weight comes forward and the line unfurls in a smooth loop without shock waves. It straightens out in midair and I shake the rod side to side putting slack in the line as it lands gently on the water. I take a breath and hold it as the fly floats downstream without drag. The white post of the parachute adams a bright dot against the obsidian darkness of evening water. And then a trout takes. I lift the rod and am tight to the fish. Throbbing like life itself, then airborne, then finally in hand as I carefully work the fly out with forceps. A swift stroke of the tail and the fish is gone. The river, the woods, myself, they all seem less empty than before.

  A filmy red covers the western sky as evening comes creeping thru the bare trees. Here in the space between winter and spring, nights are cold. A cool breeze begins to bite as I pull on a fleece and begin the process of building the fire. Tiny twigs, then slighter bigger, then bigger still, with a homemade firestarter made of cotton ball and Vaseline tucked underneath it all. Water is set to boil over the fire as evening becomes night. I lean back against a log, looking up thru bare branches. Here, far from city lights, the broad band of the milky way stretches across the dome of night. The beautiful starlight has taken years to reach me. Years passing thru the coldness of space to light up this night woods, this perfect place. It seems a good place to reflect, as good as any.  It's been a fine day on the stream.

  Nowadays after sitting too long stream side my ankles struggle to work again. It takes a bit of hobbling before all the glitches are worked thru. The price of a lifetime spent wading icy waters my friends tell me. When I'm old, too old for this, I want to remember. I find myself slowing down, looking, trying to burn detail and experience into my being. The sound of the wind moaning thru the treetops up on the ridge, the dark mystery contained in a trout's eye, the mottled color of lichen on ancient rock. All of it down to the most minute detail. I don't want to lose it. Though I will return eventually. Not far away, high on a mountaintop overlooking these streams I love so much will be my rest. I've given instructions for my ashes to be scattered to the wind there. No service, just my granddaughter hiking in, taking me back, maybe remembering me for a moment, shrugging and hiking back down to her car. But for me finally a return to these mountains I love so much to stay.

  As a younger man, whenever events would conspire against me, I nurtured this fantasy, this reverie of just walking away into these mountains. Of becoming a hermit, alone and untroubled by the mendacity of man, with only these trout for company. Long detailed daydreams of just what drainage I could stay in. What wild foods I could gather and store to hold me thru the barren winters. What shelters I would need in each season. Even now staring into the campfire with the sound of the stream floating thru the still night woods I find myself at home here. I fit here. Here I am whole, complete. Thank the gods for Einstein and his getting rid of the silly notion of time as absolute. For a week here in these mountains has more weight, more meaning, more life in it, than months back in the other world. Spend time here and you will feel the truth in that. And you do not need a physicist to show you the energy this place possesses. You can feel it in the stream against your legs, see it in a storm raging against a mountaintop, feel it in the sun on your skin. Life here has an edge, honed sharp against these ancient stones.

I was at least an hour or so from camp A mile upstream then a hard climb up a side trail to this tiny stream. I took this stream personally. I'd checked on this stream at roughly six or seven year intervals for three decades to see if they were still here. Wild brook trout. Native trout. Pushed as far back as you can go and hanging on by a thread. That thread in this case being tiny streams like this one, tucked in the back of the beyond. This one no wider than my fly rod is long. Tiny stair stepping pools and mini waterfalls. I tied on a little beadhead nymph and began to fish. Bow and arrow casts, dapping, sloppy slinging half cats with half of these ending up in the bushes. I fished three or four tiny pools without a strike and I found myself holding my breath. Were they finally gone? Pushed too far. Then a strike and a lovely six inch brook trout, in perfect scale with the bathtub sized pool. A light rain began to fall. It wasn't supposed to but things have a way of doing that in the mountains.

Two decades ago I hooked a brook trout impossibly large, somewhere between ten inches and a foot long. I had it on long enough to see it clearly before it came unbuttoned. And every trip gave up a trout at least inches long. Big for this tiny rivulet. Always beautiful, today with the gloomy rain and bare wet woods they seem even more vivid, painted jewels as perfect as anything I've ever seen.
Slowly I fished in the rain. But not slowly enough to avoid committing the ultimate sin of being alone in such a place. I fell. Not the usual slip while wading and wet your ass, no this was going to be hard. Luckily one of the hundreds of dead trees that made getting around so hard was stretched from bank to bank and I caught myself in time before things got out of control.
Later climbing around a jumble of logs that made passage up the stream bed impossible, I saw below a big pool. The size and shape of a pickup truck bed. Between a wall of three or four logs. I crept up behind and swung the nymph out. The little four weight bent deep and a big arc of orange thrashed on the end of my line. I struggled over and around the logs knowing the fish was coming off. But it didn't. I beached it in pouring rain  on a tiny rock bar at the pools tail. The fish was at least ten or eleven inches long. My grail fish. I worked the hook loose without lifting the fish from the water. I bit off the fly and reeled in the line and began the long journey back to camp not noticing the rain.

This river was big. Big enough that even though you could see someone clearly on the other side you might not be able to recognize them. It was supposed to be full of big stripers. Just one problem, the water was forty three degrees. In other words a big case of you should be here next week.  On the other hand it was a situation I recognized. Here in front of me was a dam and gin clear cold water. I did what I did in these cases back home. I went back at night and fished for things with an "eye" in their name. Late winter, early spring, saugers, saugeye, and walleye move up below dams in prespawn. I tied on a big curly shad on a heavy jighead and began to fish. Sure enough a half hour later the rod bent under the weight of a big fish. Before daylight five more would hit the jig. All around the same size, heavy big fish anytime, they seemed even bigger after the last few days catching little trout in the mountains. It seemed surreal, yesterdays brookies would make fine bait for these days. The sense of the surreal was heightened by the obscene indecency of Gatlinburg I'd driven thru to get here. Half the world supply of neon hawking, hillbilly golf, eleven different kinds of fudge, elvis wax museums and go carts. It's duck dynasty on acid. It felt awfully good to be back on the river and away from people again.

A long nap in the truck and back on the river. The river was a cold empty place in daylight. Finally a strike. It was a nice sized drum, maybe four or five pounds. A couple hours later it's twin hit.  A bit later a small walleye. Then another hour till a strike. Thump and the rod bent deep. Way too deep for a walleye or another four pound drum. No long sizzling run just heavy weight boring off then doggedly coming in only to repeat. In the gin clear water I had a wicked tuna moment. I'm looking down into it and I thought, "I see color". I could have used a harpoon like on the show too. I guided the big fish into a notch between two big rocks and tried to wrestle it ashore. Right then the eight pound test popped. I pinned the fish and rolled it ashore getting very cold and wet in the process. Thirty inches long it was the biggest drum I'd ever seen. Cold, wet, happy, and smelling like bait gone bad, I thought it might be home to head home.