It’s funny how certain sounds and smells can remind you of a place. There is one song, for example, that brings to my mind late nights on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, driving too fast with no lights on and all the windows rolled down, the stars shining like millions of eyes looking down at me. I can’t walk past a Middle Eastern cafe without thinking of the roast lamb I ate at a street stand in Cairo while I watched a friend play soccer in the street with a dozen children half his size. And I can’t smell honeysuckle without remembering a morning I spent on my favorite mountain stream.
I have never been an early riser, and there are few things which will pull me out of bed before the sun, but the thought of rising trout is one. On this particular morning, sometime in early spring in western North Carolina, I was out the door just as the first light of the morning was peering over the eastern horizon. There was a chill to the air in the cover of the early morning fog, but it was the sort of morning one knew would soon make way for a prematurely hot afternoon. I broke the stillness of the quiet morning with the slamming of the rear doors of my slightly rusted, forest green 1962 Land Rover. The air conditioning doesn’t work and the engine sometimes overheats on the hottest of summer afternoons, but I’ve never loved a truck like this one. I opened the driver side door and allowed Tucker, my young Brittany Spaniel, to hop across into the passenger seat. He was young, but he had realized that obedience to my commands would be paid off in my affection.
I leaned over to roll down the creaking passenger window so Tucker could poke his floppy-eared head out of the window to bark at anything we might pass. Although we had an hour drive, followed by an hour hike, before we would get the first cast of the day in, I felt that familiar feeling of excitement and anticipation tightening my chest as soon as I turned off of the gravel driveway on onto the smooth, newly-paved road upon which our house sat, hidden back from the road behind a stand of old growth timber. Soon, we had made our way to the interstate and headed west, racing the sunrise. Having had enough of the morning chill, and probably frustrated at having been so unceremoniously risen at such an early hour, Tucker had curled up on the seat with his head resting on my leg. I leaned over to roll up the window and settled in for the easy drive ahead.
The Land Rover is a fantastic truck on abandoned logging trails and forest service roads, but she feels out of place and a bit frustrated when pushed to her maximum speed, which isn’t fast enough to avoid the condescending states of the tourists and new money folks in their shiny black sedans. They treat the roads as their racetracks in a vain attempt to prove that their over engineered, track-tested luxury cars are worth the inflated prices they paid for them. They rarely are.
Some time later, I saw the sign for Bryson City and exited the interstate, thankful to be back at speeds more reasonable for my machine. I wound through town, stopping briefly at a favorite coffee shop to top off my thermos and remark briefly upon the weather, before making my way toward the Road to Nowhere. Originally intended to circle Fontana Lake, the road dead-ends before entering some of the most pristine wilderness left in the Eastern United States. As much as most people want to see the road completed, there is a small, eco-terrorist voice deep within me that screams every time I come to the place. I tell myself that if I ever see a bulldozer up here, I’ll fill the gas tank with sand. Maybe I’ll do worse, placing a small bomb underneath the machine to put it out of commission permanently. I don’t know if I’d be capable, but I suppose we all like to think ourselves revolutionaries when something dear to us is under threat.
The road ends abruptly not long after passing over Noland Creek, one of the half dozen or so streams that flow down from the upper slopes of Clingman’s Dome before emptying into Fontana Lake below. Even with such easy access for a determined trout-seeker, Noland Creek provides a fantastic window into the world of small stream fishing, where any fish over 10″ can be considered a trophy. Those of us who frequent these waters find satisfaction in the solitude, enjoying the brightly colored brookies that look like they’ve been painted in the most brilliantly natural hues.
After parking my truck under the branches of a young oak at the edge of the poorly maintained dirt road, I stepped out into the sunlit morning, followed by Tucker. According to the local regulations, dogs aren’t welcome these parts. Tucker isn’t like other dogs, though, so I let him walk without a leash, knowing that the smallest snap of my fingers will bring him quickly to my side. I unloaded my gear, pulling on a pair of waders and double-knotting my wading boots. All the water worth fishing requires a degree of effort which I’ve found most weekend fisherman unwilling to exert. I usually end up replacing my boots each season after putting well over one-hundred trail miles on then in addition to wading.
I carry a large pack when fishing, keeping all of my supplies directly related to the task at hand in front and all of the equally important, yet less frequently used, gear in the back, such as rain slicker, thermos, water, first aid kit, and food for Tucker and me. For this type of backcountry fishing, I fish a Scott fiberglass rod, a 7′ 3 wt. with a beautifully balanced feel and the delicacy needed to land active fish on light tippet. I paired it with a little green Galvan reel and a dark green fly line, giving myself some small illusion of stealth and camouflage.
Before starting the hike, I tied on a small Yellow Stimulator, one of my favorite flies for these small, backcountry streams. With Tucker at my side, chasing the shadow of a bee flying above him, we set out on what might one day become, God help us, a road to somewhere. An easy thirty minute hike led us to the point where we would drop off of the main trail and do a bit of bushwhacking as we made our way upstream. I suppose I should mention, at this point, that I am intentionally leaving the name of this particular stream from my tale, choosing instead to grant it some degree of anonymity, although quick investigative work would surely reveal a few likely candidates.
On this stream, I like to head to head upstream for half of a mile or so in order to achieve the feeling of true solitude. I’ve always been uncomfortable in crowds and utterly disgusted by close proximity to fisherman who didn’t arrive with me. Upon reaching my favorite starting point, I stopped dead. I saw an old timer lining up a gorgeous amber-colored bamboo rod with silk line. My frustration at finding another angler in my favorite spot began to subside as I observed the gentleman make his way carefully into the shallow stream. Not wanting to be seen, I found a fallen tree on which to sit and observe. A snap of my fingers brought Tucker to my side. He looked up at me, slightly confused, before making himself comfortable on a bed of bright green ferns.
The old man’s movements were deliberate and carefully considered. He moved with the ease of youth, albeit slightly tempered by the weight of age. Settling in the quick current, he paused, standing motionless for a full minute before moving again. Maybe he was acclimatizing to his surroundings; maybe he was letting the trout become accustomed to his presence. Either way, he had become, in just a moment, a fixture in the stream as seemingly permanent as a fallen tree or water-rounded boulder. His face was emotionless, calm but for a flaming intensity in his gray eyes. He didn’t act as though he owned the stream; rather, he had become part of it.
Continued here: The Senex – Part 2