Cool nights back at camp
Recounting victory and defeat
Good whiskey and better friends
Laughing in the dark
These times won’t be traded
Not for their weight in gold
Cool nights back at camp
Recounting victory and defeat
Good whiskey and better friends
Laughing in the dark
These times won’t be traded
Not for their weight in gold
Continued from The Senex – Part 1
With the ease of decades of practice, he stripped three or four arm lengths of line from the reel, letting the current pull the slack form the line. With the quickness of a man half his age, the old man let loose a perfect roll cast, placing his bushy dry fly in the calm water behind a small, mossy rock protruding from the surface of the clear water. Within a second, the current grabbed the line and pulled the fly violently from the pocket of water. Another quick roll cast saw the fly land exactly where the previous cast had put it, clinging to the slack water momentarily before being pulled once more from its rest by the relentless current.
Taking a few sure but steady steps upstream, the old man took a moment to more thoroughly examine his surroundings. He stood in a shallow run at the tail of a small pool. While only a few yards long, the pool was deep, perhaps deep enough that only the crown of a man’s hat would peek through the surface should he decide to wade into its depths. Maybe it had been a swimming hole back in the days when people still lived in these woods, isolated from the hustle and convenience of the blossoming town downriver. At the head of the pool was a small waterfall, maybe three or four feet high, that would have provided the ideal platform from which the smiling, squealing children of the woods would splash into the icy water below.
I was brought back from my daydream by the glint of morning sunlight against the glossy bamboo of the old man’s rod. He had begun a cast, letting the line unfold gracefully behind him before moving his arm forward in a motion apparently executed thousands of time before. The cast was perfect, the loop as tight as I’ve ever seen, and the fly dropped so naturally just inches from the froth created by the falling water. I saw the old man bend slightly forward, anticipating the rise which he seemed sure would come, only this time it didn’t. He straightened his back, looking perplexed but not overly concerned, and began to unfurl another graceful cast as elegant as the last.
The soft light of the morning sun lit fire to the small droplets of water flung from the line before they found themselves extinguished once again in the current, brought back from a singular moment of brilliance to the anonymity of the unified motion of the current. I could hear the silk line cutting through the thick morning air. The line unfurled exactly as before, leaving the fly to drop softly onto the water at the base of the tumbling falls.
In an instant, I saw the bronze flash, the violent attack of an enormous brown trout unleashed upon the inanimate fly mistaken for an insect, surely disappointing the beast. The old man lifted his arm, and I saw the smooth, beautiful bend in the bamboo rod, probably grown accustomed to the tug of fish large and small. As soon as the rod had bent, it straightened back out. The fly was pulled from the depths of the pool, flying over the old man’s shoulder and left to drag in the current downstream.
It was at this moment that the old man turned his face toward me, smiling a large smile that told me he had been aware of my presence all along. He turned his eyes back to the pool with a look of serenity and satisfaction before making his way deliberately toward me. I stood as he stepped from the water, pulling my hat from my head and extending my sun-browned arm. He grasped my hand firmly, his paper-thin skin indicating an age even higher than I had previously thought.
“Yes, he certainly was a nice one. One of the larger fish I’ve come across on this creek,” he replied, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“Been fishing here for a while?” I asked in a thinly veiled attempt at obtaining his age. His expression was one of longing, his eyes looking through me and into the dense forest behind.
“Son, I’ve been fishing this creek since before your folks were born. I was born in a small cabin not too far upstream of this very spot. The cabin is gone now, but the chimney is still standing. I visited once not too long ago, but my blood ran cold at the sight of what once was a small, struggling community.” I immediately felt sorry for asking the question, but a smile returned to his face as he placed the battered hat back upon his head. I asked the old man what fly he had been fishing, and he paused for a moment before pulling a slightly rusted and severely dented aluminum fly box from his vest. His gnarled fingers shook with the strain of age as he pulled a bushy dry fly from the box and deposited it into my waiting palm.
“You might not land as many fish as you are accustomed to, but you’ll surely fool a great many of them,” he said, returning the fly box to his vest pocket. I looked down to examine the fly he had given to me. I was an exercise in simplicity and grace, but something was wrong. The body was covered generously in grey dubbing, the tail a small bunch of what appeared to be squirrel hair. Long brown hackle nearly consumed the thin white wings below.
After my brief examination, the cause of my earlier confusion immediately became apparent, the most notable feature of the fly having gone unnoticed at first glance. The hook point was nowhere to be seen. The fly had been tied on nothing but a straight shank of metal, leaving no possibility of actually hooking and landing a fish. I was confused, and I looked up to question the man who now seemed slightly crazy to me. He was no longer standing in front of me; rather, he was walking slowly up the trail, and I caught just a glimpse of his hunched figure before he disappeared into the trees.
It was at this moment that the true meaning of the encounter hit me. The old man had no interest in hooking a fish and watching it struggle in fear as it was pulled from the water and into the waiting hand of a violent intruder. He had no desire to conquer nature, but only to become a part of it. The satisfaction was in the act of fooling the trout into taking the fly. I laughed silently to myself, thinking that perhaps both he and the fish gained from the encounter instead of the zero-sum game so often practiced by those of us who intrude into the wilderness with visions of the pioneers in our heads, exercising our strength and sublimating the forest to out desires. I laughed once more, this time audibly, before clipping off my Stimulator and tying on the old man’s fly as I slid into the current, moving slowly and peacefully toward the pool.
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
Let’s talk about keeping your feet warm. This discussion always comes up this time of year, and a little bit of planning and foresight will really go a long way toward making your winter days on the water much more enjoyable. First, we will develop a strategy for warmth, and then we will talk about what equipment will get you there.
Three things really stand out as important when discussing this topic: pre-fishing warmth, moisture, and insulation.
Pre-fishing warmth: Your feet need to be warm when you put them in your boots. No matter how dry and insulated your feet are, you will have a hard time warming up your feet once you step into the water.
Moisture: Moisture is the enemy of warmth. Check your waders frequently for leaks, as even a pinprick leak in your neoprene booties can spell disaster for warmth. The seam between the neoprene and wader fabric is one of the weak spots when it comes to leaks, so pay particular attention to that area. Even in the absence of leaks, however, feet can become wet with sweat. One of the best ways to deal with sweat is through the use of a polypropylene liner sock. This may be the most commonly overlooked weapon in the arsenal against cold feet. If you’ve never worn them, you’ll be amazed. Buy some. Today.
Insulation: The final important consideration is providing your feet with enough space in your boots to be properly insulated; this means buying wading boots that are large enough to accommodate neoprene booties and multiple layers of socks. All of the preparation mentioned above will be meaningless without enough room for an insulating layer of air to surround your feet. Further, tight-fitting boots may restrict blood circulation to your feet. Obviously, multiple pairs of socks will help to provide this insulting layer around your feet. Avoid cotton as it tends to collect moisture much more easily than wool or fleece.
There are a number of other recommendations that I have heard over the years and never felt compelled to try. These include such things as rubbing down your feet with petroleum jelly before putting on your socks and wearing plastic bags over your feet. The plastic bag idea would seem to trap moisture around your foot, so I would advise against it. Besides, following the advice above should prevent you from needing to resort to dipping your feet in Vaseline before fishing.
As far as equipment goes, make sure you have the following items on hand:
I hope these tips make your winter days on the water a little more pleasurable and a lot less miserable. No use sitting at home while some of your favorite waters are devoid of other anglers on chilly winter mornings, right?
I’ll emerge from my tent as the morning sun rises,
The day full of promise and lush with surprises.
The glow of a fire once reaching skyward,
Will sizzle and steam under black coals interred.
I’ll wipe haze from my eyes and shake sleep from my limbs,
No plans for the day and lost to my whims.
In an old, battered vessel, hot coffee will hold
The elixir that frees me from the chains of the cold.
I’ll sit in the stillness as the foggy woods cry
With the sounds of new life and I’ll wonder why
We bring destruction to this place,
Leaving scars and remorse that can’t be erased.
With a somber alertness I’ll survey my hideout
And feel like a traitor, a liar, a sellout.
I wish I could stay, never go back,
To the real life I live, but the courage I lack.
I’ll string up my rod and decide on a fly
And slide into the water feeling brave, feeling sly.
In my hand I’ll hold instruments designed for deception,
My surroundings are natural and I’m the exception.
Feather and fur and the sharp sting of steel
Will bring trout to my hand, and I’ll start to feel
As though I belong, or, at least, I can play
The part of a predator, at least for today.
The fresh smell of rain and the soft smell of hay
Will spark a response and I’ll start to say,
To no one but me, no one to reply,
“I feel at peace. I feel alive.”
When the evening thunder shatters the calm,
When the sky explodes and the rain falls like napalm,
I’ll hide in my tent and peer through the door
As raindrop bomblets clean the forest floor.
I know the rain can never wash away
The pain that I feel or the wounds in this place.
I know it won’t be long before intruders arrive
To clear cut the trees so the backhoes can drive.
I’ll stay in woods as long as I can.
I’ll dream of resistance and I’ll think up a plan
Of how I can stop them or maybe just delay
The imminent doom, but that’s a fight for another day.
As for now, I’ll sleep under a sky
Flush with stars and with wind like a sigh.
I’ll ponder these times, and when I sleep I’ll dream
Of the swarms of evening hatches and painted fish hiding in seams.
I’ll be back before long, the next chance I get.
I know I must leave now, but I’m not ready yet.
I’ll linger for a minute, for an hour, for a day.
“I’ll be back soon,” to myself I say.