Tag Archives: trout

Walker Camp and the Power of Place

I don’t think this place would classify as a river. During times of extreme rain it is little more than a high running creek. The water most days is an endless series of pools accentuated by small rushes of channeled white water. Its life is narrow and thin as it finds its beginnings atop the higher peaks of the Smokies. But this small stream is a sanctuary, a sacred place. The spirit here is profound and thick and it is amazing the amount of clarity you can find if you will allow yourself the opportunity to settle down to its pace.

The canopy of trees and laurel bushes drape over the water as if to protect it. Dark shadows given by the hardwood can be disturbing to those who don’t understand, but for those who see the bigger picture, these sentinels and the shade that they create speak of ancient times; of times we will never know. The moss-covered rocks, the smattering of tiny wildflowers, the deadfall scattered about in wonderful and divine chaos surround this stream. And within this blessed cacophony of nature, I find rest.

I was first introduced to Walker Camp by my friend Jeremy. He didn’t bring me here because of monster trout, or superior angling opportunities. He brought me to that place simply because, like him, he knew I would “get it”. He and I have fished multiple tailwaters throughout the southeast, and though the fishing in those places was good and sometimes downright amazing, the fish were stocked. These expansive southern trout rivers were a result of the great depression and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The small streams of the Smokies were a result of creation itself, and the fish who live their lives here are native. They never knew a stock truck. They never had fins rubbed raw by hatchery walls. They were not relocated to this place; they are this place.

I remember standing at the edge of a large deep pool watching Jeremy moving on upstream, and considering my mortality as my footprints mingled with multiple bear tracks, tracks that were recent and defined. I began roll casting Yellow Sallies to the head of the pool at the point where the water rolls and foams as it falls from the pool above it. The water of Walker Camp is clear, amazingly clear and seemingly devoid of anything but rocks that perhaps began as boulders before the hydrology of the stream, over time, reduced them to stones of brown, grey, and bronze small enough to cup in your hand.

Then, as if by magic, a fish appears. Its bright orange fins tipped in the purist white show up in places where just moments ago you would look and find nothing. Life is hard in the high elevation streams, and the opportunity to eat is not to be squandered, so when the fish commits itself the attacks are swift and sure. It is easy to miss these strikes because once the moment has passed, the fish disappears and you are left looking at an empty stream bottom once again, astonished.

Here in the steep mountains, you must also be aware of the danger of acoustic shadows. Echoes of thunder may reverberate around you so loud that you can feel the vibration in your clothes, yet the sky overhead is cloudless and blue. Storms at this altitude are harsh, and with the sound bouncing from every peak and rise, the bad weather could be many miles away, or just over the next ridge. On this day, the rain came and I found quick shelter beneath one of the stone bridges that traverse the stream. Soaked to the bone I huddled tight against the walls of the passage way until, as quickly as it sprang upon me, it was gone.

The leaving of the rain always brings heavy fog. Fog that gave this place its name crept slowly down from Newfound Gap, draping itself around the treetops, settling into the low places. First you feel the air around you cool, then, within the fog you become invisible and the fishing is easier. You are no longer a foreign shape hovering above the water. You are a formless part of a larger backdrop.  Stealth becomes effortless when you have no need to hide.

I cast my fly, the bright yellow hackle glowing like a beacon through the mist. It drops softly on the surface, and I am not looking for a strike, the visibility is to poor for that. I am just waiting for the moment when the fly vanishes. Then I know of the take.

I lose sight of the fly, hear a splash of water, and raise my rod tip swiftly to the sky.  Setting the hook, I feel the transference of energy up the line, through the bamboo, and to my hand. Violent and urgent, the trout struggles against the unknown, until finally it is pulled from its world into mine. Gold lines meander across the green of its back, the orange of the fins, the dark mouth. It is healthy and large for this stream.

“Nice.”

Startled I wheel around to see Jeremy who had been behind me for God knows how long.  He is soaked and crouched under a mountain laurel leaning the tip of a cigar into a flame.  The earthy smell of the blue-gray smoke mingles with the decay of the forest floor and does not seem out-of-place.

“Amazing.”, I say, lifting the brookie up for closer examination.

“I knew you’d like this spot.” he says with a sly smile.

No more than thirty feet from where I am standing, the steady rumble of traffic echos through the trees.  Windows rolled up tight, air conditioners on, they traverse this magnificent place oblivious to the amazing fish I hold in my hand; a fish whose lineage here goes back to the very foundation of time.  Jeremy snaps a quick photo and I lower the trout back into the pool where it glides from my hand as soft and delicate as a whisper.

In the years since that first trip, I have gone here many times with Jeremy.  We don’t speak much while on the stream.  Most of the time we don’t even see each other till its time to go.  Now, I am making preparations to take my four-year old son to Walker Camp.  The first trips with him will not place fishing on the agenda, that is still a year or so away.  I feel that before he looks at the place as a location to fish, he should first see it in its entirety.  Bugs, animal tracks, the unique stones, imaginary creatures these are the things that make a place more than a means to an end, they will hopefully make Walker Camp a familiar friend, which in itself is the beginning.  For me Walker Camp is more than a fishing hole, it is a place to be protected and sustained, and I hope to teach my son what it means to have more than a passing investment in a blessing such as this.

I take very seriously the responsibility of keeping our native trout waters healthy and safe.  It is of utmost importance to people like myself, my friend Jeremy, and hopefully my son to protect these sacred locations wherever they may be found.  The impacts of air pollution, litter, poor personal practices by visitors, commercial irresponsibility, and the ongoing struggle against climate change, are daunting.  But there are those who are its watchmen.  A great deal of thanks are in order to people like the Fisheries Management staff of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited who work diligently to insure that the clear waters of this important tributary are preserved in the manner in which it is so worthy.

Each year the Little River TU chapter holds Troutfest and much of the monies raised go to protect and maintain the myriad of fishable streams within the park boundaries.  When I go to these events it is almost like a family reunion, because we are all linked deeply to streams like Walker Camp.  When we discussed these waters during the festival, you can see a similar look in the eyes of those in the discussion.  Just as Jeremy said to me long ago…”they get it.”

 

The Senex

The Senex – Part 1

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

Product Review : Dakine Waterproof Duffel

Most people don’t think of Dakine when they think of fly fishing gear, but I am here to tell you that they should. A perfect example is the Dakine Waterproof Duffel. This gear bag is made of waterproof fabric and all the seams are sealed. It features a roll-top that runs along the long side of the bag and a small zipper pocket on the outside. The roll-top closure can be secured to clips on the side or by clipping both ends together.

Fly fishing isn’t always perfect sunny weather and, frankly, I don’t think we would want it to be. Fishing takes us to tropical climates where afternoon rain is expected and to rivers where steelhead swim and often times we are hoping it rains. Honestly, we would be surprised if it didn’t. In the modern world, most of us are packing electronics (phones, cameras, etc.) and, if we are smart, carrying a dry change of clothes…for that unexpected swim. A good dry bag should be of extreme importance and there are plenty of choices out there. The Dakine Waterproof Duffel is the most simple and well thought out one I have found. The biggest problem with most dry bags is that they open on the small narrow end. This means it is difficult to rummage and find what you need. This bag opens on the long side, providing better access to everything in your bag and allowing it to stand on its own while you are working inside. At 23″x16″x12″, it is a great size for stowing in the bottom of the boat or tossing in the back of your truck. It can also adapt to bigger or smaller loads by simply rolling the closure a few more times.

Pros:

  • Easy access: Wide opening on the long side of the bag.
  • Waterproof: As long as it is closed.
  • Adjustable size: Roll more to take up excess space.
  • Multiple carry options: padded shoulder strap, carry handles or by the roll-top clipped together.

Cons:

  • Side Pocket: While it is a zippered closure, it will allow water in under extreme conditions. Don’t learn this the hard way (like I did). The pocket is so small that it is almost inconsequential.

If you haven’t already figured it out, I am a huge fan of this product.  If you ever intend to fish when the weather might be less than ideal, I highly recommend this bag.