Back when I was a kid, we’d go camping in the Appalachians. This wasn’t done for the sake of economy. My dad had a good job with a large manufacturing plant who fabricated gigantic boilers for a then thriving industry. We went camping because my dad was a Trout fisherman, and for one week out of every summer, he and a couple of regulars would haul their families up into the moist, pristine air of the Mountain Laurel and the giant Tulip Poplar, abandoning them in one of the numerous camping areas nestled away in the forest, whilst the men would stay on the creek from daylight to dusk.
As boys, we loved to wade the frigid streams in search of salamanders and crayfish, we’d roam the trails and the dusty graveled road leading up to our camping site from the paved river road, discussing mountain folklore, survival tactics, and what we’d do if we encountered a bear. We’d primed and readied ourselves for the adventure in the preceding weeks by pouring through George Leornard Hurter’s massive catalogue, drawing from his vast knowledge of rugged individualism.. and salesmanship.
One or two mornings out of the week, however, us boys would be given the opportunity to rise and join our dads in this, one of the many rites of passage leading to manhood, by waking before dawn and quietly dressing in our tents before joining up in the cool twilight to sip coffee and shiver ourselves awake as we anticipated the trophy fish that lay skulking beneath the surface of the roaring creek. After our bait-casting rods were loaded up and we’d laid away provisions of sardines, pork and beans, crackers and Little Debbie snacks, we’d head out.
The banks of the narrow tributaries we fished were at once jagged and slippery. The pull-offs along the lower portion of the river road which shadowed the twisting the creek would be littered with automobiles and pickup trucks, especially on the mornings following the restocking days, and generally, we would get directed into an area teaming with newly stocked trout.
The Game and Fish Commission, in the interest of preserving the species and, at the same time, satisfying the growing population of sport fishermen, would raise thousands of these fish in specially made ‘rearing pools’ high up in the mountain. These pools were actually long troughs, feed by the waters diverted from the streams that the fish would later be deposited in, and teeming with trout in every size of ‘manufacture’. In reality, these fish, having been grain fed for the entirety of their short lives, possessed upon stocking, very little in the way of cunning and were even less wary, and plucking them from the creek was almost as easy as shooting them in a barrel.
As years passed and we boys grew older, we graduated to open-face spin-casting reels and lighter rods. As our angling skills grew, along with our sure-footedness, we would be introduced to progressively more difficult stretches of river farther up into the mountains.
On some of those mornings, our dads would decide to travel up the dirt roads into the ‘primitive areas’, being those parts of the forest that lay beyond the management of the Fish Commission and the Forestry Service. Here, different permits were required, and the limit was a fewer number of fish. The competition for a fishing hole was much lighter, and Jeeps and the occasional Land Rover were the vehicles of choice along their quieter lengths. These streams, being unmanaged, were occupied by fish which were creatures of a different sort. These fish were either ‘natives’ of these waters, or had, upon release, migrated upstream to escape the weekend angler, wherein any memory of a rearing pool had long been forgotten. Here, wily Rainbow Trout lay in wait and special care was to be taken in approaching them. Drab, natural colored clothing was required here, for upon catching sight of suspicious movements above water, these fish would disappear underneath a stone until long after the impatient fisherman had made his departure; there were also large and meaty Brown Trout, which, with their tan skins, black spots and hooked snouts resembled Salmon.
Farther upstream, however, odd anglers of a different sort began to appear, and crept among the water snakes and the snapping turtles. They carried long and willowy rods and wore chest waders and traveled alone, rather than in packs, as I was used to seeing on the river road. Here, these fellows, upon coming into contact with another fisherman of my sort, wore disapproving looks just beneath the surface of their face. They spoke little and would walk far down the road after coming across me, as if hoping that the distance would swallow them up. When I inquired as to what they were fishing for, my dad would just reply, “Aw, that’s just an ‘ol fly fisherman. They’re always walking around up here but I don’t reckon they ever catch nothing.”
They seemed to have a secret, and I wanted to know what it was. They were different, and I, feeling as different as they seemed to be, wanted to be like them.
It was quite some time later that I discovered their secret and why they wandered about, seemingly fish-less. For there, beyond the ten foot falls the other fish could not pass, on into the tiny passages that most ‘serious’ fishermen would disregard as being a preposterous waste of time, lay the true native of the Appalachian waters, Salvelinus fontinalis, more commonly referred to as the Brook Trout. Actually, the Brookie, as it is fondly referred to, is not a Trout at all, but a Char. It bears squiggly, worm-like dark patches about the upper portion of its body and white and red spots about the sides. The leading edge of the fin is a brilliant white stripe, followed by a black one. They are perfectly suited to their environment, blending in beautifully. Once out of the water, however, one wonders how such an arrangement could camouflage at all. Nature is a marvelous thing.
I remember the first time that I hooked a Brook Trout and I’ve never forgotten the first one that slipped my hook. When the diminished Brook Trout hits your fly and flashes in the water, he does so with the ferocity of his larger downstream water-mates, but if one bears a fine fly rod whilst angling for this diminutive creature, no finer time can be had in the true sport of fishing, because here, where manly ‘size’ doesn’t matter, the very essence of fishing is realised. This is how I fell in love with fly fishing.
At first, I was scoffed at when I decided to purchase my first fly rod, a 9 foot, straw colored fibreglass affair made by Eagle Claw. I learned to cast by reading articles in Field & Stream magazine and practicing out in my front lawn. I had been taught to tie nymphs and wet flies by my dad years earlier, but now I was tying dry flies and tiny streamers. When we’d go to the river in the mountains, everybody else would have their creel limits caught and I would be labouring on my second or third fish. Later that afternoon, I was undaunted during their bragging rights, about who caught how many and whose fish was biggest. Personally, I didn’t give a shit. I enjoyed fishing, not just catching fish. I assured them that catching two fish on fly-fishing gear was a more rewarding experience than catching two limits on spinning tackle, and I meant it. Several years later, after I started driving, I began to explore different streams and creeks on my own, venturing ever deeper into the mountains. Needless to say, I went alone.
The next time I shopped for a fly rod, my purchase was made at a specialty store which was owned by a husband and wife outfitter. They were a savvy couple, a little older than I, who knew the area I fished in very well. Over time, the lady and I spent hours discussing fly tying and casting approaches. I learned a great deal about how to choose a fly rod from her husband, and he took me out in the back lot, explaining how my cast had to be modified when using a smaller, more sensitive rod. I went home with a state of the art 7.5 foot, graphite Cortland rod. It cost me $135. in 1985 and I still use and enjoy it to this day.
In the realm of fly fishing, the entire process can be condensed into what is known as catch and release. This is why the fly fishermen always seemed to go without luck when I was a kid. The game is in presenting a well tied fly as naturally as possible and outwitting the incredibly nervous Brookie. Once the little fellow has exhausted himself in the struggle, his reward is his freedom and the chance to fight another day, better educated than before.
The fisherman’s reward is to be able to live in the moment, and to be able to come back and relive that moment another day.
That, my friend, is what life is all about.