Apr 8 2009 7:17 pm

I've always wanted to learn how to fly fish

The rain comes hard and often to the Great Balsams.  It drips through the high mountain canopy and soaks the forest floor.  As Fir and Spruce give way to Birch and Beech and then in turn to Oak, the water comes together in headwater creeks and rushes with a ceaseless violence.  They grow in size as they meet one another and tumble off parts of the pluton that bulge naked with a proud, lithospheric aplomb.  After three thousand feet of falling the waters finally slow and the Davidson River runs deep and cold in early March.


The river cuts its way out of the mountains tended by leaning Hemlocks and Rhododendron that sprawl over the banks like long, knobby jointed fingers tipped with whorls of thick green leaves held out over the water.  They form a corridor through which the crystalline cyanic river flows, alternating in an animated pearlescent illusion between aquamarine and cerulean.  The river bottom is composed of fist-sized cobbles in brown and gold and long stretches of white sand laid out in sharp, tapering arcs between angular slabs of gray rock. 

Five pound brown trout lay practically on the bottom in small pods presumably sifting through the drift for midge larvae but they really just seem to lay there.  I had a tough morning, catching a single, relatively small trout on a very small red midge.  My feet felt like cinder blocks; when I climbed out of the river at noon I couldn’t feel my toes bending. 

As the sun climbed over head and warmed the water, tiny rise forms began to dimple the surface of the river.  I waded out into a deeper, narrow section and could see three dark, fusiform shapes hanging tucked up beneath the opposite undercut bank.  A small tree with a tangle of tendril-like branches reached out over the water just upstream of the lie and probably made the fish feel safe.  Every once in a while one of the dark shapes would cruise out into the current a few inches, sip something from the surface, then float languorously back into the hole. 

I tied on a new piece of 8x tippet and to the end of that a black, #28 thread body parachute midge with two wraps of miniature brown hackle around the thin post.  I had to rollcast thirty or so feet across the river because of trees on the bank behind me and it took three or four attempts to place the fly just right.  On the second well placed cast, just as the tiny speck I thought was my fly floated past the mess of branches, one of the shadows moved.

Drifting casually out into the current the twenty inch fish angled his body up and turned in the water pointing his head at the fly until he was perpendicular to the bank drifting sideways.  Then he rose, simply opened his mouth, and descended back into the water column.  I set the hook gently.  He didn’t make a run at first.   He writhed on the surface in a glistening mess of meat, attempting to violently exorcise those demons.  Then he ran downstream stripping line from the reel and my drag whined and I filled my lungs with the mountain air and let out a long, booming whoop that echoed between the banks.  This fish was thick and angular with muscles and had a big, fat mouth. 

I walked downstream, into the brown and gray woods on the floodplain where branches and leaves were piled against the upstream side of the tree trunks and the trails were not so obvious.  I walked for a while until I felt alone and started to fish a sharp bend where I caught one small fish nymphing. 

I fished my way back upstream slowly until a log jam halted my progress.  I got out of the river and threaded through the jungle of rhododendron emerging above a long, wide, shallow glide that tapered at the top where the water came in strong and deep.  There was a man standing just off to the side of the run in a foot of water.  He was clothed in full zip waders and a shiny new orange chest pack that beamed into the woods like an emergency beacon. 

A ceiling of gray clouds slid in under the blue sky, darkening the woods.   Soft thunder rolled in the distance.  A few drops of rain fell.  Wind howled up the river and I shivered. 

I fished the bottom of the glide for twenty minutes.  The rain came harder so I put my hood up and the rain pit-pit-patted and the brushing of Gore-Tex muted everything else. 

I walked to the man and he spoke to me, “Any luck?”

“Yeah, a bit.  Better luck up by the hatchery though.  You?”

“Nope.  Nothin’.  I can see the fish in here.  They’re swimmin’ around and eatin’ bugs, but they don’t seem to care about my fly.  Not.  One.  Bit.”

“These fish are selective.  You’ll never catch anything with a giant, bushy fly like that.  This river is famous for its midges.  You need to use something smaller.  Much smaller.  If you’d ever done any tailwater fishing you’d know what I mean.”

“But this is a #18.  It’s the smallest I have.”

“That’s gargantuan to these fish.  The big, bleached elk hair wing, all that hackle, these fish are probably scared of that fly.  And what kind of tippet are use using?”

“I’m not sure.  It’s just one of those tapered leaders you can buy.”

“Well, 5x tippet is like a giant freaking rope on the top of the water tied to your giant mop of a fly.  6x tippet is probably too big for these fish.  I’d start with 7x and you might have to move to 8x.”

“I don’t think I have any of that.  I have one thing of tippet.  It’s, hold on, it’s, looks like 5x.”

“One spool of tippet in that big pack?  5x is too big.  You’re really not set up for this bit of water at all.  I’d suggest you pack it in and head up the mountain, fish the rougher water for some of those cocky little brookies.”

“I drove all the way up from Atlanta this morning.  I read on the internet that this is one of Trout Unlimited’s top 100 streams in America.  I’m trying to fish as many of them as I can.  This is my first one.”

“Well, it is a fine river.  But like I said, you should really fish some of the easier water higher up until you can get set up for down here.  It’s just that it’s pretty technical fishing, that’s what people call it, technical, and you’re not set up for it.  It’s hard fishing and it takes the right flies and skills.  I feel your pain, but you have to pay your dues.  Maybe instead of spending all your money on fancy waders you could hire a guide for a day, have them show you what’s what.”

“Fine.  I was just excited about getting to fish for some wild trout on a famous river.  I suppose I’m a little ahead of myself.  Thanks for the pointers I guess.”

He turned and began to walk away.  I made two false casts and dropped the fly at the head of the run about five feet in front of a previous rise and mended the line.  A small fish rose and the man heard the splashing and turned around.

“I stood here for two hours and didn’t catch anything.  Now you come up and WHAM on your first cast!”

“Got to have the right fly,” I said to him with a sly grin on my face as I released the fish.  My eyes were focused and intense as I began casting and mending methodically.  I thought to myself: I am just one goddamn fountain of fly fishing wisdom.  I should try guiding.  I bet I’d be pretty good at it.  Take money from these kind of people.  I may not have the best gear but at least I’m catching fish.  Yeah, I’m the real deal, man.  Maybe I’ll start writing about fishing.  I’ll write an article about technical fishing.  Maybe publish something on tying adult midge patterns.  What would I name my little parachute midge?  Matt’s Midge?  No, that’s stupid.  I’ll think of something clever.  It’ll just come to me. 

The man walked up the river a couple hundred feet and waded in again and began to fish a pool, casting occasional glances in my direction. 

Fish were feeding on the surface at the top of the run but they would not take my midge again.  They looked to be focused on emergers as they broke the water with just dorsal fin and tail, showing the green, heavily black spotted back of a rainbow trout porpoising.  I tried something different: a #22 olive Comparadun that was sparsely dressed with a whisper of dubbing and twenty deer hair tips splayed widely behind the hook eye.  Thin to win.  It rode low in the water.  On the first cast a rainbow darted over from the side of the pool and ate it. 

The rain came harder and I grew colder and the rises blended into the rain drops.  I looked up the river and the man was gone, in his place a thin fog began to gather over the splattered water and the air was cold and gray and the late winter thunder in the distance made me uneasy. 

I started back towards the parking lot and after a few minutes came across a recently abandoned camp where the man had stoked up the still smoldering underside of some thick logs into a sizable, sizzling fire.  He squatted next to it with his palms outstretched toward the flames, his face half covered in the shadow of his hood from which rain dripped in plasma slow motion and his white breath issued forth rhythmically in round, rolling clouds.  I stood across the fire from him and the smoke wafted back and forth from me to him and me to him and finally he looked up and spoke in a subtle, warm drawl that sounded like the wood smoke.       

“Pretty crowded up there by the hatchery.  That’s why I came down here, try and get away from ‘um.”

“Then I came wading right into your hole.  Sorry about that.”

“That’s all right.  I wasn’t catchin’ anything anyway.  You were catchin’ ‘em pretty good though.”

“Yeah, I was doing ok.  You really have to use tiny flies and light tippet.  These fish are selective.”

“I guess so.” 

“I could give you a couple flies and a piece of tippet if you want.”

“Yeah, that’d be nice.  Thanks.”

“No problem.  I understand.  This river is not your typical southern Appalachian creek.”

“Well, that’s not it really.  You were right.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  This is my first real fly fishin’ trip.  I’m nuuuuuwly retired.”  He said this last sentence with a half-hearted smile and closed eyes, moving his head slowly from side to side with each syllable until his chin was angled up to the left and his lips were rolled in which gave him a look of sarcastic pride.  


“Really?  How old are you?  Thirty?  Must be nice to retire so young.”

“I was diagnosed with cancer a couple weeks ago.  They gave me six months.  I’ve always wanted to learn how to fly fish.”

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