“Now, I ain’t never gone fly fishin’, but I did fish for trout in Colorado one time. Not up in the mountains or anything, just down in the farmland. We fished in this little creek that just dug right down through the middle of them wheat fields.”
Four-thirty a.m. came much too early, even though I was excited about getting on the road and heading west to stalk some Smoky Mountain trout. And it was especially difficult as I was late to bed and had slept poorly. Mary had been out of town for a few days and was unable to remind me what was a proper bedtime or to warm my feet in the middle of the night, though she may not have missed the later.
With no one else home, there was little need to tiptoe around the house, but it just seemed natural in the stillness of pre-dawn. I went about my shower and breakfast quietly. Only Sammy noticed, lifting his head and wagging his nub of a terrier tail briefly before settling back into his cozy bed. Not even the promise of a post-shower leg licking would budge him at that hour.
I had packed my gear in the truck the evening before - fly rods, reels, waders, outerwear, the assortment of paraphernalia that accompanies a fisherman everywhere – readying it for a chilly trip to the North Fork of the New River to fish with a friend. I’d even staged my traveling clothes neatly, insuring my morning stupor wouldn’t cause me to forget some necessity. All I needed to do was get up, feed and walk the dog, and get going. I could sleepwalk through each morning task, and did.
“We fished with some old cane poles and worms. We floated them worms right down the middle of the stream to where they dropped into a small pool and the fish just jumped on ‘em. We musta caught forty trout that day, all about yay long”, his hands held about a foot apart.
On a whim, I took the diagonal route, driving the two-lane State Road 87 catty-corner across Chatham County rather than the sterile, squared combination of four-lane slabs 64 and 421. I played high beam – low beam games with intermittent oncoming traffic along the thin ribbon of rural road and wondered where folks were going so early. As it was a Monday, they were, no doubt, headed to work. I drove along smug in the knowledge that I was going fishing. Google Maps said that I’d save ten minutes going this route. I doubted it, but still wished I’d used those extra ten for another push of the snooze button.
Midway through the county a brief and unexpected shower spattered my windshield. I didn’t worry about getting wet that day, but instead regretted that I hadn’t brought along any large streamers for the big brown trout that like such rain and its accompanying rising water. Fishermen think different than normal folk.
In need of gas, and even more in need of caffeine, I stopped at a rural Shell convenience store just as the first dull glow of dawn crept into the southeastern sky. As I filled the Ridgeline, an early-rising rooster began to cockle-doodle-do the start of another winter day from a small barn across the road. Once the truck was filled and I felt the liberation that accompanies a full tank of gas, I hurried into the store for a Mountain Dew and something to silence my rumbling stomach.
At 6:00 in the morning you would expect things to be quiet, but the store was alive with a dozen men, young and old, gathering for their morning communion before heading off to work or to the cold fields. Good-natured laughter filled the warm open space in the back of the store where the locals gathered around a small table and shared their morning coffee.
We exchanged hearty good mornings and, when asked how I was doing, I responded “Well” and felt obliged to mention that I was headed west to fish. “Trout fishing?” one of the elders asked. I nodded and he began to tell the story of his lone Colorado fishing experience. His buddies chuckled behind him and I wasn’t sure if they were amused at his crazy tale or at me for listening. I suspect that there have been a lot of legs pulled at this morning gathering over the years. In truth, his story may have seemed a bit fantastic to those who have not seen the high plains streams or who have not high stick dead drifted a nymph through moving water. They may not have believed him. I did.
“We cleaned them fish right there, right down to the gills, and took them back and had a fine meal. Sure was a nice way to spend the day. I’ll bet fly fishin’ is like that – a nice way to spend a day. You have a good trip today, ya hear”.
I said my goodbye, climbed back into the truck, and continued up SR 87. The Carmen Cole Beauty Salon’s time and temperature sign blinked 6:13am and 83 degrees. The Ridgeline’s dash agreed with the time, but registered a much chillier 33. Longing for spring, I liked Carmen's number better, but stoked the truck’s heater in the face of reality.
Finally, on I-40, headed west, the sun rose, filling my rear view with the orange brilliance of a new day. It was that golden moment when you need both your headlights and your sunglasses to drive comfortably. With the gray remnants of yesterday on the horizon ahead, my rear-facing mirrors were windows into an awakening world, full of promise, and quickly catching up to me.
I was headed west to go fishing. I could stop in a couple of hours in the Smokies, as planned, or I could just keep driving, racing the new day toward those Colorado high plains trout streams. The day was mine.
And it really wasn’t too early.