“There’s a beast down in this pool. I thought it was a log, 'til it moved.”
Fishermen are an optimistic lot. They’re constantly willing fish – big fish - into existence by deduction, desire, and the delusive interpretation of capricious apparitions that are given life (and fins) by light’s passage through moving water. Rock and stick and shadow are no match for this power. I suppose it’s why I appreciate my fishin’ buddies so much; they’re hopelessly positive. Always anticipating the big bite. Always certain that the next cast will be the one. Always bottle half-full.
So when Marc said those words I smiled, nodded, and turned back up stream, knowing that he’d be there a while. He’d drunk the Kool-aid. Moreover, he has the makeup to stand over a run for hours, focused on drift after drift; the world reduced to an endless loop; the repetitive movement of a tiny nymph under a yarn indicator along a liquid seam, time and time and time again.
I’d go insane.
You see, I’m an unapologetic streamer addict with happy feet. If a trout hasn’t come knockin' on my minnow/muddler/marabou/whatever after a handful of swings, I’m on the move, quartering my way downstream. I suspect (hell, I know) that I drive my companions crazy. One minute I’m at the tailout below. The next minute, I’m out of sight. Way out of sight. I'm hard to keep track of.
So when Marc hunkered down to drift the “beast” into hypnotic submission, I climbed back up to the roadway, intent on walking a half-mile upstream and working my way back down again. He’d still be there. I had plenty of time.
But I didn’t get far.
This waterway’s tucked tidily into the extreme western point of the state, flowing out of the Smokies to join with a myriad of watersheds to feed North Carolina's glittering jewel, Fontana. An hour-and-a-half out of Asheville, maybe two from Knoxville, it’s part of the Delayed Harvest program; a hatchery supported stream that’s strictly catch-and-release for the majority of the year but with windows of opportunity for the legal, controlled harvesting of trout.
North Carolina DH waters are often borderline habitats; streams that might possibly attain inhospitable temperatures in our scorching southern summers. The “delayed harvest” periods tend to coincide with the onset of seasonal heat, saving a few fish from Carolina’s slow boil. That is, if you consider getting caught and eaten as being saved. I suppose being fried is better than being poached.
“Mike! Come back! I’m gonna need HELP!”
So maybe there was a good fish down there. I knew that Marc’s small stream net bag wasn’t going to be enough to scoop a really good-sized trout. (And, to be sure, this fish would be big, based on the excitement in his voice.) My deep seventeen-inch Gallatin might come in handy. I headed back.
As I scrambled back down the rock face, I scanned for the fish, expecting to see all hell breaking loose, but there was only Marc’s strike indicator hovering a foot above the pool’s surface; gliding slowly and quietly upstream. No thrashing about. No zigzags. Just steady, forward motion. Like a freight train pulling out of the depot.
It took a moment, but ahead of the indicator, crawling the bottom of the pool, I picked out the fish - five, maybe six feet down - and was stunned. My Brodin was a joke. The foot-and-a-half, deep-bagged rubber net might as well have been an aquarium dipper.
What makes this particular DH stream unique is that it runs colder year round than most and, on occasion, the state releases broodstock into it. To keep the genetic lines of brook, brown, and rainbow trout robust, NC Wildlife often replaces its egg-machine hens, retiring the old ones and letting them finish their days in a natural setting rather than the dreary concrete hatchery chutes. A nice touch.
The day before, I had coaxed a nineteen-inch, football-shaped brook trout from a tiny plunge pool just upstream. It was a fish impossibly large to have matured on the thin hatches along this stretch and its scuffed nose further gave away its origins.
Stocked or not, it had been the fish of the weekend. Until…
Marc’s face wore a rugged mask of concentration, panic, determination and disbelief; all appropriate given he was tied to a departing submarine by a spiderweb strand of 6X. Ten, maybe fifteen, pounds of salmonid on three-pounds of floro. That’s bad math.
There was no panic in the fish. It moved steadily towards the top of the forty-yard pool as Marc gently palmed the reel, his 5wt Helios absorbing and buffering the strain in impressive manner. As the beast reached the riffles it held, glided left, then right, and paused, giving everyone a moment to catch their breath. To wonder what came next. Whatever it was, it was the fish’s decision, not ours. We waited.
There was no option to follow the trout. We clung to a small outcropping in a steep rock wall, the outside edge of a bend in the stream, spooned into a roadside curve. Behind us stood a fifteen-foot climb to the asphalt; before of us, a deep pool with no transitional space. We were stuck there for the duration.
In time, the fish let the current push it back towards the heart of the pool, towards us, and Marc carefully applied pressure to direct it to our side. I clung to the rocks, prepared to reach out should it get close enough to grasp. Patiently, Marc eased it our way and, as it came close, it rose and we got our first clear look.
More steelhead than mountain trout, this rainbow was massive. My best guess is thirty-two inches. Marc suggests longer and I'd be hard pressed to argue. A hen, without kype, and a chunk taken from her upper tail, she was the biggest freshwater fish I’d ever seen; just out of reach and drifting back into the pool.
Twice more it approached and I tapped its tail, trying to wrangle it with the Brodin. Each time it sullenly declined and slipped back to the heart of the waterway.
A final time it came close, but slid further downstream, Marc's leader slipping under a submerged branch just within my reach. I stretched and tenderly rested my finger alongside the butt section and eased if from under the limb, holding my breath as if I were clipping the red wire (or should it be the blue?) from a ticking time bomb. No explosion. The tippet held.
But the hen drifted further along, adding the weight of the current to the already unbalanced equation, and Marc feared the leader had hung once again. I reached out and, just as I touched it, the 6X’s timer expired. There was a sickening ping and time stood still…
…‘til the beast slowly turned and continued downstream.
We sat by the roadside. Pulled two chairs from the back of the truck, and a bottle, and just sat. We hadn’t the heart to wet another line, despite the fact that a full afternoon lay ahead and the day was a peach. There was even a hatch in the offing.
We could have kept fishing, but to what end?
We were gutted.
After a while we left. Packed the chairs, threw the still quivering gear into the back, and drove home. Five hours of road time to think about what had transpired.
Was it my second kiss on the leader? Was it the added current? Was it the accumulated stress of a fifteen-minute fight on tender 6X? In truth, the manner by which Marc kept the fight alive for so long is more worthy of analysis than the break-off. But what actually tipped the scales, we’ll never know.
I have friends who consider a fish caught if it’s been touched, sparing them the loss if one’s been fumbled away at the end. So I suppose that Marc could say that we landed the hen once my net brushed its tail.
It doesn’t feel that way.
Perhaps we could have been more patient. Tired her further before nudging her close. Tailed her. Or I could have climbed to the road and gone thirty yards downstream to the riffles below and waited for a worn out fish to drift down. I fear we’d have killed her, though, providing an unjust end to a life of service to the fishermen of our state. We’ll be catching her offspring for years so she deserves better than that.
And besides, this way she’s still out there. Out there feeding the next fisherman’s optimism. Feeding ours. For when you can hook and fight a three-foot trout in the small tumbling waters of the Appalachians, anything’s possible. The bottle's always half-full.
Hey. Did that log just move?
Note: A belated thanks to Marc Payne, Gary, and E.L. for the kind invitation to join them on their annual weekend getaway. It was an honor to be included and a most memorable couple of days, as you can plainly see.