An Appalachian Adventure

I was delighted to have another article published in the South African magazine Flyfishing (the February 2013 edition). The article recounts the fishing part of my visit to the American south in May last year and my first ever encounter with brook trout. I wrote about the trip more informally at the time in my diary: Brook Trout of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The article is reproduced with the kind permission of the magazine's editor, Dave Rorke. The full text appears below the images.






An Appalachian Adventure

Discovering Brook Trout in the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

“I studied him a moment and thought what a bright, lissome, perfect fish this little American char is.” Thomas McGuane, ‘The Longest Silence’


After weeks of anticipation and planning the moment finally arrived when I found myself standing in warm spring sunlight on a bridge in North Carolina, peering into a little stream I hoped would contain brook trout. Tall, leafy green trees flanked the deserted gravel road which descended the slopes of the highest peak in eastern USA. Less than 20 minutes earlier I had been standing at the summit of Mount Mitchell at an elevation of 6,684 ft, taking in the undulating expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains with bikers from Ohio and an Amish couple. In true American style you can drive up to the summit and buy a hamburger at the top. Now at an elevation of about 3,800 ft my ears were still popping from the winding descent. I took in the remarkably pellucid waters of the little stream as it emerged from the trees next to the road and gushed noisily beneath the bridge and down the steep slope. Every fly fisherman will know of the anticipation and hope that immediately precedes the first view of a stream or river from a bridge. This was no different except that I felt an additional apprehension too. My single-minded mission during my short visit to the area was to find brook trout. Finding them in these mountains can be a difficult task for a first time visitor. The countless number of rivers and streams is an obstacle in itself. Most will have rainbow trout and some will have brown trout but there is no guarantee of finding brook trout. Relying on vague directions, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place or looking at the right river. Neither the gravel road nor the stream was sign posted. My research on blogs and forums revealed the locals of the Blue Ridge Mountains to be a largely secretive bunch when it comes to brook trout. My questions were answered in the most general terms or stonewalled with silence. The whereabouts of their precious “specks” (short for speckled trout) is a jealously guarded secret, reaching fanatical proportions on the rare occasion they can be found near an access road. With enough time I would have loved to hike to a remote stream somewhere in the mountains, and spend some time camping, but it didn’t help that I had only a very limited time for fishing. Having asked for directions to a brook trout stream near a road perhaps explains the paucity of any substantive response.

The secrecy is for good measure – brook trout have been displaced from their usual range by habitat degradation and the introduction of rainbow and brown trout and today typically exist in the extreme upper reaches of river catchments. They are a fragile fish vulnerable to minute changes in their environment. It has also been discovered that indigenous brook trout are a separate Southern Appalachian strain altogether from their north-eastern relatives and this knowledge has promoted the need to protect their genetic diversity with even more zeal. Before this recent appreciation of their uniqueness, it didn’t help that hatchery reared north-eastern brook trout were stocked into local rivers in an ultimately misguided attempt at restoring numbers of brook trout. Resultant hybridisation has had an impact on Southern Appalachian brook trout.      

Back on the bridge, I remember being startled by the small size of the stream and daunted by a combination of the steep gradient and the thick vegetation choking the stream beneath the canopy of trees. The reality was far from the picture I had developed in my mind when planning the trip. This couldn’t possibly be the right river, could it? I had come too far to pass up the challenge and there was after all, only one way to find out if the stream had any brook trout in it. I made up my rod and viewed the contents of my fly box with some suspicion. The contents looked just as exotic and curious as I perceived brook trout to be. Big and bushy rubber-legged monstrosities of flies garishly coloured in yellow and lime green stared back at me. These flies would have put down the wild trout of my home streams for a week. My natural inclination is to reach for small and natural looking dry flies but an attendant in a fly shop in nearby Asheville told me brook trout are opportunistic feeders and that “any big and bushy fly” will do the trick. The pattern is not as important as the presentation of the fly. “It doesn’t matter what fly you put on, as long as it behaves properly” I was told. My research had also revealed that yellow is a highly successful fly colour in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I shunned the rubber-legged trout repellents and opted for a more normal looking #14 yellow Stimulator. I ignored the first pool next to the road and stepped into the cool, sun dappled forest, treading on damp leaf litter and mossy green rocks. Fragments of mica glittered on the streambed. I crept up through the cold water to the first pool of any size, bath tub size, stepping over fallen logs and pushing aside fronds of ubiquitous rhododendron as I went. A normal cast was impossible so I poked my rod through the vegetation and catapulted the fly into the pool with a bow and arrow cast. I held my breath. The swift current brought the fly back to me and I repeated the cast. Within a second or two a splashy, aggressive rise to the fly surprised me by its speed and I lifted the rod far too late. It happened so fast that I didn’t see enough of the fish to tell if it was a brook trout. My fly was lodged in the branches above the pool from the delayed strike and I had to stand to forcibly dislodge it, removing any chance of a further cast into the pool. Cheered by the immediate reaction to the fly I knew then that I was in for an entertaining day’s fishing. I quickly moved up the ascending ground to the next pool, knelt, bow and arrow cast the fly to the head of the tiny pool and lifted my rod when the stimulator was enveloped in a splashy rise of water. The fish came to the surface and turned, and in that instant I saw spotted green flanks and orange fins and knew it was a brook trout. The fight was brief and I was soon holding the delicate little creature in my hands where I could admire its brilliance. A perfect living tapestry coloured in hues of red, orange, white, blue and green, easily amongst the prettiest of all the trout and char species. Its back, dorsal fin and tail displayed vermiculated patterns like the patterns made by termites in dry wood. Its flanks were spotted with red encircled by blue, just like low-visibility roundels used on camouflaged RAF aircraft, interspersed with flecks of yellow. A new species caught on the fly is a thing to celebrate.

I continued with this pattern of fishing, climbing the slope of the mountain until I reached a pool of any size, usually the plunge pool of a waterfall, casting my fly to the hungry and willing brook trout. Other than the tumultuous sound of the water, the forest was strangely silent. The complete lack of bird song lent an eerie feel to the fishing. Dark coloured rocks and tree stumps took on the shape of black bears and I realised, rather unhappily, that so thick was the rhododendron that if I did encounter a black bear I would have little room to move in a hurry. Black bears are not quite in the Grizzly bear’s league of threat but this was the first time I had fished in the range of any bear species and the chance of an encounter added an element of excitement to the fishing. I also kept a watchful eye on the leaf litter for any sign or sound of timber rattlesnakes. Fortunately I encountered no bears or rattlesnakes.

Eventually the gradient became too steep, the waterfalls too high, and my progress up the stream was halted. I had caught ten brook trout by then, all between 6 and 8 inches and all of them wild, ethereal creatures. I packed light for this trip, taking with me only a fly rod, tippet and a fly box. With hindsight I should have packed dry fly floatant too. The powerful current would soon sink the dry fly after a handful of casts and I was forced to regularly change flies between yellow Stimulators, yellow Humpies, Royal Wulffs and Parachute Madam X (PMX). I noticed that low riding or slightly sunken dry flies were ignored with interest shown only in high floating flies. I eventually settled on a solution – a highly buoyant foam variation of the Stimulator called a Yellow Foamulator and this fly accounted for more fish than any other pattern. I had only one in my box and after 3 hours of fishing it looked much worse for the wear. In those 3 hours I had in reality done more climbing up waterfalls and over fallen trees than fishing but it was worth every drop of sweat to have found and caught brook trout in this wild and obviously under-fished setting. Making my way back down to the road was even tougher than making my way up. Rather than take my chances on the treacherous waterfalls I broke up my rod and made my way downhill through the rhododendron, eventually emerging sweaty, muddy and covered in sticky residue from the plants. I wasn’t done yet. I had earlier spotted a small tributary about 30 metres up the road and I walked there now along the gravel road and up the stream through the forest and managed to catch one further brook trout from this tiny trickle of water. Afterwards I sat in the sun awhile to dry off, hugely satisfied that I had accomplished my goal of catching a brook trout. I had no way of telling if these were the Southern Appalachian strain of brook trout but that didn’t matter to me. 

The following day we set off at dawn from our base at Asheville, a pleasant and relaxing city with a cool climate and good choice of restaurants, and made our way south along the historic Blue Ridge Parkway. This winding 755km road follows the ridgeline of the Appalachians from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia southwards to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Construction of the road commenced in 1936 and took 52 years to complete. The scenery is spectacular from the road and its many viewpoints and simply driving along it is an experience in itself. On the way we took a detour, taking the road to the touristy Cherokee Indian Reservation. A reasonably good sized river called the Oconaluftee flows through the reservation and the town of Cherokee. Upon entering the town a large billboard on the side of the road proudly touts the river as “the most stocked river in the south east USA.” Presumably many find this an attractive feature for it to warrant a large billboard but it had the opposite effect on me. After a brief stop at the informative Cherokee history centre we pushed on to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (“GSMNP”) where I’d opted for half a day’s fishing whilst my travelling companions hiked one of the park’s many hiking trails. The GSMNP is the most visited national park in the USA and we were a little unfortunate in that our visit coincided with the Memorial Day long weekend. As noon approached the roads became choked with cars and sinuous cavalcades of Harley-Davidsons. Within the park there are countless miles of river fishing with the opportunity to catch rainbow, brown and brook trout. You can walk in any direction and soon enough you will come by a river with trout, with enough fishing to keep an angler busy for a lifetime. Beyond the accessible and well fished rivers next to or near main roads locals practice “blue-lining” where blue lines (rivers) appearing on topographical maps are selected and explored. Many of these streams will not have seen an angler for years.

Planning my trip weeks in advance I had chosen to fish the Road Prong, a tributary of the Walker’s Camp Prong. Available information suggested it was a promising river to find brook trout in. It is next to two hiking trails so it fitted in with the plans of my travelling companions perfectly. The main road through the park, which had brought us into the state of Tennessee, follows the Walker’s Camp Prong for a while and I had already seen two fly fishermen fishing its waters. Crossing the foot bridge over the Walker’s Camp Prong I saw a third fly fisherman a little way upstream. I carried on up the trail until it took me over the Road Prong, a small stream yet substantially larger than the stream I had fished the day before. I desperately hoped that no-one had fished the stream before me. My concerns were alleviated within seconds when the first cast I sent into the pool above the bridge with a chartreuse coloured ‘Foam Terrestrial’ drew a fish in a slashing rise.  It was a brook trout, noticeably brighter and more vivid in colouration than the trout I had caught the day before, ninety miles away in North Carolina. The most outstanding feature of the bright little fish were its deep orange fins edged in ivory white that I could see clearly in the water like a beacon after I released it back in to the pool.

The water was fairly deep in some pools so I tied a local inchworm pattern called a Green Weenie below the dry fly, literally nothing more than a few wraps of green chenille on a bead head hook. A fair deal of interest was shown by the fish in this pattern although not all of them were brought to hand. Seeing more angling pressure the fish in this stream did seem more educated than my previous day’s experience and some pools yielded no sign of fish at all. As with the day before the terrain proved challenging and the only way to progress upstream was in the river itself. I covered about half a kilometre in two and a half hours, fishing the pocket water and pools, within which time I was able to bring another five brook trout and an unexpected but feisty rainbow trout to hand.

The catching of fish was relatively easy, for brook trout proved quick to rise to a well presented dry fly, but the fishing was for the most part difficult given the terrain and challenging casting conditions. The combination of mountains, clean air, forest, solitude, small streams, very willing and wild brook trout and their penchant for the dry fly all ensured that this was an unforgettable and exceptional fishing experience. Driving out of the park that evening we sat in a traffic jam reminiscent of rush hour in Johannesburg caused by a sighting of a black bear with cubs up ahead. People grew impatient and honked their horns. The sun set and fireflies appeared and did their light dance in the trees next to the road. For all I know I could have been glowing too, so content was I after two perfect days of small stream fishing.

Comments

  1. Looks like a wonderful trip
    Great photos.
    Well done.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Brk Trt. After marvelling at many photos of colourful little brook trout on your blog I was glad to finally catch a few of my own.

    ReplyDelete

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