The Brook Trout is a homegrown Southerner. While humans transported other versions of trout to our waters, the brook has been here since the ice age, defying anglers, predators, and time.
The fish is there, of that I am certain. I saw it rise from behind a stone to slurp in a caddis fly in the deep shade of the rhododendrons. A splashy take, and then another. It is there, and it is hungry.
But this fish is also a trout, a brook trout, and this is its home and has been since the last of the glaciers slid northward from the Appalachian peaks. In the hand, a wild brook trout is a riot of color, but in the water, it utterly disappears. Blue-haloed, red spots become tiny bits of stream-bottom stone. Yellow vermiculations across a moss-green back turn to spots of dappled sun. Every aspect of the fish’s adornments is designed to keep it hidden, out of the clutches of otter and owl. And angler.
And everything about this fish speaks of these mountains. The same forces that prescribe the creek’s route from upper pool to lower — riffle and eddy, drop and pool — have figured the trout’s modus vivendi and shaped the sleek contours of its body. Such forces have, in turn, been shaped by agents more elemental and ancient — plate tectonics, glacial retreat, the working of water from millennia to millennia. Before the Pleistocene epoch, these fish were likely restricted to far northerly climes. Then, as the ice advanced, brook trout moved south with the red spruce, Fraser fir, and saw-whet owls into the southern Appalachians. Four times the ice sheets advanced over the continent and then retreated, shaping anew continental topography and hydrology, carving streams, leaving fish behind. Twelve thousand years have passed since the last of the ice disappeared. The brook trout remains, each new generation of fish as old as these hills themselves.
I back-cast the fly line, wincing. I must admit, I can take only so much fishing in a small brook-trout stream. There are larger trout in Tar Heel mountain waters, and they are more frequently found in larger streams where you can wade upright and cast easily, keeping your line out of the trees. But those fish are interlopers — the rainbow trout from western America and the brown from the waters of Europe, each carted in by the pail and bucket and wagon and truckload. Only the lovely brook trout, whose name Salvelinus fontinalis means “dwelling in springs,” can boast of being a true Southerner.
But man, are they a pain to catch. I have friends with keener focus than mine — and younger joints — who can thread casts through these tiny streams day after day. But after a half-day of crouching, crawling, and casting from my knees, I’ve fished my flies out of enough overhanging laurel and downed enough ibuprofen to call it a day.
But I’m not there yet, not today. The fly line flattens out behind me, and I can feel its weight load the rod, bending it rearward like a milkweed stem in the wind, carrying the freight of the nearly weightless fly. In the pull of the rod in the palm of my hand, I can sense the intricate nature of fly-fishing, the physics required to deliver a bit of fluff and nothing to a distant point on the stream. It’s science, not art, and yet it still sometimes seems out of step with the rest of what is happening — the creek and the fish and the mountains themselves.
Once, during a weekend I spent with the old southern Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks, at his weathered cabin on the back of Beech Mountain, he told me that as a young man he caught brook trout in homemade nets and by grappling or “gravvelin’” them with a bare hand. “You’d take sand in your hands on account of ’em being slick,” he explained, “and run your hands along in the bank, and you’d come out with a speckled trout fish. A feller didn’t need no hooks. We’d cut us a burlap sack and put it on a fork [of a tree branch] and run it under them little streams and come out with maybe 30 fish. Sack ’em out. Gosh, all that would ruin a man who’d rather gravvel fish than hoe corn.”
Ruin a man, or make him whole. At times, the process for each seems awfully similar.
When I punch the rod forward, I finish the cast with a little upstream reach, an intentional shift of hand position not unlike the motion required of passing an offering plate to the person sitting beside you in the church pew. The reach throws a little extra line in the air, which gives the cast a bit of curve toward the end, which gives the fly a moment or two of extra drift before the stream’s conflicting currents drag it around in an unnatural fashion.
More often than not, my casts are somewhat south of perfect. They are either too hard, and the fly line snaps like the braided leather whips I loved to buy as a child from the open-air shops along the Cherokee downtown strip. Or they are too soft, and they collapse in a wad of line. But this time, the line flattens out just so, and miracle of miracles, I put the cast where it needs to be — under the rhododendron’s green tentacles, just upstream of the boulder.
The fish is there, and when the brook trout takes the fly, there’s a splash in the dark pool and the rod tip starts to dance. It’s a jerky little succession of tugs and runs, nothing terribly heavy, nothing to suggest the glaciers and mountains and rock and deep time that fashioned the fish on the line.
T. Edward Nickens is an editor-at-large for Field & Stream. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines. Eddie’s most recent story for Our State magazine was “Heart of the Hunter” (November 2010).
East or West: Where do you stand?
These stories appeared as part of the feature exploring eastern and western North Carolina:
The Town: Murphy
The Town: Manteo
The Grape: Yadkin Valley
The Grape: Duplin Winery
The Catch: Brook Trout
The Catch: Shrimp
The Legend: Eustace Conway
The Legend: Fort Fisher Hermit
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 West
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 East
The Farm: Apple Brandy Beef
The Farm: Grassroots Pork Co.
The BBQ: N.C. Barbecue Company