The Secretive Survivor

The Secretive Survivor

Down South, brook trout hide in the hills

  • By: Ian Rutter
  • Photography by: Charity Rutter
  • and Ian Rutter
It's a hot July day, or at least it is back in the valley. The local weatherman said it would be in the high 80's, but I'm walking up a cool, shaded trail. A gentle breeze flows down the creek, urged on by countless plunges of white water infested with brook trout. It's cool enough to give me a few goose bumps in the damp, morning air. Ferns and rhododendron grow thick under tall hardwood forests of hemlock, poplar, hickory and oak, while moss covers any exposed rock. All spring my busy guiding schedule has kept me on the bigger waters much farther downstream, pointing out rising browns in long glides for my clients or rowing my drift boat through tailwater hatches of caddis and Sulphur mayflies.But now I'm on my favorite sort of busman's holiday. Here in the hills, the warm summer weather precludes the need for waders. My daypack carries felt wading boots, a couple of Clif bars and a large bottle of water. I left the big stick at home and opted for my 8-foot 4-weight with a soft action. My fly box is devoid of emergers, cripples, transitional duns, or anything with a trailing shuck. Instead I'm carrying a collection of bushy dries with big wings. The Thunderhead is a killer on this stream. Nothing more than a Wulff-style dry fly, it has a gray body with brown hackle to keep it afloat in the turbulence amid the boulders. The leader is short, barely seven feet long, and tapers to 4X. Back on the tailwaters, where tiny midge patterns are common fare, this would be considered heavy enough to tether a snarling pit bull. The first rollcast of the day alights easily on the water, and before the fly can so much as drift 18 inches, a dark shadow rockets off the bottom to intercept it. Then another fish runs to see if he can get in on the action. I'm hooked into my first brookie of the day, about six inches long; the follower is a bit larger, perhaps seven or eight inches, and is now prowling the edges of the small pool. I take a moment to release the first fish, and quickly sight the other by the white leading edges on his ruby-red fins. After a couple of quick false casts to dry the fly, I drop the Thunderhead back in the pool. The brookie lunges forward, but the hook-set misses and the fly and leader settle in a tangled web of brush. This stream could be one of virtually hundreds found in western North Carolina or east Tennessee. Brook trout are not only native to the southern Appalachian region, they thrive high up in creeks and streams that drain dark valleys forgotten by time. In an age when anglers can catch large trout in manmade tailwaters or fish Western rivers after a short jet flight, small brookies in the Southeast are often overlooked. Few hardcore anglers even realize that wild trout flourish in thousands of miles of freestone creeks this far south. Almost all of the highest points in the Appalachians, including 40 peaks over 6,000 feet, are in North Carolina and Tennessee. Some of the most rugged country in the eastern United States makes up the border between the two states. Both upstate South Carolina and north Georgia round out the edges of the mountain range. Elevation is a good start, but the wet climate provides the most important ingredient any fish needs-water. Nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, both average about 47 inches of rain per year-more than soggy Seattle's relatively paltry 39 inches. And the high country of Southern Appalachia receives over 80 inches of rainfall annually, almost all of which percolates into one of the most elaborate networks of trout streams in the nation. Brook trout first appeared in what is now the southern end of their range during the last ice age. Vast sheets of ice to the north forced all life, including fish, into a southerly retreat. For a time, the South's ancestral population of brook trout found itself impounded in a vast lake formed by the glacial damming of the New River, which originates in North Carolina, and now flows north across southwest Virginia into West Virginia on its way to the Ohio River and, finally, the Gulf of Mexico. This lake eventually spilled over ridges on its southern boundary and carried brook trout into numerous new drainages. Then, about 10,000 years ago the glaciers receded, the lake reverted back to a river and the brook trout were stranded in a warming region. They took refuge by moving upstream into the coolest waters they could find. And as time progressed, these fish adapted to the peculiarities of their Southern mountain habitat. Not that our brookies have yet adapted to warmer waters; they still require water temperatures that rarely venture out of the 60's. However, they have changed in other ways from their northern cousins. Because only a handful of Southern brook trout streams are very large, the fish remain relatively small throughout their lives. Southern brookies also seem to be more prolific than the northern clan. Streams in the Southern Appalachians are prone to frequent floods and droughts and, although brook trout numbers may be temporarily reduced by a drought or a washed-out spawn, survivors will repopulate a stream quickly. One thing they can't survive, however, is habitat loss. The primeval forests of the Great Smoky Mountains saw drastic changes at the dawn of the last century. Logging operations moved into the region in the late 1800's and were in full swing throughout the southern highlands by the 1920's. Stripped bare and covered with little more than scoured soil, the mountain slopes no longer gave shade to the streams. Instead they contributed heavy loads of silt. The combination of warmer water and spawning gravel buried in mud spelled the end for brook trout wherever large-scale clear-cutting was practiced. "Specs," as the mountaineers called them, eventually became refugees confined to the highest and steepest locations. Then came the non-native interlopers. Rainbow trout were the hip, happening fish of the 1920's sporting scene, and local fishermen were eager to stock them after specs became hard to find. By the time the forests finally grew back, brookies essentially had been replaced by the stocked rainbows. Although it has long been believed that rainbows out-compete brook trout in southern Appalachian streams, studies by biologists suggest otherwise. In many instances rainbows were stocked intensively and repeatedly over decades-a practice that continues today in some places-and the only real advantage enjoyed by rainbow trout in the Appalachians was one of numbers provided by a stocking truck. Coldwater fisheries biologists in the region now seem confident that, when rainbow stocking is halted, a healthy population of brook trout can more than hold its own against the few rainbows that might infiltrate their way upstream. However, few scientists believe that a remnant population of brookies could displace a well-entrenched population of rainbows. Brookies are still common throughout the Southern high country; they're only harder to reach than they were 100 years ago. Historically present in streams as low as 1,600 feet above sea level, native brook trout are rarely found below 3,000 feet today. The most prolific populations now live in areas that were too rugged to be reached by timber cutters and hatchery trucks. Nearly all of the best brook trout streams run through the most remote reaches of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest, and North Carolina's Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. After stinging a few more brookies, I climb back onto the trail and move farther upstream. This water receives little fishing pressure, but the worn path to the stream tells of at least a few other anglers. Moving right along, I pause when I hear the slow shuffle of feet in the dry leaves. Two small black bear cubs amble down the trail toward me and stop in response to a sharp huff. Mama isn't far behind and stands tall in the trail. With another huff the cubs scurry off the trail and up the mountainside. Mama follows, but keeps a watchful eye on me. By the time I feel hungry enough to dig out my snacks, I've lost track of how many fish I have caught, lost and missed. Even the smallest little eddy swirl provides a strike. A couple of small fish franticly circle about searching for the fly after I miss them. A completely different sense of scale has taken over, and I'm excited about a nine-inch brookie that slowly slides up under my fly. After a long look he sips it in slower and prettier than any river fish I've seen. The real thrill of fishing this water doesn't come from the size of the fish, but from the wild surroundings and the strikes that come with reckless abandon. At the end of the day I have several miles to backtrack, and the sunlight diminishes. Past experience tells me to watch each step, as the copperheads and timber rattlers have begun their nightly hunts. Not once during the day was there any question of what fly to use, or any complication caused by trout so selective they could recognize the brand of tippet tied to the fly. Instead there were plentiful, native wild trout in the middle of wild country. Fish innocent enough to restore my childlike enthusiasm for fly-fishing.