Sporting Life

Sporting Life

A trip down Tennessee way

  • By: John Gierach
We were in the Unicoi Mountains in East Tennessee, a neighboring range of the Smoky Mountains, which are in turn part of the Appalachians that stretch from northern Georgia through northern Maine and roughly comprise the native range of brook trout in what is now the United States. More specifically, we were fishing for trout in some of the branches of the Tellico River at elevations of 2,000 to 3,000 feet in dense mixed forests of tulip poplar, hemlock, white pine, beech, oak, gum, maple, rhododendron, mountain laurel, flame azalea and so on. These are verdant, ancient, round-shouldered mountains thousands of feet lower than the Rockies and 10 times older, with forests that are a riot of species diversity and the humid climate that makes them prone to the same morning mist that gave the Smokies their name.

I've lived virtually all of my adult life in Colorado, where read more>>snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks are a normal feature of the horizon, and have developed the predictable brand of chauvinism about high, craggy mountains. But as we drove into the Unicois, I was careful not to make the same faux pas I'd once committed in Pennsylvania, where I'd asked my host if we were getting close to the Appalachian Mountains, he said, "We're in 'em" and without thinking I said, "What, these little bumps?"

At first glance from a car window-and later on foot-these mountains seem impenetrable. For instance, it was spring, with comfortable days and cool nights, and the mountain-laurel bushes were coming into bloom. They were beautiful, with the flowers shading from white at lower altitudes to pale pink to rose as you gained elevation, but there are places called "laurel hells" where these large shrubs are so thick and intertwined that you couldn't go 10 feet without crawling on your belly. There are similar rhododendron hells, as well as a bush known as "dog hobble" because not even hunting dogs can get through it. Which is to say, off-trail hiking is best left to those who know the country.

Local hazards can include aggressive white-faced hornets, copperheads and timber rattlers, the occasional troublesome black bear and "Russian hogs"-wild boars once imported from Europe for rich sportsmen to hunt, now long since gone wild and hunted by those who are anything but rich.

If you weren't raised on a farm, your nightmares probably don't include pigs. But the first time you come to a place where, in the normal course of rooting for food, a 200-pound boar has roto-tilled a quarter acre with its tusks, uprooting 15-foot saplings in the process, the potential for trouble begins to take shape. On the other hand, the local cuisine depends largely on pork, and word is these wild hogs taste the way God intended for pigs to taste.

Spiders are usually more of a nuisance than a threat, but they're everywhere and when someone says to "get you a spider pole," he doesn't mean a fishing rod, but a handy stick to wipe away the webs as you pick your way through the woods or wade up a stream. Of course, spider webs across a narrow creek are a good sign that no one else has fished there recently.

All that makes the place sound prickly and dangerous, but of course it's not. It's just that in any new country there are a few things you should know, if only so you don't learn them the hard way. Also, it's not unheard of for locals to practice a little harmless exaggeration on visitors.

This was definitely a fishing trip, but it was also sort of a left-handed family reunion, since I was fishing with my distant cousins Jim Babb and his brother Walter. Ever since Jim and I discovered it by accident, the family connection has seemed tenuous to me (a Babb cousin was once married to a cousin of my mother's) but there's something hospitable about this Southern mountain culture that's eager to assume you're kin until proven otherwise and a far removed cousin is greeted like a lost brother. Genealogy is a kind of folk art here and it's possible to follow faint bloodlines far enough that you end up related to either Davy Crockett or Dolly Parton. I've witnessed a similar phenomenon in Texas where every native can trace his ancestry back to the Alamo, although not always to the same side of the wall.

I'd known Jim for a number of years (he now lives in Maine and describes himself as a "Northern freeze-dried hippie") and when I first met Walter at his home in Sweetwater, I was struck by the similarities between the two brothers. Walter is two years older and Jim defers to him in matters of local fishing, but otherwise they seem like two versions of the same man, one who left home and one who didn't.

Walter is one of those fishermen you used to meet often, but who are now becoming a threatened species in our frenetic, mobile culture. He started fishing the Tellico River drainage when he was barely old enough to hold a fly rod. He liked where he was, so he stayed there and, now, at age 60, he has fished the same water more or less continually for over half a century using the same flies and the same upstream wetfly cast he and Jim learned from their father. He's retired now-in the modern sense that he still works, but at a different job-and makes a living tying flies and building lovely bamboo fly rods that sell for less than most only because he's largely unknown outside the region. He also guided for a while, but has since given it up for the usual reasons.

I picked up a smattering of the natural and cultural history of these mountains by asking the occasional question and by listening to a week's worth of reminiscences between the brothers, which amounted to a stream of consciousness documentary full of low-rent shenanigans and populated by people with names like Creepy, Pea Head, Paddle Foot and Tater Chip. (The main trick to reading Southern writers is simply to understand that they're not kidding.)

The region's peculiar wetfly fishing style is dictated by its small streams, spooky trout that seldom rise to dry flies, difficult to nearly impossible casting conditions, and a kind of hard-edged local practicality. It was first developed for the native Appalachian brook trout, but now works every bit as well on the introduced rainbows and browns.

You fish a brace of flies: a fairly large weighted nymph (usually something resembling a Golden Stonefly) with a smaller unweighted wet fly off the leader above it on a short dropper. These are small streams and the runs and pockets you're fishing are usually shallow, so there's no added weight beyond the heavy nymph, partly because you don't need it and partly because lead on a leader deadens the subtle take and makes it harder to detect. Local fishermen often carry three versions of the same stoneflynymph in three different weights, color-coded by the thread color on the head.

I won't try to describe the cast and drift in detail because I'm not sure I can. It's a little like wetfly fishing, only backwards, with an upstream instead of a downstream cast. Or maybe it's like short-line nymphing, only with a longer line and no strike indicator; or a case of parallel evolution with Czech nymphing in the same way that octopus and human eyes are surprisingly similar, but still not identical or interchangeable. Differences in regional fishing techniques are sometimes so subtle as to be all but imperceptible, but they also tend to be real and effective. If you're like me, you'll think, Yeah, that's nothing new, and then have to be told and shown and then told and shown again when you don't quite get it. Of course instruction is helpful and so is watching someone who's good at it, but in the end it's the trout that will tell you when you've got it right.

My own flies from home worked, but the local patterns worked better, which is as it should be. The traditional fly patterns of the region arose in relative isolation from the mainstream of Eastern fly-fishing and without easy access to tying materials, so they were tied mostly with the materials at hand: little-known patterns like the Speck, George Nymph, Crow Fly, Rattler and the Yellerhammer, a palmer-style fly that was first tied from the split primary feathers of a common woodpecker known to most as a yellow-shafted flicker. Modern commercial Yellerhammers are tied with substitute dyed hackles, but a man known for tying the original versions with flicker feathers was once heard to tell a game warden, "I know it's illegal to shoot 'em, but the damned things keep dyin' of natural causes in my yard."

We stayed in Walter's cabin, which was far enough up the slope from the Tellico River that we couldn't see the water, but not so far that we couldn't hear it on quiet nights. It's a simple frame cabin that has everything a fisherman needs and not much else. The only real interior decoration is a collection of fish mounts from what Walters calls his "taxidermy period"-locally caught rainbow and brown trout of surprising size for such small water.

We did fish the Tellico one day, mostly to collect the main ingredient for a dinner of trout fried in bacon grease, fried potatoes and onions with bacon, and beans cooked with salt pork. You can eat like this as long as you hike and wade miles a day, although I'm told the condition of your arteries isn't always reflected by your waistline.

The Tellico is a pretty, medium-size trout river that's stocked every week using what seems to be a reasonable and efficient system: It's closed to fishing for two days a week while it's being stocked (to let the fish spread out a little and to keep people from chasing the stocking trucks). Then it opens for the next five days, including the weekend when it gets crowded, if not exactly mobbed. You have to buy a daily permit to fish the river and the proceeds from that go directly back into the well-funded stocking program.

This struck me as a sweet deal. The stocked fishery takes nearly all the pressure off the small feeder creeks where the trout are wild, and the permit costs less than a trout dinner in any restaurant. Our dinner-cooked by Jim and Walter-was better than most and the ambience of the kitchen table was unbeatable.

Groceries aside, we spent the rest of our days fishing the smaller branches far from the main river. One of these (a pretty good one) was located right along a county road, but most of the rest involved several miles of driving on dirt roads and then several more miles on foot. These streams each had their own character, but were also similar: small, mossy and slippery with dense, low canopies that kept the water in perpetual shade, but also grabbed your backcast. Sometimes there were impressive waterfalls that became less lovely when you realized you'd have to climb past them. The trout were mostly bright, strong rainbows with the odd brown thrown in and if you got high enough up a drainage you could begin to pick up brook trout.

We'd always start up a trail at a fairly brisk pace and within minutes Walter would have pulled far ahead. He wasn't racing us or trying to hurry us along; he's just one of those guys who only has one speed. Half a mile up the trail we'd find him waiting patiently. Jim said no one could keep up with Walter even when they were kids fishing with their father, so Walter would set off by himself, covering vast amounts of real estate on his own and invariably coming back late, but with a limit of trout. Jim added that if their mother had known how far Walter regularly went into these mountains alone at such a tender age, she'd have had a fit.

Almost all of these streams are too small and brushy to leap frog, so the regional strategy is to spread out along one, staking out a quarter-mile or so that you'll have to yourself and erecting a rock pile in an obvious place so the fisherman coming along behind will know where you started. (This system has begun to catch on in my home streams in Colorado since Jim transplanted it a few years ago.) At first, my tendency was to build for monumental size to make sure the thing was noticed, but then I realized that even Walter's simple three-rock cairns clashed with the intentions of nature to the extent that they stood out like a billboard, even among thousands of similar rocks placed by time, current, gravity and erosion. It's sad to say, but almost everything we humans do in a natural environment amounts to a sore thumb.

Jim's cairns seemed to reflect both his mood of the day and the materials at hand, ranging from a few quickly stacked rocks to the full blown prehistoric-style fertility goddess he left for me one day, complete with a small head, pregnant belly and pendulous breasts. It must have taken half an hour to build-most of it spent finding the right rocks-and it seemed a shame to kick it over, but you have to in order to not confuse other fishermen or yourself on a different day. It may have been a borderline work of art, but like everything else man-made, its fate was to be temporary.

John Gierach lives, writes and fishes in Colorado. His books include Another Lousy Day in Paradise, Standing in a River Waving a Stick, Trout Bum and many others.