Blackberry Winter

Return with us once again to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
by James R. Babb
from the May/June 2008 issue

Every time I buy a Tennessee fishing license, and the lady behind the counter asks Resident or Nonresident, I always say Resident, followed quickly by Wait, No, I mean Nonresident. This even though I left East Tennessee behind at 17 and haven’t been back more than a dozen times in the intervening four decades.

But how can you think of yourself as a nonresident where your family has lived for 230 years, leaving its name on creeks and roads and houses and historical placards? How can you feel anywhere but at home standing in the high-mountain clearing where you made your first camp, even though a 70-foot yellow poplar now reaches skyward from the ghost of its fire ring? How can you not feel at home catching an acrobatic rainbow from beneath the very boulder where you caught your first trout on a fly?

For various reasons I had wanted to show all this hometown trout-fishing stuff to my friend John Gierach, and finally we’d gotten around to it. The plan was, we’d stay with my brother Walter at his cabin for an uninterrupted week of fishing little streams for little mountain trout with little cane rods, a three-step addiction for all three of us.

Driving down from the Knoxville airport, we detoured past our old house in Lenoir City and, a block away, the old house of John’s aunt Francis, who married my cousin Jack Babb. It was, as John wrote recently, “a left-handed family reunion” when we stopped in Sweetwater to collect my brother and his gear, and headed up for those rolling old mountains I still think of as home.

The fishing started out good but not spectacular on a favorite distant river (forgive me if I don’t name names)—a lot of tunnel fishing and difficult casting and eager rainbows that were much quicker taking a dry fly than I was at taking them. I counted somewhere shy of two dozen, mostly rainbows in the sardine range and one brilliantly colored brown just entering his sardine-eating years.

And the weather started out unusual for one of my trips, by which I mean not that hot, not that cold, but pretty much just right—70s days, 50s nights. The water was a bit thin for early May, but the slow-moving, cautious angler—is there any other kind at our age?—could catch fish.

After supper we went to a favorite nearby river, which was low and clear and the fish scarce, although we all managed a few while swapping off rods—a Walt Carpenter John had brought, and rods my brother made modeled on F. E. Thomas and Paul Young tapers. It was a restful evening of messing around after a stiff four-mile hike in the hot sun, a day that pretty much set the pattern for the week: a lot of walking, a lot of small trout and a few bigger ones, a lot of mountain scenery and very few people besides us.

But we weren’t entirely alone. One day we went over the mountain to another drainage and found footprints that seemed to say someone was up the left fork, and so we went up the right fork, which as it turned out was a strategic error, because Walter saw the guys we’d thought had gone left up ahead of us, playing a fish. Turns out they’d gone up the left fork first and thought it looked too skinny (and where they turned around it is, but it isn’t a few miles uphill), and so we’d outsmarted ourselves out of miles of unfished water. Unfished water is important on thin mountain streams and crucial when the water is low and clear. There are far more dangerous trout predators in those mountains than catch-and-release fly guys, and the trout are spookier than I’ve ever found them anywhere. Which is, of course, why fishing for them is such fun.

That evening, as compensation for an unproductive though enjoyable forced march, we headed back to our familiar nearby river for a good sulfur hatch that turned on half an hour before legal quitting time. We all caught surprising numbers of surprisingly large fish in the brief spell between supper and sundown, but the evening was simply too pretty and the fishing too splendid to bother with something so trivial as mathematics, so please forgive me if I don’t quantify the experience.

The next day was a little easier to measure. It dawned with a warm front and intermittent light drizzle overspreading the mountains. We decided it was time to fry something for supper that didn’t divideth its hoof but yet cheweth not its cud, and so we bought daily permits for the main river and went off to fish pocket water using our old standard nymphing method—something like high- sticking and something like Czech nymphing, a technique our father learned third-hand about midway through the Truman administration and taught us during the first Eisenhower term.

With the familiar modern technique, you tie a nymph to a length of tippet then tie this to the bend of another fly—a different nymph, say, or a dry fly. With two nymphs, you’ll typically rig a strike indicator. This works wonderfully well, as everyone knows, but so does our old way—better, in my experience, in nervous water. We tie a length of tippet to the leader with a blood knot, leaving about six inches free; tie a wet fly (sometimes a dry) to that tag, and a weighted nymph to the tippet. You lead the flies downstream just a tad faster than the current, which makes strikes easier to see and animates the wet fly most enticingly. Or so goes the theory.

It was one of those rare days when the fish were feeding and, thanks to the overcast sky, weren’t particularly skittish: Every pocket produced a strike and—if I was fast enough and my eyesight good enough (no strike indicators, remember)—a fish.

We fished from midmorning until midafternoon, with a lingering lunch break, and I lost count somewhere around 40, a mix of native and stocked rainbows, one fat brown whose circumference roughly equaled his 15-inch length, and a rainbow around 18 inches who considerately unhooked herself at my feet.

Of course Walter, the family fish-hawk, did way better, and Cousin John, who was playing catch-up in new country with an entirely new technique, and with trout a whole different level of fast and jittery, was finally into his stride.

That was probably the best day of pure trout fishing I can remember in a place you didn’t need a floatplane or a helicopter to reach. That it came on the river where I learned to fish was a nice bonus. And so were the trout we ate that night.

At lunch, my brother told John, “I’ve fished all over the West, and have had some great fishing for some big fish, but when people ask me where my favorite place to fish is, I tell them right here. And the thing is, nobody believes me.”

Me, I’ve given up trying to convince anyone. But John didn’t need convincing. That we’d seen so few other fishermen over the week seemed almost miraculous, in an area so near the great eastern population centers and in country so beautiful—the softly rounded mountains thickly forested and garnished with pink and white mountain laurel just then being superceded by budding rhododendrons, the flame azaleas so bright against the dark green that wandering botanist and paleohippy William Bartram, visiting here in 1776, wrote that he was “alarmed with the apprehension of the hill being set on fire.” Sometimes, when fishing surrounded by the largest concentrations of wildflowers in North America, you find your eyes watering for no good manly reason.

Toward the end of the trip the weather turned against us—cold and sunny: exactly what mountain trout fishermen don’t want. It was a Blackberry Winter, in local parlance: a cold snap after a warm spell that comes when the blackberries bloom. Although we didn’t know it then, this was the onset of the worst drought ever to hit the Southeast. We caught fish the rest of the trip, and some good ones, but the barometer guides fish in the mountains as it does everywhere, and we had to work hard for them.

But we seldom value what comes easy. As Robert Penn Warren wrote in the famous coming-of-age story I stole my title from, “When you are nine, you know that there are things that you don’t know but you know that when you know something you know it.” And when you revisit the place where you learned to fish at nine, and found that what you left behind is still pretty much the way you left it, you know that’s something to know. 

James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from


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