Beyond Big Snowbird

Through laurel and rhododendron, toward the brookie hole.

[by Franklin Tate]

OCTOBER IN WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA, season of the hunter’s moon and pickups with kennels wedged into their beds. Around Robbinsville, such rigs are a common sight, as is blaze orange, camo, and the bear hunters who wear both. This is Horace Kephart country, after all, and the “hounders” of the Southern Highlands mark time via the bloodline of hounds: “That was the year Belle’s legs stove up on her,” or, “It was the same spring Gypsy littered Clyde and Buck.”

By contrast, my days and years on southern streams have a tendency to run into one another. With no spring runoff and conditions that make year-round fishing not only possible but also enjoyable, a weird sort of amnesia drifts over me. It becomes difficult to distinguish one trip among many, one particular hatch from all the others. I try to imagine the fly fishing equivalent of hounds and bear hunts. What would my reminiscence sound like? “That was the year I blew out my favorite waders,” or, “It was the same spring I slammed my four-weight in Uncle Terry’s screen door.”

“But regardless of size, just as the Rio Grande cutthroat is the fish that belongs in the Jemez Mountains, the speckled char of Appalachia is the fish that belongs in Big Snowbird Creek.”

There is a good reason Faulkner wrote The Bear instead of The Trout, why he never captured in prose the semi-mythical pursuit of a disfigured uberchar by several generations of fly fishers.

Steep ridges shade Big Snowbird Creek, and I walk through the perpetually blue half light that is common for a fall morning in Appalachia. I pass teams of bear hunters on the trail, each monitoring telemetry gear and waiting for that special game-on moment when their dogs get after one. Below the trail, in gaps between poplar, hemlock, and laurel, I glimpse white streamers of current. This time of year the creek sluices and spills, its low level making it a jumble of boulders and pocket water. On a USGS quad, Big Snowbird and its feeders take up a lot of green.

I love the Old North State names in this watershed: Owl Camp and Mouse Knob Branch, Burntrock and Peckerwood Ridge. I can spend an hour just looking at the map, tracing my finger over the terrain and the many tribs I could spend decades exploring. The upper stretches of Snowbird are truly retro water: places where a person can expect the brook trout angling of a century ago. From the trailhead to Upper Falls is six miles, no casual stroll for the day-tripping angler, yet well worth the effort if you love wild and native trout. In fact, it is not unusual to spend many miles both on and off trail—as well as myriad hours poring over maps and cross-checking books—in search of a fish that is, often, a diminutive creature finning back and forth in a diminutive pool. But regardless of size, just as the Rio Grande cutthroat is the fish that belongs in the Jemez Mountains, the speckled char of Appalachia is the fish that belongs in Big Snowbird Creek.

Ironically, like many drainages in Western North Carolina, Big Snowbird was clear-cut in the early 1900s. The sudden absence of a canopy caused a spike in the creek’s temperature, and side branches silted the main flow, choking spawning beds and lowering oxygen levels. In many similar creeks, the brookies vanished, causing anglers to cast about for a replacement species. So it was that the “put and take” philosophy arrived to the Southern Highlands by the barrelful. Photos of that era capture the forerunner of today’s hatchery tanker: mule-drawn sleds delivering rainbows to their new home. Into every convenient trickle of water went these hardfighting, hale fish.

Which is why the Snowbird brookies make even less sense. Was the creek’s location too inconvenient to receive a stocking of nonnatives? Hardly. Logging companies laid tracks into the headwaters, and anyone with a couple of buckets, some rainbows, and time on his hands could have easily altered history. Yet it somehow never happened, and three waterfalls on Snowbird’s main stem have kept the creek’s char isolated and intact. A two-hour hike can reward today’s angler with a 12-inch native.

In his essay “Rivertops,” angling author Ted Williams questions why brook trout have been relegated to only the most remote sections of water: “Whatever is one to make of a culture that sets such a premium on sheer bigness? . . .How is it that we can spend such vast quantities of time and money distributing and collecting trout that don’t belong while ignoring the trout that do—our infinitely more beautiful landlocked char?” Questions such as these are particularly relevant in the Southern Highlands because of the premium placed on heritage. How can the Robbinsville native talk about natural legacies and not include the brookie?

One look around the walls of a hunting club drives home the truth that size does matter, and in that sort of culture, brook trout run the risk of falling into the novelty category. A 16-inch wild brown or a 5-inch native brookie? For most anglers, when push comes to shove, novelty loses. Which is not to say we can’t have it both ways. We have not painted ourselves into an either/or corner. But we also cannot mindlessly burn through resources and options and hope that the brook trout will somehow make it through relaxed air- and water-quality standards, a schizophrenic climate, habitat decimation and fragmentation; we can’t exercise blind faith when the threats to the species are so specific and close at hand. It’s true that we are largely a credit card society that fights off depression and notions of mortality with consumption: so it is that put-and-take fisheries, which offer foolproof and immediate rewards, make total sense. The fishing public has a nonnegotiable bottom line: big fish and lots of them. What makes put-and-take fishing ironic is that angling’s usual purpose is to reconnect with a genuine experience, to teach the young’uns about “Mother Nature.” We have these cravings to get away from the world of big-box stores, but the mindset that world engenders can be difficult to escape.