THE SUN IS STILL OFF THE CREEK, and I do more hiking than fishing, occasionally stopping to flick a little parachute upstream. This trip is definitely the last of the year without waders. In no time at all, Snowbird’s spring-fed flow has me chilled and looking for a patch of sun. I find it at Middle Falls, where the river widens, takes in a side branch, and then tumbles over school bus–sized shelves of rock.
These late-season trips mark the passage from Appalachia’s vibrant, terrarium green of summer to the stark, sharp-edged meagerness of winter. During no other time of year am I as filled with memories or as vulnerable to nostalgia. Come autumn, I count back in time, take multiple inventories, and promise to reconnect with everyone in my life. When I reminisce too much, I start fishing. I synchronize myself with the creek and find a meditative zone that gobbles up entire afternoons.
My first trout of the day comes right above Upper Falls, where a Hare’s Ear proves to be the nymph of choice. In no time at all, I’ve dialed in the right frequency; bump after bump turns into a connection with a speckled trout. Even the smallest fish claim every detail of the brook trout’s trademark appearance: vermicular pattern on slatish green, red specks ringed with blue, crimson fins edged with white.
“The brook trout didn’t need our intervention to take its place in those small pools. In fact, it got there despite us.”
Why does holding a native trout make the morning seem suddenly brighter? For one thing, when you have one of the Snowbird char in hand, you’re holding a lot of history. You’re in touch with a true Appalachian legacy that has been here through millennia. We see in the little fish the spectrum of possibility once inherent to these places: the chestnuts and hemlocks, the elk and catamounts and red wolves. As an added bonus, the native’s genetics are not one part trout kibble, two parts concrete.
Once returned to Big Snowbird, the brookie vanishes instantly.
Fishing essays and stories often funnel toward a moment of physical connection. The writer reels in such-and-such species, describes its strength and beauty in glorious and metaphoric terms, then hums on with epiphanic everything-touches-everything warmth for a few closing paragraphs.
Writing about a day on Big Snowbird is sort of like that, but not really. There’s no doubling of the rod, no screaming reel, no leviathan emerging from the depths. What I find, instead, is eight inches of native wildness, and because the terms native and wild are so subjective, it’s hard to accurately convey the meaning of that fish. Maybe heritage is a better place to start. I’m thinking of those bear hunters and their hounds. Defiantly, they’ve kept their sport intact, crying “tradition” and “legacy” whenever political storm clouds start to gather and the voting public gets to decide the hounders’ fate.
Regional spirit can get behind our native fish, too, but not until clearer connections are made between the brookies’ presence and the overall health of our Southern Highlands. An ecosystem that grows big bears is also one whose streams will foster the speckled trout. Let’s make that fact clear before it’s too late. Native fish are bedrock, and everything else the product of tinkering in fisheries science. The brook trout didn’t need our intervention to take its place in those small pools. In fact, it got there despite us.
As I start the long walk back to the trailhead, I think about how there is one thing that binds together every fishing experience and the written rendition that follows. Eventually, we have to return. We want to stay but can’t and do that just-one-more-hole, just-one-more-cast thing as darkness descends. But we have to go back; it’s inevitable. That is why I go in search of native trout in the first place. I need to connect with these native char and make a memory of those days on the stream. Time is fickle.
On my way out, I pass a long run of calm water, broken here and there by bull’s-eye ripples as hungry brook trout gobble mayflies. They were there— swimming, spawning . . . existing long before our shadows were cast across the current. The lateral line running down their sides may as well represent a streak of independence, but there’s a limit to that self-sufficiency and there seem to be no more guarantees that our native fish get to stay. It’s what we do and will do next that matters to the brook trout of our Southern Highlands.
The trail tunnels through laurel and rhododendron, slightly downhill and already in shadow. No sign of the bear hunters. No sign of anyone. For a while, all I have to keep me company is the tumbling freestone hush of Big Snowbird somewhere below, but then that vanishes, too, and I am alone and in the silence of autumn mountains.
Franklin Tate lives and writes in Asheville, North Carolina. He is a lousy old-time banjo player, loves to hunt morels, and hopes to finish his novel someday.