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.
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.