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October 13, 2003

A Fish to Remember

This note and picture by Rich Lowry over on NRO's The Corner, brought to my mind one of my most memorable catches. It was possibly even smaller.

I mostly fish the Chattahoochee here in Atlanta these days. Oh, I'll occasionally drive up to the mountains, or catch a flight to Denver (maybe once every two years) for a week of fishing, but mostly it's a quick few hours no more than 15 minutes drive away. The fish are about an even mix of rainbow and brown trout. If I feel like browns, I move to the shady borders; if I want 'bows, I move out into the faster water. The former are a better challenge on the whole. But the latter often run bigger by a few inches.

I keep hearing tales of brook trout in the same waters, but I've never seen, much less caught one. I'm more prone to believing the fishery guys drop a few up by Buford Dam. The water coming out from the depths of Lanier is cold, and brook trout need colder water than 'bows and browns. Since I rarely fish just below the dam because that water is so cold, well, maybe that's why I've never seen one. The times I have fished there, and tolerated numb feet, I've caught all browns and 'bows too.

In fact, until the fish that sparked this, I'd never, to my knowledge, caught a brook trout at all. That's not too surprising, since the stocking of the alien species has driven the brookies far up into the headwaters in the areas they survive at all, but it was a state not to be tolerated and I set about fixing it.

I decided I wasn't interested in winching out some fat, stupid (and grossly unnatural) fishery brookie. Brook trout, while known for coming exuberantly to the fly, should not be fat and dumb. I knew they were native to the mountain streams an hour or so north, from my reading and research. I also knew the abundant stocking made them pretty scarce. They don't compete well with the bigger trout. And maybe they're a bit more vulnerable to fishing pressure too, being so exuberantly willing to come to flies. So I made it my project to catch a native brook trout somewhere in some small North Georgia stream.

This was a few years ago, and it was a hot summer (that's pretty safe, most of them are here), but under the trees up a few thousand feet, with the cool breeze coming off a cold stream, it wasn't bad. I stumbled my way through thickets of mountain laurel and azaleas, tripping over boulders, clambering over fallen trees, all the while trying to protect my 8' rod from mishaps. The first stream I tried was a headwater stream of the Chattahoochee way up in the National Forest. It was far enough off the road that it was a challenge to get to, but not so far as to be a real hike. The brush was thick over it. I followed it a ways, looking for pools or other holding spots, and watching for activity in the water. A big pool was smaller than your average bathtub. It had good flow, that is to say the ground was not exactly flat so the water moved pretty fast, but there wasn't all that much water. It was perfect for my aim.

As I was stepping around yet another knot of laurel, I saw a splash in a side eddy in a decent pool. My heart quickened. I froze and stooped slowly, then turned to study the spot. Of course, I could see nothing except dissipating ripples. I'm actually quite good at seeing fish. But trout are exceptionally good at being unseen. I was patient and waited a while, maybe five or ten minutes, staring intently through the water's surface, looking for the slightest sign of unusual movement. Nothing.

The spot was about ten feet away, so I edged a bit closer, then paused to make some adjustments to my rod. Casting here, where there was a low arch of laurel, was impossible. This was a place for dapping. So I adjusted my line and leader so that about three, maybe four, feet was all that extended past the tip guide. I then worked the rod tip, drawing the dry fly with it (it was probably an Adams, that being a great all-purpose fly for these situations, and resembling a buzzing insect right at the surface), careful not to let it snag, helped in that by its stiff hackling. Once the rod tip was over the small pool, I dropped it to set the fly on the surface. I then lifted it and dropped it again a time or two before letting it sit... or so I intended. My intentions were interrupted by a small explosion as a trout came from nowhere to grab it.

There are few absolute shocks as pleasant as this sort. My pulse was thundering and I was laughing out loud. That's one thing about flyfishing: the best moments can only be shared as recounted memories. Very rarely can more than one person experience them as they happen. It's just not a sport made to be social in situ. Now, the aftermath is a different story.

That was a nice trout. It was about eight inches long, positively a lunker for water that small. Its colors were so vivid as to be startling, like a solitary flame azalea against a dark backdrop of pines. In fact, one of the prominent colors was almost that. It had the vivid band of flame along its lateral line that gives it its name: rainbow.

So, while that was a fine and memorable fish, it was not my aim. (And it was a lot bigger than Rich's fish too.) I went back to my trust Subaru wagon (tan, to blend in better), started her up, and aimed out. If a rainbow that big was here, brookies probably were not.

I ended up driving around the back areas of an Army Ranger training area for a while, trying a few likely streams, catching a few browns or 'bows. So I studied my map more and headed further up. I followed a Forest Service road where it was just dashes on the map and in an area of old growth forest found another stream. This area wasn't the laurel tangle that first one was. The stream was small, but casting wasn't out of the question. There just wasn't much to cast into.

I followed it up and downstream maybe a quarter mile looking for signs of fish. I dropped my fly onto likely spots, all to no result. It was later in the day, a time when things slow down, but still, fish in the mountain freestone stream have to be opportunistic feeders or they starve.

After a Diet Coke at the car, and some thought, I switched to a medium-sized Hare's Ear. I started drifting that down under the miniature logjams in the stream. Those tended to back up the flow a little, and they provided excellent overhead cover for wary fish, so they seemed the best prospect. Drifting down into one tangle I felt a tap-tap as I lifted the rod to repeat a drift. Could have been the current combined with a snag of some sort, but it did feel like a fish. So I repeated that same pattern of drift and lift a few times, and again, felt the tap, but came up empty.

I made a note of the spot and rested it, moving off elsewhere to fish a bit. After a bit of time had passed, I went back, this time with a smaller, slightly different nymph, and tried again. Fish on! I was a bit excited. Even though I was using my little 4-weight which bends about like overcooked spaghetti, my strike lifted the fish right out of the water. As it swung back towards me in the return arc, I noted a couple of things. First, it was small. I don't think I've ever caught a trout so small. Second, yes, it was a trout, not a chub like I caught (and sometimes even fished for deliberately) on a stream a few miles off that ran about the same size. It may have been three inches. Maybe. Third, it wasn't a rainbow, and it didn't look like a brown. But it was so small and undeveloped, that I wasn't sure it was a brook trout.

Fortunately I had my Polaroid along (this was before digital cameras became inexpensive). I lay it alongside my reel on some gravel wet from the stream's splashing, took a shot or two and eased it back into the water where it darted off, back under its logjam.

I then went back to fishing and a short while later caught a second, slightly larger fish. It looked much like the first, except the markings were more pronounced. This one I was pretty sure was a brookie. Even so, I repeated the picture-taking process so I could get some expert judgment.

Back in Atlanta, I took my pictures into the local flyshop for consultation. I didn't say anything, just showed them the pictures and waited for the remarks. "Hey, nice little brookie! Where'd you catch it?" I was vindicated. "Don't see many of those," he went on.

I, of course, couldn't tell him where I caught it. No, I mean I couldn't. I could point to the area on the map, but the stream didn't really show there. And he didn't really mean the question in that sense anyway. When I replied "way up in a tiny stream in the mountains," he nodded. "Brookies have it tough. That's about the only place to find them."

There are some nice brookie streams crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is also a beautiful drive. One of these days I'll have to make that drive again, this time not intent on getting from here to there, this time hopping from stream to stream, trying all the choice spots.

Posted by dan at October 13, 2003 06:32 PM | TrackBack