On the evening September 14, 2015, I fished alone. The silence was broken only by the sound of the running water. Looking upstream, the water reflected the sunlight shining off the mountainside, above the small gorge through which the creek runs.
I was able to recite the most famous fly fishing passage:
In the . . . half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the . . . river and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. . . .
Sunday, April 26, 2015, it was unseasonably cold and overcast–it almost felt like a fall day. We had bad thunderstorms to the north, but the rainfall was scattered across Southwest Virginia. So late that afternoon my son and I decided to go head up to Damascus and see how the creeks were running. We fly fished Whitetop Laurel Creek, and while the water was on the higher end of optimal conditions, the fish were hungry. We caught a number of brown trout in the special regulation section of the creek using large Parachute Madam X flies. We figured because the water wasn’t crystal clear, we’d give the trout something that would catch their attention with the heavier than normal flows.
This weekend I snuck in a few hours of afternoon fly fishing at Beaverdam Creek. This creek flows out of Shady Valley, Tennessee and through a wildlife management area within the Cherokee National Forest and into Virginia. The Virginia portion runs for just a few miles until it enters Damascus, where it crosses right through the main town park.
After catching a couple of rainbow trout, I exchanged my rod for a camera. Wearing waders, I was able to capture some interesting colors from the middle of the creek. Note the orange and yellow reflections in ripples in the center of the creek. The 2012 fall colors have been the best and brightest in years in Southwest Virginia.
This summer we’ve started earnestly fishing the South Holston River, a renowned tailwater trout fishery in Tennessee. The clear water comes from deep in South Holston Lake, making for constantly cold temperatures, even when summer’s heat affects the other mountain streams.
The tailwater is 17 miles from Abingdon, about a half-hour’s drive from town. It’s probably the largest trout fishery in the region, and consequently one of the busiest. I’ll write some more on the SoHo in some future articles, but for now here’s some nice trout we caught this weekend. All photos by Karl Thiessen.
In my last fishing essay, I described solitary fishing in winter on small streams. In that article I referenced a book published in 1938 that my mother gave last year me titled Upstream and Down by Howard T. Walden II. Mr. Walden’s book descriptions are as appropriate today as they were in the 1930s. His commentary shows an amazing prescience about many matters related to the outdoors in general and fly fishing in particular.
One of the themes of Mr. Walden is that in the 1920s and 1930s the small streams of the East were becoming more accessible, and that there were fewer and fewer secret streams left anymore.
Some trout streams are important for their trout, almost all for their beauty, a few for their associations and memories. In the last category are the secret streams of the past. Every angler who has been at his sport a score of years or more can remember whispered directions, the pledges of secrecy, the long and tortuous journeys to those segments of Paradise hidden in the back country. Such prospecting and discovery once constituted the most glamorous aspect of trout fishing. But that is gone in the world, now, except in the remote semi-wilderness counties. Most young anglers, casting over their first pools in the nineteen forties [1940s], will not know the high adventure of finding a secret stream. The automobile has accomplished this special destruction along with general spoliation of virgin countrysides. The motoring hordes have found all the streams there are. . . . The State has charted all the likely water, filled it with foreign trout and invited the public to come and get ’em.
And the public comes. Paths have been beaten by many booted feet along both banks of the farm boy’s secret brook and the wild shy native beauties of that little watercourse are disappearing, dying in the hostile company of rainbows and browns.
Upstream and Down, at 170-171 (1938). Mr. Walden was generally speaking about streams in the Northeast, in New Jersey and Connecticut. Many of his prognostications, however, are equally applicable in Virginia and throughout the Southeast.
If you read modern fishing magazines and browse outdoor websites, the Twenty-First Century equivalent of the automobile is the advent of the information age: the Internet and GPS technology have amplified the problem (from the perspective of the solitude-seeking angler) of the “motoring hordes.” One man armed with a GPS can post all the location information about a “honey hole” on a web forum page, and you can be sure that within a month or two dozens of anglers will have found the “secret pool.”
And yet, even now, such places do exist in our region:
Lovely native trout continue to exist in Southwest Virginia, too. Here is a young brook trout from the Mount Rogers area I caught in June 2012:
In the most rural sections of Southwest Virginia, there are still secret pools (if not completely secret streams) holding the same native brookies that have lived here for a thousand years.
While our brook trout are no doubt still under pressure, as the map below (and this even more detailed Virginia map) shows, there is good news lately about brookies in Virginia. In the Summer 2012 issue of Trout, Trout Unlimited’s “Journal of Coldwater Fisheries Conservation,” there is an article indicating that Virginia brook trout streams are healthier than they have been in decades. One of the main fisheries referenced is St. Mary’s River in Augusta County (which I visited and wrote about last year, here). According to the article, acid rain deposits, which negatively affect stream quality, have decreased 18 percent between 1987 and 2010, and “acid neutralizing capacity” of the Virginia streams studied have increased 82 percent during this same period.
My own anecdotal experience is consistent with Mr. Walden’s observations 80 years ago: Much of the pressure that can be expected to continue on our native trout streams will still come from the “motoring hordes,” especially those individuals who trample on these treasured resources, leaving their garbage behind while taking their full bag limit (or more) of trout, which can quickly eviscerate these sensitive fisheries.
On one point, however, I must disagree with the esteemed Mr. Walden. While we may no longer be able to readily find entire secret streams unknown to most of mankind, there is still much “high adventure” to be had in our mountain streams (and beyond). We just may have to search a little harder these days for a secret pool and be willing to enjoy the more modest adventure of rediscovery of off-the-beaten-track places that are still, after all these years, quite beautiful. In the future we will continue to know streams most important for their associations and memories, recalling those days of yore when we found that secret pool, or caught that lunker fish, or shared that special trip with a relative or friend, as glamorous in our recollection as were those memories of the fishermen of the past. Because those nostalgic fishing memories—just like the proverbial fish story itself—always seem to grow, and never diminish, with time.
Spring is high season for trout fishing in Southern Appalachia. This evening I was able to get in a couple of hours of fishing on Tennessee Laurel Creek.
Tennessee Laurel Creek starts in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee and flows north across the Virginia state line into Damascus. There are bunches of turnouts next to Route 91, the road that parallels the creek, where you can fish.
The creek is not limited to fly fishing, so some days—like today—there are way too many fisherman on the Virginia side, where VGIF stocks regularly. I therefore drove across into Tennessee, where the stocking program is not as prominent, but where there are still numbers of wild trout.
The creeksides are now lush and green. The greenery is reason enough to get outside this time of year.
Tennessee Laurel is a typical Appalachian freestone creek, with lots of rifles and pocket water. It has more chutes and slightly slacker water than its sister Whitetop Laurel Creek, allowing for longer and easier drifts in most sections. When the water flow is right, it’s a pleasure to fish.
Southwest Virginia, Upper East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina have lots of small creeks that are usually more fishable in winter. In winter the water levels may be higher than the summer or fall, there’s no foliage and less brush to block access to the water, and the creeks are no longer clogged with the fallen leaves. It’s a great time of year to hit these creeks, especially during breaks of mild weather.
You’re not likely to catch lunkers in these waters, but the trout are more likely to be wild and more beautiful than the stockers in the rivers and lakes. They may also be willing to hit dry flies even when there’s no hatch coming off the water. These small creek trout don’t have the luxury of waiting for a full-blown hatch. They’re often stuck within the confines of small pools; this requires them to be particularly opportunistic feeders; and insects on the surface are opportunities to them regardless of season.
There is something especially rewarding about the adventure of hiking where few fishermen have been, where the trout may not have seen men or their fishing gear for a long time before you, and where you have a genuine belief that you are exploring the natural world.
In the Eastern United States, there are not many places that instill these feelings anymore. It has been this way for almost a century:
Most of the truly secret streams were small. The larger streams had names, a public sort of character, commercial importance, perhaps. They were accessible: if they held trout it became known and they were visited regularly throughout the open season. Without restocking they became at last depleted of fish.
But the little back-country feeder brooks were nameless, and inaccessible save by long tramping over the ridges and upland meadows which lay deep beyond the infrequent roads. In such remote rills, known only to ourselves and our most intimate partners, the brook trout swam and lurked to meet his chilly destinies much as he had in the first days of the world. Some of these streams are still where they used to be. . . .
Howard T. Walden, II, Upstream & Down, at 171-72 (First Edition 1938).
In Upstream & Down, Mr. Walden explained that in the East, except for in the “remote semi-wilderness counties,” most small streams were under increasing pressure from development and anglers in the early Twentieth Century. He lamented “the loss of the virgin stream of olden time.”
These days, even in the “remote semi-wilderness counties” of the East (acknowledging that the definition of Eastern “remote semi-wilderness” is probably different today than in the 1930s), there are very few, if any, “nameless” small streams. Nonetheless, the essence of what Mr. Walden wrote back in the 1930s is still true: Remote small streams are still the most likely places to find unspoiled trout waters.
In the reality of our increased population and the informational resources of modern times, there is not just a geographical dimension to being adventurous in the outdoors—whether fishing for trout, or otherwise (hiking, backpacking, etc.). There is also a seasonal dimension. Most fishermen hang up their rods and reels come late fall, and many do not take the sport up again until the traditional opening days of April. Thus the ardent angler is far more likely to have a solitary and adventurous experience in winter than in spring, summer, or fall. This is not to say that small creek fishing is not rewarding in the fairer seasons, just to point out the undeniable fact that it is more likely to hold an excitement that comes from undisturbed exploration in the wintertime.
So I will continue to fly fish in wintertime, even if I catch less trout during this season. For while catching trout is the “point of the whole exercise” (as fellow small stream enthusiast and Trout Underground author Tom Chandler has stated), it is not the sole—or perhaps even driving—reason that we engage in this sport.
P.S. — I will write more about Upstream & Down, a fascinating book, and Mr. Walden’s thoughts about trout fishing in subsequent articles.
One of the gems of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is Fox Creek. Nestled between the south side of Iron Mountain and the north side of Mount Rogers, Fox Creek flows east through about 5 miles of National Forest before entering private property down the mountainside.
Lower Fox Creek
The lower section of the creek that lies within the national forest flows through a miniature gorge. Large boulders and timbers create numerous beautiful pools of water. Fox Creek Falls, a fan-type cascading waterfall, is a much photographed feature. The photo below shows Fox Creek Falls from a side angle, a less traditional view. (Click on any of the photos in this article to enlarge them.)
The two trips we took to Fox Creek in October revealed remarkable foilage on the moss-covered boulders. Although past their peak vibrancy, the leaves created a tapestry of color that I needed to capture with the camera.
The first day we arrived in the middle of the afternoon. The sunlight was too harsh for good photography, so we came back the next day in the later afternoon. The boulders in the creek are quite large; in the photo below, you can see my son Isaac playing on one of them.
Upper Fox Creek
The upper part of Fox Creek is formed when Lewis Fork Branch joins the Fox Creek headwater. At this point, the creek becomes a full fledged, albeit small, trout stream. A modest, high elevation valley forms between Mount Rogers and Iron Mountain. The National Recreation Area has a large, split rail fence that runs along Virginia Route 603 for several miles.
Along this section of road is the trailhead for the Mount Rogers Trail, Grindstone Campground, a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail, the Fairwood Horse Camping Area, and the entrance to the unimproved road that goes up to the Scales area of Pine Mountain.
Fox Creek in this area is a small, swiftly moving creek with a gentle gradient remiscent of a Midwestern trout stream or an Eastern chalk stream as much as typical freestone stream. However, the flow of the creek is variable as it is dependent on runoff from Mount Rogers.
The views up and down the valley are Western-like. In fact, much of the Mount Rogers area reminds many people, including me, of the West. It’s like a little slice of the West dropped into Southwest Virginia.
The large meadows along upper Fox Creek provide many starting points for short hikes. There are also numerous places to begin longer hikes up Mount Rogers or Iron Mountain.
This photo taken with a point-and-click camera shows Brumley Creek the day after the heavy rains from Tropical Depression Lee last week. Normally, this creek is only about 10 feet wide during low water. As a point of reference in the photo, the distance from the bank on the right side to the large tree in foreground in the middle of the creek is about 15 feet (and the width of the stream from the tree to the other side is at least about another 10-15 feet).
We went down to the creek in the evening to look around, and to see how high the water would have risen from the storm water runoff. Usually this section of the creek is quiet, but there was a roar from the water that you could hear as soon as you opened the car door.
How do trout survive in such a rapidly changing environment? This week over at the Orvis Fly Fishing Blog Drew Price explains. Simplifying the explanation, the torrential flow we view from surface is moderated at the bottom, and there are places where the fish can hold and stay safe.
A little bit about Brumley Creek: Technically, it is the closest trout stream to Abingdon. It’s a small stocked creek less than 10 miles from town. It doesn’t have a reputation for producing large or many fish, as there are not many holdovers from the previous seasons. It’s also not regulated, i.e., it’s open to all fisherman who hold a trout license during the stocking season. As stated above, it’s also small. It’s still a pretty little creek though.
Note that this description is of the stocked lower section of the creek, which has about 1/2 mile or so of fishable water, on Trout Road. The creek flows from Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area and down off of Clinch Mountain.
This 12″ brown trout was caught (and released) today in Wythe County on a Royal Parachute Madam X, aka PMX, a dry fly that is a terrestrial pattern similar to a Royal Wulff with a caddis-type hackle and rubber legs. It looks a little bit like a lot of different types of insects and is an attractor fly as well. The brown trout hit the dry fly pretty hard, which was a nice ending to an otherwise quiet day on the water that seemed to be mostly about casting practice. But with temperatures reaching 96 degrees in the region, wet-wading and fishing a cool mountain stream was a nice start to the Labor Day weekend.