Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Almost Great Fishing (in the Smokies and Elsewhere)

I recently returned from a week of fishing on the AuSable River in Michigan. It’s a well-known, well-tended river with big brown trout who feed at night. So most of our fishing took place from 9 pm to 1 am using dry flies. In case you don’t know, a dry fly is simply a feather and fur imitation of an insect – in this case, mayflies – that floats on the surface. You know a fish has taken your fly when you see the fly disappear from the surface, sometimes in a loud, visible splash, sometimes in a silent, invisible sip. Did you catch the part about seeing your fly disappear? That’s what makes night fishing for trout hard – and interesting – because what is normally a visual form of fishing becomes purely auditory. You listen carefully in the vicinity of where you think your fly is floating, hoping to hear an unusual splash or sip. After awhile you are able to distinguish the sound of a fish from the sound of river turbulence. The river sounds wet, while the fish sounds alive. It’s a subtle, but real, difference that you eventually, half-way figure out.

When my wife, Phyllis, asked me how the fishing was, I replied, “Almost great.” She showed the appropriate amount of interest with her response: “Good. I’m glad.” What I didn’t tell her was that it was the kind of “almost great” where you end up with very little to show for your efforts. It wasn’t a horseshoes & hand grenades kind of “almost.” It was the other kind. Think of it this way. In baseball there are two ways to “almost” hit a home run. One way is to hit a triple. You don’t make it home; you end up on third. The other way to almost hit a home run is to hit a deep fly ball that is caught on the warning track. With the first almost you end up on third with the fans cheering. With the second almost you walk back to the dugout, in silence or maybe in a shower of beer bottles. My “almost great” fishing trip was a warning track out. I hooked several very big trout… and lost them all.

I’ve had quite a few “great” and “almost great” days fishing in the Smokies – but not usually because of the fish. As a matter of fact, if I focus strictly on the body count after a day of Smokies fishing, nearly all of my fishing in the Smokies has been either lousy or decent, with only an occasional great day mixed in just to keep my hopes up. Some days the fish are cooperative and stupid, which fits my fishing talents perfectly, but they are small. Those are the decent days. Other days they are too smart or nervous or bored for a guy like me to catch. Those are the lousy days.

Camping at Forney Creek

But if I’ll expand my paradigm just a bit to include not just the fish, but the whole scene – water, trees, flowers, birds, otters, solitude – then fishing in the Smokies is always great. As an old fly fisherman once said, “The fishing is always good, even if the catching isn’t.” That’s a perfect description of fishing in the Smokies.

Three Forks Pool deep in the Raven Fork Wilderness in the Smokies

In fishing a Smokies river you’ll spend a little time hiking by the river but much more time hiking in it. It is possible to fish these rivers from the riverbank, and you might even catch more fish that way because wading in the river often spooks the fish. I’ve tried fly fishing from the bank, but I invariably end up in the river – waist deep, in the middle, wading against the current, hopping on and over rocks. I seem to be drawn to the noise and the movement of the water. Fishing like this, you are not just looking at a pretty river. You are involved with the river. You become a part of it. At these moments you belong in the river just as surely as the water, rocks, and fish. Somehow, having a fly rod in your hand, searching for fish, provides a focus, a participation– what the ancient Greeks called koinonia and we Americans call communion that you can’t get by just sitting by or hiking next to the river.

Hazel Creek

How’s the fishing in the Smokies? Great, always great.