I've written two books on the Smokies. The first was Hallowed Hills, Holy Waters, consisting of stories about hiking and fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains. The second book is Paths Less Traveled, a book of stories about off-trail hiking in the Smokies. Both are available on www.CreateSpace.com. (At the Search bar, be sure to search Store, not Site.) Some of the stories in these books appear in this blog, but much of the material in the books is new and non-blogged.
was pitch black and the voice of an old man – who was completely invisible
except the orange glow of his cigar – had instructed me to the only rising fish
that I had heard all night. I waded within 10 feet of the fish which is
possible at night, but not considered proper technique by some, including the
make a short story longer, the fish rose, I waited about 15 seconds, then I
dropped my fly just upstream of the sound and let it drift down. A few seconds
later I heard a small splash about where my fly probably was. I set the hook
gently. The fight was not an epic battle. It was more like a brief test of
wills. He made a few short runs and broke the surface a few times, but he mostly
sat and sulked, too proud to surrender. Typical for a good-sized brown trout.
After a minute or two he relented, and I scooped him into my net. A
deeply-colored, sixteen inch, wild brown trout. Not a huge fish, but large
enough that he should have known better.
turned toward the dock to tell my elderly guide that the fish was a flawless
sixteen inches, but he was gone. No cigar glow, no congratulations, no “how big
is he?” Nothing. Silence. He seemed to have simply vanished into the darkness.
kind of fisherman would leave without seeing how the encounter turned out?
Would the Southern guy catch the fish? If so, how big was it? Maybe he knew how
big the fish was because he had caught and released it many times over the past
few years. Maybe he was disgusted that I wasn’t fishing as a gentleman should
and left because he couldn’t bear to listen. Maybe he had to be somewhere
waded across the river and onto the dock and shouted for him: “Woo, thanks!
Sixteen inches!” No answer. Just the sound of water flowing against sand, grass,
and fallen trees. No sound of footsteps on the path, no car driving away down
the dirt road. I walked a little farther to the grassy meadow where Durant’s
Castle used to stand and shouted again. Nothing… except darkness, a billion
stars, and the sound of a cool breeze rustling the tops of the pines.
old dock from which the glow and the voice had emanated is the riverside access
for the old house – Durant’s Castle, a French chateau with fifty-six rooms and
seven fireplaces – where Mr. W. C. Durant, the chairman of General Motors, had
lived briefly in 1930. In February, 1931
the mansion burned down, and although he continued to come to the AuSable to
fish, Durant never rebuilt, and his riverside property eventually passed into
the hands of the State of Michigan which now maintains it as a fly fishing
only, primitive area.
AuSable River is the center point of this local community. It is loved and
tended and respected. The fact that the fishermen and canoeists who are drawn
to it provide jobs and income to this rural area probably helps, but there’s
clearly more to the community-river relationship than just dollars and cents.
The local folks love this river the way you’d love your mother, not your bank
sad-but-true fact about many other rivers – including many of our East
Tennessee rivers – is that they are used but not loved. The amount of trash,
old tires, junked cars, plastic WalMart bags, beer cans, and bags of garbage on
our local rivers is just plain embarrassing to those of us who care about such
things. While those rivers are places where people dump their trash, the
AuSable is a river where people dump their ashes… of loved ones. While fishing
the AuSable we’ll occasionally encounter a guy sitting reverently on the riverbank,
paying his respects to the final resting place of his father, whose ashes had
been scattered on the waters of his beloved river. This happens more often than you’d think.
few miles from Durant’s Castle there’s a stretch of the AuSable called “the
Holy Water.” While people don’t come here to bathe and be miraculously healed,
this name does show the depth of respect the locals hold for this river. If a
community can have a soul, this river is it.
don’t think much about ghosts, and I’m not sure I believe in them. However, I
do believe in the supernatural which does open up a world of possibilities, one
of which might be an occasional visit by the ghost of a man who once lived by
this river and fished its waters. Rather than being punishment for a profligate
life, spending a few years as a disembodied spirit wandering the banks of the
AuSable might actually be a reward for good behavior. It’s certainly closer to
Heaven than Hell.
river by the site of Durant’s Castle is a pleasant spot, and if I were a ghost,
I’d spend some time there, too. And if the mood struck, I might even point out
a rising fish to a passing fisherman so he’d have a story to tell his buddies
when they all reunited at the old wooden dock after a night on my river.
spending several fruitless hours standing in the dark on Michigan’s AuSable
River, waiting for mayflies and fish to arrive, I waded downstream toward the
old, wooden dock where I could see the orange glow of a lit cigar. Not wanting
to disturb a fisherman who was stalking a fish, I called out to him, and an old
man’s voice responded slowly and clearly from out of the darkness: “I’m not
fishing, but there’s a good fish rising on the other side. I can’t get a good
cast to him from here, so you’re welcome to give it a try.” The current wasn’t
heavy, but if the river here was over four or five feet deep then he’d have to
wade up or downstream to a shallower spot to wade across.Apparently the old man couldn’t or wouldn’t
wade across the river to get to the rising fish.
A typical stretch of the AuSable
you sure?” I responded. He of course understood that I wasn’t asking if he was
sure there was a fish rising. I was asking if he was sure that he was willing
to give it to me.
I live here and fish this water all the time. I’m done for the night.”
was all the explanation I needed. “Thanks. I’ll see what I can do.” I stopped and
listened for a few seconds until I heard the splashy rise of a fish about 20
yards in front of me. It was exactly where it should have been: directly across
from the orange glow and the voice in the darkness, and on the opposite side of
I waded silently downstream at about the same speed as the current. Wading upstream
against the current would have been noisy, but wading with the current is like
walking on air. You step and glide, step and glide, all in slow motion. Under
the water’s surface, it probably looks like astronauts walking on the moon.
I approached the rising fish I moved a few feet further out into the river
because the fish would be facing upstream toward me. An unusual feature of
night fishing is that you can wade to within 8 or 10 feet of a rising fish as
long as you don’t make any sudden, splashy moves. The stars on a clear,
moonless night create just enough light for an upward-looking fish to see a
fisherman’s dark silhouette against the night sky. So a stealthy approach is
still important, but the darkness reduces the distances dramatically. In
daylight a fisherman would need to be 20 or 30 feet away from the fish; at
night, 8 or 10 feet will do. I also turned sideways in the water to create a
smaller wall of resistance against the current as I stopped alongside and
slightly behind the fish.
waited and listened for the delicate splash of a rising fish.
I couldn’t see them, there was obviously a steady supply of dead Drake mayflies
floating over him. Every 30 seconds he’d rise to the surface and suck in
another bug. He had no idea that a human was lurking about a fishing rod’s
length away in the dark, weapon in hand, waiting and listening, observing his
habits, meaning to do him harm (but intending to release him if things unfolded
according to plan). If fish could write stories it would make a dark, sad tale
of the crime noir genre. An innocent,
unsuspecting victim and a cruel, crazed stalker. Cold darkness. Dreadful surprise.
The rush of fear. Pain. Panic. A brief fight. Surrender. “Hello, Clarice.”
Close Range at Night
had these kinds of thoughts occasionally while on the river, but I’m more
likely to think of them afterwards. The victim-stalker scenario can either
cause you to stop fishing, put your fishing gear in the back of the truck, and
drive away in shame, or it can raise your adrenaline level an extra notch as
you experience the thrill of a crime of passion. Neither of those options is
the sort of thing to be proud of, so it’s best not to dwell on them while
standing around with a fly rod in your hand waiting for darkness to descend.
old man didn’t approve of my fishing style. As I waded up closer and closer to
the fish, I heard him mumble something about “wading right on top of the fish.”
If he was familiar with this river then he would have known that wading close
to the fish is possible at night. Apparently he didn’t think it was sporting.
There are a lot of unwritten rules in fly fishing etiquette, and they differ
slightly from one person to the next. Just as I wouldn’t approve of using a
Woolly Bugger or Sculpin in this situation, he didn’t approve of “dapping” my dry
fly above the fish. In his world, fly fishing is properly done by casting the fly, not dangling it. Under
better circumstances I might have agreed with him. After all, one of the joys
of fly fishing is the swoosh-swoosh-shoot of the fly rod and line. But, as
you’ll recall, this was not a night of “better circumstances.” I had been on
the river at least six hours and hadn’t made even one cast. If I’d had a treble
hook and a chunk of rotting chicken guts I would have used them. If caught, I
could play my East Tennessee Hillbilly Card by claiming that I was from out of
state and didn’t know any better. Stereotypes are unfair, cruel, and stupid…
but sometimes they come in handy. [To be