© 2011 Will K 100_0064

The Fish ‘Why’

I can’t count the cups of coffee during which I have sought the bottom of the depth of my desire for them.  Sipping and reflecting, questioning, searching for some explanation why one fish–above all others–draws me out.  There is a point, I realized, when one must accept an obsession on no other condition than its reality of existence.  In that moment, I decided to go back and convinced two others that it’d be a good idea.

Going back is hard regardless of the situation, especially when it is more or less a mission of vengeance.  This second trip to the Smoky Mountains would, as we convinced ourselves and reassured each other, be different than the last.  We had more experience, more time, and felt we had thoroughly paid our dues of suffering on the first trip.  We learned, though, that the Smokies are too old and too wise to be so easily conquered.

It began as a simple enough trip East; another overnight drive with Chris had us off to a great start.  We arrived a full hour and a half earlier than last time; that was enough to allow a quick nap in the visitor center’s parking lot.  We drew the curiosity of a ranger, but were apparently of too little concern to warrant a knock on our window.  We shuffled ourselves back into driving shape, stashed our pillows, and headed to get licensed and checked-in to our campsite.  Our confidence grew as each snag from the last trip was a snag no more.  We dumped a few things at the camp and headed out to water.  On the drive, during one of those conversations that is meaningless and fairly pointless other than a purpose to keep the driver awake, we decided that the first water we’d fish would be the water that inestimably kicked our asses last time around.

I can’t and I won’t recount the last trip, but I will summarize it: 20x flows, one fish, blood, a killed camera,  dashed hopes and one fish.  There are still stories I haven’t shared from that trip; that trip was a trip of stories.  Stories that still serve to provide laughter in impossible circumstances and others that simply give us chills.  This trip, though, was destined to be a trip of fishes.

We stepped into the stream Monday morning ready to come as Armageddon’s horsemen…in waders.  Gentle and conservative, we would have our fill of defeated Brookies.  Chris fished his Orvis 2wt killer of 6 and a half feet; I strung my new 9′ 2wt.  The hours passed, and we caught a few.  It was enough to encourage us that we’d do better elsewhere, somewhere in the backcountry where we really wanted to be.  And so with half a day left, energy from our 2 hours of sleep fading with the afternoon sun, and hopes rising in defiance–we set off to the “real” Brookie water.

From that first afternoon until the last morning, more or less, we pounded ourselves in the “real” water.  Water which resists visitors, which seems to be private to all but God and fish, which raises the question of “is this worth it?” That question grew louder through the days; each came with higher hope and left with physical pain and confused disappointment.  Everything was done perfectly–right place, right time, right water, right fly, right everything.  The challenges, though, of accessing the water meant we began fishing as exhausted hikers, not focused fisherman.  It became a mental game.

Day three came; with it arrived the mid-point of the trip and, arguably, the high-point as well.  Our friend, Joe, from New York arrived at the airport that afternoon.  A banzai run to and from the airport put us all on the water within an couple of hours of his landing.  A few hours of fishing with replenished flies and a fresh injection of new blood into the crew meant the afternoon would be surely wrought with Brookies. It was…and was not.

As I fished upstream, leaving the company of Joe and Chris, I met the demon head-on which typically rides quietly in my pack.  This demon has but one simple message, “You are catching nothing…you’ve failed.”  Tallies of time, gallons of gas, and money spent began to align in mathematical arrangements with a paragraphical conclusion as a sum.  I have given everything I had to be in those streams; if I left again as we left last time, there would be a fierce deficit in multiple categories.  This trip was my salvation of months prior; it needed to be that still for months future.  And such began my decline as a fisherman, standing there in perfect water–Fall in the Smoky Mountains–about to be stripped to the bone.  Having caught not one and the day growing thin, I returned to the car to meet back up with the boys.  I asked Chris how he did, and he ever so calmly said, “I caught about eight.”  Bones. “About eight,” I knew, meant double that.

Instead of sharing in the victory and happiness for him–this was his salvation as much as mine–I became bones. I lost it on the side of the road behind my truck and, if I remember correctly, vowed to never fish with him again.  In that moment, I meant it; I knew that was the most ridiculous thing to ever have crossed my teeth, though, even then.  I eventually apologized having gone on a sort of a walkabout that evening; I needed to get my shit back together.  It was all over the place, and I knew it.

Day…not sure…the next one, we all trekked out to some promising line on the map; it had words of assurance running all along it, put there by the vanilla advice from the fly shop.  In the intersection between that “local intelligence” and our own research, this water would likely provide each of us a Brookie or two somewhere in the day.  Antsy, I hiked ahead and jumped in upstream.  My first fish in days came fairly early and it came like CPR, a gasping resurgence of life in the midst of trauma.  I could not wait to hold that little Brookie and brought it to hand in half the time it took me to realize it was…not a Brookie.  A Rainbow should not have been in that water, not in that stream and definitely not at that altitude.  It was a fish that probably warranted a phone call to Fish and Wildlife, but I never did.  I fished up further, having enjoyed the sight of the little parr ‘bow. It reminded me of home, and home water, and it likely did me more good in that moment than any Brookie could have.

I struck off, way off; I skipped out of the water and went into storm trooper-mode.  I fired up the hill, stopping only two or three times to fish what looked like brilliant pools (no, nothing).  What I found weren’t secret Brookies or even rogue ‘bows, but it was almost as fun.  The afternoon became one for exploration and freedom; I forgot about fishing and took off into the high mountain woods alone.  I knew I’d see a bear staring back at me every time I crested a boulder or stand of rhod’; I never did though.  It was one of the most unlonely most-alone times I’ve ever had, and it was a time of rediscovery about why I was there.  I sipped on my stream coffee and took it in silently, following the water but never being bound to it.  The obsession bled through the fibres of a page that was currently covered in pennings of frustration.  The demon had been writing, but was now losing page space to a brighter ink.

As I watched the mountains with each step, hearing the water pound the rocks as it had pounded me an hour earlier, I began to pick up details about the history of the place.  I noticed scattered logging cables from 50 years ago, trees no older than that, trees far older but in the distance, and a pig wallow that was just hours old.  This place had seen more than I cared to notice at first; marks of battles against destructive–unnaturally destructive–forces were everywhere.  The stream, though, was different.  Older, less molested but more vulnerable, and calmer in its resolve, the stream seemed to be the mentor of the forest.  Something happened in the corridor of that odd Rainbow water, something that wouldn’t resurface for another day or so.

Again defeated, more or less, and more exhausted than ever before because of a cumulative lack of calories and rest, we descended the water and headed back to camp.  We knew rain was coming; it had been raining on and off during the whole week there, and almost as soon as we reached the truck–we saw the clouds promising rain and thunder.  Fishing is all about timing, and for once our timing had been right on the mark.  Driving out and seeing the trees washed clean of the gravel dust was refreshing; it brought back the beauty of the place as it would be without us there.  Driving back to camp, I think we all knew without question that we were missing something, but unsure of what exactly it was…no one talked about it.

Dinner came, and with it some delicious calories in town.  We sat around a table eating pizza and brainstorming for some easier, fishier water for the next day–the final full-day there.  We needed a break from the beatings the water and everything else was giving us.  We just wanted to catch some good fish, preferably lots of them.  Conveniently, “good fish” simply meant little wild fish, not big ones. We found a likely line on the map and confirmed it with some book-bound information and a few lines from some web page I had printed 6 months before and scribbled some cryptic notes on: “least fished…greedy…’bows.”  Sounded good.  Access was good too, just a 2 mile hike at most after a drive through a pretty section of the Park.  Done.  We finished our pizza and headed back out of the gross civilization we hated from minute one in March.

That next day, another one which we filled promises that we later learned were artificial at best, brought us all to defeat.  A defeat that put us all off fishing for the rest of the day.  We ended up circumnavigating the Park, driving through the reservation, and arriving back at camp bewildered and ready to make the trip about something other than hooks and fins.  It happened around the only good campfire of the week that it did become a trip of more than fish.

Among the few hundred pounds of accouterments that we packed into the truck was Chris’ guitar; it was finally safe weather to bring it out.  Chris played; I drank, and we all talked.  I don’t remember the real content of the conversation; the quality of my whiskey and their words were too high to commit any of it to long-term memory.  It was a good conversation, though; we all knew it.  We were finally ready to end the trip and spend the last day enjoying whatever we found.  What we found was an unlikely stretch of water that we joked would probably be the best fishing of the whole trip.

Before we got back to the campsite that night, we did a drive-by for the access of that unlikely water.  The next morning was an easy drive and a short hike back to that circled access on our map.  It was almost a joke, sort of a sarcastic gesture against all that the Park stands for, against all that the trip stood for.  Barely inside in the Park, barely outside marks of civilization, we were the oddballs of all other visitors there.  We all strung up and tied on bushy guesses of flies, ready to see this water and do a few more hours of combat fishing.

We got down to the stream together, but immediately split up.  I climbed out and, as usual, shot myself upstream to leave sufficient un-fished pools between Chris and my tippet.  Joe stayed low, playing the role of an alert-five fighter jet–going where necessary when necessary.  I fished alone for the morning, not caring if anything was caught.  It was a gorgeous stream with gorgeous water; I was content to just be fishing there, trying to take in as much as possible before we had to leave forever.  A few casts in brought a Brookie.  I was surprised as much from its existence there in that water as its existence on my hook.  “There really are Brookies here! I can’t believe it!”

I fished from pool to pool, stopping at the ones I knew held a fish or two (most of them), and began catching fish after fish after fish.  It was happening; this was the best day of the trip.  I couldn’t believe it.  With each rise, take and fish I laughed and said out loud, “I can’t believe this!”  It struck me, ironically, on the eighth fish that there was flesh on my bones again.

Every cast fell effortlessly to the water where I had looked and said, “There.” Drifts became fluid and just long enough to produce a rise almost every time.  I wasn’t fishing against the months of misery that preceded or against gas receipts or against the life I would return to in less than 24 hours.  I wasn’t fishing against anything.  The fish came, and I found myself bowing down on one knee in prostration to the beauty before me, not as a decision for stealth but a natural movement.  It was as I had spent the week, my knees on rocks and head held low–bruises and aches proved that–but the difference was my soul standing erect no more. It rested in the stream in a state that was not commanding to life, but in a position of necessity to be allowed into its presence.  With each fish unhooked and slipped back into its world, the line separating the surface of the water and its depths blurred, and my soul floated in its vaguery.  I became half the man I thought I was in the last hour of the last day.

Rapidly, though, I returned to the more familiar version of myself.  I roused myself off the log I was sitting on, draped across the water above a deep pool.  I had been sitting there a while, long enough to be comfortable and reluctant to move.  Knowing I hadn’t seen the face or line of either of the other guys, I thought I’d go back down and check in.  As I walked on the impromptu bridge and began my transition off down into the streambank, I knew my descent was soon to go a lot quicker than I intended.  My foot slipped off the side of the log simply from a lack of weight on it, and I shot straight down like…something falling off a log.  I fall all the time, usually off the water; what had me nervous in that split second wasn’t the 6 foot drop, it was the other 6 foot drop under the water.  Somehow in an infinitely small period of time I figured out that if I whacked my head (highly likely) on any one of those rocks that were getting closer and closer and fell in that pool, well, I’d be in a little trouble.  At the moment I concluded that this was a bad, very bad, situation, I stopped dead.  Somehow my left foot (the same one that had slipped and started this mess half a second earlier) caught and stuck on the side of a wet, slimy, and very improbable rock.  I froze, waiting for the feeling of something being broken, or to just have my luck flee and finish my journey down to the bottom of that damn pool.

From that moment until I finally was with the other two at the truck and ready to go, there were almost two hours where both Chris and I were beginning to really believe Joe had died.  He was missing, really missing.  We left a note on the truck and went back into the woods looking for him…three times.  No Joe.  We tracked what we thought were possibly his boot prints on some rocks, but finally gave up that trail.  Chris and I were yelling louder than I think either of us ever have, or even thought we could.  I felt bad for any other visitors, enjoying the peaceful calm of the wild scenery; I’m sure our intermittent blastings of “JOE!” breaking through the fall colors were, at best, confusing.  After a certain amount of time–surprisingly little, as we found out–you stop looking for the person and just hunt for a body.  There were sufficient qualities of the place to render it a lethal situation: rattlesnakes, bears, rocks, pools, Gatlinburgites.  It was not looking good.

We finally found him back at the truck.  We exchanged stories, but not before we confessed, “Joe, man, I am so glad you are not dead!” Joe, in his way that is so very his alone, replied, “Yeah, I was gonna leave my hat floating in a pool for you to find…but I didn’t.”  We already had a speech prepared for the phonecall to his wife.  If it had taken a minute longer to see him alive, we would have decided who would have made that call.  Thankfully, no one died that day.  Unfortunately, that meant it was time to take Joe to the airport; the trip was over.

There are other stories that make that trip what it was.  I got kicked out of a woodshed.  Chris broke his tailbone.  Joe said a cuss word.  We all said some cuss words together.  It became clear somewhere in the rain, the bruises, the frustration and a little whiskey why Brookies occupy my cups of coffee.  I found that those piped-fins and black mouths are inseparable from the same bits and pieces of experiences that formed the story of that week.  I am left with the simplest of conclusions: the Brook Trout, above all other fish, is the fish of story.  And I love story.




  1. Posted October 31, 2011 at 6:18 pm | #

    “we began fishing as exhausted hikers, not focused fisherman” yes, yes…I know this feeling well. The culmination of watching this post slowly transpire through Facebook status posts was in no way a disappointment. Wow. What an adventure!

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:21 am | #

      Thanks, Erin!

  2. Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:46 pm | #

    Wow! Great story. Just enough suspense for me. I’d of left after the second day.

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:22 am | #

      We would have if Joe hadn’t been arriving on the third; he kept us anchored in more ways than one.

  3. Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm | #

    That’s what I wanted to say. Dude, I miss it already. When are we going back?

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:21 am | #

      ASAP. Spring I’d say.

  4. Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:45 pm | #

    It never ceases to amaze me the lengths some of us will go to chase a few trout…but with coffee, whiskey, friends, and laughs, it doesn’t get much better.


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