Southern Mountain Trout

by Wayne Heinze


“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” ― Cormac McCarthy, The Road

River Pools where traout live

Although it is never acknowledged in the pages of this grim post-apocalyptic novel, some believe that the mountains containing the brook trout described above are in Tennessee. I concur for a couple of reasons. McCarthy spent roughly thirty years living in the eastern Tennessee mountain region, and I too have seen the trout there that he references. I have caught them from the tumbling white waters that plunge down the slopes, in rapids, pools, runs, and eddies, and one may infer from the way he describes the scene, so has he. They may not always be pure native strain wild trout, but sometimes they are. They may not be such an incredibly beautiful life force as the prose suggests, but often they are. If the trout are the mountains, then surely the mountains are the trout.

Over many decades I have enjoyed the outdoor wonders of the low country South, from the barrier beaches like Chincoteague, Virginia, Hatteras, North Carolina, Okaloosa on the Florida Panhandle, to the Santee Cooper region of South Carolina, the Okefenokee in Georgia, and the swamps around Pascagoula, Mississippi. These places are all magic to me, and thoughts of them inevitably send me into to my “gear room” to start mentally and actually sorting and planning return trips. But there is another natural feature of the South that pulls me back time and again, and that is the mountains.

The eastern mountains are older geologically than the western ranges for the most part, and have been eroded over time, and do not approach the scale of the Rockies in our epoch. But geologists tell us they were once very similar, and there remains a lot of what I like to call mountain majesty in these older peaks and ranges that have endured so long, and seen so much. Even the names of the ranges are evocative of our earliest explorations; the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge, the Great Smokies. More than a few of us grew up whistling or singing this tune:

“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee Greenest state in the Land of the Free Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree….”

Although it wasn’t until many years after the boy hung up his coonskin cap that the man discovered that the verse was a little off. While visiting the reconstructed cabin at Davy Crockett’s birthplace, hard by the rapids on the Nolichuky River, my son and I cast for smallmouth bass in the eddies, pretty durn sure we were not on a mountain, but in a valley.

But as this was in eastern Tennessee, mountains do abound here. In fact my favorite of all rises over 6,000 feet in the far northeast on the Tennessee / North Carolina border, Roan Mountain. Roan Mountain, or the Roan as it is fondly referred to, is bisected by the Appalachian Trail. Roan’s peaks make it the highest elevation the AT traverses between the Blue Ridge to the south and the trail terminus in Maine. And the wilderness shelter on Roan is the highest such structure along the entire 1,764 miles of the trail. And on the mountain top is located the largest naturally occurring rhododendron grove in the world. So spectacular is this foliage in bloom, that a hotel once existed here to accommodate visitors viewing the beauty of this particular flora here more than anything else. People came from the world over to view the blossoms, their magnificence attracting even John Muir to visit here. And Muir wasn’t someone to dawdle around one spot for too long, and if you read enough of his writings, you know, he was a guy who would be just as likely to climb up a tree as stand under one, even in a thunderstorm. And although documentation is sketchy, I find it likely that he roamed the Roan, eventually finding himself exploring the watercourses that sprang from the deep recesses of the rock. I find it impossible to think that Muir would not have clambered over the boulders and gravel shallows of the Doe River, as I have often done. And we both would have seen the trout that Cormac McCarthy describes so well. I know I have, and while I won’t tell you that I sensed Muir’s presence there, I won’t tell I didn’t either.

The Doe River is a freestone stream that contains healthy populations of three species of trout: rainbow, brown and brook. There are naturally reproducing populations of these species, especially the rainbow trout. These wild fish are supplemented by regular stocking of trout from late winter to early summer by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in several stretches of the stream. My favorite section of the stream is actually the stretch contained within Roan Mountain State Park. I have used both the campground there and the cabins across the meadow as a base for my trout fishing here. Like many things in the mountains, the fishing is not experienced without effort. There are a few wider stretches, particularly where the Doe flows through the aforementioned meadow bordering the lower campground. But even here, you’d be well advised to enter the stream to avoid the bank side vegetation, and mind your back cast, and keep a low profile. But the footing is good here, mostly gravel, and the wild flowers on the meadow provide an idyllic backdrop for the trout you are likely to encounter here. I never fail to spend at least some time in the riffles and runs here, usually early in the morning and usually successfully, before heading upstream towards the wooden campground access bridge.

Moving up current, the stream narrows, and becomes a continuous flow of mini rapids and plunge pools, and chutes. Gravel bottomed and boulder strewn, with rock formations from with rocks from cobble size ankle breakers to Volkswagen size formations splitting the current in two. Long casts are of no use here, and neither are imprecise short ones. Each rapid and plunge pool offers certain specific spots where the fish hold, and that is where you must swim your jig or fly. When you are accurate, you are often rewarded with an immediate strike. Trout don’t chase down their food in waters like this, they ambush it in close quarters. What you use, as long as it is small, is less important than where you put it. I prefer 1/64th ounce jigs, or a size ten cone head fly, either a Wooly Bugger or Muddler Minnow.

Early morning is my favorite time along the Doe River, which often has more to do with the ambiance in the early morning light, than in the fishing outcome. The misty mountain air, the aromatic mix of blossoms and moist earth, and the silence of the day create a sanctified venue in which to explore. And the quietude exacerbates the murmurs of the tumbling waters into a roar, a most pleasing refrain, mixed with the calls of the morning birds. I do not eschew the fishing later the day, as the sheltered glens and gorges, and and year ’round cool waters allow one to curl up a little longer in your sleeping bag each morning. You can fish successfully all through the day in most cases, and a brilliant afternoon sun evident in only scattered shafts of light through the Roan canopy, gives a pleasant aspect to the stream as well. And there is something of a river at night that recalls the ghosts that have moved on downstream, and hints at what may lie upcurrent, and raises the hackles of both man and beast. However one would be well served to know the stretch of the Doe they are fishing in the dark very intimately before venturing astream at night. True on any waters, critical to life and limb here. But it is a stream that cannot be rushed through in any case, and if you don’t fish slowly enough to observe the rocks and rills along with everything else, you’ve missed the point of fishing a small stream anyway.

One morning, in a scene I referenced in my essay “Camping Out”, I caught my largest trout from the Doe, a beautiful fifteen inch brown trout. Thick, but sleek, powerful, and perfect.The black, cream, gold and red spots were brilliant even in the morning haze. They sparkled briefly through the clear water before blending in with the gravel bottom and shadows as I slipped the barbless hook from it’s jaw and released the fish back into it’s pool. And, there can be no doubt that the fish was lord over his domain there, a large fish in a very small pool, less than the size of an on deck circle. That such life as these trout, exists in such a place as the Doe River, as it tumbles downstream off Roan Mountain, will always keep me climbing back upstream here to seek it out.

 


Photo of Doe River pool by Wayne Heinze

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