The first rays of sun beamed through the first bright green leaves of spring, as I sat tucked away, camouflaged by the shadows of mountain laurel and rhododendron, I watched the crystalline light dance off the water’s surface while I habitually threaded the fly line through the guides of my rod. In my mind’s eye, I can see myself on the bank surrounded by the trilliums, spring beauties, and dwarf iris’s peeking through the leaf mats of the previous autumn, soaking up the final abundant rays of sunlight before they’re blocked out by the new leaf growth of the taller trees, to hide back underground until next spring. I was maybe around 13 or 14 years old at this time, but it was one of the first times I got to put into practice, on my own, some of the most fundamental lessons of Southern Appalachian Fly Fishing:
1. Never crawl through a laurel thicket to a trout stream with a rigged-up rod, unless you like breaking rod tips.
2. Never make a cast into a trout stream without firstly sitting in its reverence for even just a moment, because every trout stream is a miracle.
Maybe it was because of my newfound maturity along with the opportunity to contemplate the importance of these two rules, particularly the second one, that I took a few moments to reflect on that which I was witness to. The first rule is a practicality that most people can understand, but the second is more abstract that can only be realized when your bloodline has roots embedded in these hills as long as mine has.
Once my rod was rigged, I found a somewhat level rock that had been carved and shaped by the eons of water and time into something resembling a chair and began fumbling through the rather mediocre selection of flies I had as a kid. I would look up through the mist exhaled by my own breath to see the trout I had spotted from the bank. It was a beautiful, maybe around 7” long, speckled trout along the tailout of a run, feeding whimsically on the few mayflies that had started to hatch in the coolness of the morning.
Occasionally, the sunlight flashed off its back as it repeated a process that had been ingrained into its mind since its ancestors migrated here during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. They then had to survive the influx of man, and his insatiable appetite for “progress” that led to many of our streams being decimated by logging and development in the years following the Civil War. Later, the Chestnut Blight, then the encroachment of the speckled trout’s non-native cousins. All these things and more have edged this species further to the brink of extinction.
And here I was; a naive kid, with a hand-me-down fly rod and barely any sense, bearing testament to one of the greatest ecological miracles in the natural world: a 7” long wild brook trout in a small Appalachian stream.
The events I witnessed that cool, late spring morning made me aware of such things, and how blessed I was to be a part of nothing short of a miracle. In the Psalms, pausing to reflect on these things is referred to as Selah, and I think there’s no better phrase to describe the feeling of being on a wild mountain trout stream.
Ethan Hollifield is a member of a conservation organization called 2% For Conservation and a guide for Southern Appalachian Anglers