Anything Fly Fishing

A Winter Trout

8 Mins read

IT’S KNOWN AS “The Old Mill Hole.” Or at least it used to be, back when Doe Creek was brimming with legend and some of its classic runs had names all their own. It had become famous for its winter runs of giant, lake-fed rainbow trout that began showing up in the little stream four years after the new dam was closed, trapping all those small-stream, mountain-bred trout beneath its rising waters.

Winters spent fattening on shad that had been introduced into the new reservoir caused them to grow to previously unimagined sizes, and eventually they began to revert to their primordial instincts to return to the places of their birth to spawn. Being the highest of the creeks impacted by the rising lake, Doe Creek had been only partially submerged, leaving its upper reaches flowing freely for miles. So when its former residents decided to return to their native stream in winter to make more of themselves, there was still an abundance of clear, free flowing water available to them.

IT HAD BEEN Jack Wilson who’d first discovered them. Mr. Wilson owned a farm a couple of miles downstream from Doe Creek, and when the Tennessee Valley Authority began appropriating land for the new lake, he negotiated a concession to establish a boat dock. Four years later while fishing the stream for creek chubs that he could sell for bass bait, he hooked and landed a six-pound rainbow trout. Eventually word seeped out about the huge trout in this small stream, and fishermen began trying to find it. One of those fishermen was my father.

On their first trip to Doe Creek, Dad and his cousin Verlin brought home four big rainbows that averaged over three pounds each. When Dad finally decided to get his family out of the coal country of Virginia and West Virginia, he looked south to Tennessee—in large part because of Doe Creek. Eventually he became a fixture on that stream and learned the names of all its signature runs that offered the best fishing opportunities. Some of them he even named himself.

There was the Sarge Hole, the Jake Hole and Pandora’s Bridge. There was the Falls Hole, Cook Hollow and the Old Mill Hole. It was in fact the Old Mill Hole where Jack Wilson himself caught the giant 12-pound, 10-ounce rainbow trout that stood for decades as the Tennessee state record.

Dad and I fished that stream together from my mid-single-digits until years after he died, and his memory still lingers over its hallowed waters. But what is memory, if not the realization of the past—even though that past seems gone forever?

But the memories remain. And for me, none of those memories are more firmly entrenched than that last big trout he and I and my brother caught there together.

IT WAS A COLD, snowy New Year’s Eve, and the wind seemed to be coming from all directions that morning when Dad and I and my little brother decided to fish Doe Creek.

Dad and I were fishing, and Alan was tagging along with Dad’s long-handle boat net. It was at least a foot longer than he was tall, and he was constantly tripping over it or getting it tangled in the thick cover that edged the creek.

We started out fishing Pandora’s Bridge but had no takes. Then we moved downstream to Cook Hollow and the Falls Hole, where Dad had one good strike but failed to hook the fish. Climbing back to the car, we dug into the sandwiches Mom had made for us, then drove up to the old stone barn that overlooks the creek. Little Brother took shelter from the wind while Dad and I fished. But we raised nothing. Finally with daylight growing short, we decided to move up to the Old Mill Hole before calling it a day.

Throughout the morning the blustery weather had gradually subsided, until the snow had turned into a few idle flurries and the wind had lost its edge. I think I even recall a fleeting patch of anemic blue sky somewhere off to the north.

But when we stepped from Dad’s station wagon and started trekking across the meadow, the temperature suddenly dropped and the wind returned and the snow once more began blowing sideways, plastering our coats and hats and hip waders.

Dad and Alan bore downstream while I headed straight for the sharp bend in the creek, over which loomed a tall and imposing sycamore tree. I worked a few yards upstream through the woods and crossed at the shoal, then eased down to the inside of the bend.

There was a deep run curving away beneath the high bank and exposed roots of the big sycamore along the far side, and I waded into the frigid water and laid my first cast upstream along the near edge of the current. I guided it deep into the dark water far back beneath the roots, then out into the shallower flow downstream.

Mindful not to let the water seep in over the tops of my hip waders, I stripped out another foot of fly line, repeated the drift, then stripped out another few inches and tried it again. On my fourth cast, something hammered my offering.

I struck firmly but failed to connect. Confident I hadn’t stung the fish, I lifted my line from the water, checked the sharpness of the hook against my bare thumbnail and decided to wait a couple of minutes before making another cast.

That’s when I spotted Dad and Little Brother coming up the far side.

I WAVED THEM DOWN and motioned them to me.

“I just had a good hit directly below you,” I called. “See if you can reach him from where you are.”

But try as he might, Dad couldn’t make an effective cast across the wide overhanging roots eight feet beneath him.

“Can you climb down to them?” I asked.

“Uhhh . . . maybe,” he replied.

With his back to me, he eased over the edge and gingerly maneuvered downward until he was perching precariously on the iced-over roots themselves. Only then did Alan lower his fly rod to him, and I pointed to where I thought the trout was positioned. On his third drift, Dad hooked him.

The fish thrashed the surface and then dove deep. Dad inched as far forward as he dared. The water beneath him was dark and swift and clearly over his head, and to lose his footing here could have been catastrophic. So he thrust the tip of his fly rod as far forward as he could manage, trying desperately to keep the big fish from gaining the deep water back beneath his feet. And then the trout leapt.

He was huge—at least four pounds.

Standing thigh deep across the creek along the inside of the bend where the bottom sloped into much deeper water, I glanced down at my landing net and realized I was in trouble—for it was clear that I wasn’t going to be able to reach the fish with its short handle.

Enter Little Brother.

“MIKE!” HE YELLED from atop the far bank, waving the big boat net he’d been lugging around all morning.

There was no way Dad could safely net the fish from where he was positioned and still maintain his balance. So I waded from the creek, laid my fly rod aside, then stepped back into the water and motioned for Alan to heave his big boat net to me.

Now we’re in business, I thought. But I was wrong.

For it quickly became apparent that even with the longer-handled, larger-diameter net, I still couldn’t quite reach the big fish. I moved upstream a few feet, then downstream for a few feet more. But with the water’s surface now just a couple of inches below the tops of my hip waders, I was still a foot or two short.

Dad tried everything he could think of, including trying to pressure the big fish away from me, hoping its instinct to resist the pressure might coerce him into turning back in my direction. But nothing worked.

Finally we paused, the four of us, with Dad and I facing each other, the big trout holding station between us, and Little Brother overseeing the entire operation from above. Again Dad tried to pressure the fish into circling toward me, but with no success.

We were clearly at an impasse—for Dad could move the fish no closer to me without risking a fall, and I could move no closer to him without the icy water pouring in over the tops of my waders. Meanwhile, the big rainbow was growing evermore impatient and beginning to catch his second wind.

It was clearly time to consider a third option—one that up until now had been totally unthinkable:

And so I looked at Dad and he looked at me and, lowering the net deep beneath the surface, I deliberately took that one irrevocable step forward.

The icy water burned like cold flame as it flowed in over the tops of my waders, soaking my wool pants as it clawed its way upward around my waist and cascaded downward around my thighs and knees and ankles and toes—altogether filling my waders as that big beautiful trout filled our net.

As quickly as possible I turned and began hobbling out of the creek. But the line still connecting Dad and the fish stopped me, and with the trout still in the net I reached down and bit through the tippet.

All I could think of was getting myself out of the water, and the water out of my waders. As soon as I reached dry land I set the net and fish down and unsnapped the bindings that held waders to belt and peeled them downward as the freezing water gushed from them and turned to ice among the rocks and pebbles at my feet.

For a moment I considered removing them completely. But I still had to make my way upstream and cross to the far side. So I pulled my still-wet but mostly empty waders back up around my legs, retrieved my fly rod, and with the trout still in Little Brother’s big boat net staggered upstream and across the shoal where he and Dad were waiting to help me up the bank.

Dad took my fly rod and Alan took the trout and the net, and together we slogged and sloshed as rapidly as possible to the car. By the time we got there, my waders and wools were freezing solid.

IT’S A DAUNTING TASK, changing from wet frozen pants and socks into warm dry ones while being blasted by snow and wind that are blowing more or less parallel to the surface of the planet, and I will offer no further description or elucidation.

But still, we are friends, Dear Reader, and you are free to insert whatever crude and indelicate phrases or clichés you may choose.

Suffice it to say that Mom served that trout for our supper that very night, along with her golden-crusted cornbread and tasty cole slaw, and I quickly wolfed down my portion as my body temperature gradually returned to somewhere in the upper double digits.

As I said earlier, it was the last trout that Dad and I ever caught together.

And now I simply can’t remember what we did the next day.

Michael Altizer’s books, THE LAST BEST DAY, NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE, and RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES can be ordered online at—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004. You may also purchase his books here by clicking on the RIVERS AND FEATHERS ‘BOOKS’ page.

The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at


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