When I confide in people that I am from the Northeast, they are almost always surprised. I take this as a good sign. But their looks of mild shock usually elapse into suspicious glances, as if I’ve been leading them on by not talking with a thick New York accent. And no, I do not butter my speech up with a faux southern drawl. Even if I have taken to saying my sirs, ma’ams and y’alls quite liberally.
Dialects aside, I have fallen in love with the South. Fallen in love with its friendly people, mild winters, and diverse landscapes. Its cultures, its cuisines—they’re wonderful. How did I previously live without pimento cheese, pickled okra, and oyster roasts? I see why y’all love it down here.
But really, it’s the fishing that keeps me from returning to my homeland.
I first ventured south under the guise of higher education. My alma mater is in the foothills of South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, right at the doorstep to the heart of Southern trout country.
My dad joined me on my initial campus visit for accepted students’ weekend in early March. Much to our delight, we were greeted with sunshine and mild temperatures. It was a far cry from early March in the Northeast, where the weather relegated our free time to the lingering ski season.
Instead of researching degree paths and graduation rates, we reviewed our fishing options. Our efforts uncovered a stream running through a broad expanse of National Forest less than an hour from campus. A blog post said it held trout, which was all the convincing we needed. Waders and fly vests were stuffed into our duffle bags alongside dress shoes and button downs.
We slipped away from the faculty meet-and-greets and the general rah-rah on our second day. Leaving the college town behind, Dad drove the rental car towards a landscape of forest-covered mountains. Forty-five minutes and over a thousand feet of gained elevation later, we turned off onto a rutted Forest Service road that dead-ended at the lip of a steep valley. The drone of the river carried upward on a warm breeze. We eagerly stepped into our waders and clambered downhill.
The river ran fast and brash and had a pretty turquoise tinge. Between the water’s coloration and the looming old-growth hemlocks, the river looked like it belonged in the Pacific Northwest. I half expected a salt-fresh steelhead to crush the hare’s ear nymph I tied on. Dad hooked up—to a rainbow trout—within minutes. I followed soon after with a rainbow of my own. The fishing continued nonstop for us all afternoon.
Snow still carpeted our yard back home. It would be at least another month before our local trout shook off their winter doldrums. My college decision was made right there, in the spring sunshine on a secluded South Carolina trout stream.
That’s how an afternoon of trout fishing altered the course of my life. While college football and blonde sorority girls were certainly pertinent attractions, it was the fishing that drew me to the region like a warm embrace.
Nearly a decade has passed since that fateful day, and I’m still down here. I have fished across the Southern Appalachians, having long ago fallen in love with her rhododendron-choked mountains and the vibrant wild trout residing in her clear flowing waters. And the longer I stay, the longer my fishing to-do list grows; tailing reds, a myriad of native bass species, daisy-chained tarpon… there’s always another adventure to tack on. I may die a Southerner before I cover it all. And I hope that’s so.