I left my house early and quickly traversed the gentle curves of the foothills before beginning the slow, winding drive through the North Carolina mountains. The springtime greenery faded as I gained elevation, and by the time I summited the Eastern Continental Divide the hills were still stark in their winter slumber. As I descended into a new watershed the car thermometer began to slowly tick upward and growth tickled the valley floor once more. Headwater streams tumbled off the hillsides, and before long the upper reaches of the Tuckasegee River appeared alongside the road.
From the highway the river’s flow did not look bad, but as I crept along the country roads paralleling the mainstem of the river it became clear that yesterday’s rainfall had made quite an impact. I eased the car into a gravel pull-off adjacent to a long series of normally placid riffles and runs that now seemed more appealing for whitewater rafting than fly fishing. Stepping into my waders, I eyed the water with trepidation.
I made it two steps off the bank before the water frothed at my chest, lapping at the brim of my waders. On tippy toes, I turned back toward shore. Once out of the swell I cut my leader down and tied on the heaviest streamer in my fly box. Wading was clearly out of the question, so I walked upstream, flipping the streamer into the soft eddies that formed along the bank in the high water.
The mild success of this strategy surprised me. In 200 yards of riverbank, I landed several average-sized fish and missed a few more. But I soon reached a private property line at the top of the section, and even though I had brought a few fish to hand, I was unexcited about spending all day bouncing between access points to prospect along the bank. The tributaries I passed earlier in the morning crossed my mind, bringing a smile to my face. Feisty wild trout just had to inhabit these mountain streams.
I re-loaded my gear into the car and churned some gravel. My original intent for the day had been to catch big fish on big water, but I was not disappointed to chase small stream trout that rarely top a foot in length. I have always loved fishing small streams and the diminutive trout found in them. My introduction to these waters, or “cricks” as my dad taught me to call them, was as a boy in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. My dad grew up among those rolling hills and would always take me along for his annual homecoming at the start of trout season. Armed with a five-foot spinning rod and a metal tin full of wax worms, I plied the shale-bottomed cricks that cut between the mountains for wild brook trout. I sometimes still yearn to feel the tap-tap of a striking brookie transmit through monofilament. Especially when an errant back cast spiderwebs into a tangle of mountain laurel.
I drove about ten miles upstream before catching a 55-mile-an-hour glimpse of a crick passing under the road. Hitting the brakes hard, I turned off the blacktop onto a dirt lane leading up the crick’s hollow. Dogwood blossoms spotted the hillsides, their perfume mixing with the spring air flowing through the open windows. I passed dairy cows and cabins—but no pull-offs—as bluegrass music drifted from the car stereo. I made it up the hollow a few miles before the crick turned away from the road, where posted signs served as a diligent rearguard that prevented any conscionable exploration. I turned back downstream and stopped next to the cows, which eyed me with dull curiosity as I consulted a map. There was no way I could access this crick, but the next valley over showed promise. I left the cows to enjoy the rest of their day unbothered.
Fifteen minutes later I parked at a turnout unguarded by Posted signs. A faint trail led down a steep grade to the crick flowing below. A lot of information can be gleaned from fishing trails. A foot path worn deep into the bank, especially on a crick this size, indicates that it is likely overfished. Lack of any trail usually isn’t a good omen, either. It can mean that the stream is devoid of trout, or that a duplicitous landowner discreetly monitors the access, and it wouldn’t be long before the game warden was on my trail, trespassing citation in hand. A faint trail is just right.
Grabbing the three weight I keep stowed in my trunk, I picked my way down to the crick with nervous excitement. I fish with some uncertainty on new water before I make the first confirmation of trout habitation. My confidence in tucking a tight cast beneath a snag-ridden blowdown wavers. But when the first fish rolls on a nymph, or an upstream rise catches the corner of my eye, a steady fishing rhythm replaces any creeping doubt.
The first pool below the car refused to yield any sign of trout, but a sharp bend upstream fed my curiosity. I followed its path, and upon turning the corner I faced a long run flush with walking-speed current. Slinking behind the cover of a large boulder, I crawled up to the water’s edge and flicked a cast above the opposing undercut bank. With a snap of my wrist, I sent an upstream mend that let the dry-dropper rig drift downstream even with the current. The dry fly tucked under the surface right where it should have, but I set the hook late and saw a silver flash as the nymph pulled from the trout’s jaw, popping out of the river and into the wanting grasp of the onlooking trees. I looked up at my hung flies and chided myself with a chuckle. The presence of trout had been backhandedly confirmed, but at least I was now able to settle into my comfortable fishing rhythm.
The first fish came to hand at the head of the same run. He took the nymph and cut and splashed across the current before I was able to slide him into my net. He was a brown with vibrant red spots and undamaged, white-tipped fins that proved his wild origin. I held him just long enough to appreciate his artistry before letting him slip out of my grasp. Upstream, the crick swept out of sight once more. The sun was still high, and I was curious to see what lay beyond the next bend. Hopefully more trout.