Bryson City Tales — Fly-Fishing (Part 1)

This is from the twenty-first chapter from my best-selling book, Bryson City Tales. I hope that you’ll enjoy going back to Bryson City with me each week, and that if you do, you’ll be sure to invite your friends and family to join us.

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FLY-FISHING (PART 1)

After completing the dictation about James’s case, I stepped back into the ER. Don, Billy, and John were waiting. I again thanked them for their hard and competent work.

“Doc,” commented Don, “me and John and Billy seen a lot of docs come and go around here. We’ve worked a long time with them that’s stayed. But you’re about as good as any of them. And that’s sure enough the truth.”

I didn’t know what to say. Obviously they hadn’t yet heard of the “skintight cast” fiasco. I had no doubt that they would. Equally certainly it would bring their opinions back to earth. All I could mutter was, “Well, thanks, guys, but you really did all the work. I’m just sorry we couldn’t save him.”

“Doc,” said Billy, “I don’t think Saint Peter hisself could have saved that man. He was gone when we got there. I knew it. Sometimes you just know these things.”

We all nodded in agreement. Then John turned to me. “Doc, if you’re ever interested, I’d like to invite you to come out to Fontana Village. I’d love to show you around a bit. Maybe we could take some time to go fishing out by the dam. It’s mighty fine fishing down thar.”

Don, not to be outdone, said, “Doc, Carswell here don’t know how to really fish. I mean, he can lake-fish, but if you really want to learn how to fish, I need to take you fly-fishing.”

Carswell broke in, “Doc, you go with him, all you’re gonna catch is some little skinny trout. I want to teach you how to catch some real fish. In my lake we have monsters compared to the babies in the streams. We got bass, walleye, pike, muskie, perch, sunfish, and crappie. Fontana’s a fisherman’s heaven. You come on the lake with me, and you’ll do some real fishing. And the lake fish are about as good a eatin’ as you can find!” He rubbed his protuberant belly as he smiled and licked his lips. Obviously this man liked to fish as much as he liked to eat.

Billy and I sat back to watch this escalating battle of opinions, which went on for several minutes. Finally, however, Don settled matters with what seemed to my nontheologically trained ears to be a fairly ludicrous theological argument.

“Carswell, it’s obvious you don’t know the Bible. Why, Jesus picked the very most unlikely men to be his very first disciples, and they were lake fishermen. Jesus took them away from the lake ’cause he was a fly fisherman.”

Not being a churchgoing man, John was obviously taken aback by Don’s comments, as well as uncertain of the biblical prowess—or lack thereof—of his antagonist. But before he could speak or even sort out his thoughts, Don launched another salvo.

“Although the Bible doesn’t say so for sure, I believe that Jesus was a dry fly fisherman—’cause wet fly-fishing is only second best for a real fly fisherman. Boys, Jesus was a fisher of men, and he made his disciples fishermen—and the best fishermen are fly fishermen—so obviously, Jesus was a fly fisher of men.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest, took a deep breath, and looked very proud of himself.

 

“Don,” ventured Billy, haltingly, “I’m not sure that’s all in the Bible, but anyway, after his resurrection, didn’t Jesus help the disciples catch fish in the lake?”

John chimed in, “That’s shore ’nuff right. So, Don, how do you explain that? Sounds to me like Jesus was blessing lake fishing. I knew it. I knew Jesus was a lake fisherman.” He smiled broadly and crossed his own arms over his chest.

Don smiled. “Boys, you all haven’t been a readin’ your Bibles closely enough. ’Cause it says that the disciples hauled in 153 of them lake fish. But you know what? They didn’t eat a one. When they got to the shore, Jesus hisself was already cooking up some of them tasty fly-fishin’-caught fish. He just wanted them to see that all those lake fish wouldn’t hold a candle to his stream trout.”

If three men could look any more astonished than we looked, I can’t imagine it. Don puffed out his chest, smiling like a Cheshire cat. “Boys, it’s crystal clear. Jesus was telling the boys not to be fishers of men like lake fishermen, but to be fishers of men like fly fishermen. And that takes skill. It’s God’s work at its best.”

He paused only long enough for his sermon to sink in.

“Doc, tell you what. Tomorrow’s Saturday. I’ll pick you up at 8:00 A.M. and take you fishing. You’ll have a ball.”

He turned to his fellow paramedic. “Come on, Billy. Let’s get back to the shop.” Then he was gone, whistling the old tune “Onward Christian Soldiers”—Billy trailing behind, pushing the ambulance gurney, piled high with their equipment.

John looked at me and smiled. “Son, after you tire of that sissy fishing up a creek or two, come on down to the dam and we’ll do some real fishing. It will be my treat.”

He held out his large hand and I shook it. He looked straight into my eyes. “Doc, pleased to meet you. I’d be right honored to send folks from Fontana to see you up here, if you’ll have ’em.”

“I’d be pleased to see anyone you refer.”

He nodded and turned to leave. I reckoned he’d just given me about as big a compliment as I would get from anyone in the area.

 

At 8:00 A.M. sharp the next morning, Don Grissom pulled up in his pickup truck and honked. I grabbed my sweater and overcoat and ran out to meet him. We drove down Hospital Hill toward the river and then made a quick stop at the new Hardee’s in town. We picked up some sausage biscuits and coffee to enjoy on the drive toward Cherokee. During the entire drive Don sus tained a nonstop lecture on fly-fishing. He gave me a crash course in its history. He addressed the different types of fly- fishing poles and reels, and he waxed eloquent about dry flies— those designed to float on top of the water—and wet flies—those designed to sink below the surface. He explained the difference between hand-tied and machine-tied flies and why the former is significantly superior to the latter. He was so confident about our impending success that we even discussed his favorite recipes for mountain trout. Then he explained the three species of trout in the national park (rainbow, brown, and brook). Only the brook trout is native, and Don elucidated how the others were imported to western North Carolina. I was duly impressed by his extensive knowledge but was hoping he knew more about trout than he did about the Bible!

We drove into the park for a mile or two and then pulled over just off the road. Don had an extra pair of chest-high waders and enough fishing equipment for us both. “Doc, we’re going to be way back in the rhododendron. The streams up there are small and the bush thick. Instead of using a classic fly- fishing technique, we’ll use a ‘flipping’ technique. You’ll just let out about five to eight feet of the tippet and flip the fly upstream, letting it float down toward you. Since the fish face upstream, you have to flip the fly ahead of them and then let it float down naturally. Just let the stream deliver their dinner to them. Then look out, ’cause they’ll attack like tigers.”

“Hey, Don, I forgot to ask. Do we need fishing licenses?” “Nope, not if you’re local, like us,” he assured me.
It sounded good: local, like us. So, feeling dutifully assured,

I followed him across the road and across the narrow Oconaluftee River. Soon we were in fairly deep rhododendron. Don led the way to a clearing where two tributaries fed a small creek.

“Doc, since it’s so cloudy and cool today, there won’t be any hatches of larvae. So dry flies probably won’t be so good today.” Hmm, I thought to myself. Was this the same man who preached only last night about the theological merits and technical purity of dry fly-fishing?

As though reading my mind, Don justified his apparent turn-about. “Doc, the Lord used different approaches as he fished for men. Sometimes he just asked questions, like he did with the woman at the well. Other times he asked and answered questions, just like he did with Nicodemus. Other times he preached to crowds, other times he taught a single person. A fisher of men, just like a trout fisherman, matches the message to the hearer. That’s just the way it is. So, no use preaching to these trout with a bait they can’t see. Instead we’re going to be using a wet fly that looks like a yellow jacket. It’s black with a yellow stripe on its tail.”

He had now bent over and pulled a small can out of his pocket. He was using his pocketknife to open the can. Before taking the lid off, he drained out some liquid and then opened the top to reveal kernel corn. “Doc, to help weigh down the fly and to add a bit of color and smell, I’ve brought some corn. It’s an old Indian trick. The trout around here are addicted to corn. We’ll be having a mighty fine dinner tonight. Mighty fine!”

Don pulled two sandwich bags out of his fishing vest and divided the corn into the two plastic bags. After handing me one, he gave me a small container of wet flies and showed me how to tie them on to the end of the tippet. Then he spent some time demonstrating his unique style of fly-fishing and giving me several pointers, which rapidly increased my skill and comfort level. With my first cast, I flipped the corn kernel-weighted wet fly upstream and then let the line out to allow the fly to bump along the bottom—from rock to rock. All of a sudden, a silver streak flashed from the edge of the stream, and before I could react, the little trout had taken the bait and taken off upstream—at least until he hooked himself and the line tightened.

I couldn’t believe it! The excitement and exhilaration of my first trout! I gently lifted up the end of the rod to guide it into my net. He wasn’t more than six inches long, and the beautiful silver bottom, speckled and glistening with a rainbow’s worth of colors, allowed even me, the novice, to recognize this for the rainbow trout that it was.

“Way to go, Doc!” shouted Don, slapping me on the back and dancing with glee. “Way to go!” I was just hoping it wasn’t beginner’s luck.

“Don, he seems so small. Should I let ’im go?”

“No way, Doc, no way! The smaller ones are the best eating. That’s just the way it is. And we can keep all we catch, as long as we eat ’em and don’t waste ’em. I’d recommend you try to catch fifteen or so. That will make a real nice supper for you and Mrs. Larimore.”

We agreed to meet each other two hours later at the clearing. Don took off up the left fork, and I began my trip up the right.

With the exception of the gurgle of the water, the silence was deafening. The rocks were slippery and the bushes closed in on each side of the stream. The land was steep and the flow of water quick. I often had to detour around small canyons, making a trail where none existed. Between the bubbling runs through the small canyons stood silent pools. They could be six feet or thirty feet across. Some were only one to two feet deep. In others, I couldn’t see the bottom.

I would slowly sneak up to the downstream end of the pool, sometimes working my way around the side of the pool if it was a larger one. Then I’d bait the wet fly with the corn—sometimes trying two kernels instead of one—and flip it into the stream above the hole and let it float into the upstream end of the pool. The trout would gather at this end of the pool, facing into the water flow, awaiting the dinner that would invariably float their way. It almost seemed too easy. Within an hour I had caught fifteen—none longer than seven inches. Eight were rainbow trout, two were brown trout, and five were brook trout. I was elated.

By now the stream was noticeably smaller and the terrain flatter. As the bush thinned, I could see that I was in a small valley. The trees were tall and large. I imagined that this was a more difficult area to log, thus explaining the more virgin appearance of the forest. I sat down on a fairly large boulder in the middle of a clearing.

Then a loud thumping broke the soft symphony of water and birdsong. The sound repeated slowly and steadily. It was almost like someone was banging a hammer against a tree limb high in the trees. Then a raucous call, Kik-kik-kikkik. The sound repeated. Then it appeared. Flying from one tree across the clearing, over my head, was the largest bird I’d seen since arriving in the Smokies. Bigger than a crow, with slow sweeping wing beats, the large black bird had a flaming red crest with bright white underwing feathers. It landed far up a tree and began pecking again. This was the largest woodpecker I’d ever seen—a pileated woodpecker—and nothing looks quite like it, at least in the Smoky Mountains.

Then I had an unusual feeling—as though I were being watched by someone. I slowly turned my head and saw the intruder. Less than fifteen yards from me was a large white-tailed deer—his rack full, his nostrils flaring as he stared at me, and I at him. He was stunningly majestic. When the woodpecker began to peck again, the deer and I both glanced up at him and then back at each other. Then the deer turned, and although walking on a carpet of leaves, his steps were almost imperceptibly quiet. Reaching the edge of the clearing, he bounded soundlessly into the bush. I was breathless.

This forest cathedral was overwhelmingly peaceful. A Bible verse I had long ago memorized at a childhood Vacation Bible School—Romans 1:20 in the Living Bible—suddenly popped into my mind: “Since earliest times men have seen the earth and sky and all God made, and have known of his existence and great eternal power.” It never seemed truer to me than at that moment—a moment of profound grace.

I glanced at my watch. The time had gone far too quickly. I left the clearing, scurrying back to meet Don, who was patiently waiting at the appointed spot.

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