Yesterday morning I woke up to an unfamiliar noise, the trickle of rain. I opened the window immedietly and let the cool smell float into the house, cleansing the smoke and ash that had accumuated everywhere. Today it's still raining. I saw water in rivers that had been nothing but a trickle for months. I watched as the ground tried desperatly to soak up every drop that she could. But I fear it may be too little, to late.
As of yesterday the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is closed indefinetly. It's completely on fire. The black bears, rare wildflowers, elk and even our most precious brook trout are threateded and there's no hope in sight. People are risking their lives trying to stop what's happening. Four lost their lives to the flames, many more are injured.
This place, this park, my park is engrained in my soul. Being in it, I see a reflection of myself, the good parts that I need to hold on to, the parts I need society and man not to take away from me. Climbing up and over these hills there is a sense of calm that overtakes you. When you reach the top, look out over all of it, see the blue smoke, you know that you have accomplished much. You've traveled through the forest, the floor helathy and plantiful covered in moss. There are rivers you've had to cross, home to brook trout that have been here longer than any of the rest. Rocks line both sides, you boulder over them, wet with dew and river water. You've experianced her at her lowest and highest points. You've learned her lessons and met her inhabitants. You've felt her pulse in your veins and heard her cries through the elk in the distance.
But today the smoke is not blue.
There’s a brief moment in angling when everything comes together. It’s the moment where you meet the fish you’ve been dancing with for seconds or hours and then let him slip away. Truly, it is the briefest of encounters, but it is the most magical of the whole event.
I get a lot of flack from those around me who aren’t fly anglers about my stance on catch and release. To them, the trout is meat, a trophy, possibly both. The trout serves a “purpose” in life, nothing more, nothing less. This is ok, I suppose. I just like to think of myself as slightly more saintly than those others.
To me it’s that instant when you let him swim out of your hand, slap the water explicitly with his tail, possibly never to see him again, that is the defining moment. Because you see, it defines you as an angler in that flash. If you really think about it, it causes you to question why. Why wouldn’t you eat something you worked so hard for? You do have to eat. Why wouldn’t you want the fish hanging on your wall? You may never catch one this size again. Do you simply release the fish because that’s what the culture, the regulations tell you to do? Why?
You do it because that moment may happen again. And again.
It may happen in the same pool or possibly a completely different river. You may be able to meet this same fish in a different season of his life. In a different scenario where you’ve both grown. You may meet again on a number 14 dry fly, rather than a squirmy worm, both older and wiser, but still coming together.
And so, one day, this compassionate culture of pinching barbs, wetting hands, defiantly making sure that this paraphyletic creature with a brain the size of a pea is perfectly unharmed becomes who you are, totally and completely. There’s no questioning why or even considering another alternative, and that’s ok, that’s just who you’ve become. Because of those brief moments that changed everything, redefined life and generally made you a much more saintly person.
I woke up this morning to air filled with smoke, so thick you could hardly see what was right in front of you. It hits your lungs hard and weakens your body almost instantly. We decided that for today, the trout would have to wait. There was plenty to accomplish in the workshop.
And so, we set to our tasks.
It's good to sit down an create. It's good to make something out of nothing. It's good to restore something to its original glory. There is work to do, and it is as important and meaningful as exploring the hills.
I spent my day in front of my machine, sewing away, wondering why in the hell a rod sock would possibly need pockets. But, the rod sock got pockets.
Jacob completed one restoration and began a second build. The workshop smells of varnish, warm bamboo and pipe tobacco. It's a good smell.
"Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons; it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth."
It's those wild places that capture your heart. Those streams you have to set out to reach in the early hours of the morning. Laurels and Rhododendrons that grow in such a way you've got but a tunnel to pass through. There are rocks and waterfalls to climb up and slide down the other side. The trickles and pools that house trout no bigger than the palm of your hand.
This is not a fishing venture for the faint of heart, but it is wild.
There are stocked streams all over Western North Carolina. They are easy to access rivers with easy to catch fish. You can escape for a few hours and not dedicate yourself to a full day. Those who may not be able to reach the way back places are still given an opportunity to practice an art that they love. Our rivers are not particularly equipped to house a self-sustaining trout population. Ultimately, stocked rivers are a good thing, but they are not the wild places.
The wild places capture you completely. They are not just a place to go, but a place that calls you back time and time again. It's the place you go to rediscover, to find your wild, in a world that has all but snuffed it out completely.
The wild trout are there to learn from, not just admire. Learning the value of something small, but powerful. Living free and wild, born of the stream you are standing in, persevering through unsurmountable odds. This is the lesson to learn from the wild trout. This is the cleansing that transpires in the wild places.
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, - no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Where do you find your wild?
Yesterday I noticed the details. I often get wrapped up with the end result, the goal, so much so that I forget to pay attention to the little things along the journey.
When fishing I often get so consumed with getting the "money shot" of a fish that I neglect all the artistry that's found in between. I often don't notice how delicately beautiful a dry fly is on a strand of fly line, the eruption of a release, or the peaceful water droplets that appear when a trout is feeding on the surface. I get caught up, as a lot of us do, with catching the fish that's "slurping" and not notice how beautiful that act is, in and of itself.
We overlook so much, not just in fishing, but in life when we become all consumed with an outcome.
I've been consumed. So focused on one thing that I've overlooked all of the amazing things that are happening all around me. And, when I started paying attention, the journey became that much sweeter.
So here's to watching that fish, not just trying to catch it.
The first time I ever heard about Eddie Pinkston was probably my second date with Jacob. My conclusion was that this man is probably part god, part degenerate. Seriously. My first time meeting Eddie, I had the same conclusion. I spent the better part of two hours listening to this man, swinging a Bud Light can around, trying to convince me that he had “spoken” a 32-inch brown trout into swimming right into his hands. Oh, and where he wanted his ashes spread. But, this was Eddie, for better or worse, he was who he was.
I was given the opportunity to work for Eddie’s family for the better part of three years, and it was a true privilege. There was never a shortage of Eddie stories around the plant, from his mother to daughter to other employees. As soon as anyone at work found out that I fly fished, a story was soon to follow, and they were always welcome, especially the ones concerning carp. Amazingly, the stories continued from every fly fisherman in the Western North Carolina area as soon as they found out I worked for the Pinkston’s. You see, Eddie was a bit of a “local hero” around here, or at the very least he was incredibly infamous.
My journey of fishing with Eddie started about five months ago, well sort of. You see, Eddie passed away winter of last year. He was cremated and parts of him went here there and yonder. One of his daughters sent a little piece of Ed our way so that he could continue fishing, even after he had left our world. And so, Eddie goes fishing every time Jacob and I do.
To say that my perspective on fishing changed a little when I started fishing with Eddie is a bit of an understatement. If I was going to fish with the man’s ashes, I was certainly going to learn about him, to know him as best I could. I read books written about him, got even more stories and tried to replay the so few conversations I’d ever had with him. And slowly, I think I’m starting to grasp him, and not him the world saw, but the angler.
I hope to one day take Eddie back to Pennsylvania to catch much more steelhead. I hope to return him to the Henry’s Fork and catch so many trout that my right arm won’t work. I hope that on our journey I’ll be able to take him to Patagonia again and see that wonderful country through his eyes. But for now, we’ll keep on going to the Davidson, the place where Avery’s creek comes into it, and we’ll keep fishing it. And just maybe, one day, I’ll be able to coax a 32-inch brown into my hands, too.
Photo courtesy of John Crane - 2007
Today I am thankful. Yesterday was a full, rich day filled with being outside and fishing for trouts. Jacob and I continued our quest to be able to catch stocked fish on dry flys. We succeeded, again. I suppose that due to the lack of rain these fish have become wise awful quick, adapting to their surroundings and no longer being fooled by "junk food." This makes my heart happy, as I loathe catching fish on eggs and worms, it just feels too much like bait fishing. Although, I'm sure that just comes back to quality of excuses anyhow.
But, I digress...
The air and the light was warm yesterday. There was a silence that filled the air and a calm that grabbed you. It was wonderful!
And then this happened...
Yup, that's the river we were fishing. Nope, that's not a photoshop trick.
A semi truck containing gallons and gallons of glass cleaner flipped over and crashed right into the middle of the Laurel River, which flows into the French Broad. A semi truck that was not even supposed to be on the road it was on. A truck driver that was traveling at unsafe speeds because he was too "experienced" to have to follow the laws that everyone else must observe. And so, we have a totally contaminated river. A healthy and prosperous fishery is no more. A popular kayaking watershed is now unsafe for people or animals to come in contact with. Oh, and we're in the middle of an "extreme drought," so nature is not going to be able to heal herself from this for a while.
But, I am thankful. I am thankful because I am not the first to become outraged over this, not even the second or third. People all over Western North Carolina are screaming out about this event and others like it.
In fact, people are doing something all over our country to speak for those who don't have a voice.
Let's Stand Together on this and be thankful for what we've got and not let it go.
When I removed my Chacos for the first time in two weeks and washed the last remains of Colorado away in the cheap motel bathroom I felt my heart break, truly break for the first time in a long while.
A few months ago Jacob and I left our beloved Blue Ridge Mountains for a two-week adventure across the country to Colorado. This was supposed to just be an adventure, a vacation, an escape from the world for a little while. It turned out to be so much more for me. We spent the days fishing and the nights drinking local beer. We said "hello" and "goodbye" to more brook trout and cutthroat than I can count. We met people and had conversations I'll never forget.
But what happened to my soul far surpassed those brief encounters. There is a beauty there unlike anything I'd ever seen. A freedom that hit my heart like a shock. It made me start to question existence and life and all of those persistent existential problems. I started to remember every John Muir quote, thought, and it finally made sense. I understood it. It only took one brief second, standing on the side of a mountain and taking a moment to look at the country I was standing in. From then on, the rest of the trip, I couldn't focus on anything but soaking in all the beauty.
So, that's where the questions come in. Have I been so busy all these years with a “goal”, with stress, with a distraction that I wasn't truly seeing everything that's around me? Have I actually been missing out all these years? Seeing the beauty, but never actually absorbing it? Society has conditioned us into believing you must travel a certain path, with a certain “job,” a certain “title,” and a certain amount of “income.” When we don’t meet those societal expectations, we’re told that we have failed at life. I have spent all of my thirty years agreeing with that, making myself completely mad trying to be and have and do what I was “supposed” to. I never paid attention to what I wanted to do, only about hitting that mark that would somehow earn me a place at the successful table.
The drive home was absolutely depressing. Loathing the impeding normalcy that was to follow. The routine.
Honestly, I'm sick of "being an adult." I'm sick of getting up everyday with no purpose or passion.
Colorado changed me. I pray for the better. To be braver, to pursue my passion, to not fear to fail.
Because I may fail. I may return to the "real world," tail between my legs in shame searching out a 9-5 once again.
But for now, I think I may just want to try being a trout bum for a while.
Jacob is a fly fishing guide with a passion for conservation and brook trout. He is an accomplished rod builder and restorationist.
Jillian is an outdoor photographer and blogger, using her voice for Public Lands and Cold Water Conservation. She specializes in trying to out fish jacob whenever she puts the camera down.