[S]ome fishing trips are almost preordained disasters, but you learn to love them as good yarns in the making or occasions for feeling heroic — the things that keep you from giving up fishing for something tamer and more comfortable. -John Gierach, At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman
That quote from John Gierach adequately describes my latest outing. Well, except for the good yarn part. Or the heroic part. But it was a fishing trip, and it didn’t feel comfortable, and it sure as heck felt like a preordained disaster on more than a few occasions. Still, because it was a fishing trip, it was better than most anything else.
The plan was to slip into the Tellico River drainage in the mountains of East Tennessee for one of those in-between-the-seasons trips where you stand a good shot at a big fish and an even better shot at catching pneumonia or freezing to death. My hope was to catch a few of those legendary Tellico Browns of Unusual Size (or BUSes) in a post-spawn feeding frenzy. Fishing reports from the mountains had been positive with some nice fish caught during the previous two weeks, but the forecast wasn’t good. Highs in the 30s, sunny, lows in the teens for a couple nights. Records lows actually.
This was supposed to be one of those throw-back “Guy Trips” like we used to take back in the day. Five days on the Tellico River. We’d take a couple of these short trips every year. We’d camp out or backpack, do some fishing, smoke a few cigars, nip some bourbon, talk some football, complain about politics. The whole male-bonding thing. Like everything else (including, perhaps surprisingly, cigars, whiskey, football and politics) our lives have gotten more complicated as we’ve gotten older. Things were so simple in the old days. You had a few days out of class for spring or fall break, you took a fly fishing trip. You smoked cheap cigars and drank stuff that was bourbon in name only. Now there are wives and kids and real jobs and bills. And there are Nicaraguan puros and single malt Scotch and don’t even get me started with the BCS or bailouts. So, we don’t do it much any more. In fact, it had been several years since we’d all gotten together as a group.
All of the old gang were supposed to be there: Jonathan, Justin, Ronald, Dewayne and myself. One by one folks started dropping out or cutting back on how long they could stay. In the end, I was the only one who could be there the full time. Ronald could stay for a couple days. Dewayne could make it for a couple. Jonathan and Justin dropped out altogether. We added a member in Jason Kelley, who would be coming up with Dewayne.
I drove up on a Wednesday morning to look things over. We knew a bear or boar hunt was in progress in the area, so we weren’t sure how difficult finding a campsite would be. I drove over to Citico Creek for a look, but ended up back at North River campground setting up the tent. I didn’t fish, but I did survey the water looking for the BUSes I knew we’d catch. Never saw a one. I drove back down to Tellico Plains to meet Ronald. After getting caught in a traffic jam in Chattanooga, it was very late before he arrived. By the time we got back to the camp, we just went to sleep. Temps that night hovered in the mid-20s. Not too bad.
The next day we started fishing above where Bald River Falls spills into the Tellico. We fished for four hours through the middle and supposedly most productive part of the day with not a single strike. We dredged the deep holes and runs with small nymphs. Standard winter-time tactics. Might as well have tossed green drake dries. At least it would have felt more civilized. We saw one trout, which was fleeing for its life. Back at camp, we began gathering fire wood, and I noticed that I felt strangely weak. I tired after dragging one large limb back and cutting it up with my saw. I shrugged it off as being out of shape. We dined on Johnsonville Brats roasted over glowing coals (which turned out to be a major strategic mistake), had a cup of coffee to while away the time and went to bed. I felt worse, but chalked it up to not sleeping well the night before. Temps were around 25.
I woke up at midnight on the dot shivering uncontrollably. At first I thought I must have slipped out of my bag into the cold night air. After doing a quick self-evaluation, I realized I wasn’t cold at all and deduced the shivering must be “in my head.” I tried to stop, but couldn’t. Then I felt it. A burning, liquid fire in my gut. I was sick. Horribly sick. I rushed to get dressed, but was so light-headed I could barely stand. Ronald woke up and chuckled. “Couldn’t hold it till morning, huh?” “Dude, I’m sick. I’m really sick.” I stumbled through driving snow…Snow?! Was it supposed to snow?…to the vault restroom provided (thankfully) by the Forest Service. Felt like 20 degrees and the wind roared from the northwest. I wasn’t sure I’d ever come out of there alive.
A lot goes through your head when you’re perched atop a vault toilet miles away from the nearest emergency room in 20 degree weather with your insides churning like the seas off Cape Horn and your head swimming like an unfrozen fish. Number one on my mind was how the Fates had deviously turned my clever acronym against me such that instead of catching a BUS, I felt like I had been run over by one. Not content with one ironic twist, the Fates conspired in other ways, not less sinister. For instance, I’ve always loved the sound of a breeze through the trees. It’s a pleasing sound, and I sleep well with the leaves and branches rustling above the tent. For a moment in the restroom I heard that sound from outside. It brought me comfort. For about two seconds, which is the time it took the 20 degree breeze to work its way down the vault toilet exhaust and back up the only other exit. Two seconds. It’s not much, but it’s enough to brace yourself for subsequent attacks. I wondered if a bear would recognize me as a weakened herd animal on my way back to the tent and eat me like any respectable large predator should.
I did make it back and survived till morning when Dewayne and Jason arrived to find Ronald and I half-frozen to death and me half-dead from dehydration and nausea. Jason had forgotten his boots on his kitchen table. Realizing he would quickly perish without them, he decided to head back to town to buy some. Visions of over-the-counter drugs dancing in my brain, I decided to go with him. We all decided to go and maybe do some fishing or scouting on the way back. Another strategic mistake.
You may think there are physical limits to the speed at which narrow mountain roads can be navigated in a Toyota pickup. You would soon discover otherwise if the Toyota pickup is steered by a nicotine-hyped Arkansan anxious to start fishing. I’m not prone to car sickness, but I thought I was going to die before we reached Tellico Plains and its supply of medication.
Ronald left for home shortly after we got back to camp. The lucky piece of dirt. I drugged up and felt well enough to fish near camp. I managed to spook every trout I saw, which amounted to five of them. By this point, the river was beginning to ice up and I couldn’t keep ice out of my guides for longer than two casts. All the trout I saw were lying right on bottom in piles of leaves. Here’s a winter-time fishing tip. Those piles of fallen autumn leaves that build up in the back-eddies of the stream apparently hold some heat. I could feel it when my boots sank down into them. The trout could feel it, too, and appeared to lie right down on them. Of course, how you’d catch them I have no idea. The water was only a foot or so deep, still and gin clear, so every time I attempted a cast, the fish bolted for Georgia. Just one more useless fishing tip from the friendly bunglers here at TVangler. Dewayne and Jason fished out on the main stem of the Tellico and had worse luck in that they didn’t even spot a fish, and were apparently mobbed by a pack of lost bear hounds.
That night was a real cold one. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 10. All of our water froze, which had to be thawed for coffee the next morning. Coffee becomes an essential building block of life at those temperatures along with proteins and amino acids and whatnot. The river was frozen over solid except for the plunges and shallow, swift water. I’d never seen one of the big freestone streams freeze over like that. There is a moment when a fisherman realizes that fishing is a futile endeavor. It’s different for every fishermen. For me it’s when the trout bury up in the leaves and mud like hibernating bullfrogs and the river freezes over.
We packed it up and headed down to the Hiwassee where the tailwater effect promised water in liquid form. On arriving at the powerhouse we spotted another fisherman stowing gear in his car. He had been wet wading. Yes. Wet wading. In shorts. He said it was cold. Being wusses and not tough men at all, we put on layers of fleece under our waders with fleece pullovers on top. After a brief period of intense cursing brought on by tossing off three indicators (I hate indicator fishing), breaking off a fish, and breaking off two freshly-tied-on midges on a shrub before I could cast, I managed to find a rhythm. The fish wanted midges and pheasant tails either dead-drifted or stripped slowly. We caught several before heading home, keeping the skunk at bay.
In case you’re keeping count, we left a day early. It’s only the second time I’ve cut a fishing trip short. I’m not proud of it, but the warm shower felt nice, and the warm food at home settled better on my tortured stomach. All in all, it was a pretty good trip. Can’t wait for the next one.