On the Clinch River in East Tennessee, west of interstate 75 as it bridges the water at breakneck speed is a mass of T.V.A. power lines that keep the City of Knoxville and points beyond supplied with electricity. The water beneath these lines is deep and clear, full of large rocks and twisted deadfall.
Wading isn’t an option in this stretch of the river, but the bank is often cluttered with corn cans that linger until high water flushes them further down stream. If you want to work the river from the bridge to the power lines a water craft of some sort is mandatory.
The Clinch isn’t a world class span of water, but it does hold a respectable population of browns, rainbows, and recently they added brooks to the foray. The size of the fish caught is usually in the mid sized variety though an occasional leviathan is spotted. This river in all its normalcy is special to me because it was in this place that I discovered my love of fly fishing.
It was the summer of my 40th birthday. Up to that point in my life I had been a basic bank fishing worm dunker. The most exotic angling I ever ventured to do was cast a Jitterbug or Hoola Popper to pond bass.
The overall vision of river fishing in my mind was sitting on the bank pitching chicken liver for catfish.
My best friend had been fly fishing for a while and despite his persistent urging that I give it a try, I remained resistant. It seemed like to much work to catch a tiny fish, and frankly it just looked to hard to be fun. His consistent assurance that I would love it was respectfully dodged till my birthday.
With some money I had been given as a gift, I bit the bullet and purchased some gear. The rod was a nine foot five/six weight Phlueger combo with double taper line that I got for thirty five bucks at Wal-Mart. This seemed to me like a total waste of money, but I guessed that I could put a spinning reel on it and bluegill fish.
When I got home I called my buddy and set the fishing trip for the following Saturday. He told me to pick up some flies, we set the time, and my fate was sealed.
Selecting flies for my first trip was the equivalent of trying to translate the Magna Carta into Mandarin. The Friday before my trip, I went to a fly shop on the west end of town. It was a small place tucked at the very back of an old strip mall. Several trucks were parked out front, I pulled in along side them and peered through the mosaic of stickers adorning the window.
Gathering my nerve, I walked in the door and was immediately greeted by and old black lab who bumped me with his graying muzzle. I rubbed his head and walked on in, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I am quite sure that I looked as lost and out of place as a Nascar fan at a performance of Swan Lake.
“Can I help you?”, the guy behind the counter asked. He was polite enough, but his voice held a hint of indifference which implied either I had walked into the wrong store, or I was as lost as a ball in high weeds. It didn’t take him very long to get me figured out.
“I’m heading up to the Clinch. What are they hitting?” Let me just state now for the record that if you go into a fly shop and ask that question, you might as well have a red flag dangling over your head. I am sure the guy behind the counter could see the donkey ears and buck teeth protruding from my face.
He may as well have said Pig Ears.
“Do you have any?” Oh, this was getting bad. By now the donkey tail had emerged from my back and a Hee-Haw was welling up in my throat.
“Over there in the flies.”
I looked around and found the tray that said Bead Head Pheasant Tail size twenty. It was the only slot that was nearly empty. Just a small was of very small hoods with tiny gold beads.
At this point I was sure that this guy was playing me. I could hardly see the eye of the hook let alone try to fish with this thing.
Embarrassed, I picked up a few, put them in a cup, paid my money, and walked out with my donkey ears drooping and my fly swatting tail tucked meekly between my legs.
The lab looked up at me sympathetically from his spot by the t-shirt rack. I felt like he had seen this all happen many times before.
I am an information junkie. When I get interested in something, I devour as much as I can to learn about the intricacies of whatever the subject might be. I had spent several days scowering the internet on everything i could about fly fishing. I watched videos of Joan Wulff and Lefty Kreh as they showed the basic mechanics of the cast. I would sit at my desk with a thick highlighter and practice ten and two, ten and two.
So, returning from the debacle at the fly shop, I strung up my rod and went outside to practice. The one thing I remember is hearing that awful crack each time I came forward with my cast. My research had informed me that unless I carried a suitcase of flies to the river with me, I needed to fix that issue. I slowed down my ten and two and finally reached the point that I could lay down a solid ten feet of line in front of me without issue. By nightfall I felt okay with my cast much in the same way a teenage boy feels okay around a girl that he knows is way out of his league. He likes it, he enjoys it, but in the back of his mind he knows that once she sees through his charm to the large zit on the end of his nose, the whole gig is up.
I guess in retrospect, it was a blessing that we were fishing from a boat. I had fished area lakes in a boat many times so I kinda know the score. This also meant that I didn’t have to buy waders, but I had seen enough about fly fishing to know that I had to have a vest to hold my gear. Downstairs, in a bag of old yard sale stuff, I found a cheap khaki hunting vest that would have looked good on Marlin Perkins or Jack Hannah, but me? Not so much. Of course I had nothing to put in it but a plastic cup of Pheasant Tails and a three pack of leaders. Minimalism at its finest.
Saturday morning. The big day had arrived. I was up and gone before daybreak. The boat ramp that was our rendezvous point was about forty minutes away from the house and as I drove I tried to run through what I had read. I was actually getting nervous! Not about the fishing part of it, I had been catching fish my whole life. I was nervous about how I was catching them. I hate being labeled a greenhorn.
Its funny how odd things linger in your memory. The first thing I noticed when I reached the boat ramp and stepped out of my ride is how much colder it was right at the river, and I thought to myself that the water would have to warm up a bunch before the fish would feed. Shows you how much I knew.
Neither my buddy nor I are small boys. Our collective weight would bring top dollar at a cattle auction, so when he showed up with our watercraft I began to get worried. The “boat” was a hard plastic kayak kinda thing that was small and light enough for him to load in the back of his truck, and when we shoved off and headed upstream it did not escape my attention that we were mere inches from taking on water, yet remarkably it moved our middle aged spreads across the surface quite well.
We rowed upstream for several minutes through a thin wisp of fog that hovered inches above the water. Occasionally I would see a ring of a fish on the surface but other than their interruption the river was smooth as glass. I was amazed at how quiet everything became as we headed toward my date with destiny.
When we stopped rowing and set the boat free, I cast and fixed my gaze on the orange stick on foam indicator. I really didn’t know what to expect; then it happened. I have no real recollection of the hookset, or the fight, all I remember is that the indicator went under and then I was holding a 12″ brown. I was amazed at how smooth and cold it was, and how this was the prettiest fish I had ever seen.
“Meet your mistress.”, my buddy said with a twinkle in his eye.
Another boat, a real honest to God boat with room and a trolling motor came downstream to us. I knew the two guys from highschool and after a few pleasantries it was suggested that I get in with them so I could stand up and cast. That is when things started to get interesting.
I made an ungraceful but successful transition from the tiny craft that required my friend and I sit and cast to a large boat in which I could stand. This made things much easier.
I was placed in the center of the craft and after some good natured ribbing targeted at my buddy and the realization of just how rediculous we must have looked going down river in something that looked more like a bath toy than something two grown men would ride. The trolling motor was engaged and we headed back upstream and my new guide gave me some ground rules; Don’t get your feet tangled in the fly line, make sure that when you land a fish, you don’t lean over the side of the boat to far, and when you are casting make sure you say “casting!”. This last one was of particular importance with three grown men in the boart and it did not escape my notice later on in the morning that when I said “casting!”, they froze and kinda leaned away from me.
We had a brief conversation about how the day had gone so far, what fly I was using, what I had been up to since high school. Looking back on it now, I am sure that he made a quick inspection of my gear and no doubt rolled his eyes. I mean this guy has one of just about every Hardy rod known to man and here is this 40 year old greenhorn standing in his boat with a yardsale hunting vest, a Wal-Mart rod and reel combo, and this bright greenish yellow double taper fly line. I am sure I looked smoooooooooth.
These guys were laying out forty or fifty feet of line with ease and I would frail about like I was one step away from turning a cartwheel and might occasionaly get twenty feet of line out of the rod tip. These guys were also catching fish. A lot of fish. I on the other hand was slowly being induced into a hypnotic state by the orange indicator that bobbed along unhindered in the current. I watched helplessly as hookset after hookset occured on either side of me. I was amazed. All three of us were using pretty much the same fly but thus far the results had been desidedly different.
I don’t know if there is any information out there to support the impact of high tension power lines and their effect on the feeding activity of aquatic life forms, but as bad as I was at this fly fishing stuff, I can only attribute what happened next to the genius of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin. As we crossed under the power lines, the indicator I was staring at, the indicator which had indicated nothing but my ineptitude for hours…moved. It wasn’t aggressive, it just slowly and steadily began sinking deeper and deeper in the water. I had hung up on rocks and tree limbs all day and was down to just two or three flies in my plastic cup so I gave a quick tug to try and pull it free.
Then, from the bottom of the Clinch River, under the shadows of the power lines, not ten feet off the side of the boat, something pulled back! A wave of nausea washed over me as I felt the strong pull of something that was fighting for its life.
“FISH ON!”, I cried.
“My God, I’d say so!” came the reply.
My rod was bent midway and whatever it was, was big and had swam under the boat. I began shaking and honestly could not feel my legs.
The fight seemed to go on forever and when the net was dispatched a huge rainbow trout was brought on board. The biggest fish of the day for all of us.
I would love to say that after a gratuitous grip and grin photo op, I gently placed this football with fins back in the water and watched as it settled into its natural place. But I didn’t. I kept it. Not so much for the meal that it would soon provide, but for my ability to show it to my wife.
“Oh my gosh! That is a trout?”, she would say a few hours later.
She had the same misconception about these cold water gems as I did.
As I dressed out the fish that evening and prepared it for the oven, I caught myself planning my next trip.
Those power lines may not hold any valid effect on the fishing, but for me it is a magic place. A place where passion was born…three feet under a little orange indicator.