Arthur Farrell is again in the river, though this time he has abandoned the cool draws of Tennessee for the high-mountain streams of western North Carolina. After rising early, reading from Fly Fishing with MacQuarrie (a loaner from his son), having his coffee, and kissing his wife goodbye, he headed south out of town and along the Asheville Highway to one of his favorite holes in the Davidson River.
The forecast called for moderate temperatures and no rain. While the morning was cool as fog rolled off the quiet highway and into the surrounding countryside, Arthur’s heart warmed at the prospect of big lively browns and colorful rainbows. From time to time, Arthur uses a local guide named Starr Nolan with Brookside Guides who knows the waters, and fish, of western North Carolina better than most. The mountain rivers and streams are not always the easiest to navigate for the weekend warrior.
But for Arthur, having Starr in his company is more than just fighting the war waged on the picky eaters visible in the clear holes of their favorite little river. From Starr he is learning the differences in various flies, how to read the hatch, and what the trout are breakfasting on thereafter, the importance of 7X tippet over the barely-bigger 6X, mending his line with subtle movements and less interference to the water, and, most importantly (in Arthur’s case, that is), exercising patience. While it’s easy to be a fly fisherman, casting to various holes in hopes of a bite, it’s extremely difficult and altogether testing to a man’s nervous system to cast to fish that he can see.
If you can see ‘em, you can shoot ‘em. But that damn sure don’t mean you can catch ‘em!
Starr directs Arthur’s casting, a symphony of near-flawless wrist action that he has practiced relentlessly over the last few years.
“Load once. Then cast,” she instructs. He obeys.
“Now mend, mend. That’s it. Now give it some line. Great drift.” She is encouraging when frustration seems capable of showing its ugly face, and praising when triumph crosses the finish line. She mutters to herself about “the little monsters” that her client can see, but not seem to feed. Changing patterns for the seventh time in 30 minutes, they try it again.
“If you can just land it in between those two trees,” she suggests. Arthur loads to cast, never fearing the potential of hooking a fish or laurel. He sees his spot and lets her fly, except nothing follows the rod. Leaves rattle and branches shake as casting comes to a halt and fly extraction begins immediately. Starr laughs and Arthur shrugs his shoulders and grins. Fly fishing.
Throughout the morning it’s near hits and misses and flashes of silver and milky gold as the light reveals rolling feeders in the little pools. The sun has penetrated the canopy overhead only in increments, but it’s enough to know they’re there. Other fisherpersons have gathered along the stretch of river. Yes, it gets crowded along the little Davidson because it’s easy to access, and like you and Arthur now know, you can see fish.
But as they are ready to call it quits, happy with the morning yet not dissatisfied with the weight of the creel—that being said, the Davidson River is catch-and-release-only—Arthur hooks into a log on the far bank. Except the log takes off downstream.
Arthur acts on instinct, the perfect dance partner, letting the big fish have her head as she rolls away downstream. The reel sings “Fisherman’s Delight” as it gives line. Starr remains close, coaching, watching, delighted at the sight and sounds playing out chorus of zinging reel and heavy splashes. For she wants Arthur to catch fish. That’s her goal, you see.
And to Arthur, when Starr nets the big fish, it’s the deep satisfaction of his well-played role in the game of man versus Mother Nature. While our side rarely wins that battle, there’s an innate hope ingrained in most of us that she will be forever the victor. It’s like playing a game of HORSE with your child and purposely letting him or her win without giving the slightest notion that you wouldn’t have it any other way. Except that to preserve the rivers and streams and lands we love, there are more obstacles than a half-court hook shot standing in our way.
Easing the big brown from the net for her return home, Arthur knows he too will soon return to his residence to contemplate the morning’s events. It’s smiles all around as he and Starr ascend the bank for the parking lot as more anglers excitedly assemble rods and gear and head to the Davidson to try their luck on the fish they can see.
Images by Hunter Worth