COOPER’S CREEK


Author’s note: I hope everybody had a good Thanksgiving.

With the current political climate, I thought I’d pass along some advice my father gave me: “Never talk politics at the dinner table. Take it outside where there’s room to talk. And when you’re feelin’ for the other fella’s eyeball, don’t get careless and let him chaw your ear off.”

 

COOPER’S CREEK

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,181

I made my bones on Cooper’s Creek. It’s a trout stream in the North Georgia Mountains, a marvelous, clear running, cobblestone bottomed creek lined with mountain laurel and pine.  I’d disappear there for weeks at a time, living on hoecakes washed down with Guinness and Bushmills. I remember afternoon thunderstorms and lying in my tent, listening to the rain’s cadence on the roof, and reading a good book—very pleasant. Thirty years ago, when I fished and camped there regularly, it was undeveloped. I hear that has sadly changed.

I don’t remember running into other fly fishers. The people who fished there were mountain folk, fishing with corn and worms—sometimes doing so with an old fly rod and automatic reel. They followed the hatchery trucks to the creek every spring, harvesting the little browns the same way they harvested wild berries on the ridges above the creek—when they were in season.

I was a novice fly-fisher then. It took a while, but I managed to acquire the requisite fly fishing equipment that set me apart from the local yokels. Armed with the best in sporting equipment—and an unhealthy holier-than-thou attitude—I started looking down my nose at these simple mountain folk. I was a catch & release fly-fisherman, a cut above, marching through the land in indignation. And discounting the fact that I’d been a sailor in my youth, I felt I held the moral high ground.

I had no legitimate reason to think I was better than these simple people. I’d come from a long line of hillbillies who’d fled an uncertain mountain life for steady work in the glass factories in Indiana. My people had been out of the mountains long enough that when we spoke of hillbillies, we were speaking of the others. But these people were my people: Scotch-Irish, always willing to fight the rich man’s wars, ever looking to escape hardscrabble lives.

The fish I caught were nine-to-twelve inch stockers. So it wasn’t long before I started thinking about the headwaters. I wanted to get away from hatchery-truck stalkers, do some exploring, and catch bigger fish. I thought if I could get into the headwaters I’d find fish that had somehow managed to escape the frying pan, fish that had wintered over, eked out a living, and become wild.

I went up the creek until the fisherman’s path petered out and I was sure I had the place to myself. So I was surprised when I ran into an old corn soaker and his wife. They must have been in their seventies. He was sitting on the bank with his pant leg rolled up. His old, light blue work shirt—frayed at the collar, buttons missing from the cuffs—was stretched tight over his midsection. A greasy ball cap with an unreadable logo sat on the back of his head. The old woman, dressed in faded Levies and sweat shirt, was pouring cold creek water on his badly skinned shin.

He told me he’d just taken a bad fall. I asked if he needed help getting out of there but he said he reckoned they could manage. “This ain’t the first time I’ve limped out of here,” he said. “Them rocks is slick as a gut.”

As I watched the old gal bathe his ugly wound, he told me they came up there every year looking for the “big uns.” His cloudy eyes lit up as he talked of the fish he’d caught there over the years. He smiled a toothless grin and I could see his excitement was still there.

They had all the equipment they needed: cane poles, well-worn coffee can for worms, old Styrofoam cooler for their drinks and lunch. I felt self-conscious and out of place in my new “Joe Orvis” fishing gear.

I could see the old woman was getting their lunch ready, and I was about to be on my way when she handed me a plate loaded down with an egg sandwich, potato salad, and pickled okra. After lunch the old woman shoved a cathead biscuit piled with country ham and wrapped in a paper towel into my hand.

As I took my leave, the old man told me to watch out for a hornet’s nest—“big as a jug”—hanging in a tree over the creek. “They’ll cover you up,” he warned.

Before I was out of earshot, I heard the old woman say something and the old man reply, “It’s one of them fancy rods.” I smiled and thought, “Yeah, I’m a fancy son-of-a-bitch alright.”

I fished up the creek keeping an eye peeled for the Hornet’s nest, but not spotting it. I figured I’d gotten passed where the old couple had saw the wasp’s nest when I got my fly hung in a Laurel. By pulling the lower branches down and grabbing the next higher ones, I was able to work my fly down within reach and retrieve it. I sat down on a rock to rebuild my leader, tie the fly back on, and smoke a cigarette. I was about to get up and start fishing when I happened to look up, and there it was, big as a gallon jug, hanging right over my head. I slowly backed away and, giving the nest a wide berth, headed on up the creek.

I hiked until I came to a deep pool, the kind where your vision fades to black when you look for the bottom, the kind that would allow a trout to hide from corn soakers and worm drowners. I drifted my fly through and got a good rise, but failed to set the hook. I tried a few more times with no luck. I sat down and tied on another fly and waited about twenty minutes and tried again with the same result. I repeated the process. On my fourth try I set the hook and landed a fourteen-inch brookie. I’d never caught anything but stocker browns, so I took a piece of cardboard out of my pack, traced the fish on it, and released the fish back into the pool—I think I still have the tracing somewhere.

I sat down on a log quite satisfied with myself and pulled out the old woman’s biscuit. I hadn’t tasted a biscuit that good since my mother died. And why not? They were probably made from the same handed-down recipe.

I thought about the old couple. We were after the same things: solitude, adventure, bigger fish. They fished in their work clothes because that was all they had. They kept everything they caught because they needed to. They fished the way their fathers had, and I found no harm in that—or in them.

It’s been thirty years since I fished Cooper’s Creek. I left it behind when I moved west in search of wild cutthroats. But I didn’t leave my hillbilly roots behind. I still miss Mom’s cathead biscuits—and I still know what a croker sack full of lighter knots is.

© Robert Robinson 2016 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

TEQUILA SUNRISE


 

TEQUILA SUNRISE

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 902

Cutthroat trout are as sure a sign you’re in the Wild West as the smell of Copenhagen on a cowgirl’s breath. Cutthroats hold a special place in the hearts of western fly-fishers. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go out of the way to fish a stream purported to hold a population of cutts. In my mind, streams are automatically elevated in status from trout stream to blue-ribbon trout stream when cutts are found there. I don’t presume to know what God was thinking when he created them, but I know he was having a good day.

I can imagine the delight he took choosing their dazzling colors, the care he took fashioning their delicate environment. Even the flies upon which it feeds are fragile creatures, beginning life as unassuming larva, changing at the moment of their most spectacular interaction with the trout into benign beings of color and light designed to mate, and then die in a state of sexual exhaustion. For me, catching just one cutt, even if it’s the only fish caught that day, means I’m having a good day. They leave me with a sense of pristine wilderness, a sense that all is right in the world, a sense of wonder for their mysteries.

All trout are remarkably colored, but cutthroats are truly a delight to behold—they never fail to bring a smile to my face. I believe most art to be feeble attempts to interpret the natural beauty around us, and I’ve seen artist’s renderings of cutthroats, but they fall short of my memory of them. When I have one in my hand, I could look at them for hours, but I get them back into the water as quickly as I can, so my mental picture of them is an accumulation of quick glimpses gathered over time: from the crimson slash under the rosy gill plates, which gives it its name, to the clean white underbelly that seamlessly transcends into a subtle mix of yellow, orange, pink, and bronze, forming a color that has no name, reminding me of a tequila sunrise.

Some anglers consider the cutthroat a dumb fish because of the supposed ease with which they are caught. I haven’t noticed them being any easier to catch than other trout; besides, any attempt to quantify levels of intelligence by fishermen must be viewed as presumptuous.

Survival is a full time job in the cutthroat’s environs and involves risk taking. They’re less nocturnal than most trout. They live in high-country streams where summers are short and winters are long and brutal. The time they have to fatten up for those long winters—when valleys quietly fill with snow, creeks freeze to a trickle, and trout retreat to deep pools to lie in a state of suspended animation—is short. Every opportunity to feed must be taken. I believe it’s this urgency that makes them take a dry fly with savage abandon.

Most of the time I mechanically work the water, casting to likely holds, hoping for a rise. But when I come across a pod of rising cutthroats, I sit and watch—rebuilding tippet and tying on another fly with shaking hands—until I think I’ve found their rhythm. My heart beats fast as I cast to the risers and watch my fly tip into a feeding lane, and by the time the fly is over the fish, I’m so keyed up I often jerk the fly from its mouth. It’s hard to let the fish take the fly and make its turn, but when I get it right, I become part of a beautiful scene: I’m holding a trembling bamboo rod against a backdrop of blue sage, and when the fish jumps, glittering prisms explode as the sun flashes off its wet, iridescent skin. The problems I woke up with are, for the moment, gone, and nothing matters but landing the fish.

I use barbless hooks, or mash the barb on barbed hooks. This cuts down on the panic I feel during the release. Most of the time the fish slips off on its final flip at my feet. And that’s good; I don’t have to handle them—I’m not worthy, anyway. Holding a pulsing cutthroat, working the hook from its jaw, I feel guilty. When releasing them, I catch myself commenting on their vivid colors, telling them how glad I am to see them—apologizing for the intrusion. Watching it move slowly away hugging the bottom, I feel part of my soul escaping with it.

There’s a stream where I frequently catch Cutts over twenty-inches. It’s closed to fishing for six-months a year for spawning. Opening day is a cluster.

An infestation of worm-drowning, corn-soaking, spinner-slinging Huns—the kinds of people mothers only love out of instinct or a sense of duty—descends on the creek.

I never go on opening day. By the time I get there, gut piles, fish heads, and ass-wipes line the banks of the bend pools, and the reasons I seek the cutthroat’s environs are gone.

Mostly I go to see if there are any survivors. After I’ve caught a couple, I start wondering what the point would be to catch more. After all, any season is a good season when you’ve caught a couple of twenty-inch-plus cutts. And for me, the satisfaction is in knowing they’re still there.

© Robert Robinson 2016 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.