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.”
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.
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