I worked my way up the river, carefully, trying to keep myself upright.

Boulders thick with green moss mark a treacherous path upstream of the Little River. Just the day before, I had stepped off one to another and plunged up to my chin in cold water. That was lesson enough.

There in the ancient, smoothed slopes of the Smoky Mountains, I sought a trout to take a diminutive fly no larger than a delicate glass bead. The Little River rushed past my knees, threatening to take me down again, but I forged on to a long run of calm water, its bottom mostly slate. Here at Metcalf Bottoms, I was finally able to wade comfortably and relax a little to concentrate on my fishing. Or so I thought.

There’s not much quiet left in the Smokies. Some eight million people visit Smoky Mountain National Park each year, and that year, 2008, Suze and I were but a miniscule percentage. She was perched on a smooth, gray boulder downstream, soaking in the morning as I worked my way upstream, casting my fly rod, in search of trout.

Not much quiet, but it is there, in the right places. Get away from the public accesses – which is what we tend to do – and you’ll find some of it. Certainly, you might run into another fisherman, or a hiker on the trail along the river. Deeper into the backcountry is where you find the quiet. Knee-deep silence, as Harry Middleton described it, silence that hasn’t been broken yet.

The first mountains I ever saw were when I was 15. It was the San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Arizona. I was…under whelmed, I guess. They were magnificent, but what did I know of mountains then, the secrets and the silence that they held?

It wasn’t until 2005 that I began to understand, and I had to go all the way to Montana to garner that erudition. Three years later, Suzie and I would rise early, breakfast, ignore the signs to Dollywood, breeze through Gatlinburg and work out way up the snaking, narrow roads deep into the Smokies.

I bring this up today because I think that was the day it all became clear to me. The two days before had been rough. Having only fished Montana, on creeks that were gravel and pebble bottomed, easy wading, the Smokies threw me for a loop. My plunge into the icy water of the Little River almost broke me of it.

There at Metcalf Bottoms, and later in the week at the Roaring Fork, an inkling began in the back of my mind, in some basal, primal part of my brain stem; a notion that I was no longer oblivious to the siren’s call.

I hooked on trout at Metcalf Bottoms, and it was the only trout of the trip. He was so tiny I flung him over my shoulder when I set the hook, and he flew off the line as it straightened behind me. I caught enough of glimpse as he whizzed by to know it was a rainbow about as long as my ring finger.

It’s hard to describe being disappointed and elated all at once, but that’s what I was. Later during our visit, we hiked up to Greenbrier School, visited Tremont and Elmont and saw ancient Appalachian cemeteries and cabins.

I bring this up today, because someone remarked to me last week, in a mocking whine of a voice that “all you talk about is mountains, yeh yeh yeh…” And while I wouldn’t say that’s “all” I talk about, yeah, I am preoccupied by it and as is often the case with writers like me, find it difficult if not impossible to write about anything else but what’s wringing our hearts.

I probably could have survived Montana. Probably moved along and never felt the bittersweet ache in my heart when I remembered it. A year after that fateful trip, I discovered the creeks and streams in central and northern Louisiana, and the seed planted in Montana germinated, sprouted. By the time I left the Smokies, it was strong and hale.

Deep in the lush, green woods along Roaring River, where I half expected a Hobbit to emerge from the trees, I stood on a boulder the size of my truck and though  of Harry, who wrote in On the Spine of Time: An Angler’s Love of the Smokies, that he asked his friend this question:

“Okay, but what about my obsession with mountains and mountain streams and trout?” I asked

This is what Erskine Lightman, fifth-generation master of Smoky Mountain folk medicine and trout fishing said, “Only one thing to do: shoot yourself.”

So I only mildly apologize for rambling on here about mountains and trout and streams and spotted bass and clear, cold water rushing by. Because you see, what Montana and the producers of Fly Fishing America gave me, what Pete Cooper Jr. and the creeks north of here gave me, what the Ozarks gave me and what Suzie and the Smoky Mountains gave me was a destination, a goal and a dream.

Like Harry, I won’t shoot myself. I am compelled and full of purpose now, purpose I had lost years before and settled into a bubble of mediocrity of life. I had grown as stagnant as the shallow blackwater in the sloughs of Lake Fausse Point, trapped by receding surface water and rising, sediment-laden bottoms. I might have mirrored it in my own life, eventually emasculating into death.

But I have found what gives me freedom and joy again. I have found what target to aim for. And if my obsession swells too mightily and spills over into these pages too often, just write it off to infatuation. Like a teenager with a school crush, I can think of little else and some of it is bound to get out now and then.

3 comments to Ahab

  • Gordon Bryson

    After three weeks of 100 degree days, your column today has at least given my
    mind some relief. I too long for the feel of cold running water and the tug of a trout on the end of the long rod. As soon as the tube and canoe hatch is over, the Lower Mountain Fork will beckon again and once more the dreams of summer will be fulfilled. Thanks for the respite.

  • blufloyd

    Ok you win I’ll be heading to the Humiston Woods to wade the mighty Vermillion river. Sort of a freestone stream with smallies.
    But I never think of mountains altitude changes drive my equilibrium crazy. It feels like what waterboarding must be to me.
    Happy weekend….

  • Dan Sears

    Rog, a brilliant piece of work my friend.

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