On Top Of Old Smoky
18, 2008
By Roger Emile Stouff

We were loading the car and making our way north. It was an unpredicted trip, and continued to be tentative, right up until the last moments. I wonít bore you with the details, suffice it to say there were many elements involved. But we were finally off.

It was Saturday, noonish. We expected to make it a leisurely, two-day drive to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. In fact, we put a chunk of the drive behind us that day, staying the night in Meridian, Mississippi, before continuing on the next day.

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The mountains, from Wears Valley
(click to enlarge any photos)

We arrived in Pigeon Forge late and found our accommodations, a room with a balcony overlooking the Little Pigeon River. The river was named by Europeans for the flocks of passenger pigeons that onced occupied its banks. An iron forge or foundry was built there around 1820, sources say, and a community sprang up around it. But long before that, even, the Cherokee hunted there, making their way all the way from North Carolina across a well-worn trail.

Southern Appalachia has experienced three years of drought and all the waterways were low. Of course, the fisherman in me found this information post haste! The Little Pigeon testified to the drought: I could see where the former high-water mark was three, four feet higher than the current level of the river. No matter. I had packed four fly rods and all my gear. I was going to give it a heckuva good try.

And how could I not? There were trout in them there hills! Trout! I hadnít seen a trout since 2005, when I traveled to Montana for my 44 minutes of fame on national television. And with big-headed confidence, I thought to myself, Iíve caught cutthroat trout high up in Glacier National Park, in the Rocky Mountains, an area so remote it was just us and the grizzly bears. These little eastern streams are gonna be childís play.

Famous last words.

Suzie was occupied to late in the mornings, and so early Monday I took off to get a fishing license, and then to Little River Outfitters in Townsend, Tennessee, where a young man named Daniel asked if he could help me.

"Give me a half-dozen each of your three top catching flies," I said. As Daniel accommodated, putting flies from the bins into a small, round fly box, we chatted about the fishing, there and in Louisiana. Itís what you do. You go to the local outfitter and generally theyíll help you out for nothing, but itís polite to buy a little something for their trouble. And Daniel rang up my flies then marked several spots on a map in yellow highlighter that he recommended.

If a little information is a dangerous thing, I was practically explosive.

We headed to the park and arrived at Elkmont Campground. The Smoky Mountains were in their autumn glory and let me tell you, Iíve only been in the mountains twice in my life: Flagstaff, Arizonaís San Francisco Peaks and the Rockies in Montana, both in summer.

Nothing could prepare me for what autumn conjures in the Smokies. Everywhere along these peaks of these low-slung mountains, the forest was ablaze in color; though the tough green of blue spruce and Fraser fir dappled the fall turnings, the mountains were brilliant oranges, reds, yellows, auburns, ochersÖthere arenít enough words to describe the multitudes of colors we saw. The mountains were drowsy, I could feel it, and their dazzling Josephís coat of autumnal changing was their drooping eyelids, their yawns, their heavy sighs at winterís doorstep.

These mountains are, after all, unthinkably old. Among the oldest in the entire world, from 200 to 300 million years, geologists estimate. The Rockies are mostly in the 100 million year old range. The Smokies have been smoothed and softened by the passage of time, unlike the haggard Rockies, jagged and angular, every bit as beautiful to be sure, but in a different way altogether.

The community of Elkmont began as a logging town, back when that area of the Smoky Mountains was basically being clear-cut. Later, it was a sort of high-scale living community for well-to-do folks from Knoxville, Chattanooga and so forth. Today itís primarily a campground, and lies at the congruence of Jakeís Creek and the Little River.

I felt at once like the Mole in Kenneth Grahameís The Wind in the Willows when I saw the water in the Smoky Mountains:

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The Little River at Elkmont
   Absolutely beautiful despite low water from a three-year drought, though boulder-strewn, slippery and treacherous.

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river beforeóthis sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All as a-shake and a-shiveróglints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

We trotted down to the Little River and certainly, the water was surprisingly low. Even I could see it. Three yearís of scarce rain on those mountains had diminished every creek and river I saw last week. They still flowed, donít get me wrong, and were extraordinarily beautiful. But I could tell at once that their diminished flows had two drastic effects: In areas of steep descent, the water raced between massive boulders like a limpid thoroughbred; where the streambed leveled a bit, the flow was slow, sluggish.

And about those bouldersÖ.

Remember those famous last words, that bragging about how I was a veteran trout fisherman in Montana, having 20, 30 rainbows and cutthroat under my belt to 20 inches in size? Well, hereís the lowdown on how silly that boast was: In Montana, the rivers and creeks, at least the ones we fished, were wide and their beds were predominately gravel. Oh, the gravel could have been fist-sized at times, and make no mistake, there were abundant boulders ranging from the size of a footstool to the dimensions of a house. But largely, we waded shallow water gravel bottomed streams to deep pools and fished them.

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The Little River at Elkmont

Not so here. These rivers and streams were sunken boulder fields, with nary a gravel bed or flat, level slab to be found. We were only at about 2,150 feet, which is about 2,136 more than my house on Bayou Teche on the Rez, so there you go. Itís all relative, ainít it?

I geared up: Waist-high waders. Felt-soled wading boots. You use felt soles for better traction on wet rocks, particularly algae-covered wet rocks. Fly-fishing vest loaded with the flies I had gotten from Little River Outfitters, and some of my own, hemostats, bear pepper spray (Iím a coward, all right?), tools, stogies and so forth. I had on my brown fedora and a new fishing shirt and let me tell you, I looked for all the world like a real fly fisherman for the first time in my life.

I grabbed my fly rod and headed to the Little River.

(To be ContinuedÖ)