Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
“Watch the tippet, let it flow naturally in the current. When it stops like that, that’s a strike! There!”
A brown trout hooks a fly fishing line just below the reflective black surface of the Tuckasegee River near Dillsboro Saturday. As the spring sun descended behind the mountains, the silhouettes of anglers in their waders dotted the waterway downstream. Its Spring and fishing season is open in Western North Carolina.
“There are generations of families that look forward to opening day and kicking off their trout fishing,” said the North Carolina Resource Commission’s Jacob Rash, who is based in Marion. “It’s the kickoff of Spring for many folks and it is exciting.”
Fly fishing guide Justin Anderson explained the basics of the sport while angling with his 9-year-old son, River, on a sunny Saturday spent waist-deep in chilly mountain water.
“I’ve spent my whole life on a river somewhere,” said Anderson, who grew up at the confluence of five rivers in coastal Georgetown, S.C., and now lives with his family in Franklin.
As of Saturday’s opening of the hatchery-supported fishing season, anglers can take their catches of native brook trout and introduced brown and rainbow trout home from waterways across the state for as little as a $7 Mountain Heritage fishing license.
To fish with Anderson is to be inundated with information garnered over a lifetime of fishing experience. There’s hydrology, etymology, biology, reading the almost imperceptible ripples on the surface of the water – indicating seam lines, depths, surface and subsurface flows and depressions where trout rest, conserving energy as they wait for tiny nymphs, or juvenile aquatic insects, to flow to them.
“It’s all by perfect design, which ties into my faith as well,” said Anderson, who can be found at Wilderness Taxidermy when not standing in a river. There’s also the most difficult task of them all: “You have to get inside the trout’s head.”
The state of North Carolina spent $1 million in 2014 raising and stocking trout in the state’s waterways. The investment was supported by licensing fees and federal excise taxes on equipment and resulted in an economic impact of more than $249 million in direct spending on equipment, food and accommodation, a 250:1 return on investment, according to a recent study.
“The bulk of that is realized here,” said Rash of fishing in the western 26 counties of the state. “There are a lot of waters to trout fish in North Carolina.”
The Wildlife Commission website NCwildlife.org/trout also provides fisherman with interactive maps, regulations and even driving directions to get more fishermen on the waters enjoying the sport while protecting native species.
Pisgah Forest’s educational division even offers fly fishing classes for anyone ages 12 and up, including introductory, fly tying, tackle rigging and casting, with all equipment and materials provided at no cost.
“It’s a real popular part of our program,” Rash said of the hatchery supported season and the delayed harvest season, which begins the first Saturday in June. The state harvests the three species of trout for about a year, until they reach approximately 10 ½ inches.
Rash explained that the hatchery system is used to introduce trout into popular waterways that would be too warm in the summer to support natural reproduction, with the expectation that the trout will be harvested.
The coldwater research coordinator assures that much care is taken to protect natural populations of brook trout, which typically live above 3,000-foot elevation.
“Our stocking efforts do not go on top of brook trout populations,” he said, noting that much management takes place in the state’s two big national forests, Pisgah and Nantahala, and only sterile trout are introduced.
“In Western North Carolina, trout fishing in general is special just given the variety of resources that we have and the volume,” Rash said.
The thinking man’s fishing
On Saturday, Anderson and his boy stepped into their waders and fished the increasing popular technique called European-style nymphing. They gave a short lob of a cast that doesn’t require much practice. Then they closely monitored a thin, two-colored indicator line called a tippet as their nymph gently flowed with the current below the surface. When that tippet moved or froze, that meant a strike.
“It’s a little more than putting a worm on the end of the hook and waiting for it to bite,” said Anderson, who enjoys the intellectual aspect of studying the water surface, and the creativity of making his own flies and tying different knots. “It’s the thinking man’s fishing.”
Anderson said he gets hired as a guide for $225 for a half day of fly fishing with gear and secret fishing spots included in order to “shorten that learning curve” for amateur fishermen who are more interested in having fun and catching fish than buying a bunch of equipment and getting frustrated when they can’t cast properly.
“I call it my water therapy, just listening to it,” said Anderson, who doesn’t fish while guiding, but enjoys being on the river and watching people catch their first trout on a fly fishing rod. Recalling words attributed to Henry David Thoreau, he said, “Many men go fishing all their lives not realizing that fish isn’t really what they’re after. There’s a serenity, a peace.”
Not long after speaking those words, Anderson hooked a strong rainbow trout that tugged hard on his line as it raced into the downstream current. Knowing that if he tried to reel it in on his three-pound test, the line would snap in an instant, the angler alternately released line and applied pressure as he chased on foot through the center of the Tuckasegee.
“This is what you have to do sometimes,” his son, River, explained, clearly channeling his father’s teachings. “You have to let the fish calm down and relax so you can catch him.”
In a matter of minutes, Anderson was 150 feet away from the spot where he was standing next to his son. Then, he stopped. Slowly, he reached his right arm behind his back and grabbed his net.
By the time Anderson walked back upstream, the restless 18-inch rainbow trout was worn out and resting at the bottom of his net.
“It’s not so much a fight as it is a dance,” Anderson explained. “That’s angling!”