Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bunnies and Goats and Bears, Oh My!

As the hired hand poured a full can of diesel fuel onto the stack of wood inside the fire ring he started talking about the bears. Said they came down about every night to rummage through the trash. Said there were a number of dens up the mountain and a year or two ago one of their den mates came to work for him. Strange fellow he was. Said he worked out OK but smelled pretty bad. We were at a campground that will remain nameless lest I be served with a summons at some future date and accused of slandering the joint. Of course I’ll have a good number of witnesses to testify to the truth of my claims…so no worries.

This unnamed place was proud or its conservation reputation. Their brochure was loaded with platitudes about their back to nature philosophy and their love for the land. Their organic garden, their single Holstein cow, which if you timed your visit just right could be milked by all the campers, along with their bunny rabbits and goats testified to their commitment to eco-living. As further proof, the aforementioned bear dining hall was perfectly situated to serve the gastronomic needs of the bears. Their open topped trash enclosure backed up to the slope where the dens were, making for an easy dumpster diving entry. And as proof, the path up the slope was littered with the evidence. Yessir, the proprietors of this place had a true love for the animals. No bear would go hungry.

Memorial Day and family camping have become a tradition around here and this year we were in the deepest woods of the north Georgia mountains. Chad had found the place on the web - a “retreat center” with full hookups, animal petting, a trout stream you couldn’t fish in and a trout pond where you could. We set up our tent between our two daughters’ campers and wondered aloud why anyone in their right mind would call this wall to wall RV experience camping. Oh well.

Chad and I were a little familiar with the surrounding waters and had planned to spend a good amount of time away from the RV parking lot, and the “good amount of time” began on Saturday morning. We motored on down to the quaint Bavarian village of Helen, GA and stopped in to see our buddies at Unicoi Outfitters to get the latest fishing reports. The upper Chattahoochee was the recommendation, but getting there was going to take a little longer than normal. The tornado that came through on Thursday afternoon - the one we heard about on the Weather Channel that delayed our leaving home by a day - had downed a good number of trees on the forest service road that we would normally have taken, so we had to go the long way.

Five miles of bone jarring switchbacks led us to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. Little more than a small creek, 150 miles as the crow flies, and who knows how many tributaries later, this pristine trout stream would turn into a large and wide bass stream at Chad’s home near Columbus, Georgia.

The fishing was a little different than the available fishing back at the campground. Check out this warning sign that they had posted at the trout pond – a message that is sure to change the catch and release methodology of all my brethren. So releasing fish kills them? In fairness it probably does…if you hook ‘em deep with a night crawler. Six bucks a pound, if you please.

Chad and I managed to catch a good number of trout – all about a foot in length, except for one wild and beautifully colored rainbow - and the best fly color was yellow.

I know - surprise, surprise. Hey if it works for ya…why change? I stuck with a yellow hackled woolly with a black chenille body and black marabou tail, and Chad’s fly of choice was about the same. We probably spent a little over three hours on the stream and the ride back to camp had us wishing for those NASCAR type carbon fiber seats and HANS Devices to protect us from the whiplash treatment of the well rutted road.

The next morning Chad and my daughter’s fiancĂ© Jonathan convinced me that these old knees of mine could climb the mountain behind camp. They theorized that if we hiked far enough up the mountain we were sure to find a few native brookies. I wasn’t about to wimp out, although midway up that first leg I threatened to. Glad I didn’t.

Near the top we came across the remains of what might have been a waterwheel. Nothing was left but the concrete supports, and looking at the log reinforced channel above it I was certain that we had happened across what at one time had been some sort of water powered mill. That is, until we saw this sign.

The intricately placed bank retainers – so far up the mountain and laid with such obvious care and planning – showed that some dedicated real conservationists had done some very back breaking work to ensure that our beloved brookies had a place to thrive. Thank you TU.

After we saw the sign and determined that we just might be in the presence of royalty, Chad proceeded to land the beauty shown below. Unfortunately that was the only one landed but to be in their presence; to walk the unspoiled forests and practice our Joe Humphries bow and arrow casts…we were in brookie heaven.

Around sundown, back at the campground, the old lady that owned the place was on the warpath. Traveling through the campground on her golf cart she interrogated everyone about their numbers – kids, guests, dogs, tents, and vehicles – all under the guise of striking up a friendly conversation. Through her accusatory interrogations she managed to collect an extra few bucks from everyone and if you questioned her arithmetic or her logic her standard response was, “You just don’t understand, we are conservationists.” There were charges for everything, including the grass seed she would have to lay down after our tent was removed. No wonder her campground was the only one in the area with vacancies. She’ll have a few more next year.

On Sunday everyone but Shirley and I took off on another hike up the mountain. Deciding to take a shortcut, they left the main trail and headed through the brush. After passing many caves and wondering about the bear population, they had a great time playing at the foot of a number of beautiful waterfalls.

Eventually they came to the intended trail but they were going in an unintended direction. As they descended back towards civilization they came across some crime scene tape and posted to a tree on the downhill side of the trail was a sign reading:

There is fresh bear sign
all along this trail. Be aware
of your surroundings and make
noise, talking etc. if you choose to hike.

All in all it was a great holiday weekend. We fished some incredible waters, we ate some great meals, we enjoyed each others company; we survived the harassment of our hosts and we managed to avoid the tornados and the bears. Will we go back? Not to the place that I promised not to mention, but to the area? Absolutely.

Monday, May 23, 2011


The cars began rolling in around four o’clock on Saturday afternoon in plenty of time to settle into the motel and meet up at River’s Edge Outfitters in Cherokee NC for the promised pizza dinner. We had a car from Charlotte, two from relatively local, a car from Raleigh and a couple of guys who had traveled seven hours form Wilmington. The pizza was good but that wasn’t the reason for the drive.
Salem & wife, Andrew, Jamie & daughter Hailey, Joe, Lee, Rob & Gabe

They came for the trout. Seven disabled veterans and participants in Project Healing Waters had devoted their weekend to a pastime that though relatively new to most of them, had changed their lives. There were recovering soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan seated with a few older guys from Viet Nam, and to listen to them share stories and experiences was to hear a condensed history of America’s armed combat for the past forty years. One of their number snuck away for an hour on the stream, but the remainder were content to swap a few stories and lay plans for tomorrow mornings adventure on the Raven’s Fork trophy waters.
The river on Sunday was in perfect condition and as hoped, the Raven’s Fork gave up a few of its prettier inhabitants – if just for a little while, as all were returned safely to Cherokee Reservation’s cold water.
Gabe on the Raven's Fork
Our favorite guide Hank and Jamie behind him

In conjunction with our outing with the veterans, the Cherokee Nation was also hosting the U.S. National Fly Fishing competition on the same waters, so our space on the stream was a bit limited. Although not required to, being the kindly and generous folks that we are, we gladly gave them all the room they needed. Maybe we shouldn’t have.

We returned to River’s Edge Outfitters in time to be seated and ready for the special advanced fly fishing seminar that the competitors from the U.S. Fly Fishing team had promised to conduct for us. We had seen these guys on the stream earlier in the day and had heard a few stories of their skill and exploits. They were to meet up with us at 1:00pm and from what we had seen and heard, these guys would have a tip or two that maybe with practice we could put to good use. Twenty foot leaders and kneepads; catching fish in a foot of water where the average mortal couldn’t even see them; crawling through the water like sappers sneaking through concertina wire…their catch rate was about one every two minutes.

We waited and waited. We waited some more. And they never showed. Finally, two and a half hours later we gave up and went fishing. Our guys headed back to the competition waters and managed to catch a few more – and I imagine that they might not have been as polite as they had been earlier in the day had they been asked to give way to a competitor. Oh well, I guess those guys aren’t as immortal as we thought.

Monday made up for the disappointment of Sunday – in spades. We were assigned to a special section of the Oconoluftee River and all of our vets had a great time catching fish after fish. With the assistance of two great guides provided by the fine folks at River’s Edge we had a ball. Maybe we didn’t match the catch rate of the pros, but the so-called experts could have learned a thing or two from us on that day. The camaraderie and laughter – the good natured ribbing and the obvious appreciation that each of our vets had for their surroundings and their circumstances would have been a good example for them to follow. Not to mention...manners.
Hank and Jamie
Hailey playing a 20 inch rainbow (PHW is about families too!)
Hailey and her talented ghillies, Lee and Hank
Your humble correspondent

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Prior to the first of January I had many interests. First there was my job at the time – executive search - followed closely by my illustrations, and in a close tie for second, my blog. Since being fortunate enough to join the national staff of Trout Unlimited…these have changed.

I have been totally consumed by my new role as Veterans Service Program Coordinator and while I aint complaining one bit, my involvement in the work of engaging our nation’s veterans in fly fishing has overtaken just about everything else. To have a hand in bringing rehabilitation and healing to our country’s heroes is the most satisfying thing that I have ever been involved in.

That said, a guy has to play now and then. Last week Ryan and I took three of our vets on a trip to one of our favorite spots - the upper reaches of the French Broad River. Our buddy Kevin Howell, the owner of Davidson Rover Outfitters, and a guy that thankfully can’t seem to say “no” to our veterans, gave us a day on one of his premier private waters.

Ryan and I, along with Jamie, Bart, Nancy and Joanie spent a glorious day fishing for the inhabitants of this little stream…and here are some shots of the day. Not only did it break the rhythm of my daily tasks, but it reminded me of why I’m doing what I do.

The weather was perfect and the fishing was great even though nothing over 8 inches made it to the nets. Everyone caught a few and except for a pretty little brown that I managed to fool, all were wild rainbows.
Jamie, Ryan, Joanie, Nancy and Bart
Nancy and Coach Ryan
Ryan and Bart
Wild brownie showing off that chic European look