Size matters

blueline (n): a mountain stream or brook inhabited solely by wild (see “native”) trout.

It was a stream I’d driven past dozens of times. But it was only after a fruitless day spent fishing a larger river that I really noticed it.

The clear brook, which amounted to barely a trickle, ran alongside a winding mountain road for a quarter-mile or so before bending back into the hills. It was so small and shallow that you could walk through portions of it without the water coming over your boots, and in most places you could straddle it without much of a stretch. And yet, as I discovered, there’s gold in these little mountain bluelines.

But let’s back up. The first question fly fishermen need to ask themselves before trekking up to any small Smoky Mountain stream is a simple one: Are you a quantity person or a quality person? Quantity, in this case, refers to size (which, if you’re heading to a typical Smoky Mountain blueline, is bound to be small).

Quality, on the other hand, refers to a fish’s physical beauty and pound-for-pound (or perhaps gram-for-gram) leaping ability. The wild brook trout that live in these hidden streams aren’t as dumb, or as weak, as they look. Sure, a 6-inch fish looks tiny when you net it, but if that fish happens to be 6 inches of wild “speck” and you’re fishing with a 2-weight rod (highly recommended) in a hole the size of a kiddie pool, it feels a lot bigger.

The point is this: While 99 percent of fishing stories are filled with boasts of how big a fisherman’s catch was, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the finesse game of chasing small fish.

On this particular day, I pulled into a gravel turnoff at around 7 p.m. It was midsummer, and the air was thick with insects. I strapped on a pair of sandals, grabbed my lightest rod (a 6-and-a-half-foot Orvis 2-weight—a “toy,” in the words of the man who sold it to me) and a box of dry flies, and scrambled down the bank to the tiny stream.

Following the water to a spot a few hundred yards from the road, I began by tying on a size 22 Adams (roughly the size of the head of a pin) onto an 8X tippet (roughly the diameter of a human hair) and dangled the line—no room for a cast—into a rock pool the size of a bathtub. A little twitch and I had my first catch: a 4-inch, wild brook trout. Beautiful.

Southern Appalachian brook trout are a unique genetic strain. They don’t grow nearly as big as the brookies of Maine or the Rocky Mountains, but their colors—blue, violet, blazing orange and golden—are unmatched. Through conservation efforts like Trout Unlimited’s “Back the Brookie” initiative, they have begun to make a rebound in the region. Last year, many streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were opened to brook-trout fishing for the first time in years.

And while you’re legally allowed to keep a small limit on some streams, I would never dream of doing anything with a wild brookie except releasing it back into the water with all the care due a fish so beautiful. They’re too small for a meal and too pretty to harm.

That evening, as dusk fell, the water literally boiled with tiny “specks” slashing the surface as they went after rising mayflies, caddis and stoneflies. I went through a dozen different dry flies, and all of them brought multiple hits.

Close to dusk, I finally hit the jackpot. I pulled in a three-quarter-inch brook trout on a size 10 stonefly imitation. Basically, I caught a fish half the size of my pinkie on a fly the size of my thumb. If that tells you anything, it gives an idea of the spirit of these fish.

When you fish for brook trout, bring the smallest gear you can find. Make a quiet approach and forget about your back cast. Most Smoky Mountain bluelines won’t give you room to take out more than 10 to 15 feet of line.

And finally, make sure the camera you’ve brought has a good zoom on it.

[Sam Wardle lives in Asheville.]

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