It was a Wednesday — deadline day, and I’d been working on a long, complicated news story for the past month. My editor expected 3,500 carefully chosen words arranged in a logical sequence on her desk by noon. Exhausted and burned out, I stared at my computer monitor; the clock in the lower right-hand corner said 11:35. But the message in the center of the screen was what really threw me for a loop: With cold, technological precision it read, “word count: 8,405.” And this was after I’d already trimmed the fat.
As a responsible journalist, I could think of only one viable course of action: Go fishing. Simply e-mail the opus (with some lame explanation about the integrity of the story) and hightail it out of town — repercussions be damned. At worst, a little time on a river far from the sterile confines of my urban environment would clear my head, let me decompress and give me fresh perspective. At best, I’d be miles from my editor’s office — beyond throwing and yelling range.
After all, if these mountains could hide Eric Rudolph for two years in the midst of the biggest manhunt in recent memory, surely they could harbor a wayward writer on the lam for a day.
But I would need help. See, I’m the greenhorn the other greenhorns call “rookie.” When forest rangers issue warnings about the perils of solo wilderness treks, I’m the guy they’re thinking of. On top of that, my fishing skills are about on a par with a Bedouin’s. So to maximize this day (and I might as well, since I’m risking my job with this quest for inner clarity), I would need the assistance of an expert — someone reared in the shadows of these peaks, someone who could catch fish where others dare not tread.
In short, I would need Cassandra Styles.
Walkin’ the walk
Styles owns the Main Street Outpost, nestled in the heart of the quaint hamlet of Burnsville, in Yancey County. The store stocks gear for just about every sort of outdoor adventure, from hiking to kayaking to fly-fishing. Equipment and apparel line the shelves of the tiny space, but the most valuable commodity on hand is knowledge. Styles offers guided fly-fishing trips and educational hikes for those unfamiliar with the terrain or those who, like myself, are seeking expert assistance. Since opening the store a little more than a year ago, Styles has carved out a fine reputation as a reliable, friendly guide. But it hasn’t been easy: She’s not your typical fly-fishing guide. First of all, in a field dominated by older men, she’s a she.
“When I first opened the store, men would call or stop in and ask to speak with the man who handled the fishing,” she notes with a mischievous grin. “But after a while, I put up some of my fishing photos and started talkin’ the talk and walkin’ the walk, and they started to come around. Even some of my suppliers still call and ask to speak with the owner, though.”
Then there’s her appearance. At the ripe old age of 25, Styles is definitely a guide in a class all her own. On the day we meet, she greets me at the entrance to her store sporting a cutoff camouflage T-shirt and a prominent navel piercing. “I’m probably the only fishing guide in Western North Carolina with a belly-button ring,” she allows.
“Safe assumption,” I reply.
As we drive the winding roads out of Burnsville and into the wilderness beyond, we chat about fishing and life in the mountains while the asphalt below us turns to gravel and then, eventually, dirt. We stop near a rhododendron thicket, and as I step from the truck, I hear the low rumble of a stream nearby.
“We’re going to be fishing a section of the Toe River, but we’re going to have to hike in a ways. I don’t want to run into anyone else and I really want to go after some native trout, so we’ll need to go upstream a bit to get away from the sections of the river stocked by the Fisheries Department,” notes Styles as we gather our gear, which takes about as long as it takes her to say those words.
I’m dumbfounded as she hands me a pair of felt-soled boots, an 8-foot, five-weight fly rod — and nothing else. “Where is all the cool fly-fishing stuff? The neoprene chest waders and those cool multipocketed fishing vests in the L.L. Bean catalogs that cram my mailbox every third day?” I wonder. Seeing me scanning the truck bed for the elusive gear, Styles reassures me, “We don’t need all that stuff; we’re gonna be wet-wading. I like to keep it simple. This is old-style Appalachian fly-fishing …
“Oh, and by the way, watch your step on the trail — this is bear and rattlesnake country,” she adds as she grabs her fly rod and a fanny pack with some extra flies and tippets.
As we hike upstream, she swears me to secrecy regarding our destination, secret fishing holes being the bread and butter of any guide. This time, I reassure her: “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I know exactly where we are right now — we’re out in the woods.”
Our conversation turns to the virtues of native trout vs. stocked trout, the former being generally smaller but more elusive, the latter being larger and somewhat easier to catch due to their having been hand-fed as fingerlings. The talk jogs a long-lost memory from my childhood, of one of my first fishing excursions with my father. It was at a shopping mall in Florida, when I was no more than 5 or 6. The mall had a large fountain in the atrium, and some huckster had stocked it with trout and was renting poles baited with corn to shoppers seeking a little adventure in between stops at Sears and the Orange Julius. I remember putting the hook with the corn nugget in the water, and within five seconds, a famished trout gobbled it down. I felt ashamed.
As I walk up the trail, listening to Cass expound on the virtues of native trout, I chuckle to myself, wondering, If stocked trout like corn, do native trout like maize?
Over the rainbow
We arrive at our destination and scramble down the slope to the river. Cass puts down a cooler she’s carried in and proceeds to break out a gourmet lunch, a service she provides to all her clients. As we eat, she gives me the lowdown on a few fly-fishing basics. We jump to the stream, a narrow bed of swiftly moving water laced with moss-covered boulders, and practice what she’s preached. After I grow more confident, we creep silently upstream, casting dry caddis flies into the pools and eddies, the riffles and wash of the tumbling waters. Stealth is of the essence, and as we crouch low, Cass whispers instructions.
Within 30 minutes, Cass has a fish on her line — one she has, in fact, assured me would be waiting under a rock near the base of a fall. A flash of color breaks the surface and soon, she has a native rainbow trout tugging at the end of her line. A few minutes later, I find its cohort lingering in a pool upstream. Feeling a thump on my line, I raise the rod tip to high noon and land my own specimen of the most aptly named fish in nature.
We spend the rest of the afternoon bounding from boulder to bank, the cold mountain stream rushing over our legs. Looking down at the flowing water, I am taken aback by the absence of color: It’s crystal clear. And, for the first time in weeks, so is my mind.
[If you’re interested in a guided trip, outdoor gear, or just want to stop in for a Coke and a chat, you can visit Cassandra at Main Street Outpost, 120 West Main St., Burnsville; or call (828) 682-1206.]