Solitude is as solitude does

Salmo
Salmo Suburbus: art by Kent Priestley

Right after I got married, my wife and I moved to China for a year-and-a-half. There we ate dozens of different kinds of noodles, got food poisoning twice, traveled thousands of miles by train and saw the Gobi Desert, but I didn’t get to go fishing once. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to remember a single time my feet left concrete.

Due to the breakneck pace of China’s economic development and the cultural ravages of the Mao-era Communist government, there isn’t a whole lot of green space in China’s cities. Most of the ones I visited were just vast, gray expanses of box-shaped buildings, sprawling slums and massive superhighways. For most urban Chinese, in fact, greenery is so hard to come by that the few tree-huggers out of the 10 million or so inhabitants of Guangzhou, the country’s third-largest city, are forced to seek repose on highway medians — the only places for miles around with any grass, trees or bushes.

“OK, fine,” you say. “Interesting enough. But what does all this have to do with fly fishing in the Smoky Mountains? After all, Mountain Xpress is paying you by the word for this column, and you haven’t given one helpful tip on how or where to catch big fish.”

The only reason I’m bringing this up is that lately I’ve started to feel a little bit like those intrepid Cantonese city-dwellers who would dodge 10 lanes of high-speed traffic to relax with a book on a 5-by-20-foot patch of grass while thousands of cars sped by on both sides.

Western North Carolina is hardly lacking in trees or green space in general and good trout streams in particular, but the recent price of gas and a 35-minute, one-way commute to work in Waynesville have made me leery of lengthy drives even for a good day of fishing.

After all, when Norman Maclean talks about driving to the Big Blackfoot with his brother in A River Runs Through It, he tells these great, romantic stories about crossing the Continental Divide. There’s tragedy with his brother’s drinking and gambling, comedy with his pathetic brother-in-law and the whore he tries to bring along for the ride, and beauty in the rich, lyrical descriptions of the river’s raw, untamed beauty and the desolate gravel road they take to get there.

There’s no talk of 70 minutes behind a smog-spewing tractor-trailer or a $50 bill on the gas-station counter. Where’s the splendid solitude in that?

So these days, I’ve been taking a cue from those Chinese median-dwellers and seeking my outdoors time a little closer to home. OK, a lot closer.

This actually began about three years ago. The first time I visited north Asheville’s Beaver Lake (then a mere three minutes from my apartment), I took my wife along, supposedly so I could teach her how to cast. The fact that she spent the afternoon reading while I caught 75 bluegill did nothing to lessen the pleasure of the outing.

Soon I found myself traveling to Beaver Lake with no better excuse than the fact that I could be there in less time than it took me to change clothes for work. Sure, I had to watch my back-cast for joggers and octogenarian dog-walkers. And yes, it was hard to experience the Zen of pristine solitude when I was on a murky pond with Range Rovers rumbling by in the background. But it was close to home, by God; the pickings were ridiculously easy; and as long as I paid my five dollars, the man with the mustache and mullet didn’t bother me.

I don’t remember exactly when I started spending more time at Beaver Lake than on those pristine streams that are supposed to be a fly-fisherman’s reason for being.

My next guilty pleasure is Jonathan Creek in Maggie Valley. While it isn’t exactly close to home, “J Creek,” as the locals call it, is only about 10 minutes from my office in downtown Waynesville. And if you’re thinking that the fact that this is a moving river, rather than a stagnant lake, puts it a little more in line with fly-fishing romance, you’re wrong. Dead wrong.

A notable fly-fishing writer who fished it while he was in Maggie Valley on the weekends introduced me to J Creek. This writer, whose name I won’t mention, made me skeptical of what kind of “experts” fly-fishing magazines recruit for their columns by the fact that he claimed to have caught 80 trout out of J Creek in two hours, “all of them wild.”

To the uninitiated, “wild” refers to fish that are not artificially stocked in a river and aren’t descendants of stocked fish. You can tell the difference by the length of their dorsal fins (a wild fish’s is longer) and the fact that stocked fish tend to be less vibrantly colored and often have ugly splotches around their throats. Wild fish are superior to stockers in every way, and the hunt for them has become something of a grail quest for Eastern fly-fishermen.

While there are some wild fish in J Creek, some of them surprisingly large, my fly-fishing expert would be surprised to know that most are stocked rainbows, browns and brooks that will bite a piece of cork if it has a hook in it. They basically cram the waters of a tiny creek that runs along the biggest, tackiest road in Haywood County, threading through dozens of back yards, a golf course, a fairground and an elementary school before widening out and leaving Maggie Valley.

If you’re looking for solitude, spiritual communion or highly technical encounters with small, selective fish, Jonathan Creek probably isn’t your spot, my fly-fishing celebrity acquaintance’s braggadocio notwithstanding. While fishing it, it’s not uncommon to find yourself startling a family at dinner as you walk past, five feet from their kitchen window. But for something 10 minutes from the office, the lively little stockers you catch there can’t be beat.

For J Creek and other little streams like it, I recommend a No. 14 Hare’s Ear hung below a big, ugly strike indicator or a bushy dry fly, depending on your preference. For Beaver Lake, just bring some big, fat dries. They don’t need to be particularly artful or well-tied.

And for any fishing trip motivated more by convenience than the loftier goals usually associated with the quiet sport, I recommend that you discard any preconceived notions about what fly-fishing should be and just enjoy the fact that you live in a place where you can catch fish within spitting distance of where you live and work.

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