Photo courtesy of Jim Casada Collection
A group of Swain County hunters and their bear dogs (a mixture of Plott Hounds and Walkers) pose before a remote cabin prior to an outing. Identifiable members of the party include: front row fourth from left, Jonah Seay; front row third from right, Sam Hunicutt; and front row sixth from left Mark Cathey.
Sport has always been a bright thread woven into the fabric of the mountain folkways. Long before creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the area’s steep ridges and deep hollows were cherished bear hunting territory.
Small game, most notably squirrels, grouse, and wild turkeys, was also plentiful and avidly pursued, especially in those halcyon days before the demise of that mighty monarch of mountain forests, the American chestnut.
Similarly, streams coursing through the Smokies — like so many laughter lines on an old man’s face — were prime destinations for trout fishermen and, in their lower reaches, they provided angling variety in the form of smallmouth and redeye bass.
Hunting and fishing held pride of place among all masculine recreational pursuits for Smokies folk in pre-Park days, but their importance extended well beyond providing an ample measure of simple pleasure and release from the grinding work and considerable hardship associated with a hardscrabble way of life. Game and fish meant sustenance, and many a mountain table was regularly graced by nature’s rich, tasty bounty.
Sport and tales connected with its pursuit form an integral, important part of mountain folklore. To walk in the footsteps of mighty Nimrods such as the “Squire of Hazel Creek” Granville Calhoun; “Turkey George” Palmer of Cataloochee; the “Roamin’ Man” of Gatlinburg Wiley Oakley; or the bear-hunter for the ages who was “Black Bill” Walker is to tread trails of wonder. Similarly, to wade in the footsteps of “Uncle Mark” Cathey, a wizard with the slender rod whose fly-fishing exploits have long since become legend, is to know a tantalizing and tangible link to the past.
For outdoorsmen, the Smokies have always exuded magic. “Black Bill” Walker expressed it in simple yet eloquent fashion almost a century ago when he said: “I always was somewhat of a fool about the woods. I live in them … because I love them.”
One of the giants of modern angling literature, Harry Middleton, found the Park’s streams enchanting, and in his intriguing and intensely personal book, On the Spine of Time, he gave posterity a moving and deeply meaningful impression of mountain people and places as seen through the crystal lens of trout fishing. You will have to read the book to savor its allure to the fullest, but I love the suggestion Harry, who was a cherished friend, offers to prospective visiting anglers. “There are hundreds of miles of excellent trout streams in these mountains. The best advice I can give is this: come. Park your car. Listen for the sound of fast water, trout water, and start walking.”
The advice is sound, and the farther one ventures from avenues of asphalt or gravel-laden byways, the better. In that regard, one of the grand by-products of the Park’s creation, at least from an angler’s perspective, is that it fulfilled the expressed dream of one of its key progenitors, Horace Kephart. “Kep” came to the Smokies in search of what he described as a place which was “back of beyond.” The coming of the Park, ably aided by the passage of time and nature’s healing hands, made his dream a reality. Today anyone willing to rely on shank’s mare while carrying the essential components of a temporary home in their backpack can seek the soothing solace of solitude afforded by bright waters in the backcountry.
Paradoxically, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws the most visitors of any of America’s parks, yet it is easily possible to fish streams where each new pool presents a view of cobwebs spanning the verdant canopy overarching the creek. That’s a tell-tale sign that it has been days, perhaps weeks, since the last fisherman passed this way. If you doubt this, venture deep into the rugged, inaccessible gorge of Raven Fork or, with much less exertion, explore any of the hundreds of small feeder streams emptying into the Park’s major creeks and rivers.
In the latter regard, one indefatigable angler, Bobby Kilby, has made something of a life’s work of exploring little-fished waters in the mountains, and those in the Smokies have been an important part of his quest. As of this writing he has caught trout in scores of Park streams, and perusal of his meticulously maintained record of places he has caught trout is rife with listings such as Sweat Heifer, Steeltrap, Ledge, Bible, and Tub Mill creeks; Rough, Rocky, Roaring, Straight, and Sugar forks; Peruvian, Juneywhank, Advalorem, and Bearwallow branches. Forget fishing for a moment — the place names alone are irresistible.
That’s part of the appeal, as are the natural beauty, diversity of flora and fauna, impressive geology of the landscape. Everywhere, once one leaves the trail and takes to the stream, an abiding sense of serenity reigns supreme. Yet these considerations are just lace on the bride’s pajamas; merely a tempting lagniappe for the angler. What makes things whole and gives matters substance, at least from the fisherman’s perspective, is the fact that these creeks are laden with wild trout and remain, as has always been the case, a signal feature of the Smokies.
Elizabeth Skaggs Bowman was among the first to make that point. Writing in an early book on the Park graced by a felicitous title, Land of High Horizons: An Intimate Interpretation of the Great Smokies, she couched matters in simple, straightforward fashion: “Good fishing makes friends for a national park.”
Blessed by the great good fortune of growing up in the small town of Bryson City and living within walking distance of the Park, I lost a corner of my soul to streams of the Smokies at an early age. Deep Creek and one of its major feeders, Indian Creek, became my home waters in the late 1950s, and so they have remained over the passage of all the ensuing decades.
With slight variations in time or place, my life’s angling story is that of countless sons and, increasingly in the last couple of decades, daughters of the Smokies. Maybe opening a window on the life of one such individual will convey something of the manner in which the Park soothes and satisfies the most troubled of souls or eases the burden a fast-paced world places on our shoulders.
The late Frank Young was perhaps as skilled and savvy a fisherman as any who ever wet a line in mountain waters. After undergoing what I always suspected were terribly traumatic experiences in the Korean War, although he never talked about his role in that largely forgotten conflict, Young returned to his beloved mountains and devoted a substantial portion of his remaining years to fishing. For decades he roamed trails of the Smokies and waded Park streams an average of 250 days a year. In the warmer months he would hasten from work to nearby creeks and steal precious hours in the gloaming, while weekends and vacations found him somewhere deep in the Park, camping alone and fishing from dawn to dusk.
Whenever Young enjoyed some meaningful experience, maybe watching a doe and its fawn sipping daintily at streamside, observing a mother mink ferrying kits across a creek, or catching a memorable trout, there was a ritual associated with it. He would look at the streambed around him and select a small rock or two which had special visual appeal. These would go into his wicker creel and, at trip’s end, would accompany him home. There Young had shaped a wooden frame the size of a cinder block, and it became the receptacle for his stones. When the frame was full he would carefully arrange the stones, make sure some of the most attractive ones stuck out above the top, and fill in the spaces with concrete. In this fashion, stone by stone, block by block, he created the raw materials from which he built a home—a home in which he and his wife were surrounded by marvelous memories of magic moments astream.
While the depth of Young’s link with the Smokies far transcends that of most — if not all — who have fished in the Park, and while the originality of his approach to memory making was unique, the essence of his experience awaits us all. The Park belongs to the nation, and those who know its waters well are convinced it offers the finest fishing for wild trout to be found anywhere east of the Rockies. Readily accessible streams, such as those paralleling Highway 441 get heavy pressure. But for every stream mile readily accessible from a road or after a short hike, there are scores of miles well away from the hurly-burly of highways and hordes of humanity.
That’s an element of the Park with enduring appeal. The runs, rivulets, and deep pools of its creeks probe and poke into the remote recesses of the angler’s mind and imagination. Or, as Harry Middleton expressed matters so eloquently in writing of the Smokies: “Some streams ease me, soothe me; some delight me; and others challenge me. All of them haunt me.”
Yet this particular kind of haunting is one of happiness, and I find it wonderfully heartening to realize that from the beginning Park waters have provided anglers with beauty and bounty. Shortly after attending dedication ceremonies for the Park at Newfound Gap, Eleanor Roosevelt reflected on the experience and the impact of the Smokies. “Mountains have a beauty and a calm which should have a soothing effect on the most worried of little human souls.” She did not write with the fisherman in mind, but nowhere can you find greater beauty or more balm for the soul than when astream waving a magic wand and casting a whistling line. The Park’s fishing history is a grand legacy, one richly worthy of protecting and perpetuating. I for one fervently hope that tight lines and fine times will be as much a part of the Smokies experience in the future as they have been in the past.
Footnote: “Shank’s mare” and a kindred phrase, “to ride shank’s mare,” are both mountain talk meaning to go someplace on foot. Originally a Scottish term, “shank’s mare” translates literally as “leg’s horse,” which is none other than the foot.
Some notable mountain sportsmen
Often known, especially in his later years, as the “Squire of Hazel Creek,” Granville Calhoun was a businessman, entrepreneur, and civic leader in the bustling Hazel Creek community during the prime of his manhood. Bear hunting was one of his favorite recreations, and Horace Kephart garnered much of the material he used in describing the mountaineer love for sport from Calhoun. After the Park’s creation, the “Squire” moved to Bryson City, opened the popular Calhoun House (still in operation today), and held court from a rocking chair throne on its porch right up until his death at the age of 103.
Aquilla “Quill” Rose
Immortalized by Horace Kephart in Our Southern Highlanders and in a 1906 story in Field and Stream magazine, Quill Rose stands as something of a legend among mountain moonshiners. A lanky, hickory-tough son of the Smokies soil, Rose and his part-Cherokee wife — known to one and all as Aunt Vice — lived far up Eagle Creek in Swain County. An indefatigable hunter, a hard drinker, fine fiddle player, and masterful storyteller, Rose stood well over six feet tall, weighed 250 pounds, had striking blue eyes “with the quality of flashing steel,” had once killed a man, and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War single-handedly made a party of 15 armed renegades who had come to arrest him back down and leave his property.
Turkey George Palmer
This pioneering settler of Cataloochee Valley got his nickname from his youthful exploits in trapping wild turkeys, but he was, if anything, an even more accomplished bear hunter. He accounted for upwards of a hundred bears in his lifetime (some sources say 105, others 106), a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that he did not hunt them with dogs, the standard approach of most sportsmen then and now. Quick-witted and sharp tongued, he once remarked to a friend suffering from a hangover: “Your eyes are as red as a fox’s ass in pokeberry season.”
Born in Atlanta, Tom Alexander first visited the Smokies as a youngster and the region immediately became the home of his heart. He began operating a primitive fishing camp in the heart of the mountains in the 1920s, calling it Cataloochee Ranch. With the coming of the Park he moved the operation to Fie Top Mountain, where it became and remains a storied resort. Alexander’s life story and the saga of Cataloochee Ranch are covered in detail in a book he wrote late in life, Mountain Fever.
A genial and gregarious individual who was a one-man promotional machine for the town of Gatlinburg, Wiley Oakley spent much of his life hunting and fishing in the Smokies and sharing the region’s wonder with others as a guide. A great teller of tales, he aptly styled himself the “Roamin’ Man” of the Smokies and wrote books, including Roamin’ with the Roamin’ Man of the Smoky Mountains and Roamin’ & Restin’ with the Roamin’ Man of the Smoky Mountains, in which he shared some of his favorite stories.
Uncle Mark Cathey
Mark Cathey was born in Swain County and spent most of his life on Indian Creek, a major feeder of lower Deep Creek. A genuine character in the finest mountain sense, he was so colorful that noted actor Tom Mix once tried to convince him to go to Hollywood. However, Uncle Mark, a lifelong bachelor, wanted no part of leaving the hunting and fishing of the storied mountains he called home. He is today best remembered for his incredible skill in catching trout using his “dance of the dry fly,” and the epitaph on his tombstone, which lies within casting distance of the boulder marking Horace Kephart’s grave, and has matchless appeal:
“Beloved hunter and fisherman,
Was himself caught by the
Gospel hook just before the
season closed for good.”
Jim Casada, who has written, edited, or contributed to more than 40 books, is a full-time freelance writer who has written extensively on the Smokies. His latest book, which he describes as one “written from the heart and a marvelously misspent life spent on streams of the Smokies,” will be published this fall. For details or to be notified when the work, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion, appears, visit his web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.