Sound of silence
Snow fell the night before in Jackson County, North Carolina, and was supposed to continue all day, but in Cullowhee, midday temperatures rose, melting white powder into muddy puddles and leaving nothing more than sparse patches in the coolest shadows.
The snow had turned to rain, and the plowed piles along the roadsides had been compressed into dense, smoke-gray slush. I climbed into my truck, rubbed my hands together to thaw my fingers, cranked the ignition, and shivered while the cold engine warmed.
Waiting for the truck to heat, I stared at the raindrops accumulating on the side window. At first glance, I noticed the colors trapped in each globule, the darkened tops jagged down into gray. Staring deep into a single bead, I realized that inside was a reverse image of the world, the mountains rotated onto peaks stabbing into the slate sky. I widened my focus, looking at all of the droplets at once, each with its own slanted take on reality. As drops rolled down the pane in wavering lines, the beads converged, widened the lens, and enlarged the screen. When the weight of water became too great to hold firm, the image rolled away, nothing staid, everything constantly changing. But within the chaos, I knew where to find sanctuary. With no reason to stay any longer, I put the truck in reverse, turned onto Highway 107, my tires hissing on the slick asphalt, and headed toward the creek.
Driving in silence, I hoped the snow was still falling on the highlands, and fresh powder blanketed the naked peaks, brightened the dead browns of winter, and hung on tree limbs like layers of thick, white lichens. Having spent Christmas in Charlotte, I yearned for the stillness of the mountains. Although I knew the fishing would be difficult, time on the water is always time well spent. I could leave the hectic world behind, encircled by stands of bark, rasping leaves, and walls of clouds. I could sink into a single place and time, not move, and become centered—a man fixed in the wild.
As the truck climbed in altitude, the precipitation slowly evolved: first rain, then rain and sleet, then sleet, then sleet and snow, and finally just snow. The flakes came down heavy, my truck pushed fast through the slush, and the barrage of snow pummeled around the Chevy. The snow never actually touched metal, but zoomed past in white lines like stars when the Millennium Falcon hit light speed. I could hardly focus on the hazy outline of the road. The yellow lines were barely visible through the thin layer of water and snow, but I leaned forward, chin hovering over the steering column, nose close to the windshield, and drove on.
Caney Fork Creek ran beside the road now, the dark current running black like spilt molasses, one thick line always moving onward. Rocks that broke the surface were shelled in white humps. The world was a pen and ink drawing, all whites, blacks, and grays, no contrast, monochromatic, just a blend of lights and darks: shadowy gray clouds, black creek, white snow, crosshatched bark of bare trees. No distractions. I was able to focus on everything as a whole, see the world for what it was, and sink into its clutch.
The plank board sign—engraved Ruff Butt—was almost buried as I made the turn onto the gravel driveway and slowly eased toward the creek. Smoke bellowed from the tin chimney on the house next to the stream. I parked beside a line of rocks supporting wooden posts worn gray. Barbed wire fence dangled between the posts, and the iced-over barbs looked like glass jacks strung along the rusted wire. The horse pasture was empty, but a mixed-breed mountain dog scurried across the blanket of snow. Only yellow field grass sprigged up from the white. As the dog came toward the truck, his scampering feet punctured the stillness.
I cut the ignition and opened the door, the heat of the cab escaping as my skin was finally exposed to the cold mountain air. The temperature was a good 10 degrees cooler here in the highlands. If one word could describe the air, it’s penetrating—penetrating my layers of clothing, penetrating my skin and digging further into my bones, rattling my skeleton, and waking me to winter’s harsh reality. It felt good, nothing like an uncontrollable shiver to let me know that I’m alive.
The short-legged mutt stood at my open door, his body shaking, mouth panting, tail wagging. His movement seemed to speed his heart and warm his muscles. I knelt down, stroked the spaniel-spotted coat, patted hard on the large, black spot wrapping around his back, and stared into his eyes, one blue and one brown. I tried to assure him that winter is only a few months. Warmer days are on the way, denying the notion that this animal was better suited for the weather than I was.
I gathered my gear, slid on my waders, tightened the laces on my boots, and headed for the creek. The grinning mutt stayed by my side until my first step into the water. Then the dog looked one last time, mouth closed tight, ears alert, as if to say “You’re on your own.” The dog took off through the tangled underbrush and merged into a world of grays.
I was alone now, exactly where I wanted to be, by myself with nothing around but the wild. Piney Mountain Creek meandered through the valley like a blacksnake, the surface dark but still glinting with movement. White and eastern red cedars bowed toward the earth, the branches heavy with snowfall. The trunks creaked with friction, shrilling noises like rusty springs being compressed, ready to snap at any moment. But the sounds were somehow euphonic.
The icy water, which would’ve frozen if stagnant, pierced through my thin waders, sweat pants, and long johns. The bitter cold was a reminder of my warm-blooded nature, the same reason bears slow their heart rate during hibernation to make every beat count. I wasn’t that well adapted, but the difference was that I chose to be there. I wanted the cold over the controlled warmth of an apartment, and I was glad to do it. The long awaited silence would soon calm my savage soul.
Kneeling in the shallow shoal of the creek, I strung my fly rod and searched through my fly boxes for nymphs. The only forage for wintertime brook trout is a smorgasbord of tiny midges, larvae the size of arm hairs dancing in the frigid water. During the cold months, the insect life of a stream dwindles, leaving little more than chironomids (mosquito larvae) moving through the current. Yet, thousands of the larvae can cloud a creek even during the coldest stretches of winter, and the trout wait, hone in, and snack.
I found a couple of flies hidden in the back of my nymph box: a Zebra Midge and a Biot Midge. The #24 Zebra Midge—consisting of black thread, silver ribbing, a turn of peacock herl, a silver beadhead, and antron gills—was an elaborate representation, a microscopic work of art. The #26 Biot Midge, on the other hand, was simple: a dyed, yellow goose biot wrapped up the hook and a tiny gold bead the size of a pinhead. Tiny hairs that had lined the outside edges of the biot, stuck out from the segmented body of the fly, a perfect match to the naturals, but picking the flies was the easy part. Now I had to run tippet through the tiny hook eyes, with dim light and shivering hands, frozen red as tomatoes.
My stiffened fingers shook as I tried to run tippet through the eye of the Zebra Midge, but I finally got the flies on the line, attached a green strike indicator of blended poly-yarn four feet up the leader, and turned back to the water. A spot of color caught my peripheral. I turned and saw a plump robin holding in the nook of a dogwood, the bird’s plumage fluffed out like a goose down jacket. One of the few birds with no reason to migrate, the robin was the only other sign of life. Unlike the spring, chaotic with stampering footsteps, calling finches, and clicking gray squirrels, in the winter woods all was quiet.
I was sure that the trout were still there, that they finned slowly along the bottom of deep pools, that they congregated and shared the warmest sections of the creek. Now all I had to do was hike, find the fish, and offer my flies. There weren’t any deep holes for a while, so I walked up the frigid creek, deeper into the haze of hardwoods. Sheets of ice encased stones resting in the frigid current. Jagged icicles hung along the edge of small waterfalls like glass teeth jutting toward the water, tiny air bubbles trapped inside each formation.
I walked along the streamside, each step crunching the snow beneath my boots, my footprints beginning to fill back in as soon I took the next step. In an hour or two my footprints would fully disappear, fill back in with fresh powder, the only signs that I’d been there vanishing, as if I had never existed at all. I was a ghost wandering through the valley, all signs of my presence dissipating instantly, the world returning to stillness.
About a mile upstream, I found the first pool with enough size and depth to hold winter trout. A wide hole bellied out beneath a five-foot plunge and rushing water created a hollow hum against the rock wall behind the falls. Whitewater erupted as the current re-entered the stream, foaming bubbles clouding the head of the hole. Swords of ice hung down like stalactites along both sides of the waterfall. The water slowed as it pushed through the hole. The dark, sluggish current poured like wildflower honey wrapping around rocks. The tail of the hole sped up again as the exiting water rose around a freestone shallow.
I stepped through a thin layer of ice along the left bank—the ice crackling beneath the felt soles of my wading boots—and pulled the Biot Midge from the hook keeper of the two-weight rod. I figured the fish would be holding beneath the outside edge of foam, the place where the bubbles burst and joined the slick of water. The trout lay in the deepest section of the hole, along the oxygen-rich bottom of the pool. I lowered the flies into the water and soaked the midges, the added weight of saturation making them sink faster and get to the fish sooner.
The first false cast was a wide, sloppy loop as I adjusted to the resistance of the strike indicator disrupting the tightness of my stroke. The added weight on the leader made it hard to take advantage of the taper. The leader wouldn’t roll over, and the green indicator woofed past like a wiffle ball with each progression of line.
My stroke adjusting to the altered rhythm, I finally worked enough line out to hit the head of the hole. As the flies reached the falls and were about to join water, I flicked my wrist backwards, snapping the midges toward me, the flies doubling back under the rest of the leader. This action gave enough time for the flies to sink deep before the current caught the indicator and brought the midges back to the surface.
In the cold grasp of January, I had to cover every square inch of the pool. There were only three or four likely holes in the three-mile stretch of stream I was fishing. With so little good water, I had to make every cast count. It was a one-shot game. Either I got my chance or I didn’t. Trout, unwilling to waste any energy, refuse to budge from their positions in winter water, so missing a single line in a hole might make or break my shot.
With every speck of water covered and still no bites, I knew that the fish weren’t there, refused to feed, or didn’t like my flies. Regardless of the answer, I attached the bottom midge to the hook keeper of my rod, stepped out of the knee-deep current, and walked along the white bank and upstream for the next hole.
The snowfall had slowed now and only a few specks fell toward the earth like pieces of confetti hanging on the air before settling amongst the rest. Farther up the creek, the snow stopped completely. The clouds thinned and rose higher around the peaks.
I could see the afternoon sun, a glowing orb behind wandering gray sheets. I stopped for a moment, sat on the back of a limestone boulder, the layer of snow cushioning my buttocks, and stared at the white sun holding still behind the tangled fingers of tree limbs. There were no rays, no beams, nor halos around the sun. It was a perfect circle, an ivory marble hovering above the mountainside. The trees stood like barky skeletons along each slope.
My breath hung on the cold air as I exhaled. Everything slowed. I didn’t want to move from that rock and shatter the silence, but the desire to raise a trout smoldered inside me and lifted me from my seat. I continued upstream and headed for the next big pool, the next shot at a finicky fish.
A cold wind came in from the southwest, shaking snow from the tree limbs. Flakes wavered down as I ventured deeper into the deciduous forest. I walked further away from the creek, chose a flat stretch of land thick with rattling saplings, and followed the lay of the land. Shifty outcrops of mixed stone lined both sides of the creek, so even ground was a godsend to my stiff knees.
Hoofprints from whitetails roamed about the hollow. The deer probably came there frequently to feed on the soft flesh of saplings. The prints were fresh, barely glazed over with snow, and I imagined a doe and two fawns wandering through the underbrush minutes before I’d arrived, my scent riding on the wind, spooking the deer toward cover. I could feel their obsidian eyes watching me, but looking around, I saw nothing.
Up ahead, a thick grove of rhododendron hugged the creek. Behind the spearhead leaves, I watched a wide section of water moving between the snow-covered thicket of leaves, dark sweeping through every hole in the foliage. I knew the pool well. In fact, it was the main reason I chose to fish that section of creek. I walked toward the water, eased through the entanglement of wiry rhododendron, and stepped onto a long slab of granite lining the left side of the stream.
Removing the tiny midge from the hook keeper, I stared into the black surface of the creek. Snow had begun falling again, the soft flakes landing silently on the current and disappearing without a ripple. The clouds had pushed down like a dense morning fog, the haze impenetrable, but the water still ran. The pool was at least 30 feet long, with a piece of granite stretching beside the entire hole. Where Rough Butt Creek joined Piney Mountain, a steep trickle entered the silk stream from the right. The deepest section lay along the edge of granite, but the entire pool was five feet at its shallowest, a perfect section of water for winter brookies.
I made my first cast, a short flip into the steady current pushing through the tail. The strike indicator rode high, but never bobbed nor bounced across the slow sheen. I whipped the flies out again, this time closer to the slab of granite on which I stood. Again, the indicator drifted perfectly, but a fish never took. I was beginning to think that my odds of catching a fish were slim, but I wasn’t at all bothered. This place where I stood had given me what I came for.
I stripped some line off of the two-weight, and set the cast in motion, this time aiming further into the hole. The flies entered the head of the pool and quickly descended into the unseen depths. Suddenly, the strike indicator sat upright, bobbed a little, and then disappeared under the surface. Unready for the bite, I gathered myself and raised the rod, the slim stick of graphite curving to the water as the fish tugged along the pebbly bottom. The slack line between the reel and the stripping guide shot out of the tip-top, as the trout made a run toward the head of the pool. Flashes of yellow and orange lit up the black water as I reeled the fish closer to the surface. With the stiff leader running through the guides of the rod, I pulled the small native from the water and laid the fish on the snowy granite slab.
The vibrant flesh of the trout stuck out against the blank canvas of snow. The marmoreal back, yellow belly and orange fins (dimmer than at other times of the year) looked odd against the background. Snowflakes melted against the skin of the fish as I removed the bottom fly, the Biot Midge, from the trout’s hard lip. I took one last look at the brilliant colors of the trout, kissed the fish, and then released the brookie back into the creek. One last spark of yellow flashed as the fish turned toward the dark bottom.
Kneeling on the flat piece of granite, I peered deep into the stream and tried to see the movement of fish, but there was nothing. I set the rod on the snow and lay back onto the rock. Staring up through the crisscrossed lines of overhanging branches, I felt the snowflakes turn to water on my stinging cheeks. I opened my mouth, caught a couple of flakes on my tongue, closed my eyes, and listened to the sound of silence. My stretched out body pressed into the powdery layer atop the rock, but shortly after I left, the imprint wouldn’t remain. A few minutes later, the snow stopped again and the slow creak of a shifting conifer rang through the dead air, but I didn’t move. I just lay still and attempted to converge with everything.