Cold as gun steel, the crystal water of the Chattooga River’s East Fork tumbles over moss-covered stones and carves its way through the loamy ridges of the northwestern-most corner of South Carolina. The sheer banks, rising hundreds of feet above the swirling eddies, are covered with impenetrable ranks of mountain laurel and dense thickets of doghobble. But such a landscape is a cordial invitation to a hard-bitten fly fisherman and his limber rod.
With a box full of carefully tied trout flies and a heart full of high-country adventure, I drove upward along Highway 107 with trout heavy on my mind. However, despite my illusions of angling grandeur, the river had another thing in mind. The water thermometer read 39 degrees, and trout generally shut down when the water dips below 42 degrees, so I knew the trout would not be rising to sip any high-floating dry flies on that day. Fishing water that cold takes an enormous amount of patience, skill, and luck (I lack all three). Late winter trout are lethargic; only a mouthful drifting mighty close might entice a strike. The trout rest on the edge of slack, swirling pools behind granite boulders, their nose near the rushing water, waiting for spring or an easy meal. From my selection of elegant trout flies I chose a large, gaudy wooly bugger, hoping that it would sink fast before the current swept it past the strike zone. My casts were sloppy and my hefty fly whipped between flanking laurel thickets before landing just upstream from a trouty-looking pool.
One can cast a fly rod in many places throughout the Carolinas. What makes the Chattooga and many of its tributaries special is that they are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1964. This act ensures that some watersheds remain wild, that is, no roads, few trails, no designated campgrounds. Solitude. Only one-quarter of one-percent of rivers in the US are designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers System but the Carolinas are blessed with 14 WSR watersheds! That means there are so many opportunities to experience our landscape, and to see wild Carolina the way the first explorers and settlers saw it – wild! There are no caution signs to warn you of a misstep, no meteorologist to warn you of a change in the weather, no guide to show you the best place to pitch a tent. Nothing could be better than to experience untamed wildness, and to be enlivened and inspired by its inherent unpredictability.
I fished pool after pool that day and the heavy fly patterns did not make my casts look very graceful. But with each cast, as the fly was sucked into the icy current, I was sucked further and further into the raw Appalachian landscape – cold, substantial, timeless. I must confess that I did not land any trout on that late January day, but I hiked out of the steep slopes with a creel full of solitude and wild beauty.
Hunter S. Bridges