We had failed in our first attempt to find the secret fishing spot in the gorge. We’d lost our way and we’d been attacked by an unseen enemy that would not reveal its damage for a full day: tiny bumps on our ankles and feet that itched us unto madness. Now, on the second try, we turned off the beaten trail into the unknown, a faint and narrow path beset by weeds, drops through narrow sandstone fissures, and boulders two stories high.
Why go to so much trouble to find a fishing spot? Our unnamed source said there was a “beach” down there. He said he had caught smallmouth bass until he was “tired of fishing.” This kind of talk and the titillation of an exclusive, hard-to-find and hard-to-get-to spot had us tucking our pants into our socks, our shirts into our waistbands, and spraying noxious chemicals onto our clothing to ward off the first visit’s tiny pest: chiggers, the juvenile form of a mite, whose purpose in the animal kingdom I would be hard pressed to justify.
So we were back, on a cooler day than the first, after rains that had the creeks running and the rock walls seeping moisture. The unnamed source told us that when we turned around on our first attempt, within hearing of the river’s voice, we were five minutes away from the beach. This was hard news to take. We had given it our all, and in addition to sustaining more chigger bites than me (I had 25 on each ankle), Drew Crain, a biologist at Maryville College, had been bitten on the hand by a wasp. My clothes were wringing wet with sweat, and I’d drained my water bottle before we got back to the car. On this second day we pressed forward, rappelling down the soggy knotted rope, turning away from the sandstone wall down the jumbled decline to boulder and bushwhack through briars and mountain laurel, past a thorny devil’s walking stick, and over cracks and crannies ideal for slumbering copperhead and timber rattler.
When we had descended far enough to see the river through the trees, we got glimpses of a turbid stream running swift through slots of gray, jagged stone and over underwater ledges that swirled its current like beef broth in a bowl. At the bottom, we stopped at a flat moss-cushioned rock to catch our breath, gulp water, and to ready our lures. I headed upstream with light tackle—a short rod and four-pound test line, a treble-hooked spoon called Little Cleo knotted at the end of it. Slinging my camera over my shoulder, I prepared to photograph big numbers of harvested smallmouth. It took me a half hour of bouldering to get into position to fish the eddies below a rapid. In the hike to the spot, I’d lost a lens cap.
Drew was behind me by half an hour. Before I could see him, I heard him yell something about a copperhead, his voice barely audible over the river’s roar.
“Are you bit?” I said.
I went back to fishing.
When he emerged at the top of boulder above me, I said, “I lost my lens cap!”
Drew did not seem surprised by this news. In fact, he told me, after he had startled a 3-foot long copperhead, not the friendliest of snakes, he found my lens cap where the snake had been lounging. Apparently, the cap had jostled free as I stumbled by in close proximity of this serpent, who chose not to strike a fool oblivious to his presence. Drew said the snake slithered a few feet and stared at him from under a rock ledge.
After another half-hour, Drew yelled from around a boulder and a few minutes later yelled again, having caught a couple of small fish with his Panther Martin lure.
I hopped across a narrow channel to a rock with a narrow, ridged back and sat down to cast as far as I could toward the deep water on the far side. Drew was just downstream now on his own rock, casting a rooster tail and split-shot weight. I had all but given up on catching even a single smallmouth, but the place was so beautiful and untrammeled I didn’t care. We hadn’t found the beach, but we speculated that it was underwater.
I began to cast over and over in the same place and reel in with disinterest, more and more slowly. Sometimes I’d forget to reel. This strategy worked.
In the deep water where I let my lure descend, a smallmouth struck. He dived and jumped as my child-sized rod bent, and I stood on the pointy rock for leverage. After he got tired, I tightened the drag as far as it would go and pulled him in. The fish was no trophy, but it fought like a champ.
It was almost noon and we faced a long climb out of the gorge, not to mention a hike of a couple of miles once we found the trail again. I cast upstream and let the Cleo tumble and sparkle in the current. When I started to reel in, I cursed, having caught a rocky ledge on the bottom. I played it a little, without jerking, and it gave. Then the line stiffened and I felt something alive. Whatever it was didn’t act like the other smallmouth I’ve caught, who at some point breach the surface. This thing was zigging and zagging and pulling toward the depths. I reeled a few turns and after a minute or so my line went slack. Fish gone, along with Little Cleo. Remember how I had tightened the drag and left it there? A mistake.
“That was a big one,” Drew said.
We had heard of muskellunge in this river that grew to monster size (typically over 3 feet long), and the way this one struck, and the way it unceremoniously broke my line, made me wonder if it were one of these razor-toothed predators.
A few minutes later, Drew’s split-shot and rooster tail were jerked away from him. He stood on his rock stunned, slack line looped and tangled. It is a very painful thing to lose a big fish, to wonder what it was and what you might have done differently to bring him in.
“Fishing is hard,” I said.
“Maybe eight-pound test line would be better here,” he said.
We had no lures with us. To get to them at the flat rock, we faced a 30-minute hike each way, past the exasperated copperhead. After a brief discussion of our good fortune so far, particularly mine, we decided to leave the gorge, having sacrificed a few shiny trinkets to the monster god of the depths.
Did the place live up to its billing? Was it worth the rugged hike? Yes, and I will go back, but I hope the fish bite in fall, when the chiggers and snakes and wasps do not. It is a new favorite place.
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