For one writer, a float trip down eastern Tennessee’s South Holston River provides reflection as he finds patience in letting go and peace in realizing his son is growing up.
When I am able, time spent fly fishing the waters of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains is how I like to transition between seasons. It provides the space for personal reflection and an opportunity to let go and renew. I’ve learned to cast well enough now to keep my flies from twisting up; at least most of the time. On occasion, they will catch on a submerged log and I will swear to my son that I’ve got a big one on the line and the adrenaline will pump and I will fight and really believe that there is a trout on the other end. Noah always laughs when this happens. It is infectious and fun to listen to. When I am really dramatic, he will do it until his belly aches too much to continue and then will settle back in his chair, feet hanging carefree off the back of the boat awaiting his next catch.
I have never written about fly fishing and it is probably because I am not always patient when I am on the water. The trout are. They wait and I am convinced they scheme. Noah can match their patience and thus always has more luck than I. In fact, his first time out three years ago along a narrow stream in Boone, North Carolina he hooked what our friend and guide, Max, and I estimated to be almost a two-foot trout lingering in a dark pool. When it jumped, Noah, then five years old, bravely held on while it fought hard, its beauty revealed in the split second it spent in the air, glistening sunlight through the trees hitting its rainbow before it broke away.
Not long after hearing that story, another guide went back to the same spot, hooking it again and validating our claim. Yet the old fish, smart in sense and defensive of its territory had other ideas and again went free. As far as we know, it has eluded the touch of human hands and is still there today. A quintessential fishing story, this is what has formed a close bond amongst us; and Max, Noah, and I always tell it every year before the new day begins. Whether we are in waders or on a float trip, it has become our crew’s shared tradition.
“That fish gave you the middle fin!”
It’s not even been an hour and this has already become a popular saying in our boat as we drift down Tennessee’s South Holston River, just outside Bristol. A good sign as it means the fish are biting; a frustrating one because they are prevailing. All I can do is chuckle at Noah’s comment knowing full well I will soon hear it again. He’s enjoying keeping score. Boys do that when they compete: nag, laugh, repeat; much like the proud magpie now in pursuit, calling to our boat from the water’s edge. In that pleasant distraction, another bites and I am once again too slow to set the hook as I listen to the boy and the magpie’s duet. With a smirk on my face, I recast.
I’m glad our crew is together again; the familiarity welcome after an eventful year. Life is never static; there is no pause button and I am reminded of that with each trout’s bite and our conversation in the boat. Max will be asking his girlfriend to marry him in a few days and I am sure he is reflecting on it as he ties a mayfly. I was his age when I asked my wife to marry me, and wish I knew how to fly fish then. I would have been quite happy to take a float trip on the river to reflect. Like I am sure it will be for him, it was the best decision I ever made and the proof is the laughing boy sitting in back of the boat. This time well spent I hope will last just a little bit longer.
Noah has already succeeded in hooking four trout. Confident that he has beaten his old man, he changes roles from angler to our crew’s designated “fish holder,” a title he proudly announces which is approved with a quick nod by Max and I. Consensus works well in tight quarters along the South Holston, especially with an eight-year-old who is now pleasantly distracted by a turkey sandwich that Max had stashed in the cooler. I am grateful for Max. He will make a good father one day.
Upon my casting arm is the red delineating mark of sun where my sleeve has been rolled up since morning. I am happily burned, sweaty, yet my face is cooled by the breeze off the six miles of water we have already covered. In these moments spent fly fishing the space between seasons, I reconnect with the natural flow of things, reminded once again that life is not necessarily predictable. That is why I am here today.
The thrill of small rapids suddenly gives way to a vast sheet of still glass. Max drops anchor. We have an audience. From beneath a shade tree, a farmer sits on a stool resting, watching us intently, his old pickup parked a few feet away. On the other side, a shy doe partially hidden by brush takes a cautious drink in the mid-day heat. With the sun climbing higher overhead, I know our time on the river is drawing to a close.
You immediately know when the perfect cast is made for it is not felt at all. The split second it lasts is an out of body experience where you observe yourself from afar, perhaps standing patiently on the bank beneath the farmer’s shade tree as the line whips with an effortless roll across the water to the place you want it to go. You always hope for a bite but the elation brought on by the cast provides its own pleasure, for in that moment, you truly let go.
“Great cast, dad!”
I hear his compliment and am grateful, but do not turn around, knowing he is now watching intently for a fish as we wait in silence. Everything is calm and bright. From where I stand, keeping my balance, the water reveals massive boulders that look as if they could easily slice our small vessel in two. We are floating above the fortress where the trout invisibly linger.
“Set! Set! Set!”
Max’s command breaks the serenity. The fish jumps just inches above the water, all muscle, ready for a fight. As we spar, I cut my fingers on the line pulling it closer, the trout immediately gaining my respect. Max readies the net while Noah scans the water preparing to hold the fish. Finally, I lift it enough so Max can remove the fly. Now in captivity, it is feisty, an energetic spirit with clear, healthy eyes and rainbow. Gingerly, I present our worthy opponent to Noah and in his hands, the trout calms as he whispers a kind word to it before gently releasing the fish into the water where it disappears. With the act complete, it is time to move with the river again.
As the landing comes into sight, Max asks if I want to stop one more time before calling it a day but I am content with this last catch. I feel patient again, restored, my practice complete. Noah is dangling his feet over the side of the boat again with a satisfied gaze fixed back upriver toward the place where we started. I realize that has been his vantage point throughout our trip and he too has been letting go. Like each trout released today, the boy is in tune with the river’s movement, and I have finally joined him.
The sunsets as we drive home and even though it’s been hours, I still feel the river beneath me, my legs nor senses fully adjusted yet to land. The ride across the Piedmont of central North Carolina has rocked the fish holder to sleep. Tonight, after I’ve carried him upstairs to his room, I’ll sip wine from a red Dixie cup and reflect on the day well spent. I prefer the cup to the glass. After a fishing trip, it is much more suitable for the occasion. Next year, I doubt I’ll be able to carry my son upstairs; he’ll have to walk. After all, the seasons will have changed, and before long, both of us will be toasting one another with those cups following another day on the South Holston.
Nate Goetz is a writer residing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. For the last three years, he has gone on an annual fly fishing trip with his son, Noah, and wise guide and friend, Max Beck, from Due South Outfitters in Boone, NC. His work appears regularly in the digital wine magazine, The Vintner Project.