My Middle Prong passion
My Middle Prong Passion
by Carroll C. Jones
I have fished the high Middle Prong many times over the years; and the beautiful boulder-strewn stream that tumbles out of a mountain wilderness into the West Fork of the Pigeon River never disappoints. Even when the wild speckled trout show no interest atall in my dry fly presentations, I still get a thrill out of climbing and scaling boulders and fishing one plunge pool after another. This day would be no exception.
However, a fisher must first reach this far-away trout wonderland before wetting his or her fly, and it’s quite the challenge to do so—especially for one who is only a few birthdays shy of seventy. From the gate blocking the forest service road, it is a good two-mile hike along the steep gravel grade before gaining the trailhead that leads further into the forest recesses. And from that point, it is still another two-mile-or-so trek along an old logging railroad grade to reach the high Middle Prong waters. Now, let’s say I fish from that point up the mountain stream for three to five hours, then manage to crawl out and regain the old railroad grade, and finally spend the next hard hour tramping back down the mountain to my truck. That is the usual regimen, and admittedly it is becoming quite a physical challenge to fish the high Middle Prong; but it is my passion to do so.
While lacing up the stiff felt-soled boots, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more of these Middle Prong fishing trips I might have left in me. Hopefully a few more, I thought as I shouldered my sling pack, grabbed the fly rod, and began trudging up the road. A July midday sun paired with the grueling climb had me drenched with sweat in little time. With each deep gasping breath, I could almost taste the strong aromas of the forest: the mountain laurels still blooming in places where the sun never shone; a lush undergrowth carpeting the hardwood jungle, emblazoned with myriad flowering plants boasting white, yellow, and even lavender colors; and the sharp smell of moist organic soil blended with occasional whiffs of—uh, horse manure.
The winding route up the mountain is also popular with horseback riders, so huge smelly piles of dung have to be sidestepped every now and then. While we are on the subject, I guess it is best to divulge an innate weakness I’ve been cursed with—I hate snakes! Believe it or not, these earthy smells of manure tend to cause my heartbeat to race, reminding me of snakes. I have always heard tell that some people can smell a snake before they see one, and this old myth—whether true or not—has forever been stuck in my head. The faintest pungent whiff on the trail always sparks my built-in radar to begin scanning about for slithering crawling creatures. As it would turn out on this hot day, my trusty radar was disengaged when I needed it the most—but we’ll get into that later.
Thirty minutes of hard uphill hiking behind me, I finally reached a switchback where the forest service road turned away from the old railroad grade and headed off in an opposite direction from the Middle Prong. At this point, I plodded off the graveled surface and continued along the logging path that disappeared into the dense woods. The steady grade was easy enough but the trail was grown over, and years of erosion and neglect made walking difficult. As the lure of catching those pretty speckled trout pulled me deeper and deeper into the dark natural environs, I could not help but marvel at my surroundings. Here I was, all alone, one-on-one with nature, with no one around to disturb me or bother my fishing. Though, these blissful thoughts were tainted with guilt and memories of my wife’s wise counsel, which includes admonitions such as, What if you get hurt up there all by yourself, Carroll? You shouldn’t go up on the Middle Prong alone!
Maria’s right, you know. But my fishing buddy lives in Florida, and this little July jaunt up the Middle Prong is simply a scouting trip in preparation for our planned excursion up here in September. See?...It’s not too hard to come up with some ridiculous justification for a fool’s venture into the wilderness alone. So that is what I would tell her—it’s a scouting trip. She’ll understand. Well, I knew better than that, but it was a reasonable debating point and a good enough excuse to keep on going.
At several points along the upward grade, I could see where ancient corrugated metal drains still carried seeping and running creek water underneath the former railroad bed. Surely a century old by now, these rusting pipes miraculously survive and continue to provide an essential utility. Everywhere along the grade I saw evidence of the constructors’ labors building a railroad to carry equipment, supplies, and men into the deepest reaches of the Middle Prong forest and to haul huge logs out. Trekking through cuts where earthen embankments and sheer rock faces still remain to this day, I imagined these strong men wielding hand-digging tools or drilling and blasting the rock away. Drilling scars are still visible in the rock if one looks close enough, as are scarce rotting timbers along the rail bed that once supported endless ribbons of steel, over which “sidewinder” steam locomotives and rail cars ran.
It is so easy for me to get carried away with such notions, but not today. Today, there were more important “fish to fry”, so to speak. Actually, there were native speckled trout to catch; so I was able to make the long hike over the historic logging road without undue delay, and at long last gaze out upon the clear, cold waters of the Middle Prong. Before me was a sizable pool lying under a high cascading waterfall, such a beautiful sight and the perfect place to make the first cast.
The Female Parachute Adams looked perfect to me, as I smeared and rubbed the floatant in real good. Not only was it easy to see because of the white “parachute” and yellow butt, but it is the same mayfly pattern that I had always used successfully during the summertime on the high Middle Prong. With well-practiced movements of my fly rod, I cast the Adams out toward the middle of the pool and watched it land lightly upon the water’s surface. In scant seconds a hungry trout swam up, took a look, and then darted away into the dark. Instantly, a sinking feeling came across me, and I thought, Maybe the Female Adams is not the perfect fly to use today. That fish would not take it. What if—bammm!
I got a strike! Just as I was thinking I might have to resort to another fly pattern, I got a strike. It was an aggressive strike and, thank goodness, I wasn’t completely asleep. Admittedly, my reaction was not as quick as normal, a fraction of a second late; but when I flicked the rod tip up I could feel it. I felt the fly hook set in the fish’s mouth. I had him! In just one minute of fishing I already had one. This Middle Prong fishing is great, I told myself while pulling the slack out of the fly line with my left hand and hoisting the rod with my right. The trout tugged against the taut line, swam one way and another, and dove deep down into the water in mighty efforts to spit out this awful meal it had tried to consume. But after twenty or thirty seconds of trying unsuccessfully to rid itself of the tasteless fly, the fish suddenly gave up and I reeled it in. Straining my eyes at the breaking water to see how big it was, I could not believe what I saw. It was not a speckled trout. I’d caught two!
Too small to bother netting them, these fish were both about six inches long, at the most, and were as richly blushed as a speckled trout can be. In fact, their bellies and flanks were so red that it was actually hard to distinguish the usual dark orange spotting. But two fish—how in the world had I caught two fish on one fly at the same time? In my many years of dry fly fishing, this was the first instance of such an occurrence.
Well, it didn’t take long to figure out how I had been so lucky, and the fish unlucky. One trout had been caught legitimately while it tried to gobble down the Female Adams. The hook was still set firmly in its mouth. But the same was not so with the other unfortunate critter. It appeared that my leader had somehow snagged and entangled in the fish’s lip so severely that it could not extricate itself. Upon being set free, both trout swam off to the nearest, darkest cavity they could find, certainly blessed with a second chance and seized with an aversion for mayflies resembling that awful Female Adams.
In the furthest reaches of this same large pool I caught a couple more fish about the same size as the first ones, before moving on upstream to the next plunge pool. For nearly three hours I excitedly fished one plunge pool after another, almost always getting a strike and often managing to snare yet another native speckled trout. Climbing over moss-covered rocks and scaling boulder after boulder, fishing a tiny pool or small pool or big pool, watching my fly chase down one pretty run after another—this was the life. It is what I often dream about at night. It is my Middle Prong passion.
All afternoon long I chased this passion up the plunging waters of the high Middle Prong, catching so many trout that I tired of the process: wetting my hand, grasping and unhooking and releasing the fish, and lastly cleaning the fly. It simply amazed me to catch a spec in a little pool, then drop my fly in an adjacent pool, not six feet away, and catch another one! There were a couple of times that I reached my rod high over a boulder and snagged one in water dammed up behind the rocks that was nearly level with my eyes. Tired I certainly became, but bored I was not.
In the hottest part of the afternoon I had fished up to an area where the stream bed stretched out wider, and the ground bordering the water was relatively expansive and flat. In fact, this was once the site of an old Suncrest Lumber Company logging camp back in the early 1900’s. The loggers lived in shacks bordering the railroad track and from here they spread out and methodically stripped the mountainsides of its virgin forest. It is extremely hard for me to fathom that today, after experiencing the beauty and grandeur of the present wilderness setting.
The sun was beaming down hot and bright because the forest canopy did not cover this widest section of the river. I’m not sure if I was fixated on the heat, figuring where to cast my fly next, deciding which rock to hop on, or dreaming about steam engines pulling cars loaded with spruce logs down the river. Whatever I was thinking at that exact moment and place, I should have been paying more attention to something else. I should have been sniffing and had my radar engaged. For it was exactly at that time, as I was working up the side of the stream and preparing to flip my fly in just the right place, that I heard the most alarming and frightening sound there can ever be—a rattlesnake’s rattlers singing to high heaven!
Instantly, I fell or jumped backwards as awkwardly as humanly possible, while at the same time trying not to break my neck or my fly rod. I knew at once what was making those sounds, although it was the first time I had heard a rattlesnake rattling in the wild. My heart must have stopped for a millisecond before beginning to pound again and pump blood and adrenalin through my body. Where—where is it? Is it moving toward me? How many? Those were my instinctive thoughts as I picked myself up out of the water and began urgently looking for the snake. The thing was singing so loudly I could easily hear it over the constant roar of the water, and knew it had to be close by—somewhere. And then I spotted it, coiled up on a rock in the sun. Damn! I had nearly walked over the top of it!
Why is it so black? I wondered as I backed off, trying to put a good ten or fifteen feet between me and that ugly, mean-looking reptile. I never knew they could be so black. Turns out it was a timber rattler—a big one—and some can be black like that. When I moved further away from the snake it finally quit rattling, but the darned thing remained coiled and ready to strike, with its triangular head pointing straight at you know who. I must have stood in the middle of that stream for a good five minutes, looking at the rattlesnake and studying it. After all, I had never seen a real rattler before, especially so up close and personal. Why, it must have been four to five feet long and was as thick as the business end of a baseball bat. Curiously, as I was exchanging stares with the snake, it occurred to me that the rattler had warned me away; and I was very thankful for that. As a matter-of-fact, I almost thanked it out loud, then and there.
I would be lying if I said that I did not want to kill that timber rattler. Even with the realization that they are an endangered species and you are not supposed to kill them in our National Wilderness Areas, I would have shot it then and there if a pistol or shotgun had been handy. And that is a pretty strong statement, coming from someone who does not hunt and who never kills the trout he catches. Just goes to show how utterly shook up I was at the time. Eventually, however, I gathered my wits and courage about me and moved around the snake to get on upstream. The last I saw of that rattler, it was coiled up on the rock in the same place sunning itself—and staring straight at me.
The rest of the day was relatively anti-climatic, even though my snake radar was engaged continuously and my eyes were scouring every sunlit rock along both sides of the Middle Prong. I fished for another hour or more and figure, all total, I must have caught around thirty speckled trout—the largest one being almost the length of the cork grip on my rod, ten inches. It was a great day, overall, with the exception of that snake encounter. At last I was able to climb out of the Middle Prong, locate the old logging railroad grade, and drag myself back down the mountain to my truck—without incident and before dark.
My old fishing boots were soaking wet, but they had borne me up well that day. As I bent over slowly and reached down to unlace them, it suddenly dawned on me how sore and tired I was. Even before I got the heavy things off, I was pondering once again how many more of these fishing trips up the Middle Prong I might still have in me. There’s got to be a few more, surely, I reasoned, while stowing the gear and trying to ignore my aching feet and back.
However, it did not take long to dispel these pessimistic notions and physical pains. When I cranked up the truck and began rolling toward a paved road and civilization, I began to reflect upon the grueling day. And as I did so, a content feeling instantly came over me. My very thought at that moment was, How lucky and privileged I am to have experienced my Middle Prong passion again. It was not long after that when I began anticipating future excursions into the wild Middle Prong. But Maria need not worry anymore—because I promise not to go alone again, ever.