Fishing Lessons

Ron Rash on becoming a writer, losing the big one, and growing up knee-deep in a Blue Ridge trout stream

illustration: Jack Unruh

If you drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Blowing Rock to Boone, North Carolina, you will come across a brown sign that reads, “Aho Gap Elevation 3,722 feet.” A road comes in from the left side. If you look down that road, you will see a small white farmhouse on the right. My aunt lives there now, but once my grandmother did, and for much of the summer from when I was age eight to seventeen, I lived there as well.

It was a childhood and early adolescence unimaginable today—part Huck Finn and part Fern Hill. My grandmother lived alone, my grandfather dead, her eight children now living elsewhere. There was no vehicle on the farm, and her black-and-white television picked up one channel, on a good day. The closest store was a gas station four miles away. On those summer mornings my grandmother fixed a breakfast of eggs, cat-head biscuits with gravy, jam, or butter she churned herself, and milk that came from the Guernsey in the barn. I’d usually wrap up a couple of biscuits in a backpack, fill a canteen my uncle had brought back from the army, and go get my rod and reel. Until I was twelve, when I received a fly rod and reel for Christmas, I’d dig a few worms near the barn. After that it was trout flies or, if I used my spinning rod, Mepps spinners.

I fished several streams, but often I’d walk up the dirt road to the Parkway and go left. Soon I’d come to the headwaters of Goshen Creek. My mother’s family has lived in the area since the early 1800s. Important moments in their lives, including one death, have occurred on this stream. When I stepped into Goshen Creek, I entered a current that also ran through time.

But I didn’t enter the stream at its headwaters. I walked two miles down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Goshen Creek Bridge. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was preparing myself to become a writer. As I walked, I thought about events in my life and I daydreamed—often inspired by the Parkway’s exotic traffic. Over those years I saw license plates from every state in the Union, including Alaska and Hawaii. I learned to recognize tags without glimpsing the state name—Florida with its dark green and Kentucky with its blue. Because I was eighteen before I ever went beyond the boundaries of North and South Carolina, those tags bespoke places I knew only from words and images, lessons from school. As the vehicles passed, I’d remember something I’d learned about that state—Kansas had wheat fields that made waves like oceans; Washington had redwoods and rain; New York had crowds and skyscrapers. I’d think about those things, and place the states on a map I unscrolled in my mind. But mainly I’d imagine what it would be like to visit these places.

When I got to Goshen Creek Bridge, I’d make my way down to the creek. My uncle Howard’s cabbage patch bordered this stretch of the stream. I rarely fished here, though, because in the bottomland’s slow water I caught only knottyheads and suckers.

Once I moved upstream from the bridge, the creek made an abrupt ascent. Here the creek had scenery pretty enough for calendars and magazines. It was not an easy place to fish, however. The rocks were slippery and no trails lined the banks. The only way upstream was hopping rock to rock or wading. Because of these difficulties and my tending to fish during weekday mornings, I can’t remember ever encountering another fisherman once I was above the first big waterfall. I would go hours without seeing another living soul, yet this never bothered me. Even as a small child I’d been comfortable in solitude. Those hours alone on Goshen Creek were yet more preparation for the life of a writer.

For almost a mile, the stream was primarily waterfalls and deep, clear pools. The only fish I ever caught here were rainbows that leaped so high sometimes they would land themselves on rocks or sand. They were sleek and pink-striped, usually eight to twelve inches, the perfect size for eating. I’d put them on my stringer, and my grandmother and I would have them for supper. In the late 1800s, my ancestors built a millrace in this section of the stream. My great-great-grandfather operated it for several years, but one evening he did not come home. His son found him. He had somehow been caught and then crushed by the great wheel.

Farther upstream the land leveled and the waterfalls were fewer, but there was a trough-shaped pool that, while not large, was particularly deep. I never pulled a lunker trout out of Goshen Creek, but when I was fourteen, it was here that I had my one chance. I was fishing with a Mepps spinner and cast into the foam at the pool’s head. I let the lure sink and then started my retrieve. A trout followed my spinner into the pool’s tailwaters. A big trout. A trout bigger than any trout I’d ever seen outside of fishing magazines, too big for such a small stream, but here it was. As big as a salmon, thirty inches at least, or so it seemed. In retrospect, the rainbow would have gone eighteen to twenty inches, not a trophy trout in many places, but it was on a western North Carolina creek. The trout followed until its fin broke the water. Then, just as it looked as if it would inhale the spinner, the fish turned and disappeared back in the pool’s depths, where it has stayed for forty-five years.

There are several steps when a fourteen-year-old boy almost snags the biggest fish of his life: (1) Denial. That didn’t just happen. That fish was a trick of the light, a hallucination. (2) Yes, it was real, and if you cast again it will strike this time (it didn’t). (3) You’ll come back tomorrow or next week or next summer and you’ll catch it (nope). (4) Given time, years, even decades, you will accept that not catching that fish was part of the cosmic plan (nope).

There were more pools, a good half mile’s worth. Then the creek split. One branch veered left and the other continued close to the Parkway. It was at this fork, during the Civil War, where another ancestor, a young mountain woman, encountered a wounded Union soldier while washing clothes. The soldier begged for her help and she gave it, providing food and protection until, with the help of her uncle, a Union sympathizer, she was able to lead him back safely into Tennessee and behind Union lines.

I followed Goshen Creek’s smaller fork to the left. There were no more rainbows. Instead, there were only brook trout, although everyone I knew called them speckled trout or specks. These were the only trout (technically a char) native to southern Appalachia. They lived in only the purest water and did not compete well with browns and rainbows. These were small fish but the most beautiful, their flanks dotted with olive, gold, and red—dorsal fins as orange as fireweed. As I got older, I felt guilty about taking them from the creek to eat. By my mid-teens I no longer did.

After a few hundred more yards, the creek came out of the gorge and ran alongside the Parkway. The waterfalls and pools disappeared, replaced by slower water often cloaked in mountain laurel. When the stream became too small to hold anything more than fingerlings, I stepped out of the water and walked along the grass beside the Parkway, soaked feet to knees. Fishing the gorge usually took the whole morning, so there were times I would sit on the bank and eat the ham or jelly biscuits I’d brought with me. I’d watch the cars go by, and think of the magical places they came from and would return to.

I turn sixty years old this year. If I could go back in time, and talk to that solitary boy sitting on the Parkway grass, I would tell him this—though you can’t imagine it now, there will come a time when you will travel to these places you dream of, and not just other states but other continents as well, and you will look back on your life and know the happiest, most amazing place that you have ever found was here.