Minnesota has been my home for 27 years and I have learned to embrace all aspects of life here. Especially winter. Long, cold, snowy, and long. Ice fishing is met every year with excitement and gusto. But around February each year as I’m sure many of you can attest to, the folks up here in the great white north get a little cabin feverish. Our legs become restless, eyes glazed, we dream of open water at night with muddy river banks under our feet, longing to put away the ice rods in favor of the long rods. Spring never seems to come early enough even with a hearty embrace of winter time activities. The only prescription for the fisherman’s winter time cabin fever is open water and long rods or some seriously good drugs. A trip down south to fish in some open water seemed considerably safer and more legal than the latter option so Billstrunner and myself accompanied by Billy’s dad Don, who we affectionately refer to as Old
Man River or Uncle Donny
planned a trip to visit our close friend Chuck who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. Chuck was previously living with his girlfriend in Hilton Head South Carolina when Hurricane Matthew came ‘round a’ wompin and a’ wompin’ and did a number on old Chuck’s place. They were forced to evacuate to higher ground and they chose Asheville, NC as a refuge for about two weeks until they were able to return home and salvage what was left of their place. They loved Asheville so much they decided to leave a now tattered Hilton Head and make off for the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Once we heard this is where Chuck and Cearra would be living we knew we would have to go visit them and of course GO FISHING.
The Plan would be to rent a car in White Bear Lake MN, load up our fishing gear and jet down to Asheville in one big straight shot. It’s about a 16 hour drive to Chuck’s house so Bill and I would take shifts and Old Man River would ride shotgun for moral support and to point out odd and mildly interesting things along the way. The trip down south was uneventful and went by fairly quickly. Billy is one hell of a navigator and has an amazing internal sense of direction so needless to say we only got lost/temporarily misplaced while I was driving. There is nothing quite like a fly by night journey on the open road. With good tunes, lots of caffeine, nicotine and about $7.50 in tolls and 16 hours later we were nearing the our final destination with the windows down enjoying temps in the upper 50’s. The border of Tennessee and North Carolina is gorgeous. The Blue Ridge mountains appear before you as you climb steadily in elevation and the closer you look the deeper you understand why these are the called The Great Smokies.
We arrived at our first fishing destination in far western NC. But we weren't sure exactly where we would start fishing. Then Billy caught something out of the corner of his eye... ”That man just threw a fish into the river from that truck!” Says Bill. I look around and see nothing until Bill points out the big ol’ pic-up slowly driving down the shoulder of the road.
Sure as shit, a guy with a big handsome beard was dipping a net into some tank and producing large healthy adult trout and without any delicacy or finesse whatsoever he slung the net over his head in the direction of the river and chucked some trout airborne which plopped not so gracefully into the river. This went on for a few blocks and was so enthralling we couldn’t look away! We took this to be a great sign and we scrambled to buy our fishing licenses in town. In the frenzy I realized I had driven down the road a mile or so with my wallet sitting on the trunk of the rental car full of cash! Thank heavens it stayed there or the trip would have been soured greatly.
We found a tasty little spot to start fishing. The sky was mostly clear, the birds were chirping, we were sweating and the fish were….not biting. Well one fish bit, a nice creek chub (not a creek chub at all!), the first fish of the trip.
The lack of fish at this first spot was no matter, we had most of the week to catch finned beasts and it was time to rendezvous with Chuck at his house. Cearra had dinner waiting for us when we got there and it was amazing to show up to a hot home cooked meal after a long ass day on the road. Chicken alfredo with garlic bread and beers. Wow. The evening would be allotted to fishing for Blue cats in the French Broad river. (Insert your own jokes about french broads ) We found a super neat little road that brought us right under a bridge overpass that had quite extensive river access and there wasn't another person in sight! Not sure if that was a good sign or not but we were sure as heck enjoying some intimate time with the French Broad. We soaked some crawlers and kept getting little taps. Nothing serious. I downsized from crawler wad to a crawler chunk and it wasn’t long before I set into my first lifer of the trip, a healthy and chunky River chub.
Bill followed up with another nice River chub specimen and we were both excited to have already nailed down one lifer each! We at first thought these were Bull chubs but with a quick check later from Pat and Moose we determined them to be river chubs.
Some celebratory high fives and fist bumps were had and I did my patented lifer dance which is just basically a lot of pointing and pelvic thrusts and me looking like a dufus but it really helps define the moment. We would save the chubs to use for catfish bait later in the week.
The next day we woke up “early” and after getting Old Man River his daily dose of black coffee with enough sugar to bake several large pies we made our way to Lake Julian.
Lake Julian is a fairly large lake which is used by the local power plant as a reservoir for warm water discharge. The plant sucks in water from the lake and uses it to cool the various and sundry elements within the plant that need coolin’ and then spits it back out into the lake at a temperature around hot bath water making the lake essentially ‘thermal.’ There is an abundance of bass, catfish, and sunfish or ‘brim’ as the southern folks described to us. But the pièce de ré·sis·tance is the presence imported Blue Tilapia which had allured us to Lake Julian originally. Because the lake is thermal some of the best fishing occurs from October thru late February. Or so we were told!
Allow me to preface this day of fishing with a little aside about Billy. He as a propensity or genetic predisposition or maybe it’s just a curse to catch green sunfish anywhere he goes. Well in typical Billy fashion the first few fish he caught were of course, green sunfish. Stud green sunfish to be exact.
It was hard not to laugh and even harder to not give him some shit. Luckily for Bill it wasn’t long after catching his PB green sunfish that he hooked into his lifer redear sunfish which was a real nice specimen. I could hear his sigh of relief even 100 yards down the shore. We picked through scores and scores of Bluegills and green sunfish but were having a blast doing so. I got my lifer redear amidst a crowd of imposters.
The rest of the day would provide a few more lifers in the form of redbreast sunfish which were mostly hybrids we would later realize and eastern mosquitofish which are really fun to catch for about 2 minutes then they are annoying little friggers that will eat anything and crowd your bait like hungry little leaguers at the concession stand after the big county ball game. No tilapia were found today but we were hopeful we could still find some as the week went on.
Well it was about that time where Old Man River needed more pancreatic shock inducing coffee so It was time to head back to Chuck’s and cook up some dinner and plan our next day of fishing. We had steaks, cheesy taters and some caesar salad for dinner and a few adult malted style barley beverages. Chuck the savage decided he would light the charcoal grill in his kitchen...the house didn't burn down but golly I think the fire warden of Buncombe county could certainly sense a disturbance in the force.
The next day was cold and windy and cold and windy. Even with my well insulated/well padded Minnesota frame I still found myself getting a bit chilly. I’m sure Billy and his dad were feeling the chill as well especially because their combined weight equals one of me. Winds were just frickin’ rippin’ upwards of 30 mph and temps were in the low 30’s. We tried fishing Lake Julian again but she didn’t give up much to mention just a few hybrid sunnies and more mosquitofish. The sunset was awesome though.
We spent most of the rest of the day enjoying the good company and tied on a few hot toddies and crashed early for the night. Tomorrow would be a big day.
We got up “early” again and roused Old Man River from him deep slumber, filled him up with his obligatory cup of coffee with enough sugar to supply Paula Dean for a month and made our way west to fish for the fabled Notchlip Redhorse. Our plan would be to stop off at the river and fish for a few hours and then meet Chuck in the town of Bat Cave to meet his buddy and current boss Joseph who is building a resort up in the trees. A treehouse resort with cabins literally built up in the trees. This we just had to see!
We set course for the the river we were pointed to by the generous gentleman scholar pmk0001. He told us to keep our fingers crossed for warm weather and we lucked out that day with warm weather, light winds and the sun beatin’ on down. The worms we were fishing with came all the way from Minnesota with us which had to be good medicine. The only bait shop in town with worms at the time we departed didn’t have any nightcrawlers but they did have a surplus of beaver tails which are a neat little critter. Others refer to them as leaf worms and they are a different species than the nightcrawler. They don’t burrow deep into the soil and spend most of their lives in the leaf litter near the top of the soil. Which makes them in my opinion, more salty and just a touch more mild and tender than a nightcrawler with a subtle acidic after taste. They also sport a wider rear chassis than a regular crawler which maybe give them more action under water. Should be perfect for these southern chicken-fried redhorse.
We pulled into the park near the river and talked with friendly Ranger Rick a while who told us this stretch of river was loaded with bass. We told him we were interested in catching anything BUT bass. “We aren’t the normal kind of fisherman,” said Old Man River between puffs of his cigar “We like the weird shit” The ranger probably could have talked to Don for a lifetime but he wished us good luck and we started down the trail to the river bank. The river was gorgeous, just a beaut! Current was light and the stretch we arrived at was fairly deep and snag free for the most part.
We wasted no time in getting baits out on the bottom. Nothing happened for the first 15-20 minutes or so. Old Man River suggested checking the baits so I reeled in my first rod. There was weight...was I snagged on a stick or some leaves? Yea, probably just leaves….wait….a headshake!? It was moments later I found myself yelling, “FISH ON!!” We could see the finned beast fighting just below the surface of the river. I knew it was a redhorse of some kind and before I could say ‘Aunt Jemima's full rich pancake syrup’ Billy had the Go-Pro on his head with net in hand and was already scrambling down the the bank to net our first quarry of the day. “Bud…” Billy says, “This thing’s lips look weird...BUD, I think it's a Notchy…” Billy ran up the hill to where I was standing and we got our first good long look at this freshly caught fish. Sure as shit it was a Notchlip!!
I don’t think I even got two pictures of my fish before I heard Old Man River Shouting something in gibberish and pointing furiously at Billy’s rod. Now it was Billy’s turn. “FISH ON,” Billly cries, as I grab the net and fall not so gracefully down the bank as fast as possible. I remember Billy’s fish jumping a few times just before I got it in the net...if I didn’t get this one in the net I would never hear the end of it. But we got her in and up to shore where much fist bumping and slappin hands was to be had.
We had ourselves a double on LIFERS! The photo shoot at ensued was worthy of Larry Flynt himself. These sexy metallic redhorse shimmered in the sunlight, their lips glistening, dorsal fins standing erect, and cool clean river water dripping from their anal fins. It was a sight to behold.
We let our newly photographs centerfold models swim back into the river and a sense of euphoria swept over us. Everything was right with the world. We gathered the gear and headed back up the trail. On the car ride back some of euphoria diminished when I had a bout of flatulence that made poor Don’s eye’s water. It was stinky but it was a good stink, the stink of victory. The drive was scenic as all get out and I didn’t mind a bit when Old Man River needed to pee for the umpteenth time that day. The most scenic porta-potty ever was a nice roadside delight.
Now we were off to rendezvous with Chuck in Bat Cave to check out his buddy’s place on the mountain.
We got the royal tour of the property and I don’t think there could have been a cooler place to spend the afternoon after some solid life listing. Chuck came down to meet us in the front yard.
Chuck’s buddy Joseph who owns this property with his lovely wife is one cool cat. He plays 48 different instruments all the way from the didgeridoo to the sitar and even the pan flute!
Joseph lived in Central America for a spell and that is where he got the idea for a tree-top resort. He has several large trees picked out for the future sights of the treetop cabins. He is also building a series of yurts on his property as well for folks who don’t dig heights *cough cough Billy* Chuck took us up the mountain in Joseph's 4x4 Ranger for a look around the rest of place. This was to be no lap around the park as most of the property sits on an extremely steep grade and the roads to and from the future cabin sites are ‘ho-bunk’ at best.
We got back down the mountain safely all in one piece though some of us may or may not have had a heavier pant load. It took some coaxing to get Old Man River out of the ranger, he was having the time of his life or in his words, “I love it, I really do.” We had time for a quick visit again before we hit the road and it was nice to hear more about the future plans of the “In The Trees” resort.
We said our goodbyes to Joseph and his wife, thanked them for their hospitality and hit the road again to make our way back to Asheville.
Having each pinned down one new redhorse species already this trip and with delusions of grandeur and minds clouded with fishiness we found ourselves fishing for the fabled sicklefin redhorse. A fish so mysterious that one may only hope to glimpse one whilst riding on the back of some majestic winged steed flying low over the river valley below. Seeing that neither of us or Old Man River had a winged steed or even a regular steed we would have to resort to conventional methods if we wanted to see one of these fish in person for ourselves. The weeks and months that went into planning this trip also contained a lot of time researching sicklefin waters. We pinned down a section of river that had been mentioned in several scholarly articles relating to the “Native” species, by sources of noble prestige. An offering had to be made, but the question was, would our offering be enough for the Fish Gods..?
A fatted goat is hard to come by this time of year and there isn’t a better sacrificial animal in my opinion so we had to resort to a smaller animal with les legs and hair for our sacrifice. The most succulent of all the beavertails was offered to the river in a small ceremony on the bank. Uncle Donny, the most optimistic bearded man this side of the Mason Dixon line, was hopeful we would get into a few of the finned beasts known as the sickelfin redhorse and watched fondly as Bill and I crossed the river with our waders on and rods in hand. We settled on this section of the river because there was a small confluence with another tributary and the resulting area was a beautiful deep pool with a quaint gravely and cobbled run stuck right in the middle. Perfect territory for a mysterious and fabled fish to be lurking. Bottoms rigs at the ready, our trap was laid. With beaver tails wiggling enticingly on the river bottom it wasn’t long before Billy had a strong tap on the end of his rod. He carefully picked up the rod and swept back swiftly and set into the first fish of the day here. It was apparent moments later when the fish jumped that it was no redhorse but a beautiful rainbow trout.
It wasn’t a sicklefin but it was going to be DINNER! Before I could say garlic butter and lemon pepper I got a bite of my own. A quick hook set and I was fighting my first rainbow of the day.
It wasn’t long before we had a stringer of nice rainbows for dinner. One little brown trout showed up but no other species were caught here. Our sacrifice apparently did not make the grade as the river did not decide to reward us with a lifer today but it was no matter. It was some fantastic impromptu trout fishing when the suckers were nowhere to be found. When life gives you trout, make trout-on-ade as they say. Gathering up our things, we waded back across the river to a very excited Uncle Donny who was tickled pink to see our stringer full of trout.
With a stringer of trout in the cooler we followed Chuck and Cearra to a bad ass little waterfall Chuck wanted to show us on our last day in NC. What a super neat spot it was!
The smell of this waterfall was just exquisite. Fresh and sweet and a lot more fragrant than the wind that blows across the frozen northlands in February I tell you what! A whole bunch of pictures were taken and our little group decided to head back to the house and start making supper.
The trout were cooked over the open fire that night and they were delicious. What better way to culminate the end of the trip with a dinner of fresh caught fish. We enjoyed our last night in Asheville by the fire and it was bittersweet that we had a 17 hour drive ahead of us to get back to the land of 10,000 lakes.
Billy wasted no time the next morning getting the rental car ready. Which mostly meant finding room for all the Krispy Kreme doughnut boxes and feng shui the fishing rods enough to allow for ample leg room in the back seat.
Having said our goodbye’s to Chuck’s little family we were ready to roll out. We stopped at a few scenic overlooks on the way out of western NC that were splendid.
Billy took the first driving shift so I wolfed down a couple Krispy Kremes and laid down in the back seat. I closed my eyes somewhere just west of the Cumberland Gap, near Johnson City, Tennessee and didn’t open my eyes again until we hit the Quad-cities in Iowa. Billy drove for 12 hours straight!! I took to the wheel in Bettendorf or Moline somewhere and the rest is history.
We have to give great big huge shoutout and thanks to pmk0001 for your help with obtaining the notchlips and overall moral support, couldn’t have done it without you Pat! Big thanks to Billy for not letting me get us lost and for being one hell of a life listing comrade with as much drive and determination as anyone I have ever met in my life. Thank you Uncle Donny for being ever optimistic and hopeful and always encouraging. Thank you Chuck and Cearra for the truly amazing hospitality as always, can’t thank you two enough for putting up with our fishiness for almost a week. Shoutout to Moose who was always answering our annoying questions about species Identification, thanks for always having my back man! And last but not least thanks to all of the fine folks here on Roughfish who took the time to read this report!