I had messaged Sam earlier in the week. “Let’s go on Sunday. Let’s catch the sunrise.” 4:45 came and I pulled into the parking lot. The destination was a familiar haunt: Lake Taneycomo. We slipped up through its valley that once held communities of people isolated by the steep folds of the hills. Under the cover of darkness I imagined what it was like before it was tamed, before the dam went in and turned it from the White River into what we know now: an artificial habitat for artificial things. These waters now hold a foreign species of fish called the Rainbow Trout and an even more strange and wonderful creature: the fly fisherman.
Our plan was to hit our usual gravel bar, make coffee, watch the sun wake up, and try to get some fish to work before heading further upstream. The first three items on the docket were accomplished handily, the next two proved more difficult. They weren’t running any water through the dam, so the lake was too low to make it any further. They wouldn’t be running any more water ‘til long after we left. Not a hundred yards upstream from the island, the prop ran aground. I took the opportunity to run myself aground and snap some action photos of Sam fishing from the boat. Sam took the opportunity to sit down and swap flies.
After a few more feeble attempts to lure in an artificial fish with an artificial fly, the artificial angler brought his boat back to bank, made a tuna sandwich and suggested we head out of the trophy zone and try our luck with worms. Sandwiches accomplished, we quit the upper reaches of the lake and headed for Fall Creek. It wasn’t long before Sam had a good looking rainbow on the line, and shorter still ‘til it was in the boat. Success achieved, we developed a friend on a nearby dock.
“What’s the ticket?”
“I dunno, worms?”
“I’ve tried everything! Shrimp, to my favorite: pink and…” The end of the sentence became indistinct as he pulled up his stringer of fish to reveal two small trout.
“I’m threatening to call it. Pack up my tackle and start cleaning these fish. That always seems to bring them in.” His laughter at his own joke obscured any response we might have made and we let the boat drift again, wishing him well. Thirty minutes later Sam connected with a second trout and, after landing it, it was decided that, lacking cold beers in the boat, we ought to go find some lunch at The Landing, a bastion of “Aww, Shucks,” down-home consumerism.
We beached our jon boat between two docks, next to a vacationing man who was marveling at a bass he had mistaken for a carp. As we passed he was beckoning to his wife, two sons, and anyone within earshot to come take a look while he boasted about the possibility that he might cut off a branch and spear it (he could not). The restaurant was a large, floating affair that spent a lot of money to make it look down home and folksy in the way that made sure you knew that you’d spend a lot of money on a plate of food that was down home and folksy. It was clear, when we walked in, that they were more interested serving families who rented condos and fished for Small Mouth in sparkly boats on Table Rock than dirt bags who woke up 3:30 to make coffee on a gravel bar and throw San Juan Worms at Rainbows. We asked to sit on the back porch, in order to keep an eye on the boat. I think they were glad to accommodate.
It’s funny to think about how I romanticize things. The White River with all its native inhabitants - above and below water. Old rundown bars & bait shops, river resorts in their glory years & general stores speckling the hills like the spots on the side of a trout. I don’t know if this was the way things were at some point, but I know it’s the way I wish they were. I don’t know that there is anything wrong with that romantic notion, so long as I don’t conflate that with a historical account. The thing is, everything changes. Some things change faster than we’re comfortable with, others too slow to notice. All of them have consequences - good and bad. The water level dropped and we couldn’t get to the dam so we headed downstream and caught two beauties on worms. Not the original plan, but an outcome I can’t complain about.