The Magic and Mystique of Mountain Trout by Jim Casada
Bespeckled jewels that love wild places and clean waters, mountain trout hold a special place in the hearts and minds of anglers in the Smokies. Before getting into that matter in more detail, let me reveal my roots in a telling way. No son of the mountains would ever call these fish brook trout. Specks, speckled trout, natives, or my personal favorite, mountain trout, are all quite acceptable. But to any old-timer, a brook trout is an imported “dough belly” (the term often used to describe hatchery-raised fish).
There are many reasons why mountain trout are so widely and rightly beloved. For starters, they are true natives—they’ve always called high country streams home, unlike imported browns and ‘bows. Also, specks are sort of stream bellwethers. Intolerant of pollution, siltation, warming waters, and the human presence, they are primarily found in pure streams and aback of beyond locations. All of these considerations endear them to fishermen who cherish solitude, wildness, and sparkling streams. They are an integral part of what might be described as the mountain trout mystique.
Similarly, specks evoke nostalgic memories. Old-timers talk of times when speckled trout were so plentiful we caught flour sacks full of ‘em, and in more remote parts of the Appalachian high country the fish formed an important part of the diet of those eking out a hardscrabble living from the land.
Today, thanks to a variety of interacting factors, specks in the Smokies are and long have been in trouble. Ironically, in many areas in the West just the opposite is true, there the fish tends to overpopulate and become stunted. One key source of trouble for these mountain treasures is loss of habitat. Removal of overhead canopy, even if it results in stream temperatures warming just a few degrees, can be devastating. With the extensive logging operations of the early 20th century in the mountains of the South, this happened. It was made worse by extensive siltation and the widespread use of splash dams to move the logs downstream. This technique, which held logs in a small lake created by blocking the stream, saw gates open or even dynamiting of the dam to send the logs downstream atop a wall of water. It wiped out fish in devastating fashion. Then there is acid rain and the acid-bearing Anakeesta rock laid bare by construction of Highway 441 and cloudbursts. All work against specks even as they contribute to the fish’s magic and mystique.
Yet for those who have the gumption to get to them, this usually (though not always in the Park) requires hikes to remote headwaters, they are a source of pure delight. With their white-edged fins, bright red spots encircled by an almost phosphorescent halo of slate blue, and distinctively marked backs, natives are arguably the most beautiful of all trout (technically they are a char, but invariably specks are known as trout). Certainly in the fall, when they sport vivid spawning colors of gold, orange, and red that are more vivid than any October display of turning leaves, this is the case.
The cooperative nature of specks also makes them appealing. They readily strike a variety of flies, and colorful offerings seem particularly effective. Indeed, they are so easily caught, at least in comparison with other trout, as to be their own worst enemy. A stealthy and skilled poacher bent on catching lots of specks can do so, and the fact that they are usually found so far from civilization makes minimizes the likelihood of such disgusting lawbreakers being caught. Since the species, and especially small ones, make wonderful table fare, the temptation they present to ne’r-do-wells is obvious.
As someone who has fished for speckled trout all my angling life, I can readily say that no other type of trout fishing has quite the same appeal for me. Even though my angling travels have taken me from Alaska to South Africa, from New Brunswick to New Zealand, I nonetheless harken to the allure of mountain trout and the Smokies they call home. It may mean backpacking trips into regions which lie aback of beyond, days of fishing without seeing another soul other than the person who accompanies on these camping trips, crawling into a sleeping bag at night deliciously tired, or on rare occasions frying a mess of speckled trout at streamside for lunch. Such trips can produce 100-fish days, and usually all of feisty little jewels are carefully returned to the creek, and it doesn’t matter that their average size may be six inches and anything 10 inches or larger is a trophy.
It’s the precious hours spent in the quest for a fish, which exudes wildness, the escape from a hurried and harried world that mountain trout provides, which produce their magic. That’s why, given the choice, more often than not I’ll leave others to streams filled with browns and bows. Give me the magic, mystique, and enduring appeal of mountain trout. Simply put, they can lay hold of your soul.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Casada is a son of the Smokies and a full-time writer. His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion. To learn more about this book or his other activities, or to sign up to receive his free monthly e-newsletter, visit his web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.