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Slickrock Creek by Gary McCown

“Road trip!” I said to Rick when he answered the phone Monday evening.  “I’ve got Friday off and I’d like to go to Noontoola Creek.”  “Wait a minute,” replied Rick.  “Let’s go to Slickrock!  Walter said it was really good in there last year.”

Rick teaches high school algebra and he had just gotten out for the summer.  I just want to go trout fishing in a good place, so I consented, even though Slickrock meant backpacking, not just driving up to the stream and pitching camp.

There is no easy way to get to Slickrock Creek.  It forms part of the Tennessee-North Carolina state line in the heart of the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area, a gorgeous area full of old growth hardwoods.  And the trout above the lower falls are all browns, not big ones by western standards, but beautiful, red-spotted and finicky.  I have walked the three miles to get there on a day trip and gotten skunked a couple of times.  I have always said that if you go to Slickrock you have to be willing to pay a price.  I guess once again I was willing.  Sometimes I think it’s like forgetting what the last hangover was like.

Friday morning Rick picked me up in Toyota pick up.  I noticed when I climbed in that in fewer than 200 miles it would turn over it’s first 100,000 miles.  Rick said we could safely leave it at the trailhead.  Nobody would want it.

We hefted forty-pound packs and started up the Ike Camp Branch trail (easiest one I know of).  Rick may have had a couple of pounds more because I talked him into carrying my twenty-year old two-man tent.  He could handle it, he’s three inches taller, three years older and three times the fisherman that I am.  Seemed fair to me, he’d get to sleep in it too.  No protest.  20% chance of thunderstorms.

Two hours and several sweaty rest stops later, we arrived at an empty campground by ll:00 am.  Thirty Boy Scouts would be there by 5:00 but that would be OK, none of them brought fishing rods.  Slickrock looked and sounded sweet and there was a six foot banded water snake sunning on a limb right in front of camp on a deadfall over the water.  It felt good to be in the wilderness again.

Rick helped me set up the tent, then he wolfed lunch so fast I didn’t even see what it was and he was gone upstream with his new Payne 8’ graphite fly rod.  “I’ll be back around four,” he called over his shoulder.  “If  I’m not back by dark, come rescue me!”

I was still too pooped to fish., so I finished setting up camp and had a can of Nutriment that I had cooled in the creek.  After about an hour I walked down to the first crossing and leisurely fished back up to camp.  My third cast I hooked (and landed) a ten incher on a size 12 yellow/orange deerhair stonefly.  It would be the largest fish I would catch while we were there.

Over the next two hours I caught four more.  I couldn’t help wondering how well Rick was doing.  The mathematical odds were if I’d caught 5, Rick would have caught at least 15.  Within sight of camp I broke off two fish.  My technique was rusty and I knew it.  June 11 and the first trout fishing this year.  (No pity, I’ve been wearing the bass out on Watts Bar.)  My little Orvis 7/11 and four pound test tippets work well when I’m not over reacting on every strike.  Back at camp I pulled out my Thermarest and settled down with a new SF novel (Buying Time by Joe Haldeman).  Even got in a little nap before the boy scouts arrived.  Sure enough Rick got back about 4:00 pm.

“How’d you do?”  I asked.  “Twenty or twenty-five,” Rick replied.  “My first was an honest ten-incher,” I reported. Rick methodically got out his tape measure and ran it up the cork grip onto the rod.  “Got a twelve,” he said.  This is not one-upmanship.  Just honest reporting.  I’ve rarely outfished him and didn’t expect to on a stream like Slickrock. 

We both complained about the amount of trees across the creek.  East Tennessee had a rough winter.  A tornado that got Rick’s barn and camping trailer (and a BIG chunk of the rest of Lenoir City) had apparently swept through this gorge.  Trees were twisted off everywhere and we found a piece of roofing tin along the trail that could have come from Rick’s barn 70 miles away.  The week after the tornado east Tennessee got 18 inches of snow.  Rick said the tornado got the hardwoods and the snow got the evergreens.  The Slickrock brown trout are fine.

The next day was a repeat of the first in reverse.  We fished early, packed up and hiked back to the truck.  I caught eight.  Rick caught twenty something.  At the rest stop on the ridge I told Rick this was the first time all year I had felt 45 years old. 

While we were packing to leave, four guys from North Carolina came into the campground.  They were looking for a place to camp.  I told them to take our spot, we were leaving and there were boy scouts in every direction.  They had fished the Madison in Montana.  We talked while we were packing and found we had a lot of experience in common.  Had stayed at the Sleepy Hollow Motel in West Yellowstone, knew the same famous western guides, etc.

One of them said he thought southern fly fishermen had contributed a lot to the advancement of western fly fishing knowledge.  I thought to myself that was true and I know one other thing for sure: southerners know how to appreciate a good western brown trout!

The brown trout in Slickrock Creek are fine.  You just have to appreciate them in perspective.  


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