River Wisdom Keepers

River Wisdom Keepers

A wisdom keeper with his student

We stood at the edge of Humble Hole, the place where big trout hover suspended in the cool waters of the Davidson River and watch as your fly floats by…dry, nymph it doesn’t really matter. This might frustrate many fly fishers; for me seeing those fat fish relaxed, unspooked by the fly line or movement of the two humans on the bank was beautiful to behold. After all, I’m not there to catch fish—I’m there to witness beauty. And those trout magi are the wise elders. Except that day the other human was also a wise elder in the art of fly fishing.

The largest fish hatchery in NC is located at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education. They raise rainbow, brook and brown trout. It’s open to the public every day except Sundays….and worth the visit.

The past two mornings were spent at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education near Brevard, North Carolina. I took part in a women’s fly fishing school presented by the North Carolina Wildlife Commission. They have various fly fishing offerings that include a kid’s program, casting classes, fly tying. Our two day school included the basics of fly fishing and casting on day one and fishing with a river wisdom keeper on day two. 

Steve was my mentor for the morning. I learned so much and improved my casting a lot.

I call these volunteers river wisdom keepers because they offer their experience and expertise as fly fishers to those wanting to learn. Veterans of being snubbed by trout, they offer solace to those of us eager to learn how we, too, can be humbled by a rainbow or brown or brook. But they gift us with so much more. After all, fly fishing is creating art while fishing.

It’s good to know what nymphs are living in the place where you are fishing. Steve shows me a nymph that looks like the pheasant tail fly that I’ve caught a lot of fish on in my endeavors thus far.

There are many elements to fly fishing…selection of the fly or flies to use (dry fly, nymph, streamer), tippet length, strike indicator placement, stealth, casting (without catching rhododendron, brush piles, rock edges, submerged sticks, yourself, your guide, your rod/line), water flow, ledges, holes, riffles, seams, shadows. The river wisdom keepers volunteer their time to teach about all of these elements and more.

Too often we fail to take advantage of the wisdom held within individuals who have spent years learning this living art. As I stood beside Steve yesterday, I felt honored to be one of those lucky enough to learn what he had to share. As I glanced upriver and downriver, other mentors were with their students…what a beautiful sight.

Steve was very trusting of me to hold the rod still as he changed flies. Once he even held one fly attached to the line in his mouth to add another one below it on a nymph rig…he did remind me not to move the rod. Trusting soul isn’t he!?!

The North Carolina Wildlife Commission provides these programs free of charge. Yes…free of charge (unbelievable, I know). The programs are paid for with funds generated from fishing license sales for the most part. According to an article in the Citizen Times several years ago, trout anglers gave the state’s economy an estimated $383 million from direct sales on fishing equipment, food, gas, lodging, and guides. That same 2014 study found 3600 jobs were supported by mountain fishers. A 2009 study showed a total impact of trout anglers in North Carolina impacted with $174 million boost to the economy. That’s a significant jump in five years. Considering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park had the highest visitor numbers ever last year, it’s difficult to imagine what economic boosts fly fishing is providing the state present day. A drive along trout creeks and rivers or a hike into even more remote creeks gives evidence to the high demand for fly fishing in our Western North Carolina cold creeks.

Women are the fastest growing demographic among fly fishers and our wildlife commission acknowledges this by providing dedicated classes for women. Because fly fishing has been a male-dominated endeavor, it’s sometimes challenging for women to enter into it. In the four months I’ve been involved with it I’ve visited several shops or outfitters just to see how a woman is welcomed. Some have been amazing and supportive beyond imagination. One was so full of testosterone and loud, vulgar stories I will withhold any support of that particular place or their guides for anyone. In April, when I started practicing art while fishing, I connected with several guide services for instruction (since classes were not happening due to Covid). Every one I ‘interviewed’ was asked how they felt working with women clients. My favorite outfitter, Little River Outfitters, recommended a company (Trout Zone Anglers) and I went with them after emailing the owner and checking out the bios of their guides. I chose one with a wife and two small kids…I mean, he must have patience. It’s important for women to feel supported and respected, especially when entering an arena that has been dominated by men for so long. But the smart outfitters, stores, and guides realize that supporting women means their business will prosper.

I didn’t intend for this writing to meander like one of our mountain creeks so I will bring in the line, so to speak, and simply thank the instructors and the wildlife commission for being so progressive in their putting education for all as a priority and especially to those river wisdom keepers that volunteer their time to spread the love of fly fishing.

Trout are some of the most beautiful fish. I hope to be able to paint abstracts that are inspired by their colors and patterns.
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