We’d had gullywashers for what seemed the entire spring and early summer. The waters were swollen and dangerous; unfishable. I warned my editor that the fishing was going to go from terrible to smallmouth only and that perhaps we should push for fall but the trout fly fishing in SC story needed to run ASAP. Michael, the writer, was coming down from Charlotte, NC and given our budgets, couldn’t spend the night. It’d need to be an afternoon trip, the worst possible option for July in South Carolina.
We met up at Karl Ekburg’s perfectly located Chattooga River Fly Shop at the fork in the road for the discerning angler, Delayed Harvest with easy access to the left or go right and hike your way into the infamous Burrel’s Ford campground. After meeting Karl’s partner, Karen, and their dog, Guss, I sat on the bed of my truck, reorganizing various cameras, related gear, water, and snacks into my drybag. I put on my wet-wading booties and laced up my boots. Something didn’t sit right in my gut while Karl and Michael geared up and talked about the day’s plan; “I should bring my rod” my mind uttered. “No, you shouldn’t, moron. You’ll miss out on pictures you’ll need.” I ruminated on this for a few moments. Knowing three lines in the water are better than two, I still resigned to yield to Michael and Karl. “I’ve been skunked plenty of times on the trout stream and Karl’s a pro. He’ll at least catch one fish for the story,” putting it to rest in my mind.
Michael grinned like a ‘possum eating briars, holding the glorious flyrod in his hands. He’d long dreamed of this day. He’d be Brad Pitt riding the river in chase of a giant brown leaping from the water only to perform aerial acrobatics before diving deep into some logjam and tearing line from his reel in no time. Karl tied up a few little red and tan wooly buggers of his own design, I believe. Editorial Note:: I’ve since lost the couple he slipped me after our trip but not before landing quite a few fish. Great little pattern.
We jumped into Karl’s Jeep and headed to Burrel’s Ford for some interview time and for Michael to get a lay of the land. We hiked in and I photographed Karl waxing poetic whilst flipping rocks in the river to reveal stone flies in different stages of life, matching them to the flies Michael would be using later. If you ever need info on Chattooga River bugs, Karl is the man. He’s the poster boy for conservation and entomology in these parts and is incredibly helpful and friendly.
We scouted some patches of water and decided to head up the gravel road to the delayed harvest section upstream of Hwy 28. We quietly slipped into the drink, a relief from the heat. I glanced a few spooked fish as we waded in further. I immediately noticed a massive crawdad that any self-respecting Louisiana native wouldn’t have passed by. I watched the fresh-water-lobster-cousin as Karl worked with Michael on basic fly casting mechanics, disappointing him with the not-in-the-movies roll cast. The crawdad was there for similar reasons as us, hoping to catch a fish, though we’d be returning our catch.
Michael started to get the hang of things, allowing the fly to dead drift into a swing and then stripping back, undoing his life-long learning of conventional fishing presentations. Mend, raise the rod tip, lower and point the rod tip, the mechanics can be dizzying to a beginner and downright maddening to a proven conventional tackle fisherman who knows if they only had a spin rod, they’d already have dialed up something by now. After a few missed strikes imitating Bill Dance on the hook set, Karl took Michael to a rock to rest, review, coach and grab a drink. While they sat talking, all I could think of was “how am I going to turn in a story about fly fishing with ZERO fish pictures?!” I needed one of them to catch a fish. I was regretting my decision to not bring my rod along. I tried to remain patient. It was July and it was hot and the trout were just not having it today. I’d been there before. I voiced my concern to Karl.
The two crept further upstream and took another shot at things. It had gone from hot to hotter and a gentle breeze was starting to roll in. Karl took a rod to try and scare up a photo-op for me. The temp dropped a few degrees as clouds blocked the sun. I dug through my bag and rigged together my GoPro and dome in anticipation of something good happening. I went to put my bags on the bank and turned to see the crawdad still hanging in the same spot. He stepped into a pool of light to pose for his close-up and I pulled a few frames of him on my way back to my subjects. Then it happened. The thunder rolled across the mountain and we all made it to dry ground quickly. I turned around to show the other fellas that the crawfish ended up just like us, skunked. Fishless.
The magazine ran an “edited” version of the story. Wordsmith Michael Banks wrote the story he wanted to tell on his blog, including a photo I loaned him of a fish I caught on a different SC river, the Upper Saluda. Given the circumstances, Michael did a great job with the story and laid a solid foundation to the beginning of his fly fishing quest. I decided to write this story. This is my account. Getting skunked sucks and there are three different fish stories of the same day to prove it. I know for a fact that if Karl couldn’t catch a fish, there is NO WAY I would’ve caught one. I’m glad I left my rod in the truck so I could say I didn’t get skunked. In the end, I was the one who really needed to catch a keeper and I came home empty handed in that department. I imagine Karl’s version is “just another day on the wild and scenic Chattooga.”
EDITORIAL NOTE OF HISTORICAL VALUE :: Chattooga is Cherokee for “Stupid white men who suck at fishing think they’ll catch fish here.”