NANFA Trip to Tallulah Gorge,
As I pondered this, I spied a farmer pulling into his driveway. He waved as I passed, which is the standard rural greeting. (It differs from the city wave in that all the fingers are extended, instead of just one.) I pulled over just past his mailbox as he politely waited for me to approach. We exchanged salutations and names, then I asked him if there was a legend attached to the name Warwoman.
An older gentleman with a kind manner, he introduced himself as Junior Crow. Speaking slowly, he patiently explained that back in the days of the Cherokee removal from the area the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation was "relocated" in NC while the rest made the horrible journey toward Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. On one of these human round-ups, government troops along with their captives stopped by a stream for the night at a place where Clayton's Battle Branch Baptist Church now stands. During the night, a determined Cherokee woman crept into the camp with a long knife and made a commando style raid. She allegedly took out at least nine soldiers before she was finally stopped. Whatever her true name was, she is now remembered simply as the Warwoman.
My brief visit with Mr. Crow, who seemed to be as much a part of the area as the land itself, was representative of why I can't even entertain the notion of leaving the South. Being a historian, I could have listened for hours but I knew Fritz was waiting for me. I'll have to research this story further at another point in time. Casper Cox and I share some distant Cherokee ancestry from this area of the state. Geez...Casper & I possibly related? Now there's a truly scary thought! (-:
Mr. Crow granted my request to photograph him. We shook hands and parted company as I continued my drive to the Chattooga. I had barely arrived at the appointed spot before Fritz rolled up. We donned the wetsuits and moved a repectful distance upstream from the few trout fishermen already in the river.
July in GA is usually way hot, but a wedge weather pattern moved into the area and parked there for the duration of the weekend, bringing in mist (later rain) and temperatures in the 70s (normally 90s). Without the sunshine, the water seemed much colder, but we still got in a couple of good hours of snorkeling before we were thoroughly chilled. We saw warpaint, whitetail, and yellowfin shiners, bluehead chubs, redhorse, northen hogsuckers, rainbow trout, assorted sunfish, and a couple of darters that we couldn't get close enough (especially without glasses) to ID.
When we returned to the motel, Casper Cox (Chattanooga, TN) was waiting for us. He and Fritz shared a room three doors down from mine. After they got settled in their room, the three of us stood out in the parking lot, viewing and photographing fishes before we went to dinner. As with most memorable trips, it didn't take long for the "wierd factor" to appear. The door to the motel room nearest the truck opened, and out stepped a young blonde. Although she was attractive, she was a just a bit too chubby for the clothes she wore, and her smile was a lot like an advertisement. She drove away, but returned just a few minutes later.
When she emerged from her room again, she was wearing a strippers outfit (what little there was of it), and announced, "Time to go to work," as she got in her car. "I only come up here on the weekends to work as a bartender," she claimed. We couldn't help but chuckle, and she said, "What? Do I look bad?" We assured her that she did not, and wished her well. Putting her car in reverse, she said, "Well, gotta' go make some money," then shot us another billboard smile and said, "Unless I can make more money here." We politely declined, and she rolled away.
After we finally quit laughing, we piled into Casper's van and proceeded to a local restaurant for an excellent dinner. We had a great time exchanging personal histories and fish-related anecdotes. These guys make very good company even if we weren't going anywhere. Just as we returned to the motel, Blondie rolled up with four (count 'em, four!) men in her car, and looking rather sheepish. "I am so busted," she said, as if we hadn't already figured out she was a "working girl." Since their room was right next door, Fritz said, "I hope you're not going to be making a lot of noise tonight." She grinned and replied, "I'm not making noise, just money...lots of money!" We left her with her "friends" and returned to the room to examine some fish books before we called it a night.
After enjoying the motel's complimentary breakfast Saturday morning, we drove just a few miles south on US 441 to the Tallulah Point Overlook where we met Dustin Smith (Newberry, SC), Chip Rinehart (West Columbia, SC), and John Patterson (Lillington, NC) beside the Gorge at 8AM. Although heavy mists capped the surrounding hills, the view of the Gorge was still spectacular. We took a couple of group photos as we waited for late arrivals, then formed a caravan to our first stop of the day.
Big Panther Creek (Two miles south of Tallulah Gorge on US 441):
This is a small, clear running stream that forms a repeating series of falls, pools, & riffles. The bottom is mostly sand and gravel, with some mud in the deeper pools. We chose a stretch just outside the park boundaries of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Just after we parked, we were joined by Paul Harney (Clermont, GA). Paul had been the subject of much discussion that morning as he had missed out on our last two trips (Little River, AL & Edgefield, SC) due to confusing directions. When he didn't show up at the Gorge, we concluded that he too must be a blonde. (-; Not so, however, as he arrived just in time for this one. Anticipating his arrival, artist/sign maker Casper presented him with a personalized, colorful "X marks the spot, you are here" placard, complete with check boxes for recent trips. Paul got to check this one off the list!
After climbing a wobbly fence at the highway median, we all descended to the stream below. Species collected/observed included:
rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
The bandfin shiner was the target fish for this location, and it was found in abundance. Yellowfin shiners, much discussed recently for the variations of their fin color, displayed bright red-orange fins in the males we caught. We finished here ahead of schedule, and traveled 23 miles north up US 441 to where it intersects GA Highway 246.
Little Tennessee River (On the property of Kitty Wise):
Ms. Kitty Wise graciously allowed us access to this stream that borders her property. (Thank again, M'aam!) I made sure I got her email address so we could send her the link to the trip report. We entered through a one-lane gravel driveway with a six-car caravan. This terminated in a hayfield where we parked. We still had to walk a little way to the river, but the weather was holding steady. Fritz broke out the shocker, and soon we were looking at lots of fishes. The water there was more turbid, with a strong current. The bottom (rarely visible) was gravel in the shallows, and mud in deeper areas with oddly slanted boulders and sudden drop-offs. Seines were the only way to go, as dipnets were virtually useless. Species collected/observed included:
yellowfin shiner (N. lutipinnis)
At this point, the party split up into two groups. Fritz had some further interest in the Little TN River further down as he continued his search for stonecats. Dustin, Chip, and Casper opted to accompany him, while Paul and John went with me to complete the scheduled circuit. (Dustin agreed to supply a trip report of their adventures on that end.) We said goodbye to our friends, thanked Ms. Wise, and took off to NC.
We followed GA 246 until it became NC 106 at the state line. As soon as we crossed into NC, we began the steep, winding climb into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The route I had mapped out was chosen for the incredible scenic view it offered. Almost immediately, however, we ran into a very dense fog that continued all the way to Highlands, NC, which boasts an elevation of 4118'. It was cold up there! As we entered Highlands, and turned south onto NC 28, the fog gave way to rainfall that lasted in various degrees of strength for the remainder of the day. We were dry when we sat down to plates of barbeque at a placed called Rib Country, but we were totally soaked after that.
Clear Creek (Approximately 8 miles south of Highlands, NC, just west of NC Highway 28):
Clear Creek was a tiny, obscure stream with clear, cold water and a subtrate of sand & gravel. Lining both banks were thick stands of rhododendron that blocked access to the stream as effectively as any hedge could have. Thus, the only way into the water was a nearly vertical descent through a mat of Virginia creeper. Fortunately, the footholds I had dug on my previous scouting run were still usable. We worked the seine in the pools and kicked into our dipnets in the riffles. The steady rain was already having a noticeable effect on the water level and the turbidity increased rapidly. This and the cold rain made it a shorter stay than I had originally planned. Species collected/observed included:
yellowfin shiner (N. lutipinnis)
The yellowfin shiners at this location displayed both orange and yellow fin coloration. Leaving Clear Creek, we turned south on NC Highway 28, crossed back into GA, and stopped at the Chattooga River, which forms the border between GA & SC at the bridge. Foolishly, I forgot that it was a trout stream and that we no longer had anyone with us who possessed a scientific permit. So, taking the seine in this stream was a huge mistake, for which I take full responsibility. On any other given day, you couldn't find a game warden if you tried. Unfortunately for us, a young trout fisherman got offended when he saw our seine and called 'em. Although I'm still having trouble with my attitude about this individual, he was well within his rights to do so. I just wonder why no one ever calls in on the clowns who throw everything in the water from Granny's broken flower pot to the engine block out of Bubba's pick-up.
In any event, as I returned to the van for a snack, I was approached by the Rabun County (GA) Sherriff who asked me to wait until the wildlife boys showed. Before the next hour had passed, we were also visited by a SC ranger, two separate units of U.S. Forestry rangers, and two GA rangers. Eventually, after some stern warnings (and hints on how to read a map), they let us go intact. The upside is that most of them had actually heard of NANFA in some form or fashion. The downside is that I risked the arrest of my companions, and bad PR for NANFA. For that, I profoundly apologize. Species collected/observed included:
central stoneroller (C. anomalum)
Needless to say, after this drama, we wisely called it a day. Despite the embarrassment, it was a very worthwhile trip. Thanks to all the guys who showed up, and special thanks to Fritz Rohde & Dave Neely for their help as I researched the trip in preparation. And to those about to collect, we salute you!
Meanwhile, back in Georgia...
Site 3: Little Tennessee R. at Needmore Rd (SSR 1113), off of GA 28, NW of Franklin
Rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris)
We had hoped to find the Tangerine darter (Percina aurantiaca) in this area as well, but none were to be had, but certainly not for lack of effort. This was my first trip into the mountains to collect and nearly every species that we caught was a new one to me. I especially enjoyed the sculpins, which I had never seen in person. Some of the other highlights included the threatened Spotfin chub(which were all quickly released), some gorgeous five inch Whitetail (with a nice pinkish body color and very large and colored dorsal fins) and Warpaint shiners, and the colorful darters. After a few hours of collecting here, we were all exhausted and soaked from the constant rain throughout the day, so we decided to part ways. Chip and I headed on down the mountain back towards SC and Fritz and Casper went to find a hotel to dry off and make plans for the following day. I would like to thank Steven Ellis for the effort he put into making this trip happen and for being such a gracious host, as always. Like I said earlier, this was my first time up into the mountains, but I know now that it certainly won't be my last.
The story continues:
We found a restaurant high on a ridge that provided us one of the best meals I've ever sat down to. Wonderfully prepared and garnished with a giant sprig of dill, the meal was of a mighty fine class. Rainbow trout and pork ribs were shared with all the wonderful trimmings and elaborate garnishments. We studied the maps and enjoyed a nice evening discussing all kinds of things and prepared for three sites to visit the next morning. We sought out higher streams to hopefully offset the muddy, rain swollen water downstream found in the larger rivers.
The first site, which we had scouted the night before, had a lower water level and was noticably clearer. I opted however to move further upstream to increase the odds of more clarity. With the day still early, still chilly, the skies overcast and drizzily, the murky water did not provide much motivation. I made the plunge out of hope, desire and maybe a hint of desperation. With my limited viewing and Fritz's dipnetting we only found orange side dace, hog suckers, creek chubs, stonerollers and a few rainbow trout.
Cold and wet, we loaded up and headed to the headwaters of the Nantahala River for perhaps greater diversity. It was a small stream that had been surveyed back in the sixties and was said to hold saffron shiners, which I was eager to see again. Once again, the murkiness of the water and the overcast skies prevented any valuable, prolonged, or distinct observations.
Fairly miserable, worn, and dissappointed after being skunked for a solid two weekends in a row, we considered our options. We decided to skip our third site as the weather continued to drizzle and Fritz had a long drive ahead of him. In studying my return route options, Fritz suggested I explore the Valley River, which flows through Andrews, NC, and into Murphy. On the map the terrain is interesting, being a distinct valley, so I chose to follow his advice in the hopes of seeing some new critters.
Crossing up and out of the Nantahala gorge, I began to descend into the valley. I studied the TN gazatteer and sought to gain access at the first flows suitable for snorkeling. I found it at a small bridge off the main road and got my gear together. I worked my way down the steep bank to the creek. The skies were still overcast but the water was fairly clear. I immediatly observed mirror shiners, a recent species for me that I've learned to ID fairly quickly. It has a unique, blunted snout and very torpedo shaped body. A small triangular mark resides at the caudal fin base. The males can be stunning with excellent color and an enlarged dorsal fin. I have kept one from the Hiwassee River for over a year in a 29 gallon planted Eclipse tank. A very interesting fish that is fun to observe. They were plentiful but the males seemed to have lost color and their bodies and fins were a bit worn and tattered.
Several large rainbow trout swung wildly around me in a deep pool below the main riffle. They never offered a prolonged view, although I had seen plenty already that day from tiny 1.5" juveniles to these large 18" Christmas turkey rainbows. I was looking for more and new species. All the standard locals were there that I had seen during the last 2 weekends and commonly in my region, including creek chubs, stonerollers, hog suckers, whitetail and warpaint shiners. Only a couple of darters appeared and I was unsure of what they were due to the visibility.
As I moved quietly, I looked down to see a large hellbender working along the bottom, nosing into dark crevices, hunting crawdads. I reached down to clasp him but after a few seconds of my holding him, he squirmed wildly, slipped out of my grasp, and dissappeared in the murky water. I went back to my exploring up and down the flow looking for anything new and in hopes of seeing him again.
Every once in a while a bit of golden sunshine filtered through the clouds, lifting my spirits and provided a fleeting glimpse of radiance. I was being lured on. Making one final pass to the riffle above, I found the hellbender's tail protruding from beneath a large rock. Being far more patient and tender with the beast, I eased him into the shallows where I could observe him more closely. What a cool creature! Large, rust colored flappy skin, a very flat head, and the tinest of eyes. Cute little highlighted toes adorned his feet. I was saddened to remember how many are killed by fearing folks screaming, "Devil dogs!" I have found several dead along banks of streams where fisherman have killed them, thinking they were venomous.
It was very gentle and somewhat unafraid of my passive yet prodding observations. I had seen a dead one just a few weeks before in the Hiwassee, recently strangled by fishing line ensnared about his body. What a long, gruesome death it must have experienced. I wish I could have found it before the monoline strangled his body to death. What a pleasant memory that would have provided. He would have told all his buddies and I would have been more welcomed on my trips below. After a few more minutes, I let the hellbender pass beneath me and watched it descend to the pool's depths as it returned to hunting crawfish. I hope to see many more.
I returned to the van and headed downstream to larger waters and a greater diversity...the Valley River proper. Still overcast, and even more murky waters, no site seemed inviting. Several times I walked into the waters edge but the cold and overcast skies talked me out of pulling my mask down and laying in the water. I just was not up to getting in cold water where I could not see well. I endlessly debated with myself as to what to do. I studied the map and decided to follow a few tribs upstream, seeking clarity. One stream looked promising but led directly to a large, industrial chicken factory/farm with all its horrible smells. I was not about to get in water anywhere near such a place.
I finally found a stream called Junaluska which shares a name with a church retreat I've attended. Hoping for better luck, I tracked this down and found clear water filled w/lots of small trout, but the overcast sky and rainy days had worn me out. I was just not driven to seek out new life peering behind every rock and beyond each riffle. I stripped off my gear, rinsed myself clean in the cold waters and headed down to Andrews proper for a hot meal and final drive home.
I decided first, however, to follow the Junaluska down to where it joined the Valley River. To my pleasure, an excellent spot presented itself. The city park and ball fields allowed immediate access along a gravel bar and the bridges upstream provided interesting architecture. A good variety of habitats were present from pools to extended riffle runs and even a few boulder chutes. A trio of boys pulled in a couple rock bass as I watched, and told me they had caught 11 brown trout at the same spot earlier in the day. Still, with the sky drizzily and myself tired I decided to get lunch first and consider a return.
After a meal at the Kentucky Colonel's buffet, a review of my TN gazatteer and Etnier's "Fishes of TN," a reassessment of the opportunity, and new refreshment, I headed back to the site. The three boys were now replaced by a new trio of young fisherman. By now it was about 4pm and I would only have another 2 hours or so available because of the cloud cover. I pulled on my shorty wetsuit, laid down in a pool and saw all the local natives again.
I worked my way upstream laying in pools along the way checking out a couple backwater areas where I now think I picked up some demanding hitchhikers. A few times I stopped and stirred the gravel and let the fish approach me. The shiners swarmed about me eager for any tiny bug I dislodged. I always enjoy doing this but was seeking something new. Eventually, I observed what I think are a possible blotchside logperch and a streamline chub, or closely related chub. I cannot say for sure due to the murkiness but am fairly confident of this ID. I have recently observed both species. I will return to this site as the locals assured me it was often very clear.
The one new experience I did, without question, gain was having my right leg and left thigh covered by small 1/4" leeches. When I realized they were on me, about a dozen or two were already plump and red with my blood. I spent about ten minutes scraping them off with my fingernails. Yuck. Today, two days later, they are very itchy, oozy, and my legs are unpleasant to view in public.
One interesting thing occurred yesterday though as I collected my daughter from craft camp at Audubon Acres behind our home. A fella' inquired about my bitten legs and when I told him what I had been doing, he said that being a trout fisherman himself he often snorkels to locate their habitat. Cool, stealthy, and my kind of thinking! We shared a few stories and were remembering waters we had visited when Connie walked up. Lo and behold, they were childhood school friends. So we discussed plans to visit the Conasauga, snorkel, and picnic with our families. You never know why a nest of leeches picks you out for lunch but who knows where it will lead you. :)
I dont want this report to be overly despondent, but I'm disappointed that I experienced it after having much higher hopes. It certainly merited the rainy day blues...with a hint of murky despair. :)
I do want to reiterate the highlights, like exploring new regions, communities, and waters, sharing the early Saturday beginning of our foray with an excellent cast of NANFA members, the excellent evenings and meals I shared with Steve and Fritz, a few close encounters with some interesting critters, new fishies, and possibly a range extension of a couple species. Clear water and a future time and opportunity call me back to the Valley at the Junaluska.