This year’s Trout Unlimited Teen Summit instilled a great confidence in me: the confidence that the future of fly fishing and conservation is stronger than ever before. This five-day event in the mountains of western North Carolina not only helped me become a better fly fisher and conservationist, but also introduced me to numerous like-minded teens who share the same passion for fish and fishing (some even more passionate, if you can believe it!). It was an experience I will not soon forget, and one that I believe we can all learn from.
Prior to the Summit, I struggled to find people my age with the same passion for the sport as I have. Sure, I have fishing buddies, but none are as devoted to conservation and fly angling as I am. There’s the occasional person I meet online, but even then it’s hard to connect with them.
Nearly all of my local TU meetings are filled with what we referred to at the Summit as “OWG’s”: old white guys. Now, that’s not to throw any shade at OWG’s, because I’ll be one someday. Rather, it’s to express the age gap and lack of diversity in the fly fishing community I have grown to know. As Severin, a fellow Summiteer, put it, “I have so many friends that are over 60.” And that was the case for most of the teens there, myself included.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having older friends. I have learned so much from my elder fishing buddies, and cherish the memories I have made with them. However, it’s hard to connect with a 65-year-old on the same level as a fellow teen. That’s why the most important aspect of the Summit for me, as well as just about everyone in attendance, was to meet new fishing buddies with the same devotion to the sport and outdoor stewardship. With just 16 teens in attendance, it wasn’t hard to connect with everybody. By the end of the week, we had established a tight-knit community.
While making new friends was a huge part of the experience, it certainly wasn’t the only thing we did. Obviously, plenty of fishing was done, and in a variety of water types. Many of the streams (more commonly referred to as creeks and forks in NC) we fished reminded me of the waters I fish here in New England. The wild trout streams were mostly pocket water with a few large pools interspersed, while the stocked trout streams were pretty flat with some riffled sections. The major difference, at least appearance-wise, between southern Appalachian trout streams and New England ones is the rhododendron. Most of the high-quality creeks we fished were choked with the native plants. They were quite a nuisance for the fly angler attempting to make a cast, but more than once I found fish tucked up under their sprawling branches.
Though they were mostly similar in appearance, the North Carolina waters fished completely differently from what I’m used to. The wild trout creeks mainly contained rainbow trout, not the brook trout I usually encounter. Unlike brook trout, rainbow trout are not very surface-orientated, and prefer their meals underwater. My typical plan of attack, a single Purple Haze dry, didn’t work out so well for these fish. Instead, I found myself experimenting with somewhat unfamiliar small-stream tactics, such as jig streamers. Those who brought Euro nymphing rods typically did quite well, though I was without mine. One day, one of my partners, Will, even landed 14 wild rainbows, brookies, and browns in under two hours while Euro nymphing.
One of the few fish I caught on a dry fly all week was also my first-ever wild rainbow trout. It was small, but so was the fly I used to fool it – a size 18 sulphur dry. Quite different from the 12’s and 14’s I typically use on small streams!
On the larger rivers, gullible stockers took just about any fly you put past them. When it wasn’t raining, dry flies of all sizes worked just as well as anything else. But many times it was raining, and we had to switch up our tactics. It rained a lot down there, as it should; the western North Carolina mountains are part of the Appalachian temperate rainforest. Just about every afternoon, a thunderstorm rolled through the area. By the end of the week, you came to expect it, but those first few almond-sized raindrops were always disheartening.
Despite the weather, we still had a blast, and caught plenty of fish. Some days were better than others, but there was certainly no absence of trout. From vibrant, par-marked rainbows, to buttery browns, to haloed brookies, the mountains of Pisgah, Great Smoky, and Nantahala did not disappoint.
Of course, as at any Trout Unlimited event, we also participated in some conservation-related activities. A fan favorite was snorkeling the Pigeon River with Luke Etchison, North Carolina’s Aquatic Wildlife Diversity Coordinator. Luke led us on an underwater expedition of the main stem of the Pigeon River just before a large paper mill. According to Luke, upstream of the mill, the river supports a robust ecosystem thriving with a myriad of aquatic species. Downstream, however, the river is barren of nearly any and all biodiversity.
With the amount of rain in the prior few days, the river was slightly high and quite stained. With only about a foot of visibility, it was tough to see so much as your hands in front of you. Meanwhile, the current raged against your body, attempting to dislodge your grip on the bottom every second. Despite this, our group was able to spot numerous species, including darters, redhorse, suckers, sculpin, trout, smallmouth bass, and even a hellbender. Just think of what the downstream section of river could be without the pollution …
Despite the destruction it causes, pollution is far from the most pressing issue to North Carolina’s streams. As we learned using an app developed by TU, sedimentation is a much more serious threat to all waters in the Tar Heel State.
On the drive in from the airport, we passed the French Broad River. Its water, muddied by sediment, could only be described as “chocolate milk”. But what was causing that stained appearance?
To answer that question, we worked with TU volunteers to examine sedimentation in a headwater of the French Broad. The largest source of sedimentation, it turns out, is roads. In this case, we were examining a fairly well-maintained Forest Service road. Still, evidence of runoff was evident, and along with runoff comes sediment. This experience opened all of our eyes to just how destructive something as simple as a road can be to the health of a watershed.
Along with the sedimentation survey, we also did a macroinvertebrate sample and electrofishing in the same stream. Both activities revealed the resiliency of native species in the face of adversity. The electrofishing turned up over 30 brook trout in just about 12 minutes of shocking, an especially impressive count considering the diminutive size of the mountain creek. During the macro samples, we found a wide array of aquatic invertebrates that form the majority of the forage for the brook trout. All of these species play a crucial role in the health of an ecosystem that will serve as a stronghold for native coldwater species as climate change forces these species further north.
The passion and excitement for every single one of the activities we experienced at the Summit was incredible, and speaks volumes about the future generation of fly fishers and conservationists. The fate of fish and fishing is in the hands of the youth, and if the TU Teen Summit was any indication, the outlook is quite promising.