"Ah man, not on my pants. Not again."
A knowing sadness weighed the voice bursting sharply from beneath the bathroom stall, startling me mid-stream. Not sure what to say or do to help, I finished depositing an afternoon of coffee and beer and made for the exit, tired from a long weekend talking fishing, wiggling fly rods, and knowingly peering at gear.
The bathroom was in Edison, New Jersey's convention center, which, for three days, had been home to The Flyfishing Show. For nearly 30 years, The Show has been a winter tradition luring consumers, brands, guides, captains, and retailers out of hibernation with a multi-stop national tour. Featuring casting demos, seminars, celebrity tiers, pro staff bro-downs, and a chance to paw through equal-sized mountains of hot new gear and dusty old crap, think of it as fly fishing's roving town hall meeting. A place to talk shit, shake hands, plot warmer-weather adventures, and remember you're not the only one who drinks himself into a stupor studying the latest Flyfish Journal while winter's frigid wind howls outside.
Winter in New England, where I'm from, can be tough on a motivated angler. Once December rolls around we're left hunting stray holdover stripers or pushing through freezing ponds, casting flies that skitter ineffectively across crusty ice while frostbite threatens fingertips. You haven't lived until you've doubled up neoprene waders and waddled down a beach, hoping against hope you don't topple over and have to call for help while seagulls gather ominously around your stranded bulk. It's ridiculous, but when fishing is your drug, you've gotta get that fix. We can't all winter in the Keys or pop over to Andros to live out Instagram-perfect wet dreams.
While frolicking on white sand beaches or sight fishing impossibly blue water under a sun-leathered guide's gaze may not be attainable for someone like me, there are options. My favorite: that time-honored American tradition, the road trip. I've put well over 100k miles on my 3-year-old truck chasing rainbows (plus stripers, albies, browns, and the odd Philly cheesesteak). How's the song go? A rolling stone gathers no moss? I try to stay moving as much as possible, though dirtbagging around the country hasn't exactly made my person—or my truck—fungus-free.
With vibrant visions of highway adventure I'd convinced Chris and Harris, who had to be at both the Jersey show and the following weekend's stop in Atlanta, that driving 1200 miles down the eastern seaboard jammed into my truck would be way more fun than flying. Plus, we'd get to fish along the way! Which is why, on a Monday morning, weighted down by a heavy breakfast of chicken and waffles, the three of us headed south.
If you really want to get the most out of winter road trips in seasonal climates, it helps to harbor an appreciation for subtle hues of grey and brown. The landscapes along the Interstate read like a Dostoevsky passage, harsh and barren. Rural truck stops feel weirder than usual, wan attempts at color amidst a sea of blighted pavement, where we were clearly out of place. Sidelong glances felt sinister, a cashier's toothless smile leered. My overblown and over-caffeinated imagination had us living out a David Lynch movie, misfits in a strange land.
A long day of driving was punctuated by dinner at a right-wing-themed barbecue joint, complete with its own customized armored delivery vehicle. (I know we live in divided times, but do we really need to politicize pulled pork?) We arrived in Troutville, Virginia, greasy with brisket detritus and, with an early morning lobby call to do some actual fishing, ready for bed.
When you call a place Troutville, it comes with certain expectations.
We never found out if it lived up to its name, however, because instead of chasing trout we met up with local legends Blane Chocklett and Josh Laferty to hunt something more exciting—muskie. Neither Chris nor I had ever caught one, and, despite the front end of a polar vortex bearing down on us and temps expected to drop from 40º to 20º over the course of the day, excitement ran high. Warmed by our anticipation, we layered up and launched the boats.
As you've no doubt heard, muskie are called the "fish of ten thousand casts." An apt depiction, I thought, while watching Chris repeatedly hurl a kitten-sized fly at the non-descript patch of water where Blane was certain some toothy beasts lay in wait. Freezing rain transitioned into sideways-blown wet snow. I broke the zipper on my raincoat, and wished I'd worn waders as my soaked jeans stiffened with ice. Finally, just as hypothermia became a real concern, he hooked one.
Nothing kick starts your circulation like the excitement of catching a dinosaur. Icy extremities forgotten, we yelled excitedly. Digging in, 11 weight rod bent double, Chris slowly dragged an increasingly larger shadow up toward the boat.
Not to be confused with the former Maine senator, presidential hopeful, and alleged ibogaine addict of the same name, muskie—short for 'muskellunge'—can grow six feet long and weigh sixty pounds. With jagged teeth, jaws strong as a bear's, and the ability to ingest prey two-thirds their size, muskies skulk in ambush for rodents, birds, other muskies, or anything else that happens past. Including, not infrequently, humans.
Chris' fish was a respectable 43-incher, and we gently released it to once again hunt human toes. Exultation filled the air, even as blood dripped onto the deck—the muskie had managed to exact some revenge by biting Blane's hand before slithering off into the depths. Hopefully he doesn't taste as good as his surname suggests or there'll be a bloodthirsty beast with a particular appetite prowling Virginia's backwaters. Wincing as the wind howled precipitously over a nearby mountain and blew temps ever-colder, we decided one fish was plenty and packed it in. We had miles to cover.
I'm old enough to remember navigating with paper gas station maps, and don't miss 'em at all. Give me a modern GPS-enabled phone over impossible-to-read text any day. I don't, however, understand how phones can be so amazing, but still so dumb sometimes. After missing a highway exit somewhere in Tennessee, Siri rerouted us off the highway, through a broken gate, down a winding, crumbling dirt road, and up a long muddy hill until we dead-ended beneath a massive glowing billboard extolling the dubious virtues of a local used car dealer. I mean, yeah, we should've recognized something was wrong instead of nervously cracking Deliverance jokes and blindly following orders, but still. How does a random mistake like that happen? Considering Siri, in seconds flat, can easily route directions from my home on Cape Cod to Area 51 while avoiding tolls and traffic, errors seem intentional. Was she fucking with us?
Once we got back on the highway, Siri behaved and we made Asheville just as the polar vortex peaked, crystalizing breath in my mustache and freezing the Tacoma cap's locks solid with our bags behind them. Luckily, we were just feet from our hotel. You know what's better than clean underwear? Crushing charcuterie plates and whiskey while watching aging insurance salesmen drunkenly compare sweater vests and hair dye techniques by the warm glow of a fake fireplace. Maybe you had to be there.
The following morning we revelled in climbing temperatures and spiking cholesterol levels thanks to bright sunshine and an over-the-top breakfast from Biscuit Head. Full and warm, we tottered into legendary Hunter Banks fly shop for some beta and soon, with a spot locked down and fresh Woollie Buggers acquired, it was back in the van, man.
According to the Internet, Pisgah National Forest has over 3,000 miles of fishable water amongst its 500,000 wooded acres, all rife with world class trout fishing. We'd been directed to one of the most beautiful rivers I've ever seen, the sort of otherworldly place where I like to imagine Lefty Kreh currently holds court on. While Chris and Harris wadered up to harass trout, I instead investigated the cluster of bike / fish / coffee shops around the forest's entrance. I love to fish, but I was too cheap to spring for a $40 license just to cast for an hour. Judge me as you must.
Our Pisgah leg was brief due to a hot date at Wilderness Systems HQ in Greenville, SC., where a friend and factory tour awaited. Unfortunately, a combination of avoidable factors including a dead poet's estate and my own inability to properly budget anything let alone time led to us running out of time and having to cancel. Instead of watching plastic get extruded into gnarly fishing machines, we scarfed down day old baked goods somewhere on the edge of Appalachia and set a course for Atlanta, Superbowl hysteria, and The Flyfishing Show.
Atlanta's version of the show is smaller than Jersey's. With a younger and more laid back crowd, it was both more comfortable and easier on the ears. A southern drawl lends itself to listening, while the northeast's variety of harsh accents, all delivered with the speed and intensity of a physical assault, are overwhelming even when you're used to them. Atlanta's magical combination of warm sun, smiling faces, great food, and instant battalion of new best friends made winter's bleakness seem far, far away. I'm always inspired by how the bonds of a life dedicated to fishing transcend region, religion, class, politics, gender, race, and age … It reminds me of growing up in the early 90s with a love for skateboarding and punk rock, of being immediately accepted into those communities wherever we went, shared passion outweighing any differences.
After two days of fun and fish talk, countless high fives, promises to stay in touch, and one giant crawfish boil, it was time to pack it in and head home.
Funny thing about home. While often easy to want to get away from when I'm there, it's also the magnet that constantly pulls me back and the rock that grounds all my traveling. After a couple days my brain glosses over the 8º temps and barren fishless wasteland. I start to long for my wife and kid and dog, for coffee on my own couch after sleeping on my own drool-soaked pillow. I was ready to be back.
And though I never intended to make the 1200 mile drive back to Cape Cod in one go, somehow, fueled by truck stop coffee and bad nutrition, those 18 hours flew by while yowling to yacht rock and yelling at podcasts. I almost caught a stray cat somewhere in the Carolinas, drove into an epic sunrise over New Jersey, learned for the fifth time that Virginia is actually below Maryland, and made it home in time for a full, dreamless Sunday night's sleep.
I do wish I'd fished in the Pisgah.
"Regrets, Tourette's, I guess it's the same." – Middle Brother