There’s a fine line between adventure and madness. I’ve tiptoed it more times than I’d care to admit, never more so than in the gorge. The gorge, you see, invites you to the edge.
It starts innocently enough, as all good temptations do. A wide southeastern trout stream running alongside a backcountry dirt road. Easy access, easy wading, and easy fish. You’re drawn in by the beauty of the place, the tranquility, and invited to move continuously upstream, following plunge pool after plunge pool like breadcrumbs into the darkness.
Rainbows. Brookies. The occasional brown. You are pulled along by their presence and their willingness to take your fly. Focused on your drifts, you keep moving forward, upward, oblivious that the stream slowly and steadily separates itself from the roadway, sliding northward into the crevasse that defines this wild place, away from the safety of watchful eyes and helping hands. Away from sanity.
The road won’t go that way. It knows better.
Sooner or later, you begin to feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise and you realize that the gentle little trout stream has turned into something else. The banks have grown steep and are cut from a single slab. The pools are deeper, more difficult to reach and the sound of water surrounds you. Only the woods bear your witness.
The electric buzz of adrenalin creeps into your bloodstream.
But just at that point at which reason takes hold, at that point when you consider turning back, you see them. You see the dark-backed torpedoes, tucked deep at the bottom of the frigid holes. Shapes impossible to gage in size, impossible to ignore. You forget the danger. You see only the fish. The final breadcrumbs.
You cross the fine line.
It’s not as if no one ever goes there. The kids brave the gorge, in summer numbers, bobbing along on their patched inner tubes like ducks on a pond. When unseated, they wash along briefly and recover their float, laughing, and continue down the gorge, looking forward to the next dunking.
But for a fisherman, encumbered with gear and waders and big fish myopathy, it’s not so straightforward. He’s more a plastic carnival duck, spinning along the midway game trough. When plucked, and turned over, his number is up. Every few years one is lost to the rock and to the water and to the adventure.
I don’t fish the deep gorge any longer. The memory of my last visit still burns. An eternity spent splayed flat across the tilted rock face, trying desperately to maximize the surface tension of my slick waders, felt toes, and wet hand – one, because I wasn’t letting that Winston go anywhere without me, even the afterlife – trying desperately to arrest my slide, losing two inches of separation from the madness, the bottomless pool below, for each three that I painfully gained. The scrapes are still evident on my reel and my psyche. The memory is still stronger than the pull of the torpedoes.
The irony is that the torpedoes are merely temptation. They’ve seen every fly in the box and respond to none any longer. They are the size that they are and exist where they do because they know better, so the risk of the gorge has no reward beyond the gazing and the dreaming. But that’s all a fisherman needs.
And what if through skill or through luck – good or bad, I’m not sure – you do manage to hook one? What then? How – clinging tenuously to rock, eight feet above the frigid waters, the weight of the fish and the fight adding to gravity’s relentless tug – do you bring it to hand? Would you be tempted to risk more? Would you reach just a bit farther? The place would want you to.
Please. Don’t ask me where the gorge is. I’ve said too much already. I will not be complicit in your descent. I’ll simply say that it’s a blessing that the road departs the streamside for, if more passers-by spied the torpedoes, more would be tempted. More would brave the slick rock walls and the deep pools and the tumbling waters that can pin a man to the bottom. More would pursue the adventure.
And there’s a fine line between adventure and madness.
Author - In general, Mike does only what he wants to these days, courtesy of an early retirement and his unbelievably tolerant (and, of course, quite lovely) wife, Mary. That usually means puttering around his small slice of wooded southern heaven, following his fly rod from North Carolina’s Appalachians to it’s inter-coastal waterways, and trying to capture small pieces of these joyful times with his pen and his camera. His efforts are happily shared at Mike’s Gone Fishin’… Again.
Oh, and working in the garden with Mary. Did I mention that she was quite lovely?