June 18, 2024 By: Johnny Carrol Sain

Images by J. Carrol Sain

The pool is barely wider than my 9-foot fly rod. Riffles are mere trickles. The creek itself disappears just beyond the next pool, filtering through porous karst, becoming one with the underground rock for several yards before breaking back to the surface. The stretches of dry, sun-bleached stones appear alabaster from a distance. Closer looks offer a washed-out watercolor spectrum.

The subtlety in mineral chroma is telling of this entire austere experience—you don’t come here for a lot of fish or for big fish, which is why hardly anyone comes here at all.

Most don’t even know this place exists. It’s a tiny tributary cutting through vertical topography in a backwoods county that’s mostly government land. The turnoff from the main dirt road onto what could barely be called a road leading here is subtle, too. You’ve got to know where it is and then you’ve still got to look carefully. The two-track immediately falls into a mud hole that serves as a moat. It keeps two-wheel-drive vehicles out. Greenbrier and overhanging maple limbs guaranteed to dig into paint (leaving a scar that may or may not buff out) frame the chocolate-colored water. No pretty boys allowed.

All of this works to narrow the appeal.

My friends don’t understand why I come here so often. It’s an hour’s drive. I live within 10 minutes of much better fishing, and I’m short hours away from world-class river smallmouth angling with regular mammoth smallmouth that I’ve not ever experienced. “You’ve never fished the Eleven Point?” Incredulous looks always follow these type questions. I shake my head with a sheepish grin and they shake theirs in bewilderment as I tell them about tiny but exquisite bass, chunky creek chubs, ebony jewelwing damselflies, and how a place doesn’t give up its secrets in only a casual relationship. “Man, why don’t you just drive another hour and catch some pigs?”

It’s impossible to explain, this longing for less in a world consumed with wanting more, so I’ve stopped trying.

The trip so far has produced more creek chubs than smallmouth, easily three to one. Chubs hit with abandon. Their big mouths and bronzy colors have even made me second-guess what exactly was on the hook a few times. But a surrendering spirit gives them away. They lack stamina and succumb quickly. Their sausage-shaped bodies covered in small, thin, and flexible scales even feel soft. They are predatory minnows, though, a fact that by itself makes them cool, actively competing with smallmouth and green sunfish for top spot in this creek. And they are eager. I fool them with ease while smallmouths and even the sunfish eye the fly with suspicion.

I work my way up the creek from pool to riffle through dry stretches and continue to catch fish. I hit a flat with smallmouth everywhere in the glass-like water. They see me, too, and they don’t seem to care. They watch me cast then rush the olive wooly bugger in a pack. Occasionally, greed will overpower caution and one will grab the fly. I’ve got to be quick. I’ve got to anticipate. They often inhale then spit it out faster than my senses can register a take. A big one is 12 inches, and I luck into two before they all vanish. Quick learners.

As I push upstream, the bed narrows considerably as ridges on both sides compress and tilt its bank. And then there’s only one more pool. No more riffles. Just water running like quicksilver as it cleaves the stony ridge and bubbles into the pool, the primeval sculptor still carving this very creek channel and shaping these hills.

Boulders fill the last pool. Witch hazel and tag alder reach for sunbeams, crowding the sliver of open air above. Backcasts are tough, so I roll the bugger toward a jumble of rock and watch the floating line dart under. The strip and raised rod work to bury the hook and a feisty bronze bass rockets from the water, fierce and wild and likely untouched by any hands other than mine. True or not, I like to think it’s so.

These tiny pools, these lonely hollows, the minuscule bass in competition with minnows are all reasons why I’m here. And then there are other reasons I can’t articulate and don’t even fully understand. Despite the diminutive nature of these waters, they contain a galactic presence, a connection to something infinitely profound and unknowable. But something that is still somehow so intimately familiar.