Book Excerpt: ‘Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia’

Posted by | August 25, 2014

two authors togetherPlease welcome guest authors David L. O’Hara (left in photo) and Matthew T. Dickerson. O’Hara is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Classics, and directs the philosophy program at Augustana College (South Dakota), where he teaches courses in environmental philosophy, ecology and deliberate living, and an annual course in tropical ecology in Guatemala and Belize. He has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Books and Culture, and Orion. Dickerson is a professor at Middlebury College (Vermont), where he has taught essay-writing courses on nature and ecology and on the literature of fishing. His other books include The Road and the Torc (an historical novel), A Hobbitt Journey (on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien), and two other narratives about fly fishing, trout, and ecology: A Tale of Three Rivers and Trout in the Desert. We’re pleased to offer you ‘Timber Barons, Splash Dams, and the Brook Trout of the Upper Tellico in Tennessee’, from chapter 5 of their newly published , (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).


Matthew and I are driving the Cherohala Scenic Skyway, a beautiful two-lane road that connects the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. “Scenic Skyway” is a good name for this road; for a little while it lifts you out of the valleys of the Smokies and brings you to the top of the mountains, following their ridges.

OHara_Revised cover-page

Building roads in the mountains is tricky business, and the results are often ugly scars across the mountain face. Here I feel like I’m being treated to the work of engineers who thought first of beauty and of submission to the contours of the land, then only later about speed. This is not a road to hasten you on your way; it is a road that is both a means of transit and a beautiful end in itself. We glide over the mountains at a leisurely pace, and begin to coast down into eastern Tennessee.

We’re headed for the town of Tellico Plains, where we’ll meet a guide who will take us on the upper Tellico River. The Tellico River is a little more than fifty miles long, many of those miles suitable for trout. This is the longest free-flowing coldwater river in Tennessee. It’s also one of the most heavily fished and heavily managed put-and-take trout streams we’ve visited. One state biologist we spoke to described the lower Tellico as “a circus.” Every week from mid-March to mid-September, stocking trucks full of hatchery- raised rainbow trout drive along the river, stopping to pour in trout for anglers to catch.

Something like 135,000 trout are put into it every year, most of which are promptly taken out by anglers. The river is closed to fishing two days a week for stocking, presumably both to give the stocking trucks time to work, and also to prevent anglers from following the trucks and removing the fish right after they’re placed in the water. Each week on the day it reopens the lower Tellico becomes a fish market. People line the banks to fill their creels with fish that have lived in the river for only a day or two.

Upstream of this circus, in its headwaters, the Tellico gathers the rain that falls on a broad swath of mountains, carrying that water down from the Smokies toward the Tennessee River. The Tennessee, together with the Cumberland, drains most of Tennessee. Water from the Tellico eventually flows through Tennessee and south into Alabama, watering cities like Chattanooga and Huntsville, before turning north again, to cross Tennessee a second time, flowing parallel to the Cumberland for a short while before both rivers join the Ohio River.

The Tellico gained notoriety in the 1970s when it gave its name to the infamous Tellico Dam, the dam that impounded the waters of the Tellico and the Little Tennessee Rivers in the Tellico Reservoir, flooding native American historical sites and endangering the snail darter, a small river fish that most people had never heard of until it became a political byword.

Sampling for aquatic invertebrates on the upper Bald River.

Sampling for aquatic invertebrates on the upper Bald River.

In the springtime, the Tellico boasts some class IV whitewater, some of the best—and roughest—water available for kayakers. Its major tributaries include the Bald River, with its majestic falls, and the North River. The Tellico is a powerful river, and when it floods it floods hard. The banks give us a view of how high the floodwaters can get. Building bridges here takes careful engineering. The steep sides of the Smokies concentrate rainfall and snowmelt into narrow channels, and calm rivers can quickly become torrents.

In the 1880s clearcutting timber harvest began in earnest in this region. By the early 1900s a railroad reached Tellico Plains to allow the fine Tennessee hardwoods that covered these mountains to be carted away to build homes in Michigan. The timber baron who brought the logging operation here promised that he wouldn’t leave a stick standing in his efforts to turn the forest into capital, and he very nearly kept his promise. One logger said of these hills, “all we want to do is get the most we can out of this country, as quickly as we can, and get out.”20

When you remove the trees, floods happen more quickly. Rain that would have coated leaves and soaked bark, rain that would have been absorbed by the debris on the forest floor, and rain that would have been drawn up into root and branch, simply runs downhill with nothing to impede it. The soil and leaf debris are carried away into the river, which is bad news for anything that breathes clear water, like hellbenders and trout, or for anything that needs unsilted beds for its eggs and young, again, like trout, and like the riverine benthic invertebrates. Fine sediment suspended in the water fouls the gills of trout and suffocates them, like smoky air does to creatures with lungs.

Trout can ride out brief periods of muddy water if they can find less silty slack water to hide in, but a lot of runoff will kill trout quickly. Not much survived in the Tellico once the logging began. When it rained—and it rains a lot in the Smokies—the rivers turned from clear glass to chocolate milk, and the bodies of trout floated downstream, their gills full of suffocating mud, and their white bellies turned to face the sun. “Splash dams” made the flooding worse. To get the logs downstream more efficiently, loggers on the Tellico built temporary dams that could form deep holding ponds for logs.

A non-native rainbow trout Dickerson caught on the Tellico.

A non-native rainbow trout Dickerson caught on the Tellico.

As the dams filled, the stream below became a trickle, exposing natural cover. When the ponds were full, the dams were opened abruptly, sending a devastating wave of lumber and water that scoured the river and swept away everything in its path. This logging and flooding happened not just in the Tellico but throughout a great swath of the Smoky Mountains. Between roughly 1900 and 1935, many of the native brook trout populations of the southern Appalachians were completely destroyed by logging operations.

We humans may cause a lot of harm, but we also often recognize it when we have, and sometimes we try to make it right. Eventually, upstream calamities become evident downstream. And the people of Tellico Plains were not indifferent to the abuse of their watershed. In 1901 a newspaper editorial in Tellico Plains protested that “The general government ought to step in before it is too late. If the timber is all stripped from these hills the streams will dry up and the ultimate loss will be serious and widespread.”

That voice crying out in the wilderness was eventually heard. In 1911 the Weeks Act authorized purchase of forested or once-forested land in the watersheds of navigable rivers to preserve and restore these important waters. Thus began the acquisition of what was to become the Cherokee National Forest in 1920. Of course, sometimes our medicines can be worse than the disease, or they can have unwanted side effects.

Around the same time as the Weeks Act state fisheries officials found it easier to replace the lost native brook trout with rainbow trout imported from Western states, since rainbows are much easier to breed and stock. Even where the brook trout survived the logging, the rainbows outcompeted them, and the numbers of brook trout continued to decline as the rainbows migrated upstream throughout the watershed.21

The attempt to restore the fishery partly helped the beleaguered native brook trout by restoring its habitat. But when we re-built its house, we put a few gorillas in its living room, and then told it to sit down and make itself at home. It’s probably possible to share a house with apes, but don’t expect them to share your food with you. You’ll probably move out quickly, which is what the brook trout have done.

So we’ve come to the Tellico for two reasons. First, we’re still looking for native Southern brook trout. The most remote headwaters of the Tellico are said to still hold a small but significant population of the Southern strain of indigenous brook trout. Second, we’re looking for hope, and the lower Tellico offers us a picture of what a trout river can look like after it has been restored, even if it has become a rainbow trout river. The once ravaged mountains have been reforested and the river is now managed as an active fishery. We’d like to see what that looks like, and what we can learn from it.

Green Cove Motel in 2008.

Green Cove Motel in 2008.

After putting our bags in the cabin we’ve rented, Matthew and I drive back upstream to the village of Green Cove. We’ve been told that the woman who runs the store at the Green Cove Motel is a wealth of local fishing lore, and we’re eager to meet her. The building looks like it has been here a long time; it has that settled look, like the way boulders, deposited in the forest by glaciers or having rolled down a mountainside centuries ago, look both natural and a little bit alien. And like boulders, the cabins of the motel look like they’ve been worn and weathered by years of forest rain. Green Cove is a quiet, shady, restful place.

Just behind the store, the river slopes and chatters down the rocks. The store caters to forgetful anglers by supplying them with basic groceries and basic fishing gear. Marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers for campfire s’mores. Peanut butter and bread, and Twinkies. Nets that look far too big for use on a mountain stream. On the shelf beside the counter is a set of clear plastic drawers full of hand-tied flies. Yellow and black seem to be predominant colors in the dry flies.

We spend the next half hour talking with Catherine, the woman who has run the store since 1964. When we ask about trout, she smiles and her eyes shine. Without the trout, there might be no Green Cove. People come here to fish, and faded photos of happy anglers and their trout adorn the walls. She tells us the fishing is so good because the river is stocked every week. In fact, the stocking truck puts fish in right here, right behind the store. Matthew and I steal glances out the back window. It’s true—even from here, you can see them in the pools. One long trout rises gently to take something from the surface of the river.

The story takes a slightly melancholy turn when she tells us that the store is for sale. She tells us she’s in her eighties now. She just doesn’t have the energy to keep up with it, she says, though she seems full of life here beside this river. Folks around here and her regular visitors don’t want her to sell the store, because they don’t want the change. The Green Cove Motel is a tradition, an institution. It is a part of the Tellico, the place where many people from near and far away step into the river and experience its life. Her eyes, focused on something distant, gaze downstream.


Footnote 20: Horace Kephart, a logger from Michigan, in 1901 said this about the forests up the Tellico River.
Footnote 21: Cf. Kurt D. Fausch, “A paradox of trout invasions in North America,” Biological Invasions (2008), 10:685–701

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