Fly Fishing On The Edge Of Disaster

True story. I nearly died during a long day of fly fishing. In fact, I fly fished my way right up to the edge of disaster.

Oh wow! What happened, man?
Well, I… You know, I think it’s best if I start at the beginning. That way you’ll understand all of the events that almost led up to my untimely demise.

Fly Fishing: South Fork of the Holston vs. Whitetop Laurel Creek

So I’ve been wanting to write an article about fly fishing the South Fork of the Holston, which begins in Sugar Grove, Virginia. I wanted to cover this water because I think that it’s more fertile; has bigger fish; better hatches; and there’s probably more of it to fish than Whitetop Laurel Creek in Southwest Virginia, which I’ve covered in a previous post.

South Fork of the Holston Rainbow Trout
A nice rainbow trout landed on the South Fork of the Holston in Southwest Virginia.

But I’ve found myself spending more time fly fishing Whitetop Laurel Creek this spring than anywhere else. And I should tell you why and what’s it’s been like.

So the main reason that I’ve been fly fishing Whitetop over the South Fork of the Holston is because I don’t have to drive on the interstate to access the Whitetop trailheads.

And, of course, Whitetop Laurel is a prettier creek than almost any other waterway that I’ve ever been to. And finally, Whitetop Laurel has more wilderness areas than the South Fork of the Holston. Besides all of that, I should also mention that the TVA is currently doing some construction on the weir dam on the South Holston River itself in Northeast Tennessee. So there’s no flows there, at times. Therefore, to me, this makes Whitetop Laurel the clear choice for fly fishing.

An excellent fly fishing pool on Whitetop Laurel Creek.
Whitetop Laurel in Southwest Virginia is one of the most scenic streams I’ve ever seen.

That said, the big downside to fly fishing Whitetop Laurel is the amount of bikers whizzing by you on the Virginia Creeper Trail, shouting, “How’s the fishun?”

Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but when you’ve heard it about twenty or thirty times a day it might start to grate on your nerves a bit.

Nevertheless, throughout the spring, this is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time fly fishing.

“So how’s the fishing been?” I can already hear you asking.

So glad you asked. However, I’m not planning on answering that question right away. I will. I promise.

But first, let me tell you about my worst day of fly fishing ever.

A day which, ironically, became my best day of fly fishing ever. Moreover, the true events of that magical day should give everyone a pretty good idea of what a typical day of fly fishing might be like at its worst. And best.

The Many Dangers of Fly Fishing:

Truthfully, every time a fisherman goes out they are flirting with disaster. There’s just so many things that can and will go wrong. I’ve personally seen guys get swept off their feet in treacherous currents, fall out of boats, become hypothermic after accidental swims, and even get dangerously entrapped in whitewater strainers.

But even if the fisherman avoids all those ever-present dangers, there’s still just all kinds of other annoying stuff that can happen throughout the day. Like…

Well, let’s just start with getting those flies caught in the trees, then losing your whole rig. And it’s always on some barren branch sticking down over the pool just where you cast. Or just dropping your favorite fly into fast moving water. Then standing by, helplessly, while you watch it rush off downstream. Never to be seen again.

Or my favorite, having a decent trout on the line. Then having the hook suddenly shake loose, which sends your entire set up high into the trees. While you stand there smoldering, realizing that you’re never gonna reach it. Another thing that enrages me to no end is dropping flies on the ground right around your feet, searching at length for them, but knowing the whole time that you’ll somehow never be able to find them. Talk about infuriating.

Fly Fishing Dangers: Falling Down in the River

And I’m not even going to mention how slippery and slick your average streambed is. And how easy it is to slip and fall into the water anytime you dare to go wade fishing. I’m not going to mention it, because I, of course, hardly ever fall into the water when I’m out fishing. Why? Because I just happen to have some really good equipment that constantly keeps me on my feet. More on that later, if you need some gear recommendations…

And, on top of all of that, I’ve got balance like a cat, brother. I swear it. And anyone who knows me will tell you that.

So let’s get straight into my worst day of fly fishing ever. No, I didn’t fall in the water. I already told you, I’ve got balance like a cat. And some fantastic wading equipment. However, everything else that constantly infuriates the fly fisherman happened to me that day. I lost flies in the trees. I dropped them on the bank. Couldn’t find them among the rocks and debris, despite me scouring the ground like a forensic anthropologist. And, after all of that, my line kept getting tangled up in what we call a bird’s nest.

Consequently, at a certain point, everything began to irritate me. Didn’t help that I wasn’t catching any fish. And when I finally did hook a decent one… You guessed it. It shook the hook, sending my whole rig, slinging right up into the loving branches of a tall poplar tree.

To add insult to injury, every time I’d claw my way back up unto the Virginia Creeper Trail, I’d be greeted with ecstatic bikers, whizzing by me, shouting, “How’s the fishing?”

“It’s none of your dang business!” I wanted to scream by then.

And that’s when I ran into another fisherman, who just so happened to recognize me from my blog. Anyway, he also had the nerve to ask me that very same question.

“Did you just ask me, how’s the fishing?” I glared at him.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “So how the hell is it, Garrett?”
“What business is that of yours, Bucko?” I snarled.
“Well, I was just asking, because the guides told me it wasn’t fishing that good here and that the fishing was slow this year.”
Those guides are crazy. Nuts. Hell, I’ve been catching lots of fish all morning,” I fumed, lying through my teeth.
“Oh, well they also told me the South Holston is way better.”
“It is.”
So what are you doing here?
God only knows,” I waxed philosophical. And, for some reason, that really set him off.
“You know, I’m starting to think that you’re the crazy one, Garrett. Hell, you can’t even give me a straight answer. Thing is, I bet you haven’t caught a thing. Nothing. Nada! And you know something else?

You suck! And so does your crappy-ass blog!”

And with that he turned, storming off. What the heck?

And, just in case you’re wondering why I put up with all of it and didn’t say anything in return. Well, you should know that I’ve been practicing awareness.

Awareness? Yes. Awareness of emotions and thoughts.

That is not attaching or identifying yourself with your thoughts or emotions. That is to say that, yes, that fisherman made me a bit angry, telling me how much my blog stunk. Insulting me to my face like that. But that was just my ego feeling threatened. Whereas, the real me–the infinite awareness that was me–could just passively observe those emotions and thoughts harmlessly drifting past by me, like leaves floating down a stream.

So I was awareness and nothing could shake my inner peace and serenity.

And so, it didn’t matter to me that the fishing really stunk today, or that lots of folks, just like that guy, were totally dissing on my blog. Calling it crappy, and such. Didn’t matter to me one bit. Because, I was just gonna focus on catching a big fish today.

But I didn’t. Instead I ran into the game warden, who proceeded to give me an earful, because I couldn’t seem to get my Virginia fishing license to display on my smartphone. I swore that I’d synced it when I bought it..

“You should know how to sync your license,” the warden lectured me. “Jesus, you’re like an internet guy. I’ve seen your blog online. And now you mean to tell me that you don’t even know how to sync your fishing license after buying it? What gives, Greg?”
“Well, I–“
“Just don’t let me catch you without it EVER again,” he hollered, as he peeled out and sped off down the trail in his ATV.

Well, doggonit, I thought, choking on the dust in his wake. Why, I was just gonna have to take a screenshot of my old fishing license after I’d loaded it up, tonight. But it was just my dumb luck today not to have it display just when the game warden showed up.

Still, wasn’t the end of the world. After all, it was only the afternoon. So I still had plenty of time left to get back to fishing and hopefully catch a big brown trout. Snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, as they say.

But I didn’t even catch a single small fish after that. No, not even a lowly creek chub.

Didn’t matter anyway, I thought, as I waded the creek. At least, the Whitetop Laurel scenery was gorgeous and pretty, as always. And I felt pretty good about things, despite me not catching any fish so far and having some really frustrating experiences earlier. But now it was later in the day, and things were starting to look up now.

Also, you should know that I’d just bought this brand new pair of wade pants only a few days ago.

And they were as warm and dry as the Sahara on the inside. And completely unblemished, clean, and leak-free on the outside. In short, they were working out just great for me!

In addition, I had a new wade staff and wade holster all rigged up, something like John Wayne would’ve had. That’s right, Pilgrim. Meanwhile, new wade boots with studs, as well, were protecting my feet and keeping me stable on those pesky rocks. Heck, I’d even washed my old fly fishing vest, so I didn’t look like such a dirty old river rat anymore.

And, it was a nice day at that. So who cared if I hadn’t caught any fish all day, lost a bunch of flies to the trees, gotten lectured to, at length, by the warden, and told by some jerk that my whole blogging dream was doomed to failure, and was just about the crappiest thing that he’d ever seen. Didn’t matter to me one bit, cause it was bright and sunny. The water was rushing at my feet. Skies were blue. Birds were chirping in the trees. And truthfully, with my new equipment and freshly washed vest, I was feeling about as proud as a peacock.

It was at that very moment that I took a slight misstep, as I approached a promising pool.

Suddenly, my legs gave out from underneath me, and my right knee slammed unbearably into a submerged boulder. Choking, I sprang up from the creek, drenched head to feet.

“Son of a bitch!” I hollered in pain, staring down in search of the culprit.

And there it was. Right there in the sand of the shallows. Right where it shouldn’t have been. A large boulder with a slanted, algae and slime covered backside, creating the perfect pitfall for me.

“You b#! You m#!” I screamed at it, also noticing now that there was this big hole in my brand new waders, right where my knee had smashed against this stone. Awareness, you say? Was no longer an option for me.

In a mindless rage, I grabbed a large branch from the shoreline, the approximate size of a baseball bat.
I stood in front of the boulder now.

Wham! Wham! I bashed the log against the submerged rock again and again, caveman style.
“You b#$! You p#8! You m&#!” I cursed at that boulder at the top of my lungs again and again. That rock that had just sent my emotions and the day into an infuriating tailspin. Or was it just me? My ego? All I knew was that I felt strangely disconnected from my body…

“S*&#!” I hollered one last time. Now nearly spent, still staring down at that unbudging, unbroken, and clearly unrepentant boulder at my feet.

Should have known that I was never going to win today. And was never gonna snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

And with that thought in mind, I waded out of the creek and hustled up the bank back to the trail.

Back in the parking lot at my truck, I removed my boots, waders, and so on. Got into some dry clothes. And just, in general, fixed everything all back up again, so everything was mostly better. Except for my knee, which still throbbed mercilessly.

Then I got inside, and turned the key in the ignition. To my dismay, she started up just fine. And I was off. On a backroad, headed to a picnic area where I could eat some snacks before heading all the way back to my home.

It was a gravel road, twisting and turning through the mountains. And, at its highest points, it afforded me some glimpses of some of the most rugged, steep, and spectacular terrain in all of Virginia.

So life was almost good again. Meanwhile, to my surprise, a pair of cars whizzed past me, coming the other way.

Morons, I swore. Man, if they weren’t more careful they were gonna drive off a cliff.

Suddenly, the bottom seemed to drop out from underneath me. In an instant, I saw myself speeding into a hairpin curve. No way I’d make it.

I slammed the brakes, cut the wheel. The truck stalled and skidded out-of-control, heading right toward the edge of the mountainside.

I was a goner.

But, by some miracle, my truck came to an unexpected halt about two feet from the edge of disaster.

Adrenaline surged in my veins. Couldn’t bring myself to stare down into the wilderness abyss below me.

My hands were steady though, as I pressured the brake, depressed the clutch, and started the truck back up.

There will be no drift, I told myself, revving the engine. Then, I eased off the clutch and brake, just a bit.

Rear wheels spun. Grit and dust clouded my view of the heart-stopping drop. Inevitably, I felt gravity lulling the truck closer to the edge of the earth.

“NO, you don’t!” I screamed.

And that’s when I finally felt those wheels catch on the hardpack. Slowly, my truck crept backwards up the gravel road until it was finally a safe distance away from the drop off.

Then, I turned the wheel and slowly drove off, never even daring to glance back in my rearview mirror to see the place where I’d come from…

A little while later, I was finally able to relax for a bit and gather my wits, as I sat down in my camping chair beside my truck in the picnic area a few miles downstream from where I’d been fishing today. Then, I just let out a sigh of relief, staring at the scenic view of Whitetop Laurel Creek in front of me, as it ebbed and flowed peacefully through Taylors Valley.

And just as I was about to take a bite to eat, it was only at that moment that I finally realized that this really had been the very best day of fly fishing ever. The best because I really had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Moreover, I’d fly fished and drove myself right up to the edge of disaster.

And when I’d been there, so close to the edge, no, I hadn’t choked or surrendered to my fear. Instead I’d used it to my advantage, overcome it, and performed all the right moves when it really counted. When my life and limbs were on the line. Yes, I’d done the right thing even when I was afraid of drifting off that mountainside and possibly dying. And that was the ultimate lesson to be learned here, for myself, and everyone else.

That, we must all come to accept and live with our fears. Now, more than ever in this day and age. Moreover, accepting and overcoming our most primal fears is the only way that we’ll ever avoid the looming crisis and disaster that lies ahead of all of us.

That said, I have the hope and faith that we can turn it around now, away from this cliff, just like I did on the edge of that mountainside. And that, we, as a people, will overcome, getting back on the right path again, for ourselves, our fellow citizens, and our children. Then, we will all draw a deep collective sigh of relief, as we forge straight ahead into a beautiful land of freedom, consanguinity, peace, prosperity, and normalcy at the end of a long glorious day. And that’s all I have to say about my brush with death when I went fly fishing on Whitetop Laurel Creek and drove right up to the edge of disaster in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.


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Whitetop Laurel Wild Brown Trout
Landed this fine brown trout on Whitetop Laurel the following week. A good day of fly fishing, indeed!

So that’s how the fishing has been, my dear biking friends!

After a long career in the publishing industry, Gary Alan left his corporate job to pursue his next adventures in life as a blogger, writer, investor, fly fisherman, hiker, and traveler. He is the author of the adventure fiction book, 'Big Thunder-Hearted River'.

1 thought on “Fly Fishing On The Edge Of Disaster”

  1. Gary, I have fished this water all my life. I remember when they would run the trucks on the railroad tracks to stock the fish, shoot I almost got hit by the train one time crossing the 3rd tressell below creek junction. couldn’t hear the train for the water. A lot of things change and that being said the name of the creek is Big Laurel creek, or the laurel. White top laurel is a name they came up with for tourism. The Big laurel heads from an old orchard at the Grayson Smyth county line, not white top mountain. But I enjoy reading your adventures. JB

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