Scrolling through Google Maps in the Appalachians can be a little overstimulating for a fly fisher. Every valley, hollow, and mountain pass has a blue line of varying width running through it. Generally, every blue line will contain trout. The problem is that not every line contains enough trout to warrant a trip. Especially on the east coast, issues like mining, logging, and their harsh side-effects have ravaged rivers large and small. Remediation has restored some ecosystems, but not all of them.
There is a ritual: I stare at the map, wondering which blue line is worth exploring. Certainly, there are some no-brainers. The famous rivers that have flies, rods, or even shops named after them do have fish. They also have access, and people, and pressure from said people that just visited the aforementioned fly shop to buy the rod and flies named after the river. A stream like that might work if it is a Wednesday or there is a snowstorm, but not so much on a beautiful Sunday. Even the bigger mountain streams are a tough go if you are the second angler through.
Once the big-name rivers are off the table, then I consult guidebooks and state classification lists. “Blue-ribbon, class II, wild trout, delayed harvest on months that have 31 days,” or something to that effect, “from the border of forest service land to the stump with a skull and crossbones on it.” In my mind, rivers like this are hit or miss. They have lots of signs. Signs scream “fish!” Rural signs scream “come catch and eat these fish!” A trip into the woods could yield a full day of native brook trout, or it could lead to a skunk. Or it could result in a run in with bears, law enforcement, or mountain folk. (FYI: Of the three, I’d pick bears.)
Passing up the stars and B-listers means digging deep and casting a relatively unknown actor. These are the true blue lines. The tiny trickle that might be Pine Run, “or maybe Little Pine Run? Or something else entirely? There isn’t really a label once it gets up high and branches off a few times.” Creeks like these bestow an ample supply of bushwhacking street-cred. Your small stream, native trout bravado is legitimized by the amount of time you spend hiking away from roads, trails, and cell service. All you have is your map, your fly rod, and your sense of adventure (and the latest in high-tech / retro-chic gear, naturally).
But what if there was another world even deeper inside the rabbit hole of backroads, backwoods trout fishing? What is the new angling album that not even the indie-fishing hipsters know about?
Forget blue lining: this is no-lining.
Now, I’m not talking about some vision quest where you chase the great white brook trout in your mind through the assistance of some *ahem* plants. This is legitimate driving through the woods, looking for likely spots for water, pulling your car off the road with a 50/50 shot of getting stuck, and striking out for fish.
Admittedly, you could head to the USGS website and get the most in-depth maps available. They will undoubtedly have every possible terrestrial occurrence of water; brooks that topographic atlases won’t even include. That can get costly, and you’ll still have to cross-reference to get park boundaries and other pertinent information. So for all intents and purposes, you’ll be no-lining like me.
As I recently endeavored to do, one could just drive around. Start with the areas around the popular, healthy rivers. Since larger streams are only as healthy as their tributaries and greater watersheds, this reduces the chances of factors like “decimated by acid rain” or “scoured out by the storm of ’97.” Sticking as close to the course of the river as possible, you’ll be surprised by what you find. Seriously, a culvert or a short segment of guardrail might illuminate some little feeder creek that would otherwise be obscured by foliage or your speed.
My plan was to drive up into the heart of a range of hills in Virginia. The map showed a bunch of roads running due east, which led to them inevitably crossing the streams that skewed off in either north-westerly or south-westerly trajectories. I picked a state route that split the difference between two moderately sized mountain creeks that I knew held decent populations of native brookies. Then, I drove. I looked in ditches. I crept shadily down what were probably driveways (see: mountain folk). I looked at Google Maps… even as its cellular responsiveness slowed to the digital equivalent of “you’re over yonder.”
Then I found a trailhead. Trails usually run in valleys. Valleys are usually formed by running water. I poked my head out of the car, and sure enough – the faint sound of water.
Of course, flowing water doesn’t equal fish. Everything I’ve mentioned above, plus seasonal drought, plus overfishing (mountain folk gotta eat) could inevitably lead to a no-line find like this being a total wash.
There is, however, only one way to find out. This might be anticlimactic, but here it goes anyway: I caught a fish on the first cast. A feisty little char attacked my royal wulff with the ferocity of a trout thrice it’s size. I only had an hour, so I didn’t get to explore much. The little creek of ambiguous classification held promise, and, assuming I can find my way back, enough allure for me to devote more time.
Discovery is really at the core of so much of fly fishing. Locating trout and discerning their dining preference is really what it is all about. Finding a stream? That is next-level angling. Anyone can do it. All you must do is forsake the known commodities and venture off with a bit of wanderlust and enough inner peace to emotionally eke out a fishless afternoon if that is how things end up. If the stars do align, then a seven-inch trout will go a long way.
Especially on the East Coast, things are so incredibly close. The places where you are miles from something are few and far between. With such a significant percentage of the country’s populating living a few hours from the major National Parks and Forests, there is a good chance that you’ll be sharing the backcountry most days you’re out and about. There is no (legal/ethical/non-sociopathic) way to guarantee you’ll be alone. Pursuing the “no-lines” might be one of them. It won’t necessarily result in trophy fish, but the fish will invariably be trophies to you. And ultimately, you’ll be walking in your own line.