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Freshwater Toothless Piranhas

Hiking up the trail to north Suck Creek, I had chilling flashbacks to the 30th mile of the Stump Jump 50k only six months ago. I remember pushing my legs down while simultaneously pushing my body up this hill. My reward at the top would be the same terrain back down, and then back up another and finally a “light” two-mile jog to the finish line. I had to side step at times during this part of the race to avoid an all out onslaught of cramping. I remember seeing yellow jackets buzzing around the ground and unnaturally tried to rile them up to entice a sting. A sting meant pain, but it meant a jolt of adrenaline – something I ran out of about 6 miles prior. I made it down to the creek crossing for the second time during the race. The first crossing at the beginning, I was fresh, psyched and did not pause to take it all in – this was a race – not a nature hike. This time however, I took quite a pleasant and extended pause. I saw a teal stretch of calmer water sandwiched by riffles. Swimming mostly unbothered in those pools were plenty of fish. I made a mental note to come back and sloshed up the other mountain side to the finish line of my first 50k. I ate a ton of food that night, drank beers, slept 12 hours and felt sore and sick for the 3 days following. I also completely forgot about my previously unknown to me fishing spot.

That changed when my friend Bradley called me up to go fish one afternoon. I asked where? He told me one of two spots with this spot being one. I agreed before he was done trying to explain where it was.

Now I was back on this god forsaken hill. But I knew where it peaked and where I was going. I avoided yellow jackets and hiked with only my legs. We gleefully and chattily marched up then back down to the bridge I limped across 6 months prior. The water was higher, swifter, cloudier and grayer than at the end of Summer. We saw no fish swimming, but popped a beverage, assembled our rods and chose flies at random.

The water level left us both somewhat unconfident about our chances, but we came to fish, so we waded out in our sandals and slung some flies. Not long we had a few bumps. Surely not getting hung up. One bump lasted longer, the next was an official fish on. We figured the “stoned fly” was working. This fly was my creation, the name given by Bradley for various reasons and was a woolly bugger with mismatched color and body and haphazard legs tied on – a token amateur tied fly – with a token amateur fly name. An uncomfortably slow swing and twitch retrieve was the trick and these long eared sunfish were the treat.

Red breasted sunfish are native to the Eastern Americas. They are thriving despite humans. They thrive in cooler water with a current which makes our East Tennessee streams perfect habitat. Each stream seems to have a touch of different coloring – like a fingerprint - and they are one of the few freshwater fish that will actively pursuit a moving fly in cool and swift water. Due to their shape, catching them in a moving current on light tackle makes them feel twice as big. A trout or bass are shaped to better cut through the water but a sunfish is like a sail or kite, and can use that shape to their advantage. Their mouths are extremely small so small flies are important even though they will attack flies half their size.

So often we are inclined to fish for trout, climb only the three starred climbs in the guidebook and run only the trails we know best. We are uninclined to get lost, to fish unfamiliar waters, and to climb into unknown vertical terrain. We strive for the V points, those trails where we feel light and fast and for the holes we know we can catch fish. Often though speed, difficulty and guaranteed success are not as fun. Sometimes its fun to see a freshwater toothless piranha devour a fly half its size. Sometimes its fun to hike a bit further for what may be, to take the left fork in that trail instead of the right. Sometimes its fun to just be outside and breathe fresh air. Actually, that is always fun.

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