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Merlin, my Appalachian magician

About Merlin, my guide

That’s not his name, but it fits his magic of putting me on fish. He did not want his name used or picture taken. He said he’s a “little behind” in alimony payments and there’s a warrant out for his arrest in Tennessee – claiming that he’s getting things straightened out. I just hoped he wasn’t an axe murderer.

Our lives intersected at an auto repair shop in the heart of the Appalachians last spring. He was abusing a mechanic when I rolled in on a spare tire. We had magazine time waiting in the customer lounge, and the subject of fly fishing broke out. That’s when I found out Merlin was a local fishing and hunting guide.

Later, after Merlin left, I asked the abused mechanic about him, and he said Merlin was the best guide for miles around and had been since he was a teenager. “Merlin,” he said, “fished and hunted the three contiguous mountain states and was a zealot about conservation. He’s in trouble with the law most of the time about that – shooting at poachers, busting heads that litter, anything and he’s on em’. He’s real hard on out of state lads – calls them treble f@#kers.”

Sounds Good to me

When I got back to Atlanta, I called him about a dozen times over a span of about three weeks before reaching him. He has a land line and no answering machine. I booked him for three days in May.

We met at a shuttered diner parking lot. I got out of my truck, and his salutation was, “Where’s your gear?” Firmly, I said I’m paying you; you supply everything. He turned away and headed back to his truck. I got into my waders and boots, grabbed my vest, rain jacket, and a few needs for the day.

It was a mistake to ride with him. He smoked non-stop. His dog smelled real bad and didn’t like me. I was positive there were dead bodies in his truck – something was squishing under my left foot. The smell was pungent.

We didn’t go far before turning off the main road. It was just turning light to the east. He and the mutt bounded down the treed slope to visible rushing water. I caught up with him – he wasn’t into aiding even an 80-year-old, but I was good with that.

We followed a worn deer path that zig-zagged along the stream before ending at a large pool that had a wall of rock on the far side. We crossed fast running cold water – the mutt disappeared. Merlin motioned me to wait on a muddy ledge about three feet in width. Eventually, he hand-signed me forward to a drop off, pointing to its terminus. An uncomfortable cast found the target. No, his head shake said, pointing more to the right and giving me a fairway marker. The leech retrieves instructions were signed easy, easy and all the way to the bank. He signaled again, again, again, then POW. It was a nice bow – about 20-inches. He said, “F*&king hatchery fish, let’s go.” Mouth agape, I couldn’t believe it.

The “Study of a Rainbow Trout” (Oncorhynchus mykiss) original was donated to the Virgina Fly Fishing Festival Auction along with the “Study of a Brown Trout” (Salmo trutta). Both award winners. The images are by America’s top watercolor artist, Thom Glace and published with permission. Click on either image to visit his website.

Now I had to hump my old bones up a slippery slope, get in the truck to maybe do it all again. Not happy just yet

The mutt came running when Merlin started the engine. She decided I would serve as launching pad to the back seats. Settled, she looked at me and wagged her tail. We were friends now.

The two lane road elevated rapidly and twisted on itself a half-dozen times over the next 40-minutes. Eventually, we turned into a mountain on a dirt road that hadn’t seen much early summer traffic. The grass was tall and straight with minor wheel rutting that did not look like yesterdays.

In the mile or so up to the Do Not Enter gate sign, the road had become more path like. Getting out put tree limbs into the open driver side door.  Merlin wrestled with keys and opened the gate.

Quickly, we began descending at a cautious speed. Vista glimpses revealed we were peering at mountain tops and several straight down drops of a thousand feet or more. Nothing was said. Soon the path became road like again, and we hit stretches of level terra firma. Now, we were looking up at mountain tops.

Attempts at conversation devolved into arguments. One of us was irascible, so I scrapped nonfishing repartee

In an hour or so we’d seen several deer, a huge buck, a bear with cubs, birds of prey and ground creatures galore. When we arrived at the river, it was majestic; I would have been happy just to sit and watch. Merlin had other ideas.

He pulled out an 8-weight Sage rigged with a RIO InTouch 15-foot Sink Tip and a short leader with a #2 or #3 bugger looking fly that turned out to be heavily weighted.

I thought that’s a little weird for trout? But, hey, this guy does know what he’s doing.

His name is Popcorn. Image by Moonshine and Pancakes. The Appalachia you’re sold to visit has more than one foot in the 21st century, but enough of back in the day to be a memorable visit. The best part you’ll never see. It’s hidden away in valleys, not all that accommodating but the real deal, especially the music, its rivers, and wildlife.

He seemed to know the river as if it had no water in it

We had an open run almost immediately. The far bank was not at all hospitable, so we never crossed. Merlin walked directly to a ledge formed by flat rocks slightly protruding – about 40-feet out into the river. The water was constricted at that point, so it was running faster there than at the outer and innermost of the river.

“Start casting at the head of this ledge, perpendicular to the bank,” he said. “When the fly hits the water start retrieving – don’t let the flow govern the swim.”  Adding after a pause, “High stick.”

On the third or fourth cast, I felt a hit, but I’d gotten hung up on a rock; I started my jerking to free the fly. Uh oh, rocks don’t jerk back.

Merlin said, “He’s dug in under the ledge. Lower the rod tip and see if he moves… OK, now hustle forward, keep the tip in the water and wait for a chance to pull him free.” The eight and double digit pound test tippet paid off. I horsed the fish out.

It was a huge brown, maybe 10-pounds. A New Zealander, I said to myself. The bugger fly was throat deep, but Merlin got it out fast, and the fish was back home in seconds. The iPhone saw only a swirl. The leader was retired, fatally wounded.

I didn’t fish two miles from the truck the rest of the day. Most of the landscape permitted all the backcast room ever needed, but a cast of no more than 50-feet was all that was ever required. A roll cast would have been adequate 75% of the time. Most casts were inside 40-feet, especially casting at those few wade fishing spots the river offered. Nothing I fished with floated – I was always too sink tip heavy, fly heavy or both.

With the sun getting high, Merlin changed spools. The new fly line was a RIO InTouch Gold WFF-8 with another short leader, leech and dropper rig with a Prince nymph. One swing through the first slow water pool and the Prince nymph came tight and did almost every time after that. We went through three nymphs. No takers on the leech?

Merlin kept changing the length of the dropper to match depths he only knew. The catch count got lost.

Such is my iPhone. Merlin holding a Prince Nymph caught brown.

At one point I had to rest. I asked Merlin if he wanted to fish. He didn’t answer and went off with the mutt. BTW, that is the bitch’s name. I ate a half melted Snickers bar, drank two bottles of warm water and dozed in the sun listening to the therapy of a river.

When he came back, it was around 4 pm. He saw me releasing a rainbow on “my” weighted yellow marabou, articulated  streamer. I had looped on a short sink tip and added another short leader/tippet. My brag fish was about 24″.

I gave Merlin the I’m good- to-go look, and that was the day and a great one at that. We killed nothing. He took my fly and said nothing. It made me smile.

No, I’m not giving you Merlin’s real name,  the town he’s from, telephone number or the river we fished. I promised not to, but I will tell you we fished a section of river in Appalachia you’ll probably not get to.

Oh, and you can get used to the smell of pungent – I’ve been back.

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