Photos by Ashley Evans
“I don’t know how y’all normally like to fish, but I was taught to take turns between trout and pools,” David Joy says with a smile as he steps into waders next to his pickup. Here, in the mountains of western North Carolina, the sun is beginning to warm the air through the thick, green canopy of May. Hidden behind the tangle, a brook trout stream tumbles over a series of falls toward the valley miles down the mountain. My dad and I say taking turns suits us just fine.
Standing 6-foot-5 and with a rusty beard, Carolina foothills accent and camo shirt, Joy might not be what most people think of when they imagine an Orvis-style fly angler. Mostly a full-time novelist, he jumps on a construction crew to make ends meet when the advance and royalty checks start to run a little thin. Within the first 10 minutes of meeting, we’ve already talked more about turkeys and wingbone calls than flies. “I had a bird come down off the roost gobbling, and he strutted all up and down this gasline in front of me,” Joy says. “The morning was so cold that every time he let loose I could see his breath hang on the air. For about an hour he just strutted and gobbled and drummed at maybe 40 or 50 yards. I nearly got sick of it because he wouldn’t come in.”
If you’ve read any of Joy’s four novels (published by Putnam) — most recently When These Mountains Burn — or if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on his memoir, Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey, you understand that he is shaped by water. “All I know of beauty I learned with a fishing rod in my hand,” he writes in his introduction to Gather at the River: Twenty-Five Authors on Fishing, which he edited with Eric Rickstand.
“I’m always thinking about fishing, or turkeys. The woods and the water,” he says, laughing.
The three of us hike up the trail paralleling the stream. Foam flower peers out from the undergrowth, and trillium sags under the weight of its petaled head. “You really only need five flies on a speck stream,” Joy says as we cross a small spring. (He calls brook trout “specks.”) “Stimulator, parachute Adams, hare’s ear, prince nymph and a pheasant tail. If you keep those in your box, you’ll catch fish.”
When we approach the first pool, Joy motions for me to go ahead. I try to defer to Dad, but he insists I cast. It’s a tricky thing to be gifted the first pool as a visitor on someone’s favorite stream. Joy and Dad hang back, screened by the witch hazel so their shadows won’t spook the fish. I’m slightly nervous as I wade into the run with my knees bent, eyes searching for any limb that could snare my back cast. It isn’t only the anxiety of performing for the first time in front of another angler — an angler who holds brookies in a similar realm of holiness that I do — but Joy is also a writer I admire. He’s taught me through his work how I might write better about my own home, 600 miles north in Pennsylvania, on the spine of this same mountain range.
After 10 or 12 floats, a good brookie, 7 to 8 inches, finally comes unstuck from the bottom, rises behind my fly, then settles again back among the stones, mercifully not allowing me to botch a hookset. I wave to Joy and Dad, and we begin wading up the cobble.
Joy grew up outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, “when there were still pastures around.” At a young age, he watched shows like Spanish Fly and The Walker’s Cay Chronicles, and started fly-fishing in a neighbor’s cow pond. “My mom bought me a cheap fly rod that cast like a broomstick, but that’s how I learned,” he says. “I landed a bunch of bream and bass with that rod.”
Dad and I stay back while Joy stalks the next run and keeps talking. “I kept a journal to record my catches,” he says, “the date, the weather. You go back and look at that journal, and there was a year where I literally fished every day. Every single day. And I never got tired of it.”
Joy shakes his head and strips line off his reel. He casts the yellow stimulator tied above a hare’s ear and follows the break along an edge of nervous water. With his long arms, Joy pauses the flies and slowly leads them through the run, letting the nymph do its work below. He doesn’t fish as fast as Dad and me. I don’t want to label us as impatient, but if a trout doesn’t rise on the first three or four drifts, we’ll head to the next pool, expecting more agreeable fish. Joy doesn’t rush. He doesn’t force-feed the trout. He offers what he has, twitching and skittering his tandem flies near the lip of a boulder for longer than I think is necessary. Then, in an instant, the stimulator disappears, and Joy lifts a brookie with the hare’s ear lodged in its jaw.
“Whoever’s up, you got the next pool,” he says. Joy kisses the fish, then slips the trout back into the pool. Water clings to his beard.
David’s novels have been labeled as “Appalachian Noir,” “brutal” and “action-packed.” The narratives often balance drug operations, murder and the law, woven together with romantic relationships and beautiful imagistic details rooted in the natural world, as well as commentary on the culture of southern Appalachia. While his books are page-turners of extraordinary quality — conflict begins in the first chapter, and Joy doesn’t let off the gas until the final page — they also offer an undercurrent of contemplative focus.
The often-brutal world of Joy’s fiction is the world he has lived with all his life. “Where I grew up and the generation I grew up in, we could walk into any house in America, open the medicine cabinet and find something to get high on. We were pharm kids,” he says, ducking through the laurel.
This familiarity with substance abuse makes the characters of Joy’s novels authentic. When These Mountains Burn was inspired in part by the heroin epidemic blanketing western North Carolina. “The problem here became unignorable,” Joy says. “It was in my front yard. You’d step out of the truck at the post office into a parking lot littered with syringes. My favorite carp lake is ringed with needles, shiny as minnows washed up on the shore. People are overdosing every day.”
Much like his fishing, Joy doesn’t rush his stories. He lets them unfurl, the same way he floats his flies through a pool. The action of drugs and violence swirls above like the choppy water in a riffle, but David is able to find the still pockets, the same way a trout rests behind a rock, where a reader might breathe and glimpse the soft underbelly of the landscape and characters. A glimpse into the landscape and people Joy loves.
Though his mother was a potter on the side, Joy didn’t grow up in a family of artists or readers. It wasn’t until he attended Western Carolina University and met the renowned novelist and short-story writer Ron Rash that he began to think seriously about his own writing. Joy’s working-class upbringing, and the mountains and community he’s come to call home drive his need to tell these stories of the people he’s lived alongside and watched crumble from the cycle of generational poverty and addiction.
A few small brookies come to hand during the next three hours. We all agree that the flow is perfect, and with the sun continuing to grow stronger, bugs begin to pop. Sulphurs, caddis and stoneflies spin down the hollow and flutter in the stream. But the specks aren’t eating. We throw dry-droppers, single dries, single nymphs, small streamers, naturals and attractors. We tie on 5x instead of 4x. We fish from above, and we fish from below. We only fish the pools. Then we only fish the pocket water. Later, we only fish the riffles. Finally, we only fish the still water on the bank. We spook fish in water we’d never think to fish. The fishing isn’t good.
We joke how the common attitude toward small-stream natives is that the fish are easy and a little dumb. “Throw anything in there, and they’ll eat,” Joy says.
Yet poor fishing makes for good conversation and opens the opportunity to focus on the woods. Paying attention to the whole hollow and not only the stream makes “speck fishing” not really fishing at all. As we break for lunch, two scarlet tanagers chase each other in the poplar crowns, and we look through Joy’s pocket binoculars as they dive around each other. Joy digs up a plant with a single oblong green leaf. A pearl-white root, just a shade smaller than a ping pong ball, dangles in his hand. “This is putty-root,” he says. “I don’t know the real name, but people call it putty-root. You can mend clay pots with it.” (Aplectrum hyemale is an orchid species, and the name putty-root refers to the sticky substance produced when the plant’s underground corms are crushed.)
We watch our step as we skirt rattlesnake plantain and hunch together over the track of a weasel. In the bedrock where water collects, Joy catches a salamander as long as his palm. “I don’t fly-fish for trout anymore,” he says as Dad casts to another pool.
I raise my eyebrows as I look down at his reel and 7-foot-6, 2-weight.
“Speck fishing isn’t fly-fishing,” Joy says. “I’m talking about the stuff everyone does down in the Tuck.”
The Tuckasegee River (the Tuck) runs through Jackson County and is one of the most popular stops for anglers traveling to fish the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail, the only official fly-fishing trail in the country. “I used to fish the Tuck when I was in college, and there was a 2-mile stretch where I’d wade all afternoon and not see another soul,” Joy says. “I drove by that same stretch last week and saw nearly 200 people. Honest. And there were six drift boats in there, too.” Joy shakes his head as Dad returns to report that nothing rose.
“For years, county officials were saying that tourism would be an economic savior for Jackson,” Joy says. “But the entire time, they failed to recognize, or refused to acknowledge, that tourism is an extractive economy. The Fly Fishing Trail is a perfect example. They created and published a map of local fishing spots. They pushed to have this county recognized as the ‘Trout Capital of North Carolina,’ and the state legislature actually made that recognition. But the effect was that they were advertising streams that 20 years ago no one knew about unless they lived here.”
David steps up onto a flat bench and heads through the laurel. “Suddenly you could be in California and jump on the computer and know about a creek in Jackson County, North Carolina, with a Google search,” he says. “The powers-that-be peddled these places off and made their money without recognizing that the streams they were exploiting literally couldn’t support the boot traffic they were herding into them. And all that pressure was placed on the backs of these specks that are already pushed to the brink.”
I watch as Joy slides down a slope to the water, looking for a place to cast. “What we’re witnessing is a continuation of the same economic exploitation that has ravaged this region for two centuries,” he says. “It might not be as ugly as strip-mining coal or clear-cutting timber, but the end results are nearly the same.”
I try to imagine if my favorite streams were suddenly marketed nationally. A film of anger usually coats my mouth when I see a single set of new boot tracks in the sand along my home waters. What would happen if they were all publicly touted, then scoured with a hundred pairs of feet?
It now makes sense why I don’t see many trout on Joy’s Instagram account. His feed is full of mountain sunsets, turkeys, trees, book recommendations and wild-game cooking. But other than the occasional brookie, the fish Joy posts most are torpedo carp and giant flathead catfish. “Once I caught a carp on a fly I was done,” he says. “That was right around the time I fell out of love with fly-fishing for trout. That first carp burned out the gears in my reel. I had a 7-weight Ross reel, and he burned it out.”
We continue to fish the stream, more out of muscle memory than deliberate action. The afternoon has begun to slope toward evening. “It used to be that there was no carp fishing culture in the United States except for in North Carolina,” Joy says. “And the reason why we had that culture is because of pay lakes. Every night they ran tournaments, and during the fishing tournaments there’d be side pots, and everyone would put, say, $10 into the pool. The side pot would be something like catching a carp that was 15 pounds and 2 ounces. The likelihood of catching that specific fish in the first night wasn’t very good, so the pot would grow and grow until someone caught the fish maybe months down the road. We’re talking thousands of dollars sometimes on a side pot. It was legal gambling before gambling was legal.”
I lay my fly down along a seam that looks like any of the other three dozen seams I’ve floated in the last three hours, and a brookie appears. This is so unexpected that in my excitement, I rush the hookset. The fish disappears. Cursing under my breath, I return to Joy and Dad.
“One of the first times Americans competed in the World Carp Fishing Championships in Europe [the World Carp Classic], the contestants were from North Carolina, and they whooped everyone’s ass fishing pay-lake style, throwing pack,” Joy says. “We have some good carp lakes here. Me and my buddy Matt make our own pack bait. He likes using oats, but I tend to like grits. I think the lake we fish is a grits lake, but he doesn’t listen to me.” (A pack bait is a sticky paste molded around the hook to attract carp when it breaks apart.)
I try to imagine what would make a carp in one lake want to eat grits rather than oats, but with the stream narrowing, I’m also wondering if it’s worth bushwhacking for 20 more minutes or if we should just hike up to the trail and have dinner. The fatigue after an afternoon of wading a small stream is acute. It’s a lethargy that arrives slowly but lands on the balls of your feet when you begin to descend downstream. The hike down is sometimes worse than the hike up.
“I don’t think we caught 10 between us,” Dad says as we pause on the cusp of our decision.
“Just an off day, I guess,” I say, taking a few steps up the incline, hinting at retreat.
“These new boots are killing my feet,” Joy winces. “You guys like Mexican food?”
We fantasize about dinner as we walk and stop to look at flowers that we missed. “This one is called spicebush,” Joy says, pointing to a bush with a dark red blossom erupting from the skinny branches. “People will cut up the twigs and stuff them in a groundhog when they cook it. Like garlic cloves.”
We talk fried chicken, greens, mac and cheese, and other high-calorie foods needed after a day of wading. But then our focus elevates as I mention France, where Joy’s novels have been translated and have gained popularity. “If they let me release wild turkeys, I’d move there tomorrow,” he says. “They eat all the best things. Rabbit, duck. Lots of cream and butter. They have trout there, and jewelweed. But the food and wine — I didn’t like wine until I drank it there. Now I love it.”
The trail levels out where a spring muddies the ground, filling a depression where frogs can find shelter. On the far side, Joy spots a piece of blue metal leaning against a rhododendron. The edges are rusted and ragged. Tiny holes from a shotgun blast pepper one side. The blue is a color that automakers no longer use. Close to an aquamarine but darker. “Off the back end of an old Jeep, I guess,” Joy says. “Wanna grab that other side and we’ll take it out? I love stuff like this.”
I hand Dad my rod and carefully pick up the artifact. We parade through the woods, 4 feet of metal between Joy and me, Dad carrying all three fly rods. Salvaging something beautiful that other people have abandoned, which is the real joy of both Joy’s writing and small-stream fishing: relishing what others step over.