Practicing the art of fly fishing

Part five in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution series
on fun things to do in the North Georgia Mountains

Twilight is descending on tiny Rock Creek Lake, a pond in the hills above Suches.

Pink light hovers in the trees. The crickets trill. Barking frogs send up a serenade that sounds like a smoker’s cough.

This mild North Georgia mountain evening should be a perfect night for fly fishing. And we’re in a good place. Rock Creek Lake, in the middle of the Chattahoochee National Forest, is warm on the surface, but a few feet down it’s chilly. Twenty feet down it’s cold as hell.

“You can float on your back here,” says our guide, Louis Cahill, “and if you let your legs dangle down, they’ll freeze right off.”

Trout, who have no legs, like it cold. So the trout are here.

AJC writer Bo Emerson gets a fly fishing lesson from Cahill at Rock Creek Lake in Suches.

Surely they are here. They are just not interested in this particular woolly bugger that I tied myself and am flinging back and forth on the end of a translucent line. Or maybe they don’t like me, because I’m doing everything in my power to scare them off.

“You usually don’t want to flog the water when you’re casting,” says Cahill, mildly. No, you don’t. Nor should you fish for trout with a marching band in the canoe, but my technique is no less subtle than a salute by 76 trombones.

Cahill is helping me refine my technique with tough love. “You’re not sensitive are you?” he asks. “Now I’m not going to tell you how to fish,” he adds, “but if I see you holding that rod straight up in the air I might start calling you Opie.” Opie. Like the young Ron Howard with a cane pole and a night crawler on the end of a line. In other words, like the antithesis of a fly fisherman.

Though I struggle to keep the tip of the rod down, it’s not catching me any fish. I’m pretty disgusted. But Cahill is upbeat.

“You will catch a fish,” he says. “You just need to be optimistic. Opie? Keep that rod down.”

If Cahill, 55, has a sunny attitude, it’s probably because he has accomplished something few men can claim. He has arranged the world so that he can fish for a living.

Louis Cahill makes a woolly bugger fly at Rock Creek Lake in Suches.

A graduate of the Art Institute of Atlanta, Cahill was a full-time commercial photographer for 20 years, and still uses his photo skills in his fishing blog, Gink and Gasoline, and in the tempting images he posts to generate interest in his hosted fishing expeditions.

These trips take him (and his followers) all over two hemispheres. He is just back from the Florida Keys and in the next few months he will be fishing in Oregon, Utah, Canada and Argentina. His blog generates ad revenue from gear manufacturers and tour destinations, plus Cahill’s always trying out (and writing about) the latest carbon fiber rod or breathable waders.

What about Georgia? Yes, there are trout in Georgia. Our hatcheries stock Georgia’s rivers with a million trout a year. In the mountains, wild trout find water cool enough to survive (70 degrees or cooler). There is even an Appalachian species of brook trout, native to the mountains between Georgia and West Virginia, stubbornly thriving against the pressures of development and climate change.

Cahill is the guru of finding these fish. He is a large, bearded, rough-hewn, pleasantly profane man who understands trout physiology, mountain ecology, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography and the value of keeping a .44 handy. He takes me and AJC photographer Curtis Compton to two choice fishing spots in the North Georgia Mountains.

But first I have to learn how to catch something besides my own pants.

Cahill, Compton and I settle in at a campsite on the lake-shore, with some vegetarian chili and small-batch bourbon to take the sting out of my fish-less evening.

The next morning Cahill wakes slowly in his Eno hammock. “They say coffee is good for you,” he grumbles, squeezing boiling water through his AeroPress, “but I say coffee is good for the people around me, ‘cause if I didn’t have any I would have killed somebody by now.”

Our next stop is Noontootla Creek Farms, a private two-mile stretch of Noontootla Creek south of Blue Ridge. On this 1,200-acre retreat visitors can shoot clay pigeons, hunt quail and fish for some ancient, crafty brown trout and rainbow trout. All fishing here is catch and release.

Cahill parks in a corn field and walks down to the narrow, tree-lined creek, which is barely wide enough to cast a line. His partner Justin Pickett, 33, is already here and they consult on what’s working. “Anything black has been doing well,” says Pickett. “We’re fishing to spooky fish.”

The two commence taking turns, relentlessly dropping flies just in front of some 26-inch beauties, some of whom they recognize from year to year.

Cahill can’t help but offer color commentary as Pickett fights with a that he’s just hooked: “Sweet talk it. Sweet talk it. There it is!” And, as the creature escapes, “Oh man. Seriously? Uh, heartbreaking.” Cahill and Pickett have the accuracy of Spiderman, zinging their webs directly at their targets. But these fish are wise. Though their brains are the size of a garden pea, these fish know how not to get caught.

Until they get caught. “Look at that,” says Cahill, as he nets a rainbow trout whose iridescent colors seem to move and pulse like the pixels on a Jumbotron. “That’s what a wild fish looks like.”

Then Cahill gently puts the finned monster back in the water and it torpedoes away, to fight another day.