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Luke Ovgard goes off the beaten path in Tennessee to find darters and sunfish, and gets a flat along the way

HERMITAGE SPRINGS, Tenn. — I may have been the first person to come to Hermitage Springs, Tennessee, to fish. Honestly, I may have been the first tourist to come there on purpose for any reason, but after my experience with this amazing little town, I hope I'm not the last to visit.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Fantail darter

Lost on purpose

Some of my fishing spots are spoon-fed to me, but I'm not always the sharpest knife in the drawer and occasionally take spots without first vetting them. One such spot was Big South Fork National Recreation Area. COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Big South Fork

As beautiful as it was, the fishing was terrible. I spent hours there and caught just a single fish: a bloodfin darter. Though it was both a new species and has a bloody awesome name, it wasn't worth the hourslong detour.

Tennessee is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, so anything less than excellent fishing is not worth stopping on your first dozen passes through the state. Lesson learned.

Typically, when going to a remote area, I'll start with directions to the location on one maps app and directions from there to my next spot on another. I forgot to do this, and cicada noise was infinitely stronger than the cell signal there, so I used the Google Maps app like an actual map for several hours as I navigated the backwoods of northern Tennessee en route to my next stop.

The scenery was incredible as I wound my way along heavily forested roads that probably only got their first coat of pavement during my lifetime.

Apart from the scenery, the only highlight was my car's trip meter resetting at 9,999.9 miles as I broke the 10,000-mile mark of my 2021 summer road trip.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Greenside darter

Splendid stream

I arrived at an idyllic freestone stream allegedly loaded with darters. Darters are tiny, colorful fishes that rest on the bottom and move around in their namesake erratic darting motions. They represent North America's second-most diverse family of freshwater fishes (behind minnows) that includes the more familiar yellow perch, walleye and sauger, but most of the estimated 200 darter species can fit in your palm.

Since access was limited, I put my tiny tenkara rod in my teeth, climbed over the lip of the road crossing and sidled my way along and down the sloping concrete like a retro Mario on a chainlink fence.

I saw a few turtles, but they weren't trying to knock me down, so I refrained from punching them. I avoided the poison ivy and plopped into the river below, the drop just a tinge uncomfortable at that height.

About a river mile later, I found the beautifully ornate little fish called the splendid darter. I caught a pair, and the male, vividly marked with gold scales splashed with cherry red, vivid orange and black, lived up to its name.

From there, I drove to my final spot of the day.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Flat tire

Rims

There was no parking on the one-lane road, and when another car came down the lane, I pulled off onto the heavily vegetated shoulder. I heard a loud pop but didn't think much of it, parking my car on a grassy embankment just down the road.

I immediately began catching aggressive darters and sunfish hiding in a brush pile at the base of the small bridge. Never in my life have I caught so many large darters in one spot, and I added more than a dozen prime examples of greenside, rainbow, splendid and fantail darters.

Two shy darters looked a bit different. I repeatedly failed to get a bait in their face, as larger greenside darters and longear sunfish kept stealing the bait.

Irritated, I was forced to employ a trick I often use to distract more aggressive fish from a less aggressive one: tossing a couple whole worms well away from my target. This occupies the fish I don't want to catch while I can focus on the one I do. It worked flawlessly, and I quickly caught a pair of highland rim darters, two striking fish of blue, red and orange with golden accents.

Night fell hard, and I left the highland rims to find my car resting on three rubber tires and one metal rim. Sigh.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Highland rim darter

Deflated

I'd prepared for this. I usually get a flat or two on these road trips, and this spring, I finally invested in a portable high-quality jack.

The old tire came off, but I was unable to get the full-size, fully inflated spare on because the jack wouldn't extend all the way. I was smart enough to lay the flat under the edge of the car as a precaution, but as I struggled with the jacked-up jack that wouldn't jack all the way up, it slipped, and the rim caught the weight of the car. I didn't have an extra jack, nor did I have a Jill, but my entire night came tumbling down anyway.

Nightfall exacerbated the inconvenience.

So did a lack of cell service.

And being more than a mile from civilization.

And the serial killer on the loose nearby.

OK, the last one didn't happen, proving it can always get worse, right?

So I started walking. After almost a mile down the deserted road, I got a signal and called every tow truck within an hour. Most didn't answer that Sunday evening, but the two that did basically told me I was too far away.

I'm not proud of the words that left my mouth after that, but I continued walking.

On my walk back, I passed two people in a yard talking. It was full dark now, so I hesitantly approached, talking loudly as I walked up to avoid getting shot more than once. Two guys and a girl sat staring at me. The pair had Appalachian accents so thick I could barely understand them. The third had a Hispanic accent that was much easier for me to comprehend. I explained my situation and asked if they happened to have a jack.

They could've said no. They could've let this poor northern tourist wander on, but they didn't. The Latino man offered to lend me his jack, while his two friends offered to drive me down the road. I was humbled.

What had been a 30-minute walk was a two-minute drive. I quickly changed the tire, thanked the couple, and they drove off with the jack and my gratitude.

I had three hours to drive that night to get to my motel, and it was late, but I hadn't eaten all day. The only business in Hermitage Springs is a little greasy spoon called Dairy Burger. I ordered a meal and devoured it.

On my way out, I noticed gift cards on the counter, so I stopped, bought three $10 gift cards, and drove back to my Latino friend's house. I thanked him profusely and left them with him. He said it was basic human decency, and tried to decline, but he and his friends had gone beyond basic human decency. Their actions had been splendid, and that deserved a splendid response.

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