Photo of the Month: Summer Speck

Photo of the Month: Summer Speck

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Stealth Mode: Light and Shadows

The original idea of "Stealth Mode" was created for an article I did in the Little River Journal quite a few years ago. Yesterday, while on a guide trip, something happened that is quite common, yet it struck me in a special way. It reminded me of the original premise of Stealth Mode and so I decided to expand on that original idea.

There are a multitude of opinions and ideas about the importance of stealth in fly fishing. Probably more accurately, I should say there are lots of opinions and ideas about the importance of different elements of stealth, such as whether clothing color matters. Thus, for this article, I'm going to mention up front that I'm writing mostly from the perspective of fly fishing in the Smokies. Furthermore, I'm quite interested in differing opinions or ideas because I can always learn more, so please leave a comment if you have similar or other ideas on the subject!

The moment that motivated this particular "Light and Shadows" version of Stealth Mode happened when my client and I were faced with a choice: cross the creek where I normally do, or continue working up the bank we were already on. I had already mentioned to him that we should cross when I looked upstream and noticed the distinct difference. The far (east) bank was lit up by the late afternoon sun slanting in from the southwest. The near (west) bank was shaded by the overhanging trees and rhododendron. Plenty of light was coming through increasingly bare branches, but there was definitely a LOT more light on the other bank. If we moved up that side of the creek, we would practically be glowing. Not a good way to approach fish if you ask me! 


Fly fishing from the shady bank on Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains


So, I mentioned our options to him, and we decided to stay on the near side of the stream. Turns out it was a good decision as we caught a fish shortly just upstream. If we had been on the other bank, I'm not so certain that a caught fish would have been the result. In fact, based on all the fish that I had seen spooking out ahead of us in the seasonally low water of fall, I doubt we would have caught any fish in that pool. 

I should take a minute to add a caveat. This advice applies more than anything to flatter water such as the long pool we were approaching when this moment happened. In broken pocket water, you can often get much closer to the fish, especially as long as you stay relatively low. The fast water helps hide your approach. That said, we continued on up around the bend on the shady side of the stream, and I think it helped us out. The difference between the two banks was at times striking and at other times less obvious, but staying in the shadows is generally a good idea in the Smokies.



In addition to considering which side is sunny or shady, you should also consider your own shadow. As we moved upstream, the late day sun was slanting across the river from our left. At times, our shadows were falling across the stream in the direction we wanted to fish. Sending a big dark shadow over a pool is as good a way to spook fish as anything I know. Instead, fish from further back. In fact, it would probably be better to cross over and fish from the sunny bank instead of casting a shadow across the pool. 

So, next time you are out fly fishing, consider being stealthy as more than just sneaking up behind boulders and crawling on the ground to approach a fish. Consider the light and how you interact with it. That consideration could make or break your fishing trip. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

How To Select the Perfect Fly Rod

As a fly fishing guide, I am asked about the perfect fly rod a lot. People have a variety of questions, but they all boil down to this: what is the best fly rod? These questions can be in the form of a beginner asking what the best fly rod for a beginner is, or they can be asked by intermediate anglers looking to upgrade. For example, "I've been fly fishing for a while and I'm ready for a better/nicer/more awesome/(fill in the blank here) rod. What fly rod should I buy?" Before I get into attempting to answer what is always a loaded question, I want to clearly state that this is an extremely subjective question. However, I'll try to give a reasonable answer based on what type of fishing you are looking to do. 

What I'm NOT here to do is to sell a certain brand or type of fly rod. There are lots of good makers out there, and probably the best advice I can give anyone is to go into your local fly shop and cast a bunch of rods. Do this even if you aren't experienced. The shop staff will probably even give you a free casting lesson if you need it. Wherever you are on your fly fishing journey, one rod will probably speak to you more than the others. Chances are good that it won't be that $900 high end model, but if it is and you can afford it, go for it. There are plenty of good rods being made these days that won't break the bank, so make sure the fly shop staff know your budget before they start lining up some rods.

First, you need to consider what kind of fishing you plan to do. If you don't know the answer to this, then find your local fly shop or a local guide and take a lesson or guided trip to see if this is even for you. However, chances are that you have already done some research and figured out that you want to fly fish for trout or bass and panfish or maybe even saltwater. Whatever you plan to do will affect your rod choice. I'll tailor this explanation to middle and east Tennessee, but the principles will apply to wherever you want to go. 

Here in Tennessee, people fly fish for trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish, musky, stripers, carp, and a few other random species. For fishing on moving water, your options will range from small headwater streams like we find for trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to large tailwater rivers like the Clinch River, Holston River, and Caney Fork River. These large rivers contain trout, bass, and other species. 

For fly fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains, streams range from tiny brook trout water choked with rhododendron, to good sized low elevation trout rivers that also contain a few smallmouth bass. For smaller headwater streams, your best rod choice will be in the two through four weight range and be between 7' 6" to 9' long. You can fish most streams with longer rods. Only the very smallest, tightest brook trout streams fish best with anything less than 7' 6". On those smaller streams, I actually tend to go heavier on the rod while also going shorter. A four weight will roll cast and bow and arrow cast into tight places better than lighter lined rods will. These streams are mostly hard to access and are not for most anglers due to the work required in fishing them. The average Smoky Mountain stream will fish best with a rod in the three to five weight range and range from 8' to 10'+. In my opinion, the best all around rod for most fly fishing in the Smokies is a 10' three weight rod. This rod works fine for most brook trout streams and excels in the low to mid elevation streams that feature large pocket water stretches. This advice applies to any higher gradient pocket water stream from the eastern US to the Rockies and beyond. 

This seems like a good time to address a common misconception about fly rods for the mountains. There are a lot of people who think you need a shorter rod to stay out of the trees. While there are certainly some streams where that applies, the vast majority of mountain trout fishing is easier with a longer rod. If you want to hit the sweet spot and get one rod that is a good compromise, then go with an 8' or 8' 6" rod. That said, there are many places on larger streams where a longer rod will help. 

With practice and experience, that longer rod will rarely be a liability. More often than not, the extra reach will help you get to fish that you otherwise would have missed. This is almost always true when you are high sticking. On larger pools where you have room to cast, the longer rod is also helpful for better roll casting although not mandatory. It also helps to make mending easier since you can pick up more line prior to each mend. The shorter you go on your fly rod, the better your line management skills better be. Things like mending, a reach cast, and other line management tricks come into greater focus with shorter rods. A longer rod is a tool that will make even below average anglers look good.

One other thing about a good fly rod to consider is the action. For fly fishing in the mountains, if you are getting a rod primarily for nymph fishing, get something that is on the faster end of the spectrum. The ability to quickly set the hook is essential, and a fast rod will help make this happen. For dry or dry/dropper fishing, you can fish something slower if you like. My all time favorite Smokies rod for small to medium sized water is a very slow rod that makes dry fly fishing a blast. That said, while the rod works okay for nymphing, it is probably not the best tool for the job. A good all around action for the Smokies would probably be medium fast or fast. Just remember, however, that personal preference goes a long ways towards making this decision. If you like a softer rod, go ahead and get one and learn to set the hook harder and faster. 

As we move away from the mountains and to larger streams and rivers, we need a rod that can handle some larger fish. If you are fly fishing primarily for trout on larger streams and rivers, then you will want a rod somewhere between a four and a six weight and ranging from 8' 6" to 10'+. Probably one of the best rods out there right now for this is a 10' four or five weight rod. The extra reach of the 10' rod makes mending a breeze and you can seriously air out some line with that long rod also. The longer rods are perfect nymph fishing but also handle dry fly rigs with ease. A standard 9' five weight will be a good all around rod for most situations on the tailwaters. If you want a compromise that will also do well for some streamer fishing and light bass, then go with the six weight. The six weight would also be a good choice if you plan on traveling a lot to fly fish out west. Anytime the wind starts to blow, a heavier rod is helpful. 

As far as action goes, I would recommend staying away from super fast rods for this application. They cast line a mile, which is nice of course, but can be tough to get a hook set with the 6x tippets that are usually required on our tailwaters. A rod with a slightly softer tip (medium fast action) will help protect that fine tippet much better than the ultra fast cannons many rod manufacturers are making these days. If you plan on fishing mostly out west, then you can disregard this advice and go for the faster rod. Again, this is for the wind that one would expect out there.

Moving into fly fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, we need a rod that can handle larger fish and especially larger flies. I routinely use a rod in the four to six weight range for wading smaller streamers for smallmouth, but once I'm in the boat on a larger smallmouth river, I want a minimum of a six weight rod and more often will be throwing a seven weight. Don't be afraid to go even heavier. Anything in the 8' 6" to 9' range is fine for this task. Personally, I prefer a faster rod when I'm throwing big wind resistant bugs. The ability to power through wind and cast farther in general means a fast or at least medium fast action is required for this type of fishing. A good 9' seven weight rod is also an excellent streamer rod for trout when you are fishing high water out of a drift boat. My seven weight rods have the option of floating or sinking or sink tip lines depending on the fishing I'm doing that day. I've caught everything from trout to bass to stripers to musky on a seven weight and have also used it in the saltwater when chasing snook and other species. 

Speaking of stripers and musky, these apex predator species are probably the largest fish most people will ever catch in Tennessee on a fly rod. Overall, fast action rods in the eight to ten weight range are ideal for these species. You'll be throwing large, wind resistant flies most of the time. Be prepared to have a sore arm by the end of the day when chasing these critters with heavy rods. While the rod is important, a quality reel is probably even more important for the stripers in particularly. Make sure you have a quality reel with a smooth and strong drag. The stripers will generally show you your backing very quickly on the first run. For musky, not so much.

With these larger rods and reels, I recommend getting a setup that can handle saltwater because at some point, you're going to want to try that out. A good eight or nine weight striper and musky rod can also make a good rod for redfish, snook, and even smaller tarpon. This same advice also goes with the six and seven weight rods if possible. The more versatile your equipment, the more enjoyment it can bring you over the years. 

Speaking of tarpon and other saltwater species, I'm going to leave selecting a good saltwater fly rod for another day. There is a lot that goes in to the selection of a good fly rod, and I'll stick with common fresh water fly fishing for this article. 

About that 9' five weight... If you have done much research at all, you've probably found the advice that a 9' five weight is a good all around rod for trout fishing, and it is. For most of our fishing here in Tennessee, that rod will do great for you. However, I would suggest that a slightly lighter rod will probably be even more enjoyable for fly fishing in the Smokies. Thus, we are back at my advice that you decide what type of fly fishing you primarily intend to do. If it is the Smokies, then look in the three to four weight range and get a rod that in the 8' to 10' range. Go towards the shorter end if you intend to do a lot of brook trout fishing and the longer end if you plan to spend more time on larger streams. If you are just planning to fish the Clinch River or Caney Fork River, then a 9' five weight is a great all around rod.

Willing to buy more than one rod? A great piece of advice I read many years ago was to get a rod for every other line weight. In other words, if you already have a five weight, your next rods will be a three and a seven weight. This gives you some excellent versatility. Make sure and get spare spools for the reels on your heavier rods. You'll want to be able to switch between floating and sinking presentations with those heavier rods at minimum. If you plan on doing a lot of still water fishing, then this advice also applies to lighter rods as well where sinking or intermediate lines will be used a lot. I generally get spare spools for all my reels. I can use the same reel for my two, three, or four weight rods. I just change out the spool to the one with the correct line. 

If you aren't sure where to start shopping for a fly rod, check with your local fly shop if possible. Build a relationship with the local shop and you'll get great advice and help along the way for many years. My local shop that I spend a lot of time in is Little River Outfitters, but there are some other excellent shops in our area. Still not sure what rod you need? Let me know what you are wanting out of a rod in the comments and we can discuss what will work best for you. 


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Fishing Report and Synopsis: May 31, 2020

Wow, what a lot has happened since the last fishing report update. I had to quit guiding for the month of April as the Great Smoky Mountains were closed due to COVID-19. In March and April, I typically book all or nearly all guided trips for the Smokies as water levels are normally great along with hatches and willing trout. With tailwaters running high, there just wasn't any way to rebook guide trips and people weren't really traveling anyway. Fast forward to May, and things are quickly returning to normal in terms of guide trips/business, but the threat of the virus still looms and we are taking appropriate precautions to keep everyone safe and healthy.

I have spent most of my time on the tailwaters this month, especially the Caney Fork. It has fished very well and of course the fishing in the Smokies has been good also. Unfortunately, I have good and bad news on both fronts.

In the Smokies, the light colored bugs of late spring and summer are here and have been for a while. The sulfur hatch was particularly strong this year and now the little yellow stoneflies are out in force. That means good fishing for the near term at least. Good water levels continue to be the story as it is raining more often than not this year. Hopefully we'll continue to stay wet, at least up in the mountains, and fishing will remain strong right through the warm summer months. Expect the yellow bugs to continue. Some larger golden stoneflies should be around and offer the larger fish some big bites. Don't forget terrestrials now as we transition into summer. Green weenies, beetles, and ants are all important at times in the mountains. The one small sliver of bad news? Crowds are as bad as I've ever seen them in the Smokies. The National Park Service is keeping the Elkmont area closed for some reason with the official reasoning having to do with COVID-19. That means a longer walk if you want to fish upper Little River. Otherwise, most of the Park is open and accessible now.

The Caney Fork was fishing great the last few weeks. It looked like we were on target for a good to excellent year of fishing there. Unfortunately, the Corps of Engineers slammed the brakes on that at least temporarily by conducting spill operations on the Caney this weekend. Why in the world you would dump warm lake water into a cold water fishery is beyond me. In fact, on Saturday, the generator was even shut off for about an hour, meaning the ONLY flow was warm lake water. After all the river has been through, I can't believe that they decided the best idea was warm water. We can only hope that the fish hunkered down and made it through. As long as the generator is on, there might still be enough cool water to not kill all the trout. Unfortunately, this surge in water temperatures is going to draw all the stripers up into the river now. That will probably mean the end of good spring fishing on the Caney about a week or two earlier than normal. If the trout make it through the spill operations the past couple of days, then we might have some decent fishing a bit longer, but things are probably on the annual downward spiral now. I just hope I'm wrong about that. The one silver lining this year is that the dam is being operated on a normal schedule, meaning there is more cold water storage available for summer and fall. Hopefully there will be some trout left to take advantage of that.

Smallmouth streams have been often running too high for good wade fishing like I enjoy. Over the next 1-3 weeks, that should change and with the heat of summer will come good smallmouth fishing here on the Cumberland Plateau.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Fishing Report and Synopsis: March 24, 2020

You may have already noticed some changes around here. The first and most important is that I'm changing how this fishing report displays. Instead of a static block at the top of this blog, I'm now going to try and keep an updated fishing report up as a blog post. That could mean weekly, and hopefully it will at least mean monthly. If things get too crazy, maybe I'll even do one more often than that.

Speaking of crazy, the shutdown of life as we know it is accelerating right now. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is officially closed at least through April 6. Unlike some past closures, you are NOT allowed to enter the Park even on foot at this point. While it seems like the great outdoors is one of the best places to be right now, apparently too many popular trails and features were still crowded with people ignoring current social distancing guidelines. Since the Park closed down all facilities including restrooms, this is probably for the best. Lots of people don't know how to go in the woods if you know what I mean.

For me, this means I'm out of work for at least the next couple of weeks. This is a very tough time to be running out of work since early spring is an important time to start making money again after a couple of winter months not guiding much. Hopefully this whole thing blows over quickly and we can all get back to work, fishing, family get togethers, and everything else we're missing out on.

If you are sitting at home bored, take some time to scroll through old blog posts here. Share them with a friend or family member. More page views here means at least a small chance of making up a little lost revenue here on the blog. Not enough, but every little bit helps.

Now, on to what you were really wanting to hear about: the fishing. The fishing was good to excellent in the Smokies the past few days before this closure. I was very fortunate to have scheduled a cabin stay with my wife before this all got crazy, so we spent a few days late last week and through the weekend enjoying the Park. Hiking, looking for wildflowers, photography, and of course fishing were all on our list of things to do. We accomplished all of them! Some streams were only mediocre, while others were excellent. The dry fly fishing has been okay but not great, but nymphing has been very good. We hit some small streams that I've been wanting to fish for a while and found eager fish everywhere. A Guides Choice Hares Ear nymph along with a Tellico nymph proved to be a big hit when high sticking. On this trip, I taught my wife to high stick and she picked it up quickly. Of course, she caught the largest fish of the trip as well. For full disclosure, this fish was caught while indicator fishing but we spent more time high sticking than not.


With lots of rain forecast, fishing won't be great anywhere for at least a few days unless your thing is high water and big streamers. In that case, the Clinch or Caney Fork might be a good option to get outside and enjoy some fresh air. An extended dry spell is looking more likely starting by next week or early April. That has been our norm for the last few years, so look for flows to drop rapidly and become fishable by mid to late April on many area rivers.

Smallmouth will start turning on when flows are reasonable. We hope to be out chasing them sooner rather than later.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Flipping A Switch

There is never a dull moment when you are fishing as long as you approach each trip with a learning mindset. Some days the action is fast and furious. Often, I'll stick with what is working and simply try to catch as many fish as I can. Other times, I'll start experimenting. When the fishing is good is a great time to find out what will and also what won't work. Of course, when the fishing gets tough, you find out what truly works. Magic flies or techniques are few and far between, so most people keep them close under their hat when they discover such a thing.

Many days of fishing progress predictably with hot and cold stretches as fish shift through their daily cycle. This cycle changes month to month, season to season. In fact, it often changes from day to day.

The average day in the mountains depends a lot on the time of year. For example, during the summer, the best fishing is often early and late in the day with the fish taking a break during the hotter hours of midday. The bright sun overhead probably doesn't help either. In the cool of morning, both trout and the bugs they feed on are active. During the spring, the best fishing is often in the middle of the day. Additional factors can often wreak havoc on these norms, however.

Last week, on a guided fly fishing trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, we were reminded about the natural rhythm and how sensitive it often is. Our day started with mostly sunny skies. Occasional clouds did not stick around long. The bright sunlight allowed the water temperature to begin climbing. This time of year, that almost guarantees bugs. Fish moved up into the faster riffles and heads of pools as they fed on nymphs that were rapidly preparing to hatch. By around 11:00 am, some adults were beginning to hatch and fish responded enthusiastically.


About that same time, the wind started to pick up and the sky filled with clouds. Around 12:30 pm, the wind shifted rapidly and temperatures started to plummet. What had been a promising hatch dried up entirely by 1:30 pm with the last fish taken on a dry fly at about 1:15 pm. The abrupt change in water temperature made all the difference in the world. It was like flipping a switch. One minute we were casting to risers and the next our day was effectively over.

If the water temperature had kept rising, in other words, if the cold front didn't pass, the clouds in and of themselves were not an issue. In fact, some of my best spring dry fly fishing happens on lousy weather days with clouds or even rain. That said, once a cold front passes and the water temperatures start dropping, bugs usually shut down along with the fish, although not always.

That "not always" is what keeps it interesting. Blue winged olives come to mind as a bug that loves lousy weather days. Interestingly, a big cold front early in the fall can have the opposite effect, setting off a feeding frenzy.

Sometimes, the switch gets flipped but it is more like a gradually dying campfire flicker instead of a lightbulb going off. One of my best days ever fishing in the Park was in May quite a few years ago. I had hiked in a long ways, earning myself solitude and good fishing in the process. The rainbows, browns, and even a brook trout or two were greedy. By the end of the day, I had caught 70 trout, all on dry flies. By the end of the day, I was probably working a little too hard, wanting to hit that nice round number. Regardless, things just sort of slowed down. I remember getting hung up on several numbers, 65 for example was hard to get past. That said, the fishing slowed down and finally quit. Number 70 almost didn't happen, but one suicidal brook trout just couldn't help itself.

That was a strange day, not bad, just strange. It was the day I knew it was going to be good fishing. That may not seem too odd, but I also knew I was going to see a bear. Up until then, I had never seen one while fishing. It happened too. Go check out the full story via the link above.

On the very best days, it seems you can do no wrong as an angler. Those days are rare, however, and should be full savored when they do happen to come around. The rest of the time, be prepared for that switch too flip. It could go from poor fishing to excellent, or it could be the other way. Whatever happens though, don't stop learning...

Friday, February 21, 2020

Sacred Places

Every angler should have a secret place. The probability that no one else fishes a particular piece of water is low, but hope springs eternal in the minds of anglers and the possibility does technically exist. Maybe, just maybe you can find that one perfect stream or pond that no one else visits. Or, if they do, maybe only a handful of other anglers know about it.

My secret places are scattered across the country. There is that canyon stream in Arizona. While I know it does get fished, the number of anglers is clearly low based on the lack of a stream side fisherman's trail. In Colorado, two of my favorite small streams clearly don't get fished much based on the reception I always receive from their clean finned residents. The fish are generally pushovers and obviously don't see much pressure. In Yellowstone, a favorite section of the Yellowstone River itself always fishes well. It is almost as if no one else wants to walk that far off trail in grizzly infested country. This is precisely a big piece of why it fishes so well and also has a lot to do with why I'm normally a bit jumpy on the hike into this bit of water.

Closer to home, some of my favorite water on the Cumberland Plateau obviously doesn't see much pressure. At least, the fish are about as gullible as smallmouth should be while still reserving just a bit of cunning to make things interesting. This could be explained by the copperheads, rattlesnakes, ticks, and chiggers you have to get past first. Yet, I keep going back if only once or twice a year to one of these streams or another. In a good year I might make half a dozen trips. The overlap between gaps in the guide calendar and good smallmouth fishing just doesn't exist, so these trips are at least a bit intentional and not just a last minute whim. Still, when a cancelation comes in late during the warm months, chances are high that I'll head to a smallmouth stream the next day.

In the Smokies, which are my true home waters if you overlook the hour and a half drive, lightly pressured water is getting more and more difficult to find. Despite the constant barrage of "facts" showing that our sport is declining, I keep seeing more and more anglers on the water. This isn't all bad either. More anglers equates to more people advocating for our fisheries. Of course, it also means that I'm more likely to hike three miles only to find the entire stream saturated with other likeminded optimists.

When I hike any distance anywhere, I mostly expect to find the stream devoid of other anglers and the fish willing to the point of stupidity. Rarely does it work out that both of those things happen, although I can still find water to myself more often than not. The fish just aren't the easy things they were when I started into this sport and the streams were less crowded. Back then, an hour's walk basically guaranteed a phenomenal day of fishing. Now, the day might still turn out rather well, but the fish are more educated and require a few tweaks to the fly selection before becoming agreeable.

Some would say that the fishing is getting more technical. I don't know about that other than to say that some of my best fishing in the mountains lately has been on midges. Is that because I finally tied on a fly that no one else is really fishing? Or is it because there were massive midge emergences both times I've been up there lately? Probably the latter but one never knows for sure. Just in case, I'm still keeping all of my old tried and true flies in their respective boxes in the hopes I can leave the midge box at home again soon. In the meantime, I'll keep tying on a midge more often than not. At least I can get away with 5x instead of the 6x required on my local tailwaters.

Last year, I made a point to fish some new water. That could mean new to me streams, or sections of streams I haven't fished before. More often than not, these adventures ended up taking longer than I intended, but I'm not complaining. At least once, I inadvertently fished a new section of stream when I bushwhacked in at the wrong spot. That was one of my favorite trips of the year.

A healthy hike is required to reach this particular stream. The rainbows have faded out at this elevation, leaving just native southern Appalachian brook trout for anglers willing to work hard to reach them. I've fished this stream off and on for at least 15 years and perhaps longer. What I do know is that this is some of the best brook trout fishing I know of. On its best days, this stream can leave you feeling like you are the only one who ever fishes there. Those days are more common on this stream than not, but I've also had days were only a handful of fish were caught. On those days, one always wonders where the fish have gone.

The trip can be done about as easily as an overnight or longer trip or as a day trip. Lately, I've started to become interested in backpacking more again. Since I don't fish as often as I used to (pro tip: don't start guiding if the goal is to fish more), I've begun planning my trips with more care, aiming for quality instead of quantity. So far it seems to be working. This particular trip started with a casual discussion with a friend who was interested in trying some backpacking. Greg has a strong preference for brook trout in wild places. Since I also have a soft spot for our arguably most beautiful native fish, the decision was easy. Three nights with two hard days of fishing and perhaps some fishing on our arrival and departure days seemed about right.

I described the amazing little creek to him but tried to hold back a little, probably afraid it wouldn't live up to either of our expectations. However, when all was said and done, the stream really outdid itself. Between the two of us, we caught, well, let's just say we caught a lot of brook trout and never mind exactly how many. The real beauty of this stream was the quality of the fish there. Some of them were pushing nine inches which is really nice for a brook trout in the Smokies. The largest was caught by Greg and measured 10.5" exactly. Oh, and most were on dry flies. These native brookies are real gems, almost too beautiful to touch.

Brook Trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of my 9" native brook trout from Stream X. ©2019 David Knapp Photography

While I normally gravitate towards the ease associated with nymphs, I prefer dry flies whenever and wherever possible. On this trip, I took just a few basic bead head droppers just in case and then an inordinate number of dry flies. I think I may have used a grand total of 4 or 5 the entire trip. The longevity of each fly had a lot to do with tying them myself and adding a few reinforcements. Yellow dry flies brought fish to the surface just like they should in the Smokies. Orange was starting to work some also with the approach of fall.

The fish were generally where they were supposed to be, but surprises showed up in some not so obvious places as well. The big plunge pool beneath a small waterfall didn't yield many, while some other large pools produced fish after fish. One rather nice brook trout was hiding in a tight little pocket under a dark plunge. I let my fly drift back into the blackness, and no matter how fishy that spot was, I was still shocked when the tip of my fly rod jerked down hard. That was also the day that the fishing seemed a little off.

The first part of the day was decent, but the catching would just start and stop for no apparent reason. We ended up with nearly as many trout as we had caught on the first day, but had to work a little harder for them. Some sections of stream seemed rather barren, and I was left wondering if I had come along behind the Park fisheries crew.

On another backpacking trip, my friends and I had marched miles and miles into the backcountry with expectations of gloriously easy fishing. That was the trip I stepped over a rattlesnake on the trail too many miles from help if things had gone differently. Thankfully the snake was sluggish and downright genial. That same day, our neighbors in camp had found and killed a large rattlesnake on a midstream boulder and seen three others. They were planning on eating the snake that night. My buddy Pat explained to them that, as this was a National Park, all of the wildlife was protected, and if a ranger showed up, they better make the dead snake scarce. I don't know if they got the message or not, but we didn't spend too much time worrying about it beyond a momentary sadness.

That was another trip where we had started with great hopes of walking many miles to find pristine water. When we found another party there with the same ideas, we had to make some adjustments. The funny part about that trip is that the Park fisheries crew had been there just the week prior and the trout were still in a stupor on the creek they had sampled. We caught a few fish, but either the stream didn't have as many or they were still all in shock, pun intended.

Fly anglers are eternal optimists, doggedly pursuing small, surprisingly difficult quarry in tiny creeks and streams, all in the hopes of discovering fly fishing nirvana. On that trip, we didn't find what we were looking for. When the stream started branching into more and more little branches and things got tight, we finally gave up and traipsed back down to camp on the nice trail the fisheries crew had trampled down the week before. That trip seems like a lifetime ago now, but the trip to my favorite brook trout stream is still clear in my mind.

As the last day of fishing on that brookie stream started to wind down, we found ourselves far from the trail. We finished fishing that evening at a big plunge pool high in the mountains with many miles of good brook trout water above us. We were both a little tired I think, Greg and I. Living on backpacking rations works well, but once your metabolism catches up to your increased activity levels, freeze dried food just doesn't satisfy anymore. We were both running strong on the high of adventure but also starting to think about home.

As we walked back to camp for one more night in the mountains, I asked him if that was the best brook trout stream he had ever fished. After thinking about it a while, Greg agreed that it was an incredible stream, but also mentioned his own favorite stream. Every angler should have a sacred place and his was possibly elsewhere. Only more time on both would ultimately determine which was his favorite. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with having several sacred places either.

Most of the places I fish are ones I'm willing to talk about. I do have some sacred places though, and this brook trout stream is one of them. Probably there are many places in the Smokies that still have fishing as good as we experienced in those two days, maybe even better. This one is mine, though, and while I don't mind letting people know that a place like that exists, I won't be drawing maps for anyone anytime soon. In the winter months, I'll be pouring over trail and topographic maps searching for yet another amazing backcountry trout stream. More places like this exist, but it takes determination and lots of effort to track them down.

Lately, my exploring has been done via Google and Google maps. I've been researching for a big trip this summer to Glacier. My wife has graciously agreed for me to pursue bull trout somewhere west of there after we hike in Glacier National Park for a week, and I've honed in on one place in particular. What drew me to that area was a plethora of documentation that shows where the bulls should be. In other words, I've never been there, but feel certain, that I can walk almost to the very spot where I should be able to find some bull trout. That is the danger of the inter webs. Good information used to be the result of lots of research. Now, with the click of a few buttons, I can find where to catch a bull trout to within a hundred yards of a likely spot.

For now, I'm selfishly glad that the information was so accessible. I've never caught bull trout, so this will be a bucket list item checked off if all goes well. On the other hand, once that happens, I might add this stream system to my list of sacred places. In that case, you may get a report, but it will be fuzzy on the details which is as it should be.

Back closer to home, I've been looking for new places to dump my boat in the water close to home for a few hours. Again, Google maps has been a lot of help. There are numerous small lakes in the area, and at least some of them have to have a boat ramp, right? The larger lakes sound interesting too. With Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Watts Bar, and lots of other big reservoirs in middle and east Tennessee within an hour or hour and a half, the appeal of new fishing opportunities draws me in. Yet, for some reason, I haven't gone very far out of my way to try these different options. When I want true adventure, I usually tend to look for moving water. The smaller the better. That's probably because of the difficulty of enjoying your own fishing hole with bass boats jetting past at 60 miles per hour.

One stream that I really like to fish feels a lot like brook trout fishing. It's one of those trickles that you pass on your way to better known water. I don't know of anyone else that fishes there. The beauty of this little stream lies in the resident coosa bass. For some reason they are there, probably a past stocking experiment that everyone has forgotten about. The fish are small but generally aggressive. When I say small, it is truly like brook trout fishing on a tiny Smoky Mountain stream. Lots of 5-7 inch fish but much larger starts getting into the trophy category. Most people would find this boring when there are 3 pound smallmouth just down the road, but knowing that this is my stream keeps me coming back. Eventually, I'll probably find out that someone else is fishing there as well. In the meantime, I'll keep it on my list of sacred places. When I find another fisherman, I'll hope it is one of their sacred places as well.






Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Video: Big Brown Trout on Deep Creek

Sight Fishing For a Big Brown Trout on Deep Creek

At the tail end of my backpacking trip to Deep Creek, an opportunity for redemption presented itself. I had hooked and lost this big brown trout just over a year prior to this trip. The full story of finding and catching this big Deep Creek brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the link above. You can also find links in that post to the rest of this backpacking trip tale. Here is the edited video from my buddy John of the big brown trout I caught on Deep Creek in April 2019. 





Monday, September 09, 2019

My Favorite Season

This post could be all pictures and my point would be sufficiently made. I'm going to make a feeble effort to put some of it into words, however. As a fly fishing guide, my perspective on seasons has changed over the years. If you asked me when the best time to fish was seven or eight years ago, my answer would have been quick and to the point: fall. Now, I will usually get around to answering fall, but sometimes by a circuitous route full of explanations. That is because, for me, the best time of the year to fish is also my favorite time to fish.

Now, not to wax too philosophical or anything, but everyone's definition of the best fishing of the year differs quite widely. This probably all goes back to the rather old explanation of the stages of becoming a fisherman. It goes something like this. First you want to catch a fish, then you want to catch a lot of fish. Next you want to catch a big fish, then you want to catch a lot of big fish. When the whole process comes full circle, an angler should like going fishing for the sake of going fishing or something like that. As a guide, I quickly figured out that people who wanted to know when the best time to fish were generally sincere. The problem with the question of "when is the best time to go fishing?" lies within the perspective of the one asking the question.

Afraid of rambling too much and people getting bored of listening, I've attempted to put my answer into a concise few words. Still, I'm afraid I haven't done a very good job. What starts as "well, spring is probably the best time on most area waters based on overall flows, consistent daily insect emergences, and the fact that fish haven't been pounded all year, but I personally like fall because I like the fall colors," usually quickly descends into lots of side explanations.

The proper answer to the question of "when is the best time to go fishing in Tennessee?" or "when is the best time to fly fish in the Smokies?" is probably more along the lines of a return question. I like to ask people what they view as good fishing. Is it lots of fish or some big fish? Is it having the stream to yourself? Many times, we quickly determine that they don't even know what good fishing consists of. This isn't to knock the people asking the question, it just means that most of us have some vague idea of what fly fishing nirvana would be, but when it comes down to it, we really can't put it into words.

At some point, I'll return and explain why I think winter is the best season, why I think spring is the best season, and why I think summer is the best season. And it's true, all of those seasons are the best, depending on your perspective.

Where you live might influence your opinion a bit, so let's make sure and establish the fact that I live in Tennessee and regularly fish both the wild streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which also happens to be my favorite place to fish) as well as the great tailwater trout streams found in middle and east Tennessee. You should also know that solitude on the stream is very important to me and factors into my preferences in ranking my favorite season to fish. Although smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, stripers, musky, and a few other species are fun and I fish and guide for them from time to time, trout are what led me to fly fishing and trout are what keeps me interested in the sport. Thus, colorful fish and clean cold water with plenty of oxygen are important to me as well. Finally, if you asked me what my favorite season is, never mind whether the fishing was good or not, my answer would be fall. The fall colors are my favorite thing about fall, so really I'm looking at a rather narrow window for the peak of my favorite season.

All of that said, let's define fall more broadly. I don't care if we stick with astronomical fall which begins at the fall equinox and ends at the winter solstice, or if we go with meteorological fall which runs September 1st through the end of November. Good fishing occurs throughout these time periods for those who know where to look. Since things are still usually hot right now, let's go with astronomical fall which this years runs from September 23 to December 21. That encompasses some of my favorite fishing of the year. Here's why.

First of all, as already mentioned, is the fall colors. Every year, I eagerly watch for the first colorful leaves. This usually happen in June, not because fall is imminent, but because some leaf got too dried out somehow and fell off the tree. As summer continues, these early hints of the coming change of season become more frequent. By late October and early November, the colors are peaking. While this can lead to much frustration for anglers if you are on stream during a windy day, the colors provide a glorious backdrop for what I already view as a rather artistic sport.

Speaking of fall colors, late September through the first two weeks of October will feature brook and brown trout getting colored up and fired up for the spawn. Both of these species are becoming more aggressive and eating heartily in preparation for the rigors of the spawning season. Brook trout in the Smokies are normally spawning by mid October although you can probably find some spawning well into November depending on where you look. Brown trout usually start around the same time although you can often find a few stragglers spawning in the mountains even in early December. These fish should be strictly left alone during the spawn and anglers should avoid walking through areas where they are active. The next generation of trout depends on good stream side manners from anglers during this time of year. Fish staging to spawn can still be caught, and fish that have finished spawning can also be caught.

Since the dry fly fishing is usually great in fall, this leaves open a lot of possibilities. I generally gravitate towards streams with some browns but more rainbows. The rainbows are usually vibrantly colored this time of year and are feeding as hard as ever with winter coming on. Brook trout are especially gorgeous this time of year. If you can catch them before or just after the spawn, you will see arguably the most stunning colors of any fish in the southern Appalachians. Of course, brook trout love dry flies which doesn't hurt my opinion of them at all.

Another reason I appreciate fishing in the fall is that I don't appreciate the summer heat. Fall brings cool relief as well as a welcome drop in humidity. Tennessee can get miserably humid any time of the year, but fall is most likely to be dry with pleasant sunny days and crisp nights. This makes it perfect for another favorite activity, camping, which I generally try to do at least a few times every year but almost always every fall. A good campfire on a chilly fall evening is one of the great pleasures of life.

One small side note here, fall is also a great time for catching stripers, rock fish, whatever you want to call them. I don't do it often, but this is probably my most consistent season for finding large ones on the fly, mostly because I haven't had time the rest of the year, but also because there are some advantages to this season which I won't go into here. Regardless of the reasons, a great big tug on the end of the line is fun on occasion.

Interestingly, my favorite fishing season and my favorite season in general evolved almost in unison. That could be because of the early success I had fishing in the fall. I remember one trip early in my fly fishing career. Just a couple of months prior, I had learned how to high stick nymphs without a strike indicator from the legendary Walter Babb on a half day guided trip. To this day that remains some of the best money I've ever spent on this sport. Anyway, I had been applying my lessons. It was November and I had hiked well upstream above Elkmont. I still remember very clearly that I was fishing a #16 Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear nymph and a couple of split shot on my still favorite old Orvis Superfine Tight Loop. I didn't catch any big fish, but I did catch lots of fish. At that point in my fly fishing career, it was a big deal. The rainbows were all where they should have been and they would all eat a well presented fly. In the years since, other great moments on the water have come and gone, but my love for fall fishing definitely got a big boost on that day in November.

By this point, you might have noticed that I still haven't said that the fishing is the best in the fall. I said it's my favorite. Some people will want a straight answer and my answer is this; for me, the best fishing is in the fall, because there is more to fishing than catching fish. That said, the fishing is usually anywhere from good to excellent as well. Low water can add a wrinkle to this equation, but for experienced anglers, low water isn't all bad either. Later, I'll elaborate on why the other seasons are the best, but for now, let's finish with saying that fall is my favorite. So what's your favorite and why?

If you need a few more reasons why fall is the best, here is a small selection. If you want to fish with me during the fall or any other time of year, feel free to visit Trout Zone Anglers to learn more about guided trips.





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