Photo of the Month: Happy Wife, Happy Life

Photo of the Month: Happy Wife, Happy Life

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.





Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Handling a Trout For Catch and Release

This is my busy season. Days off are rare and usually intentionally scheduled. Today, for example, I ended up with a late cancelation and decided to take advantage to get new tires on my truck. The yard will probably get mowed as well. Most days find me on the water taking others fishing. Talk about a great job! I know how blessed I am. As I was considering what to do with my day, I remembered a topic that I've been meaning to address for awhile. How do you properly handle a trout to guarantee a healthy release? Furthermore, how do you hold a fish to get that perfect fish photo?

Today, I'm going to address that first question. Hopefully I'll get around to the second one in the near future. In explaining good technique for holding trout, I'll address at least a few components of good picture taking as well. How to hold trout is a question we get every day. Everyone wants the picture of their catch to look awesome. Before worrying about that picture though, worry about keeping the trout healthy to swim another day.

Before I get to those tips on handling trout carefully, I do want to put in a plug for catch and release fishing. I know a lot of people get enjoyment and pleasure from keeping a few fish and cooking them later. That is a great tradition and a nice way to enjoy a good meal. That said, earth's population is exploding. I see far more anglers out on the water now than I did when I started fly fishing. With the crowded rivers and streams comes more stress on fish populations than ever. There are simply too many anglers and too few fish.

Last summer, I saw a couple of guys fishing on the bank as I drifted down the Caney Fork River. They were catching a few fish to eat. Again, that is fine as long as it is within the regulations. Unfortunately, in lawfully keeping a few trout every day, they soon cleared the majority of the fish out of the hole. Those guys were fishing that hole nearly every day for around two weeks. Late in the second week, as we drifted by, the guys asked how we were doing. When I returned the question, they complained that "A week ago we were catching our limit every day including some big ones, but now we can't find any trout." Even legally keeping fish hurts the fisheries.

Rivers like the Caney Fork and Clinch River can turn out many large trout. Those trout will only get big if you carefully release them to swim another day. If they can get a couple of years in our rivers, they quickly reach 18-20 inches or better. Imagine fishing a river full of big fish? It is possible, but we cannot wait for regulation to fix this problem. Voluntary catch and release is the only way we can see consistently better fishing on the Caney Fork River among others and it needs to be the vast majority of anglers. Also, if you do see someone poaching, please call the Tennessee Poacher's Hotline and report them.

The first and probably most important rule for handling trout is to minimize the time you have the fish out of the water. I've watched many people kill trout, whether intentionally or not, by having the fish out of the water for several minutes. This seems like a no brainer, but since fish breathe by gathering oxygen from water through their gills, they suffocate when out of the water. The #keepemwet is a reminder to treat fish respectfully and release them in the best condition possible. Check out the KeepEmWet.org website for more information.



If you want a picture of your catch, make sure to keep it in the water until the camera is ready. A net is the perfect way to keep a fish corralled and healthy until that moment when you lift it quickly out of the water. Besides, fish pictures are better when water is still dripping off of the glistening fish. Fish should realistically be out of the water for no more than 5-10 seconds, 15 seconds max. With modern cameras, fast shutters, and a good net, this is more than reasonable.

Next, use a rubber net bag if possible. Trout have a protective slime coating that is easily removed with things like dry net bags and dry hands. A rubber net bag is easy on the fish. Just make sure to get the net wet before sliding the fish in. I like to use an oversized net. That way the fish has room to be comfortable while you are getting ready for that picture.

Along with the above, always get your hands wet before handling a trout and any fish really. There has been some pushback against this idea in recent years, but ultimately it cannot hurt. As an angler, I'm all in favor of any practice that will reduce potential mortality to the trout I love to catch and release.

While handling trout, make sure to handle them very gently. DON'T squeeze them, DON'T hold them by the gills or lip them like a bass. DO cradle them gently, DO keep them in the water as much as possible, and only lift them up for that quick picture. Also, DON'T lay trout out on the ground for a picture. If you must beach a fish for some reason (forgot the net???), do it in shallow water and never on dry ground and get it back in deeper water as quickly as possible.

The next tip doesn't apply to everyone, but some people just don't realize there is a problem. If you plan on releasing some fish, avoid using live or scented bait. Fish deeply ingest things like worms, crickets, and yes, PowerBait. A fish that is gut hooked probably won't live, simple as that. Along with this, use only single hook lures and flies if you plan on releasing your catch. I wish that we could get those passed as regulations here in Tennessee on any stream or river with special regulations on size. If you have a protected length range, but people catching those fish are gut hooking them, it defeats the purpose.

If you are a fly angler and serious about catch and release, consider pinching down those barbs. Barbless hooks are much easier on trout. Yes, you might occasionally lose a fish because of a barbless hook, but if you do everything right, you shouldn't lose any more with barbless hooks for the most part.

Play fish quickly and avoid fishing in water that is too warm. I've watched people "battle" a 12 inch trout on the Caney Fork for 5 minutes. There is a good chance that the fish died from that experience even if they released it quickly. Even large trout can be landed quickly. Sometimes it helps to pressure some fish too much and break a few off so you learn the limitations of your gear. That way you will be prepared to pressure the fish just enough the next time you hook a big one.

If you do hook a fish deeply (and let's face it, that can happen even on flies), it is usually better to cut the line than to try to dig that hook out. If a fish is hooked in the gills, same thing. If a fish is bleeding badly and you want to harvest a fish, that would be the time to do it.

Remember, even with good technique, there is some mortality associated with catch and release fishing. If you follow these tips, it will help the fish to live and be in the best shape possible moving forward. The best gift that an angler can give to other anglers is a released fish. I have caught fish that I know for a fact have been caught before. For example, my big trout on Deep Creek recently was caught by my buddy about a year ago. That is proof that catch and release works. Good handling will ensure that many others can enjoy the same opportunities, and we will have healthy trout and other fish populations for years to come.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Something Good Always Happens On Deep Creek

Some fishing experiences tend to end in disappointment while others tend to end in elation. For example, there is a stream in the Smokies that, due to its small blue line status, will remain nameless. It looks fishy and I sometimes catch some fish there, but it never fishes nearly so well as it looks like it should. Every once in a while, I go back and give it another shot, but so far it has been mediocre. Other streams have a tendency to always impress. This has been my experience on Deep Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I have long said that something good always happens on Deep Creek. For me, that has historically been a memorable fish. While all the fish I catch should be memorable, it was beginning to look like my backpacking trip would conclude with lots of beautiful but average trout. The usual Deep Creek lunker had eluded me.

Thankfully, as we began hiking down the trail on our return to civilization, I carried with me the memory of two incredible days on the water in the Smokies. The first day was memorable because I returned to fish a pool that had previously produced my largest brown trout on Deep Creek. The second day was memorable because I had finally achieved my long time goal of fishing around Bumgardner Ridge. The experience had been everything I had imagined, short of 20 inch wild trout leaping onto my hook the whole way that is.

As we hiked down the trail, I began to think about one pool in particular. This pool is in the lower reaches of the creek. It is where I had broken off a rather large brown trout the year before. There are several of these big pools on Deep Creek. Bottomless pools that must contain truly large brown trout, these are the pools that keep anglers coming back and dreaming about the big one.

By this point in our trip, I was simply focused on getting back out to my car and heading home. I was already dreaming about some good home cooked food instead of the backpacking food that required rehydrating before eating. A soft bed also sounded rather nice. Clearly I'm getting soft in my old age, but the comforts of home were pulling me down the trail faster than I had hiked in a few days before. I did some quick math in my head and decided it might even be possible to make it home in time for lunch.

The thought did occur to me that I might discover a big fish. Mostly I hoped that it wouldn't happen, because if it did, then I would probably need want to fish for it. Approaching the final pool of reckoning, I was almost scared to glance into the water. I purposefully left my polarized sunglasses off. If I couldn't see through the surface, then I couldn't find any fish.

Upon first glance, the pool seemed devoid of fish. Whew, close call, right? The smart thing at this point would have been to keep going. However, with no other anglers in sight, I couldn't help but linger. This was the pool that I had been dreaming about for over a year. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to examine every rock, every boulder, every inch, just in case that big fish was still around.

When I saw the fish, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was late enough in the morning and enough people were around that a fish that size should have already moved up into the deep heart of the pool before then. The fish looked about the same as last year, maybe a shade bigger. There wasn't much mistaking this fish though. A an opportunity for redemption was staring me in the face. The fish was clearly eating. The white of its mouth was obvious from our vantage point every time a bug drifted too close.

I had purposefully packed my wading gear inside my backpack knowing that the harder it was to get to everything, the less likely that I would actually stop to fish. This fish was in such a perfect position and looked so big, though, that I just couldn't refuse the chance to cast to it again.

Digging through my fly box, I selected a big black Kaufmann's stonefly along with the same bead head caddis pupa that I had broke the fish off on last time around. Assuming it would spook the fish, but really having no other choice, I also added the smallest airlock indicator they make. I couldn't get close enough to high stick very effectively so the indicator would have to do the trick. I took a while to sneak into position. The riffle just downstream from the pool affords a level of cover, but you still don't want to be too casual about the whole thing.

Soon I found myself kneeling in the riffle downstream of the fish. I could still see it large as life. My buddy John had dug out his GoPro and started filming. Strangely, I didn't feel any pressure. Either the fish would eat or it wouldn't. If it ate, I would either land it or I wouldn't. For some reason, spending a few nights in the woods puts things into better perspective, and I had never been more relaxed while fishing for a large trout.

After fishing for a while, the bottom fly caught the bottom just upstream of the trout. When I gently tugged to get it moving again, the large fish casually cruised up and across the pool and out of sight. Almost ready to leave, I remembered that the fish had done the same thing when I fished for it last time. Thankfully, my memory proved correct. This was a tolerant fish.

Several minutes later, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye as the fish worked back up through the riffle to my left. It casually returned to its feeding lie and sat back down. I waited another minute, absolutely certain that another cast would spook it for good. But it didn't.

Eventually, I was convinced that the fish didn't want what I was offering. I changed the dropper to a small Pheasant Tail nymph. The fish had clearly been eating when I first spotted it. It seemed to know I was there, because its feeding had nearly ceased. In fact, when it finally ate the same big black stonefly I had been throwing the whole time, it was probably the first time it had ate anything for several minutes.

The same thing had happened when I broke this fish off over a year ago. The currents are tricky in the back of this hole, and I'm convinced that the flies just finally drifted correctly through the spot. A good drift is essential to catching trout and this fish proved that yet again.

The fish tried running hard down the river. I made a beeline, running across the tailout to maintain pressure downstream. Trout will generally pull away from the pressure, so by pulling downstream, I encouraged the fish to pull back up into the home pool. With that potential crisis averted, I settled down to fighting the fish. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the fish slid into the shallows and I grabbed its tail.


My buddy John came down the bank and graciously took some pictures for me. He also took a bit more video including of the release. I can't wait to see the final video. It is the first time I've had something filmed like that. The chance to relive that moment will be a lot of fun. In the meantime, I'm already considering how and when I can return to Deep Creek. I don't know what future trips there hold, but it will probably be something good. Oh yeah, I did make it home in time for lunch, albeit just a little late. It was worth running a little late though...

Update: Find the video HERE.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Fly Fishing The Bend Around Bumgardner Ridge on Deep Creek

The Bend. Bumgardner Ridge. The stuff of legend. This is remote Smoky Mountain fishing at its finest. Inaccessible water that rarely gets fished, this is just what everyone is looking for. It also happens to be some of the toughest water I have ever fished, and it is about as remote as you can get. Our day started a bit earlier than the previous day. We would need to walk about three miles back down the trail before reaching our entry point for the day's fishing. Breakfast was quickly cooked and eaten, lunches were stowed in our day packs, and we hit the trail.

On the hike down, I kept getting distracted by the wildflowers. The day was about as perfect as can be for an early spring hike. Many wildflowers were spotted on this trip, but as the focus was on fishing, I eventually pulled myself away and kept moving down the trail. I took quite a few pictures of the flowers, but most don't do them justice. These two will probably make you think that everything blooming was purple which isn't true. They just happened to be two of the better shots I got. By the way, explain to me why those violets are called "Blue" if you can. They look purple to me and my eye doctor assures me that I am not color blind.

Great Smoky Mountain Dwarf Crested Iris along Deep Creek
"Dwarf Crested Iris" ©2019 David Knapp Photography

Great Smoky Mountain Common Blue Violets along Deep Creek
"Common Blue Violets" ©2019 David Knapp Photoraphy

When we reached campsite #60, we also reached the access point for our fishing marathon. The bend around Bumgardner Ridge features a lot of high gradient water and this starts immediately above this backcountry campsite. In fact, we were almost tempted to bail on this fishing trip before we made it more than a hundred yards. The water was still on the high side from lots of recent rainfall. This made moving back and forth across the stream challenging at best.

We weren't catching fish at a lightning pace either. Because this water is close to a backcountry campsite, the first few hundred yards assumedly receives a fair amount of fishing pressure. As we moved higher up the drainage, we began to feel like we were truly on remote waters. The trail here loops far back from the stream as it crosses Bumgardner Ridge. Thus, once we entered this section, we were committed to make it through or have to wade all the way back down to our starting point.

Fish started to show up, although not in huge numbers. We caught one here and one there, but never several in one spot. More than anything, this was a product of heavy water that was borderline for fishing in many spots. Some of the better pocket water was simply too fast and turbulent. Here, my buddy John fishes one pocket next to a rapid. Once the water drops a bit more, what was then heavy water will turn into the best fishing water in this section. Overall, I think this section would fish better in the summer or even fall.

Smokies fly fishing on Deep Creek

Great Smoky Mountains fly fishing on Deep Creek

Moving on up the river, we came to several gorgeous pools. There were probably 4 or 5 excellent pools in this whole stretch. In other words, a LOT of wading and a LOT of work for a few prime fishing spots. We persevered, however, and were rewarded with some beautiful wild rainbow and brown trout. This is the Great Smoky Mountains backcountry, and the real reward here is a pristine and remote environment where you won't see another angler all day. This seems to be increasingly hard to find these days. For this reason, the fishing was great even while the catching was a little slow.

Deep Creek brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains

By mid day, the fish were looking up and we kept switching between nymph rigs and dry/dropper rigs depending on the water type. As much as possible we stuck with the dry fly setups. A seriously good hatch never really materialized on this trip, but there were enough bugs around to get the attention of the trout. John got several dry fly eats in this hole, for example.

In the Great Smoky Mountains on Deep Creek, we find the Orvis 10' 3 weight rod in its natural habitat



An angler on Deep Creek in the Smokies hooks a nice trout and gets the rod bent

John was fishing an Orvis Superfine rod which was perfect for dry flies on this type of water. I had brought an Orvis 10' 3 weight Recon which not only fishes dry flies very well, but is also perfect for high sticking nymphs as anglers have done in the Smokies for a 100 years. Back in the day it was done with a long cane pole, and today we use modern graphite fly rods, but otherwise the techniques are still nearly identical. The long rod is used to run heavily weighted nymphs through deep dark runs where trout like to hide and the result is truly amazing.

There are many fish in these creeks and an angler who is effective at high sticking will find lots of those trout. While similar to the newer techniques known collectively as "euro nymphing," high sticking still has its own distinct flavor. For example, on this trip I left the sighter or indicator tippet at home. Split shot is used in addition to weighted flies. There are other subtle differences, but in reality euro nymphing is a new spin on an old method we have been using for a long time here in east Tennessee.



Even in the high water, stealth was important. We were able to get closer than usual, but still made sure to stay low and sneak up on the trout. The fish in the Smokies are some of the spookiest I've ever fished for. If I could share one piece of knowledge with visiting anglers, it would be to focus on stealth. Dress to blend in with your surroundings, stay low, and think like a predator. Stalk the trout you are after.

By late afternoon, we were both getting tired. This had turned into one of the longest and hardest days of fishing I've ever had in the Smokies, but I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. This was a long time goal of mine, and I'm thrilled to have finally made it to fly fish around the bend below Bumgardner Ridge. We had taken some very specific observations early that morning on the hike in and now we got out of the creek a bit short of the accepted exit point for this stretch which is directly across from Bridge Creek. We climbed out before that and were glad that we did. Both of us were tired and that is when accidents usually start to happen. Better to quit and fish another day than to push on and get injured.

Back in camp that evening, we discussed the next day. Our original itinerary involved moving upstream to a couple more camps over the next two nights, finally exiting to Newfound Gap Road on Monday. The last weather report we got called for rain and storms on Sunday as well as a good chance of rain on Saturday. We knew the fishing would get tough if we stayed and decided that hiking out the following morning would be the best plan. Neither of us was dying to stay holed up in a tent while it rained or, even worse, stormed all day. This proved to be an excellent decision but we wouldn't know how good until the next day.

Deep Creek is one of my favorite fly fishing destinations in the Smokies. While I don't always catch as many trout as on other streams of the Smokies, something good always happens. On this trip, it was beginning to look like the "something good" for this trip was fulfilling my longtime goal of fishing around Bumgardner Ridge, but we still had the hike out.

To be continued...


Newsletter

Subscribe to the Trout Zone Anglers Newsletter!

* indicates required