Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Monday, November 22, 2021

Stay With It

Every year, I take a fishing trip in early to mid November. That trip is usually to the Smokies, and I usually end up camping for at least a couple of nights. This year, I decided to head to Smokemont Campground near Cherokee, NC. A couple of friends were planning on joining, either for both the camping and fishing, or at least for a day of fishing. 

The camping trip was a big success. A good rain the last night meant I was packing up wet gear the Friday morning I left. That slowed me down slightly, but still I was out of camp by a good time and headed to the first of a couple of destinations for that final few hours of fishing. Deep Creek is one of my favorites, probably because something good always seems to happen when I fish there. Nowadays, it seems quite crowded, yet the allure of a stream that has produced so many nice brown trout for me over the years keeps calling me back.

My buddy John was with me who also happened to be along when I caught the big brown trout I had been hunting for over a year. On that occasion, he just happened to have a GoPro with him and captured the whole thing. What a special treat. On this trip, I brought along a GoPro myself and was soon reminded of the importance of really dedicating to the process if I'm going to try and film. 

We had cut through the woods into a semi remote stretch of water where I knew there was a good pool or two. I was rigged and ready with a Tellico Nymph and a small caddis pupa and a euro style sighter. I've been using sighters when high sticking at least half of the time and almost always when I'm trying to teach someone such as on a guide trip. There are some obvious limitations to the use of a sighter section, but also a lot of positives as well. Anyway, I had this rig and started working up through the run. 

I didn't have a lot of expectations. A cold front had moved through during the night and the water temperatures were on the downhill slide. This time of year, water temperature direction seems to be a lot more important than the actual number. I would take 40 degree water after several days in the 30s, but don't want to see 48 degree water after several days in the 50s.

A couple of bumps encouraged me that this might turn out to be a decent day after all. Some small rainbows were messing with the caddis pupa but not quite getting hooked. Finally, I made a longer cast up the far seam. The flies bumped slowly along the bottom of a ledge as they dropped towards deeper water. One of the subtle pauses lasted a fraction of a second longer than the others had been. I raised the rod tip a bit and met slight resistance. Lifting even further, I finally went into the hook set that should have been my first move. Sure enough, the weight of the ledge turned into the weight of a fish after all as the nice little brown started bulldogging. This was another variation on the theme of never giving up on a possible fish. You have to stay with it, and in this case, I did. The fish was my reward for not giving up. 

Deep Creek wild brown trout


The funny thing here is that I was really certain I was stuck on the ledge. Never mind that this was a great brown trout spot with softer water on the edge of a seam over bedrock. I thankfully didn't give up though and the fish hung on just long enough for me to turn it into a hook set. Most days, the fish in the Smokies are too quick and don't give you time for half hearted hook sets though. The real lesson is that you need to set on everything. This is something I preach every day as a guide, and yet here I was relearning the lesson for umpteenth (or billionth) time. This is something I see over and over again as a guide. Whether it is high sticking/tight lining/euro nymphing, or indicator nymphing, or even fishing with a dry dropper, people are quick to write off small jiggles and ticks as "just the bottom" or "just a rock" or, well, you get the idea. When you are nymphing, if there is any glimmer of doubt in your mind that a fish might be eating, set the hook. 

The only bad thing about this fish is that I didn't have the GoPro rolling. Yep, I went to the effort of bringing it with me, but didn't use it nearly enough. The best fish of the day wasn't captured on video because I thought I was just warming up. If you are going to start filming your adventures, my advice is to film everything. You never know when the fish of the day might strike.

Thankfully, the rest of the day had me dialed in just a little better. Soon I was catching some more fish, setting on every slight hesitation. The rainbows and browns were coming willingly, just often enough to keep me focused and engaged. Too much time between fish tends to lull the angler to sleep, but steady action keeps one's reflexes ready to strike.

Deep Creek wild rainbow trout


As we go into the winter season, this lesson is even more important to learn. Trout tend to move slower and more deliberately in cold water. Often, you may not see much indication that the fish has taken the fly, but find an excuse to set the hook every single drift. You'll be amazed at how many of those turn into fish...



Thursday, September 02, 2021

New Great Smoky Mountains Brook Trout Video

So, as you probably suspected from the lack of posts lately, I've been pretty busy. My last two fishing trips that likely would have produced a blog post were both last week, but I've been sitting on them both. The reason being that I got a new toy: a GoPro. Yep, I finally caved and got one. So far it has been a lot of fun as long as I quickly learned its shortcomings and avoided them. The most obvious that I've figured out is that it doesn't focus well up close. That is how it gets such great wild angle footage along with sharp video throughout the depth of field. Somewhere it had to suffer and apparently that is in closeups. Not that it does badly, mind you, but I have to be careful how close I hold it when taking a fish picture or video.

Anyway, I went all out and got a chest mount and a few other goodies for it. Last week, I made the first serious fishing trip while hauling this whole contraption around. It was a day of learning, tweaking, trying new things, and tweaking some more. Eventually, I got enough good footage to try my hand at another YouTube video. That produced its own set of learning opportunities. 

This time around, I played with some color corrections. Some of which turned out really well, some of which, well, the lighting was really funny. Seriously. Regardless, I had a lot of fun and enjoyed trying something new out. While this won't be how I always do my fishing trips from now on (seriously, who wants to spend their whole time just trying to get a good video), I'll definitely be hauling it along from time to time and trying new things. I hope to continue to improve on my videos. While I'll probably never be anywhere close to some of the great film makers in the sport of fly fishing, it is still something fun to play with and learn about. 

So, for my first film with the new GoPro, I want to share "Backcountry Brookies in the Smokies" with you. You can watch it on my Trout Zone Anglers YouTube channel, of course. While you're there, please give me a follow. You can also try watching it in the viewer below. If possible, watch the 4k version for best quality. I hope you enjoy!



Sunday, August 15, 2021

Chasing Brown Fish on New Rivers

Getting out and sampling a new trout stream is one of my favorite things to do. A new smallmouth river is a very close second. Chasing bronze here in middle and east Tennessee is always a good choice. The smallmouth bass is the state fish after all. Here at the southern end of their native range, smallmouth inhabit a wide variety of waters. From small creeks on the Cumberland Plateau, to larger lowland rivers and lakes, smallmouth are plentiful. With the long growing season, they can also get large. 

Last week, my fellow fly fishing guides Travis Williams and Pat Tully and I had planned on checking out a new to me river that Travis guides on. This was a river I had always wanted to fish, but so far had not made it happen. Ever since Travis got a raft, the possibilities have really opened up. I'm never sure about taking the drift boat down new rivers. A hard boat can get damaged in a hurry. The raft is made for wild and rocky rivers, however.

I was up early after a night of barely being able to sleep. Yes, I still get excited about getting to go fishing. That was good, however, as I had a long drive and needed to leave my house by 5 am. Living just into Central time but regularly commuting into Eastern time zone gets old, but at least I gain that hour back when I come home in the evening. 

When I pulled into the gas station we were supposed to meet at, Travis was already there tinkering with the raft. I quickly topped off my gas tank, and then, when Pat arrived, we headed on to the river. This is a river that has been on my radar for years. Largely because of the history in the area, I have always wanted to fish there. The fact it holds plenty of smallmouth made it even better.

After dropping off the raft, it didn't take long to start floating. We tinkered with a lot of different fly combinations with nymphing seeming to be the right strategy early. Big flies under bobbers are effective at catching smallmouth, but what we really were hoping for was some topwater action. Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer and tied on a popper. We had already caught a few, and I just wanted to catch a couple on the surface.


Sure enough, that proved to be the ticket. We would still try nymphing and streamer fishing in the right places, but the vast majority of the rest of our fish came on top. We got lucky with some cloud cover that kept the fish more active and kept us cooler. By the time the clouds burned off in the afternoon, we had caught plenty of fish and transitioned to pounding the shady banks. 

Pat's big smallmouth. 


All of our best fish came from some type of structure. My big smallmouth jetted out of the stained water and crushed the popper I had on. Same thing for each of us. In the end, my buddy Pat caught big fish of the day while Travis got the biggest spotted bass. I was just happy to be out and catching a big smallmouth on top didn't hurt. 

Travis with one of many spotted bass.


Supposedly, this river also contains musky although we never saw any. I'll definitely be returning in the winter to try that out. In the meantime, I'll be dreaming of summer smallmouth on this new to me river. 

Here is a super short video edit I tossed together with a few clips from the day. For best viewing, click through and view on YouTube. Hope you enjoy!



Sunday, August 08, 2021

Pivotal Moments

Each angler has a growth timeline, and everyone's is different. Most likely, the pattern is not linear, but rather includes growth in fits and starts and maybe even some regression. For example, you probably weren't a proficient caster when you first started into the sport. Over time, you learned a basic cast, then maybe something fancier like a reach cast, parachute cast, steeple cast, well, you get the idea. There is a lot of growth that happens as a fly angler if you are spending much time doing it. 


The Beginning

Most of us started our journey of growth with that first trout on a fly rod. I remember mine just like it was yesterday. My dad had taken me fishing in the Smokies and I was trying my best to figure out how to catch a trout. The shiners were easy, and I had caught plenty of those. Same for the chub and other small minnows. What I wanted was a real, honest to goodness trout. 

We were fishing the lower end of Anthony Creek or the upper end of Abrams Creek depending on your definitions. I generally consider Anthony Creek to be the main stream in the upper part of Cades Cove before the water goes underground and Abrams Creek to be the downstream portion where it reemerges at several large springs. We were fishing just below the road crossing on Sparks Lane. A small cuttbank had helped scour a deeper hole in the creek where the water turned hard. At the bottom, I saw what looked like a rainbow trout. 

Sure enough, after tying on a small nymph, I got the cast angle right and the fly drifted down to the fish. Immediately, the trout inhaled the fly, and I set the hook. Soon, I was holding my first wild rainbow trout. That moment is something I enjoy reliving again and again as a fly fishing guide. Watching people start the journey as a fly angler is one of the treats of my job. Then again, the whole job is more or less a treat.

 

First Nice Brown Trout

I also remember my first quality brown trout in the Smokies. Not too long after that memorable rainbow, I was back fishing in the Smokies again. My dad was kind enough to take me fishing even though he wasn't himself fishing. These trips were a big treat, and contributed greatly to me being the angler I am today. Without those early trips, I probably would never have become a fly angler, much less been able to make it a career. 

Anyway, it was late in the day. My dad was tired and had stayed up at the car to probably catch a snooze while I wandered down through the woods to the bank of Little River. A perfect run had a big rapid dumping in from above. The big pocket where the rapid dumped in was separated from the main pool, but it looked fishy. I could just imagine the big trout waiting for me there. 

At that point in my angling career, I still was nowhere close to proficient with nymphs. Nowadays, that is probably what I would have been fishing. Thankfully, perhaps, because a big dry fly is what grabbed the attention of the big brown trout. I had tied on a big yellow Stimulator. High sticking it across the first currents and letting it dance across the surface, a big golden blur swirled on it. Once, twice, three times. Surely this fish wasn't going to keep coming back to my fly. And yet it did. One more time was one too many for the fish. 

Down into the big pool went the big fish with me in pursuit. When I finally landed it, I looked around, hoping my dad might appear with a camera. No such luck happened, and I carefully slid the hook out and released the quality trout. The fish was probably 16 inches or so. Nowhere close to the largest I've ever hooked, this was still memorable as the first really nice trout I caught on a fly rod.


First Quality Smokies Rainbow Trout

My first big wild rainbow in the Smokies was also memorable. So was the second. Eventually, some of the big fish you catch over the years start to blur together. However, for me at least, some of those early ones were pivotal moments that gave me the motivation to stick with it. They were evidence that I was slowly but surely figuring things out. 

The first big wild rainbow trout in the Smokies came on Abrams Creek. The late evening hatches and spinner falls are legendary. I found myself there late one day and was fishing over some rising trout. They wouldn't take what I was throwing. About that time, I noticed bugs skittering up and down just above the water's surface. Occasionally, one would bounce all the way down to the water before flying up again. Now I know that I was witnessing egg laying activity. At the time, I just knew I had to mimic the action of the real bugs. 

Extending my rod tip as far out as possible, I bounced it carefully up and down, making my dry fly dance just like the naturals. Sure enough, a big trout leaped and inhaled my fly. The 14 inch wild rainbow was big for the Smokies. I was sure that I was onto something. Catching another couple of fish with a similar technique had me genuinely excited. However, it was a very specific technique with a very specific application. What about when the fish weren't looking for egg layers? 

The second quality rainbow sort of snuck up on me. It was in the fall, and I was fishing a favorite pocket water stretch of Little River. To this day, I still like that section, probably because of the style of water which matches my preferred style of fishing. Regardless, water levels were at a normal fall low and a dry fly seemed appropriate. I had tied some October caddis and had one on the end of my leader as I prospected my way upstream. The take was rather nonchalant, but the fight was anything but. The 15 inch wild rainbow trout gave both me and my fly rod a real workout. I think a couple of cars stopped and took pictures of the fight, but I was too focused to be sure of that part. When that fish came to the net, I had my second wild rainbow over 12 inches ever. 

This second big rainbow was a pivotal moment because I had caught the fish on a rather lengthy cast compared to my usual high sticking. Normally not as successful with longer casts, this moment convinced me that it was possible to catch fish on longer casts. The line management skills necessary would come with practice. 


Fishing With A Guide

My first time fishing with a guide really propelled me forward in my fly fishing journey. In fact, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that one of the all time biggest contributors to my fly fishing education and growth was thanks to the famous Walter Babb. I wanted to learn to high stick nymphs without an indicator. Today, the buzzword is euro nymphing. Back when I learned, we didn't have fancy indicator tippet, but the techniques are similar. However, the local technique is something that evolved separately, first using a long cane pole and a fixed length line, then eventually a fly rod.

The general idea is to lead the flies through the water without dragging them. When your leader or tippet ticks or straightens out, you have a bite. There are other things like a tuck cast that help make this all come together, but really it isn't too difficult. However, I was having a hard time figuring everything out. The instruction from a professional guide made all the difference in the world, and my catch rates very quickly went through the roof.

My skills in the Smokies were really coming into their own, but there was still a lot of water out there to learn. Tailwaters, smallmouth, and of course trout streams and rivers out west. My horizons were about to expand in a big way and that would further my growth as an angler. 


Sometimes Failure Produces Growth

Interestingly, one of the next major growth moments for me happened almost by accident. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time leads to growth even when you don't catch any fish. This episode happened at Lee's Ferry on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. After reading about this famous tailwater in Fly Fisherman many years ago, I just had to fish there. When a year off in college took me to Arizona, I knew my opportunity had come. 

I stopped at one of the local fly shops, talked to the person there, and ended up buying some zebra midges. They explained how to fish them, and I headed out to the walk and wade access. In the end, I couldn't buy a trout. The big water of the Colorado both humbled and intimidated me at the time. So, I walked away with some new flies, and a memory of a beautiful river I hope to fish again someday. 

Fast forward a few months, and you would find me standing on the banks of Tennessee's Caney Fork River. As I was thinking about what to fish with, I remembered that somebody had said that Caney Fork was a good midge fishery. Remembering those zebra midges, I dug through my boxes and attached one on a dropper below my dry fly. Amazingly, every fish I cast to ate the zebra midge. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement. That day on the Caney and that tough day on the Colorado combined to interest me in midge fishing. Now, I fish them year round and am still learning a lot about them each time I go. 

My midge fishing has evolved continuously from that day. I've caught fish all over the western US on midges. Of course, my home rivers also fish well with them. Even in the Smokies, I fish midge patterns when the going gets tough.


Ability is the Sum of Experience and Knowledge

As an angler, there have since been many other learning moments. I'll never forget my first time in a drift boat, with many others to follow. Good friends along the way have helped to mold the angler that I am today. At the end of the day, an angler's ability is the sum of their experience and knowledge with maybe a little luck thrown in for good measure. Certainly some of my favorite catches over the years were the result of luck to some extent. At least being in the right place at the right time, but ability still is an important component. 

Sometimes, an angler can get in their own way too. I've lost a good many fish over the years. There were fish that I shouldn't have lost. Some were my own fault, probably many in fact. Other times, the fish simply won. Still, a good angler minimizes those times through their vast catalogue of experiences. Other battles won and lost. Other big fish played on light tippets, or maybe other big fish on heavy streamers. 

Sometimes even the little guys teach us valuable lessons. I once fished for a 6 inch rainbow in the Smokies for a good 45 minutes without catching it, mostly because I love sight fishing. Still, I learned a lot about what wasn't working on that particular fish. Those big fish are the ones that keep us coming back. I often tell other anglers, both clients and also friends and family, that to land big fish, you usually have to lose a few to figure out how to fight them properly. You can be coached up to a point, yet if guiding has taught me anything, you can be told exactly what is about to happen and still do the wrong thing.


Losing the Bull Trout of a Lifetime

Last summer, on our western road trip, chasing bull trout was part of the goal. I had done my homework. The knowledge piece seemed to be there, but I needed to gain the experience part firsthand. When I hooked and fought a bull trout for probably a minute or more the first day of fishing, I thought I had it made. Seconds later, the fly simply pulled out. 

In retrospect, there were at least a couple of things I did wrong as well as a few I did right. First, I was fishing the heaviest tippet I thought I could get away with. That was smart. Turns out the tippet was the least of my worries. This big mean fish didn't care whether I had tied the fly on with rope. Bull trout are generally going to eat or they aren't. If a bull trout is in the mood to feed, I'm of the opinion that just about anything will work based on my very limited experience. 

Another thing I did right was to bring as much pressure to bear on the fish when it headed for a big log jam. The big fish turned at the last possible second. Another couple of feet and the fish was undoubtedly gone. Unfortunately, I took that lesson and pushed it too far. 

With the fish in open water, I started trying to end the fight immediately. I had my seven weight doubled up. The fish was no more than 15 feet away now. Suddenly, the line simply went limp. In the end, I using too much pressure when it wasn't necessary and ripped the fly out of the bull trout's mouth. I had lost the bull trout of a lifetime up to that point. That isn't saying much since I had never caught one, but the fish was definitely at least a two footer. A really nice fish that I would be thrilled with any day.


Redemption: Lessons Learned and Lessons Applied

A few days later, I finally landed the big bull trout I was looking for. There was chaos in the moment, yet, somehow I did everything mostly correct. At least, I did enough right to land the fish. There were still some stupid mistakes that thankfully didn't cost me. Looking back, I can learn even from those, however. 

The interesting thing about landing a bull trout is the quiet confidence it gave me back on my home waters. You wouldn't think that those things are related. However, losing that big fish on the first day really settled an old lesson once and for all, at least I hope. Knowing exactly how hard to push the fish without losing it is a tough lesson to learn. I'm 99.9% certain I'll eventually have to learn it again. If not on trout, then on some powerful ocean dwelling fish perhaps. 

Still, when I fish the Clinch River now, I find myself far more relaxed and unconcerned when fishing light tippets and small flies. Not that I never lose trout, mind you, but the fish is often more responsible than I am. The funny thing is that my bull trout lesson was on heavy tippet, yet, the real lesson learned was to not panic in the middle of a fight. 

The first bull trout I hooked ended in too much pressure. Often, as an angler, I found that my lost fish come when I panic and do something that I would otherwise know not to do. In other words, fish are lost when you aren't thinking clearly. To land a fish, any fish really but especially big fish, you need to be singularly focused. Blocking out everything but the task before you is tough in our world today. With so many things competing for our time and attention, tossing all the distraction aside and fighting a trout is easier said than done. 

Landing that big bull trout helped me loosen up. For some reason, it was another significant turning point in my fishing career. Now, I don't put as much pressure on myself. More importantly, I don't beat myself up when I lose fish as much as I used to. Let's face it, none of us likes to lose a trout. Yet, putting that moment into the big scheme of things, a lost trout really isn't too important. And that's coming from a guide who knows that landed big fish can be the difference in a big tip or not. Still, at the end of the day, it is just a trout and just a tip. Once you put those things into the proper perspective, you will fish more effortlessly. Not completely effortlessly, just more effortlessly. And each new growth experience will make that a little bit more true. 


Next Growth Moment

The funny thing about those pivotal moments in life, be it in fly fishing or otherwise, you never know when one is about to sneak up on you. In hindsight, they seem pretty obvious, but sometimes it takes a few days at least and often months or even years to realize the significance. The next growth moment could very well sneak up on me. In fact, I've had a couple of moments on the water lately that might end up being important down the road. Right now, I'm still digesting them. Those moments could just be a small blip on the radar. On the other hand, maybe ten years from now I'll write another article like this one and they will be cited as a pivotal moment of growth. 

So what have been your pivotal moments of growth as a fly angler?


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

How To Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod

Fighting big fish is the eventual goal for most fly anglers unless you've already passed this stage in your fishing career. Some fights last longer than others. I've personally had countless big trout break off on the hook set over the years and probably even more guiding. If you are going to pursue large trout, it comes with the territory. This is particularly true if you choose to target large selective trout on light tackle. Small flies, light tippets, and to a much lesser extent, if you are streamer fishing. I've seen some truly large fish break off on some heavy tippet.

Before we get too far along into this piece, I need to clear one thing up. I'm far from the best person to be telling you how to fight fish. There are plenty of anglers out there who have caught more and larger trout than I have. However, between my own personal fishing and also my guiding, I have learned a few things over the years. I've lost enough big trout to at least be able to tell you what not to do. Some special trout have come along that I've also been fortunate enough to land, and each one of those taught me something as well.



How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: Rigging

This is an often overlooked part of catching large trout. If your knots don't hold or your tippet is old and brittle, you can have the best fish fighting skills in the world, and you'll still lose most of them. Early in my fly fishing career, I lost a lot of big fish on the hook set. This was due to one or the other of those problems. When tippet snaps, either a knot was bad, the tippet is old, or a combination of both. 

One sneaky problem that is often overlooked in this category is knots combining two types of materials. I routinely use monofilament leaders and add a fluorocarbon tippet. Part of this has to do with me being cheap. However, much more importantly, fluorocarbon has a tendency towards sinking while monofilament has a tendency towards floating. I generally prefer to have most of my leader up on the surface, at least to my dry fly or strike indicator.  Unfortunately, fluorocarbon is much harder than monofilament and often cuts the mono when you attach them together with a knot. 

The first tip here is to use slightly heavier monofilament before tying on the fluorocarbon. For example, if I'm using 6x fluorocarbon for my tippet, I'll generally use 4x monofilament for the leader to the point I tie on the tippet. These can be store bought or hand tied leaders. When you tie the two together, be extremely cautious when seating the knot. Slide the two pieces ever so slowly apart as you pull to tighten the knot. If you are careful, it should be fine. An often better solution here is a tippet ring which eliminates this issue of trying to tie two different materials directly together. However, the tippet ring will want to sink just a bit since it is metal. Thus, it isn't the best approach when you really need to keep that leader on the surface. A bit of mucilin or other paste style floatant can help here.

Another tip on rigging is to use the heaviest line you think you can get away with. Often, if I know I'm targeting large trout, I'll go up to something in the 1x through 4x size range on tippet. Obviously, you probably won't be fishing a #18 midge on 1x, but you might try 5x before going down to 6x. Every little bit of holding power helps. 

Finally, be confident in your knots. I exclusively use a blood knot for tying tippet to leader. That is because I personally tie this knot much better than some of the alternatives and have had the other knots break on me. I rarely tie a bad blood knot and when I do, I was probably joining two different types of materials. Same thing for your tippet to fly knot of course. Always give a little tug after tying a fly one to make sure the knot is good. 

How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: Gear

Closely related to rigging is making sure you have the right gear. This means reels with a smooth drag (unless you just want to make it harder on yourself) and rods with the right amount of flex. If you are fishing streamers or other applications that allow for larger flies and heavier tippets, then you can get away with a fairly fast (stiff) rod. For light line presentations like smaller dry flies, small nymphs, and midges, then consider something with a bit more flex. 

Protecting light tippets starts with a rod with a tip that isn't too stiff. Big fish break off for a lot of reasons, but usually it comes down to something during the hook set or fight. If you set too hard on a big trout while using 6x and a tiny midge, you better not have a broom stick in your hands.

How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: The Hook Set

The hooks is another overlooked part of catching big trout. When guiding, I often spend some time literally just practicing the hook set. I'll hold the butt section of the leader or the fly line and have the angler practice setting until I feel like they have the right amount of pressure. Don't have someone around to hold your line? Then tie on a 6x leader to your line, tie the 6x to a dumbbell or something else heavy, and practice setting the hook. The goal is to come tight (that includes putting a bend in your rod) without breaking the small tippet.

I have noticed an interesting problem on the hook set with a lot of anglers. They lift the butt of the rod instead of coming back with the tip. Remember, the whole point here is to come tight to the fish. That means you have to move the rod tip, not the butt of the rod. A good hook set looks a lot like a backcast. The key is knowing when to stop going back. You want to go until your tight to the fish, no more and no less. 

Of course, this only applies to smaller flies or any other application that requires light tippets. If you are streamer fishing, you'll probably have heavy tippet on. In this scenario, we use a strip set. A hard pull or strip with your line hand helps drive the hook home. If you happen to miss the fish, the fly is still in the water and the fish may come back.

A lot of hook sets break off the fish because the angler comes back too far and too hard. This leads us to our next big point. 

Sometimes You Just Have to Lose Some Big Fish

This one is a tough pill to swallow, but the best way to become proficient at hooking and landing big trout is to do it and learn from your mistakes. I routinely tell people that they just need to lose some big fish to get a feel for fighting them. Each fish will teach you something that you can use on the next one. If you lose it on the hook set, then next time you'll know to not set quite as hard. If you lose it during the fight, then you'll learn what not to do there. Of course, sometimes there is nothing you can do if a fish finds the right piece of structure. You'll learn that you sometimes have to put maximum pressure, knowing full well that the fish will either break off or turn before getting in the structure. If the fish gets in the structure, then you will almost certainly lose it. 

Once you have fought a few fish, then you'll begin to have a fairly good idea of where the breaking point is on 4x tippet, 5x tippet, 6x tippet, and so on and so forth. The ability to push a fish right up to the breaking point without crossing that line is what enables you to successfully fight and land large fish without overplaying them. When a client recently landed a monster brown trout, he asked at least a couple of times if he needed to put more pressure on the fish. This ethical dilemma is something that good fish fighting skills will make an easier choice. I've watched people fight a 12 inch trout to exhaustion unnecessarily. I've also watched people land huge trout on light tippet over the course of 10 or 15 minutes and successfully release the trout at the end. Knowing the water conditions (temperature and dissolved oxygen) helps to make this decision, but in the end, good fish fighting skills are necessary to get the fish in the net as quickly as possible.

How To Land Big Trout On a Fly Rod: The Fight

Once you have a successful hook set and that big fish is dancing on the end of your line, then what? As a guide, I always tell people to keep their rod straight up. This is actually not 100% accurate nor always the best strategy, but for people just getting their feet wet in the world of fighting large trout, it is a really good place to start. That is because it is something easy to focus on in the heat of the moment and accomplishes most of what you want to do. However, it would be more accurate to say that you need to keep the rod bent at the appropriate angle, but where is the appropriate angle? 

While holding your fly rod without being hooked up to a fish, the rod is straight. Once you hook that big trout, imagine the rod is still straight and that you want to keep approximately a 90 degree angle between the tip of the rod and the fly line coming from the tip. This allows the rod to flex deeply but appropriately. If you get the rod tip too far behind you and pointing away from the fish, you'll likely end up breaking the rod. If you point the rod at the fish, then the rod can't flex and the fish will either through the fly or break you off.

People often point the rod at the fish because they've seen or heard the advice to bow to fish when they jump. This is great advice, but much better advice, at least for fighting large trout, is to keep low side pressure. Keeping the rod tip low encourages the trout to not jump as much. Low side pressure will generally whip a large fish much faster than the rod overhead technique I often have people use. This is particularly true for large brown trout and much less so for big rainbows in my experience. In fact, if I know I have a big brown trout on, I'll use as much side pressure as possible. With big rainbows, I'll use a lot more overhead pressure.




Whether you point your rod up or to the side, keep the rod at that 90 degree angle to your fly line. This of course doesn't count for the flex of the rod, so the imaginary direct line extending from the handle of the bent rod is the one that should stay at a 90 degree angle to the fish. Whatever you do, don't get the rod pointed anywhere towards the fish. 

As you get tired during the fight, your tendency will be to give the fish room to run by swinging the tip of the rod towards the fish. This is almost always the point where people lose big fish. Once the rod is pointed at the fish, it can no longer bend/flex and absorb the runs and head shakes of the hooked trout. 

When fighting other large fish, this advice is definitely not as accurate. When I fight big striped bass, for example, I fight them with the butt of the rod and keep the rod angled lower towards the fish. When using heavy tippets for larger trout, the same principle applies. You are using the drag on your reel as much as the rod to fight large hot fish. 

How to Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod: Landing the Fish

If you have done everything right up until this point, there is one more danger point in catching a large trout. More large fish have been lost at the net over the years than anywhere else I'm guessing. A burst of energy always seems to come from nowhere when you go to scoop a big fish. The key is to corral the head first of all. Even if the tail tries to paddle, it will be propelling the fish into the net at that point. 

Don't try to scoop a big fish unless the head is up and under control. Lots of big fish are lost because the fish still has the head down and is ready to run. The introduction of the net at this point will almost certainly cause another big run right when the angler has let his or her guard down expecting things to be over. When in doubt, wait for the next time around. With a big fish, you'll probably only get one shot, so do it right the first time. If you scoop and miss, the chances of bumping the tippet just enough to pop the fly out is really high. 

A long handled landing net is really helpful as is a net with a deep bag. A buddy or even guide is also a big help here but you can do it yourself if necessary. If for some reason you are without a net, then beaching the fish is the next best way to land it. If you choose this approach, make absolutely certain that you choose a spot with plenty of water over the rocks or sand. This is not the time to roll a big fish on dry land. Treat the trout as carefully and gently as possible and grab the meaty part of the tail to subdue the fish quickly.

How To Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod: The Release

Once you land the fish, keep it in the water as much as possible. That means the head and gills in particular. I've seen a lot of people thinking they are keeping a fish wet, but the part that most desperately needs oxygen is out of the water. Fish should only be out of the water for 5-10 seconds OR LESS for pictures and measurements. So, carry a good net that is big enough for the largest fish you may encounter. There are more tips for handling a trout for catch and release HERE.

The actual release should be taken with care on a big fish. You have just given the fish a major workout and they need time to recover. Hold the fish cradled upright in cold water with some current (but not a rapid). The colder the water, the quicker this process will play out. I will hold the fish carefully for longer than probably necessary until I can barely contain the fish. The trout will definitely let you know when it is ready to go. 

The best part about releasing that trophy catch is the chance to again hook it some day. Our tailwaters here in Tennessee can grow some absolutely enormous trout, but the fish have to be left in the river to grow. People often lament the size of the trout they catch compared to the good old days, all while loading up a stringer with 7 inch stocked trout. The only way those 7 inch stocked trout are going to turn into big fish is if you leave them in the river. While many people choose to harvest and enjoy eating their catch, consider practicing more catch and release if you would like to enjoy better fishing. Imagine a river full of 18-25 inch trout. Most if not all of our tailwaters here in Tennessee could offer that kind of fishing. Until management strategies adjust to make this the goal (not likely unfortunately), then it is up to us as anglers to do the right thing and release our catch. 





Monday, July 26, 2021

An Argument For Catch and Release

If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you probably noticed a period where I blogged about the guided trips I do. However, over time, I realized that I didn't want this blog to become part of my "job," and decided to diligently keep those two things separate. Thus, you have been left with the occasional post about my fishing and anything else that strikes my fancy. Yes, some things are at least motivated by experiences guiding, but for the most part I just use this blog to tell my fishing stories. That was my original motive for starting the blog after all, and what better reason to blog than because I want to remember my fishing trips?

Still, the occasional fishing story from guiding sneaks its way in here. The most recent big guiding event was special enough to merit a place here. However, I want to use it to advocate for something I feel very strongly about: catch and release. When I started guiding, I decided right away that my own personal catch and release ethic would also be part of my business. Trout Zone Anglers is strictly catch and release. End of story. You're more than welcome to write and tell me why I'm so wrong. I've had prospective clients that went elsewhere looking for a guide. In fact, I recommend that they do so if they want to keep fish. You can't pay me enough to take you fishing to harvest a fish. 

Part of this is simple economics. If I let every person who I take fishing keep a limit, all of my good fishing holes would be cleaned out in a hurry. I'm not the world's best guide I'm sure, but my clients tend to catch enough fish to put a dent in the population. If everyone out there was keeping their catch, we would be very low on fish in a hurry. I've noticed that fish populations seem a bit decreased anyway right now in the Smokies, so the last thing they need is additional stressors on their numbers.

Another part of this is also simple. I believe that releasing my catch is the best way to pay forward the moment of awe and beauty that happens every time I connect with a trout. Every fish I put back is a fish that some other angler can appreciate and enjoy, and hopefully, will choose to also release so that, eventually, I might get to enjoy the same fish again myself. 

This brings me to the last piece. I enjoy catching big trout. I really despise seeing big fish on stringers (I honestly believe it is selfish so go ahead and roast me), but I also hate to see small trout being taken because those are the ones that will become big trout someday one way or another. On rivers that I fish like the Caney Fork and Clinch, there are good numbers of fish right up to the top of the protected length range but very few over. Instead of catching lots of fish between 14 and 19 inches, I personally think it would be even better to catch lots of fish between 14 and 24 inches or larger. A minimum size limit on brown trout of 30 inches would gain my instant support. There are rivers and places that have such regulations, and there are reasons they have a tremendous following.

A few days ago, I was able to enjoy first hand the benefits of catch and release. Up until recently, the largest trout that I had ever had a client land was 25.5" and it was a brown trout on the Clinch River. That fish was caught by my good friend and client, Chuck Traylor (#bigfishchuck) on a #20 barbless midge on 6x tippet. We were in the drift boat when the magic happened, and I'll never forget that massive hen brown trout. 

Clinch River Trophy Brown trout
Angler Chuck Traylor with a 25.5" trophy Clinch River brown trout. ©2019 David Knapp Photography


The saying goes something along the lines of lightning never strikes twice, but in my case it did. Fast forward in time to just a few days ago, over a year and a half from Chuck's big trout, and you'll find me yet again drifting down the Clinch River. 

My client this particular day was Bill Cash, an excellent angler from the northeast who is on a mission to fish all of the 50 Best Tailwaters. If you don't have that book yet, then check it out by the way. The Clinch River was going to be number 25 on his quest. By some stroke of fortune on my end, I got the call to share the river with him. Some anglers don't really need guides, but they enjoy having someone show them the ropes and shorten the learning curve on new water. Right away, I figured out that Bill was one of those anglers. His casting was very good and fish fighting skills were on point. He would need those skills early on this day. 

We hadn't been drifting very long when the indicator twitched then briefly dipped. He set the hook, but for some reason it didn't stick. That turned out to be a very good thing. Seriously though, when was the last time you were thankful for missing a fish? Not too often I'm guessing. After the recast, we drifted a very short distance downstream when the indicator went down convincingly. This time, there was some weight on the other end. 

Having guided for quite a few years and fished even longer on the Clinch, I was expecting a standard operating model. That would be a rainbow trout somewhere in the 15-18 inch range and probably hot. The fish would likely jump or at least roll on the surface. Initially, things seemed to progress right on schedule. The fish made a hard run from right to left across the front of the boat. I noticed right away that Bill was keeping appropriate side pressure and letting the fish run when it wanted to. Things got interesting, however, when he absolutely could not turn the fish.

When I asked about the fish, he said it was a pretty good fish, probably 18-20 inches. That's a good way to start the day. Then he said something that had me wondering. "It is a brown trout." Okay, so not what I was expecting after all. A brown trout would explain the digging for the bottom and head shakes, however.  Eventually, the fish made it close enough to the boat for me to get a glimpse. I was convinced of the brown trout diagnosis and also began to think the fish might be a little larger, maybe in the 22" range. 

With 6x tippet to both flies and our largest offering a #18 midge, I advised him to not push the fish too hard. The water was ice cold and well oxygenated from the early morning generation pulse. This fish was going to be fine. At this point, Bill was totally focused and putting on a clinic when it comes to fighting large trout. Low side pressure and pushing the 6x to just short of the breaking point was a recipe for success. 

When the fish started a hard upstream run, I realized we would have to pursue. Getting the oars going, we gave chase. This fish eventually took us up and down but apparently it wanted to stay on its home turf and never went too far up or downstream. A couple of times it got dangerously close to some logs, but by some miracle, it stayed out of the structure for us. 

The fish came boat side but was staying deep. I contemplated deep netting the fish, something I've done on big brown trout before. When I stuck the big Fishpond boat net in the water near the fish, I realized something important. The fish was at least as long as the 25" opening on my net hoop. A mistake trying to dredge the fish up with the net would almost guarantee losing this monster. We were going to have to get the big trout's head up before making the scoop. 

Again, out of an abundance of caution, Bill asked if he needed to put more pressure on the fish. I reassured him that he was fine. Any more pressure and that fish was going to be gone. Finally, the fish began wearing down. Another blistering run back downstream got us closer and closer to landing the beast. Finally, the big trout began coming to the surface. Bill was putting enough pressure on the fish that I was nervous. Still, we had to get this fish up somehow. When it rolled near the boat, I was ready or so I thought. What I hadn't counted on was how big this fish was. Even larger than it had looked at depth, this fish was a true fish of a lifetime. The net barely contained the big hen brown trout. I quickly handed the net off to Bill and asked him to keep the trout's head submerged while I got the boat situated. Then we ascertained the situation and got the necessary pictures. 

When we put the trout on the tape, it stretched to 27.25", a true monster and the largest I've had the good fortune to see on my boat so far. The pictures were done quickly, and within about 10 seconds we had the fish back in the cold water. I had jumped out of the boat as soon as the anchor was down and wasn't taking any chances on the health of this fish. We kept her cradled upright and revived her carefully. Finally, with several powerful thrusts of her tail, she sped off back to the depths. 

Then we just sat there and soaked up the moment. Both of us realized that we had reached the pinnacle of the day early. This big brown trout would almost certainly be the largest fish of the day. Once we started fishing again, we began drifting though the same area where the big brown trout had been caught. On our second pass through this area, I noticed a dark shadow shoot under the boat and settle into a large depression not far away. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was the big brown trout that we had released well across the river and upstream. She was back almost exactly where we had caught her already which told me she was going to be fine. 

The rest of the day featured good fishing although it was largely anticlimactic. We caught plenty of rainbow trout up to about 19 inches with the smallest being around 13 inches. No more browns showed up though. Interestingly, a lot of brown trout were stocked early this year. I saw them leaving the river by the stringer load. I don't know what in the world people are going to do with a bunch of 7 inch trout. Personally, I would rather see them stay in the river. We had just witnessed what the Clinch River is capable of producing if the fish are just left in the river to grow. Most of our tailwaters could be full of 16-24 inch trout if people would just release their catch. I for one wish that more anglers would choose this strategy with the long term goal of catching more and larger trout. 

The moment this point was driven home was when I texted Chuck a picture of the big fish later in the day. Not too long after, he responded by mentioning that he thought it was the same trout he had caught a year and a half ago. If so, the fish had grown by 1.75 inches. That is pretty good for such a large brown trout. When they are younger, they can grow much faster. These old big fish grown much heavier but the length doesn't come as quickly. 

When I got home, I checked up on what Chuck had told me. Sure enough, by comparing the spotting on both fish, I realized this was the exact same trout that Chuck had caught before. If he hadn't of released his catch a year and a half ago, then Bill and I wouldn't have had this amazing experience. Thankfully, Bill also released this magnificent fish. I just hope that any other anglers who happen across this fish will do the same thing. Maybe, just maybe, in another couple of years we'll catch her again, and she'll be 30 inches the next time. 

Trophy Brown trout on the Clinch River
Angler Bill Cash with a 27.25" trophy brown trout on the Clinch River. ©2021 David Knapp Photography



Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Summer Smallmouth Pilgrimage

There was a time that I would fish for smallmouth several times a year. In fact, some years I probably managed 8-10 trips. As I've become busier and busier with guiding, my discretionary fishing time has suffered as a result. Not that I'm complaining mind you. I'm blessed to have the business I do and enjoy watching my wonderful clients catch fish. Still, you do start missing some of your favorite fishing spots when you don't visit them too often. 

Recently, I had planned to go fishing for smallmouth bass with a friend from out of town. Plans were made, flies were tied, and I was excited to hit the water. When something unexpectedly came up and he was no longer able to join me, I decided to go anyway. I'm glad I did. 

The access point was about as sketchy as ever. I'm always rather cautious about leaving vehicles parked at trailheads and other access points, but more so in some places than others. My usual routine for the smallmouth bass streams is to make sure that there is nothing valuable in my car or truck. I only carry whatever rod I'm fishing for that day. Thus, if someone happens to break in, I haven't lost any valuable rods. The obvious downside here is that if a rod gets broken, there are no backup options.

Walking into this stream always reminds me of fishing in the Smokies. Rhododendron and mountain laurel are thick in the gorges that the smallmouth call home near me. Once you get to the stream, however, you realize that these are altogether different than fishing in the Smokies. Personally, I think the Plateau streams are more rugged and also more unforgiving. You have to be careful when fishing these creeks. If something goes wrong in the Smokies, someone will probably be along fairly soon. Here on the Plateau, it could be a day or three weeks before someone else shows up. We have the same potential hazards here on the Plateau except in greater volume. 

The ticks in particular can be bad, so I prefer to get into the stream bed and stay there. For that reason, I carry a Fishpond waterproof backpack instead of my usual waist pack. The hassle involved with changing flies or getting out my water bottle is worth the ability to swim the larger pools instead of getting out on the rocky and brushy banks. I've seen enough copperheads and rattlesnakes that my motivation for staying off of those banks goes beyond the ticks. 

Still, the fishing is close by and the fish are usually willing. On a really good day, the fish will top out in the 16-20 inch range. There aren't as much truly gargantuan smallmouth bass as there are on the lowland rivers, but there also isn't the number of people fishing for them. Everything is a tradeoff, and I would rather have solitude any day. This turned into the first fishing trip I've had in a while where I didn't see another person. No swimmers, no anglers, no hikers. Just me, the fish, and the stream. 

The strange thing on this trip was the lack of big fish. As I just mentioned, big fish here means mid to high teens in length. I only saw a couple of fish that might qualify by those standards. Normally I see several more. Still, the fish that were there were hungry and willing. By the time my day was over, it was probably one of the best smallmouth bass fishing trips I've ever had for numbers. Lots of those fish were caught on the surface, but I caught plenty subsurface as well. 

This trip was a fun one because I explored new water. My usual direction to fish on this stream was there and inviting, but I decided to head down instead of up. Maybe that's why I didn't see big fish. They all hang out upstream. Really, the water was good enough that I don't think that is the answer. Maybe there are more people fishing downstream instead of upstream. The last year has been difficult on fish populations everywhere. With the COVID pandemic, more people than ever have been fishing. With populations exploding and more and more people recreating outdoors, the numbers just don't add up in favor of the fish. At some point, over-harvest will become a serious problem if we aren't there already. If every angler caught and took their limit of fish, there simply wouldn't be enough fish to go around. 

A more likely scenario than over-harvest (on this stream at least) involves poor recruitment from some recent years, limiting some age classes of fish. The three or four years of high precipitation is starting to take its toll on fish populations around our area. Thankfully, based on the numbers of smaller fish, it looks like the future is still bright.

Upon reaching the stream, I worked quickly downstream through an area that normally holds some better fish. I got the first fish on the board (a chunky bream) along with the second (a little smallmouth), but nothing of any size. 



Moving downstream through some shallow riffles, a small slot produced another smallmouth. The next set of riffles led into the first BIG pool of the day. 

These large pools hold all kinds of fish. This one had the usual assortment of redhorse cruising around the head. Since I was looking for smallmouth, I quickly passed them by and started working the much deeper water just downstream. A smallmouth bass attacked my fly, but again the size left me looking for more.



Despite their small stature, the bass so far on this day had all been hard fighters. The water was low enough that they were rather timid. Casts had to be long and accurate. This might have been the lowest I've ever fished this particular river, but not by much. It was somewhat hard to judge since I was on new to me water as I worked downstream.

The wildflowers were better than I expected on this particular trip. I always forget about some of the summer flowers that I enjoy. Some new ones also caught my eye, or at least ones I hadn't stopped to really notice before. American water willow (1st picture) in particular caught my eye along with a Carolina wild petunia (2nd picture). I also found a great example of trumpet vine and snapped a picture (3rd picture).

American Water Willow
American water willow. ©2021 David Knapp Photography

Carolina Wild Petunia
Carolina wild petunia. ©2021 David Knapp Photography

trumpet vine or trumpet creeper
Trumpet vine. ©2021 David Knapp Photography


These gorges never cease to amaze me. Huge sandstone boulders that broke off from the caprock of the Cumberland Plateau have tumbled down the slopes and into the water's edge. In places, piles of these boulders construct the flow, bringing a stream that averages 40-80 feet across down to just 10 feet. At high water levels, these become the huge whitewater features that paddlers come from all over to experience. Since I'm not into whitewater, I haven't seen it when the water gets big. What I do know is that the best whitewater features are also some of the best bass water.

My favorite technique is a long line technique with a sinking fly that I think they take as a crawdad. I let the fly sink down out of sight and watch the leader. If it ticks or jerks, I set the hook. Eventually, I'll start twitching and stripping the fly back if there isn't a strike on the original drop. If the water was a little higher, a deep nymph rig would work like a charm, but these streams are tough to navigate even on low water. If the water levels were good for nymphing, it would be almost impossible to wade. 

As I worked through the narrowest pools of the day, I was amazed as always at how big the rocks along the banks are. Most were way larger than my truck. At least a few were probably nearly as large as my house. This panorama doesn't do any justice, but just know those boulders are all between those two sizes I just mentioned. 


Just downstream from here, I was starting to get tired enough to think about turning around and heading home. Lunch on a rock seemed like a good idea. A hummus wrap (tomato/basil wrap, hummus, spinach, cucumber, bell pepper, and feta cheese) along with a few chips and fresh sweet dark cherries hit the spot. My water had warmed a little in the backpack but was still cool enough to wash everything down with. As I ate, some sunfish played nearly at my feet. I thought about throwing a fly at them, but decided they were more fun to just watch. 

 
Lunch with a view. ©2021 David Knapp Photography


After eating, I started the long slog back up to my "out" spot. Most of the access to these gorge fisheries is difficult to nearly impossible. Once you have a good access point, use it. Don't try to blaze a new path. Trust me. The ticks, chiggers, rattlesnakes, and copperheads will teach the lesson the hard way if you do. 

As I fished back upstream, I put a big hopper back on to try and find a few fish on the surface. I had started the day on top, but had finally switched to a subsurface fly in the big dark pool about halfway down. Now, I was in a better position to fish the topwater fly. Bass were holding in the shallow tailouts and deeper slots facing upstream just like trout. As I waded, I moved slowly and carefully, trying to think like the great blue herons that always seem to out fish me. One misstep would send smallies running in every direction. However, a well executed cast would get an eat as often as not.


I continued moving, but my feet were itching to go home so I moved faster and faster. One final memory was to be had, however. A nice shallow run amongst an otherwise featureless flat had contained some fish on the way down. Now I was in better position to fish it, however. I made a cast way out in the middle and bass came running from all over to see what the commotion was about. One better fish finally ate and the battle was on. Finally, a better fish. This wasn't nearly as large as some I've caught on this stream, but it was the big fish for the day. I saw a couple that would have been larger, but they were smarter than me on this day.


Reaching my exit point, I climbed out and scurried up the bank so I didn't linger near the stream side vegetation. I've seen way too many ticks on this stream before to waste any time. I made the hike back up the hill to my truck and was thankful as always to find it still there and intact. The air conditioning was going to feel good...

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Backcountry Jaunts

Sometimes you just want to have the stream to yourself. Around here, that usually means a hike and the longer the better. On some of our smallmouth bass streams, those hikes don't have to be as far. Those streams rugged nature and difficult fishing means that they aren't buried in people like some trout rivers are. On the other hand, if you head to the Clinch River on a weekend morning, you better bring your own rock to stand on. 

The Great Smoky Mountains fall somewhere between these two extremes, although on some days it can feel awfully crowded these days. Not all that many years ago, you could fish just about wherever you wanted to most of the year. Those days are long gone or at least on an extended pause. Thus, if you want some semblance of a backcountry fishing experience, you better plan on walking. 

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy and fellow fly fishing guide Pat Tully and I trekked into the Smoky Mountain backcountry for a few hours of fishing. This wasn't the longest hike I've ever done to fish in the Smokies, not even close in fact. However, at over four miles, we were far enough into the backcountry to have rather high expectations. As we finally broke through the brush that separates the trail and stream, we were filled with anticipation of a good day ahead. Crimson bee balm brightened the scene even further.


I was already rigged and ready while my buddy Pat still had that task to do. Thus, I quickly eased into the first pool and made a few casts. A couple of wild rainbows inspected the fly, but overall they were surprisingly skittish. Or maybe I should have said suspiciously skittish. Backcountry trout are supposed to be pushovers. That's why we go to all this effort anyway. Still, the day was young and my expectations high. Moving up to the next pocket, I didn't expect much since it was fairly small. When I was greeted with no fish, I just assumed it was too small of a spot.

The third pocket had some potential but was also smack dab in the middle of a big sunny patch. When I drifted my flies through just right, one quality fish made a beeline for my flies before backpedaling and disappearing in the direction it had approached from. Things were definitely looking strange. 

By this time, Pat was rigged and ready so we started to leapfrog. Somewhere around this time, I finally got a small rainbow on my dropper nymph. Then, as I was sneaking past Pat to get to the next spot without spooking his fish, I saw my first clue in the form of water drops on the rocks. Paying careful attention, I found a few more. This was a person (or creature anyway) that knew how to move in water. The tracks were not obvious nor definitive. They could have just as easily been an otter as a human. Still, between the shy trout and the marks on the rocks, I was convinced we needed to adjust.

After consultation with Pat, we decided that the thing to do was to move to another nearby stream. That is always a good choice when it is feasible. We were lucky to be in an area with so much water. A short walk put us on some different water. While it wasn't fast and furious, we were soon finding enough fish to confirm our decision as the correct one.

Backcountry streams in the Smokies all fish similarly but each with its own unique character. These particular streams both have long sections of flatter water with some really great quality plunge pools mixed in. The flatter water is conducive to the occasional brown trout, but the majority of the residents are rainbows. Brook trout also turn up from time to time, becoming more numerous not more than a mile or two upstream from where we were fishing. On this day, I was destined to catch just rainbows, but some of them were memorable. 

We appear to be in the middle of another big fish cycle. Maybe not as much on the brown trout, but definitely on the rainbows and maybe brook trout as well. This is due in no small part to the multi year high annual precipitation event we've had for the last 3.5 or 4 years now. We have lost at least the majority of two age classes for the brown and brook trout due to high flows in the fall and winter. Rainbows have been impacted to at least some extent. The benefit is that we are now seeing some better than average fish. this is part of the natural ebb and flow of life on these streams. Some years the numbers are through the roof, but fish seem to average 5-7 inches. Other years the numbers seem slightly impacted, but the average size is a legitimate 8 or 9 inches.

The fishing was good but somewhere short of phenomenal. Those rare days where every fish seems to be eating any fly on the first cast don't come along too often, but on this day, fish would at least eat if the drift was right and you showed it to them a few times. In fact, I was surprised at how many drifts it took in some pools. 

One particularly good hole was producing lots of hits, but few hookups. I have always caught several fish in this pool and expected no less on this day. My buddy Pat was somewhere just downstream, so I had time to relax and really work the pool. My first several casts produced strikes but no fish. Yes, everyone misses fish on occasion but this is especially true in the Smokies. Eventually, I finally hooked one and realized the problem had been as much the small size of the 5 inch trout. Those little ones eat and also spit the hook back out the fastest making them tougher to hook than the nicer trout. 


Slowly I worked into the head of the pool. Throwing my dry/dropper rig right into the fastest water started yielding more promising takes. I think it was after the second or third trout to hand that the nice fish came up and all but ate my dry fly. Realizing that it was a trout I really wanted to hook, I settled down to show it as many different angles as possible. Finally, several casts later, it happened with the dry fly diving hard into the current. When I set the hook, I was attached to the big fish of the pool. Big on these streams usually means 8-10 inches. 

The fight was fairly short lived. Soon I was admiring a gorgeous wild rainbow that was clearly the top of the pecking order in this pool. I let the rainbow rest in my net while I fished the cellphone out of my pocket. A quick picture and the fish was back swimming in the pool again. These fish are too special to harvest, so all of mine go back.


Right as I looked up again, I noticed something interesting. Way over on the right side of the pool was a small current that curled around some rocks and over a shallow, rocky bottom before rejoining the main flow in the middle of the pool. It was the sort of spot I would generally ignore, especially with the bright sun overhead. Still, what I had seen was definitely a rise, and I'm a sucker for rising trout.

I worked some line back out and made the long cast and a quick mend upstream since I was fishing up and across the current. The correct move would have been to carefully cross the stream and fish from the right side, but I'm always up for a challenge. Right before the line started to drag in the middle of the pool, the dry fly slowly sucked under. I knew it had to be the rocks on the bottom, but out of habit, I set the hook anyway. This was one of those times that I was probably more surprised than the fish on the other end as a gorgeous rainbow exploded out of the water. 

I quickly fought the trout and repeated the process from the previous trout. In the net, rest, a quick picture, then back into the water to enjoy another day. Neither fish was out of the water more than a few seconds. Both will be healthy and there when I return unless someone else harvests them.


 

At this point, we had probably been fishing a grand total of an hour or so between the two streams. Certainly no more than an hour and a half. I was getting antsy though. With a newborn at home, I've been finding more and more excuses to get home fast at the end of a day. We continued leapfrogging upstream, but I had already caught my fish and was thinking more and more about getting back home. At this point, I was enjoying watching Pat catch fish as much or more than catching them myself. One particularly nice fish had me asking for a picture and he obliged. 


Finally, after one last really nice pool, I decided to take my leave. Pat was planning on fishing a little longer, so we parted ways, and I hit the trail for the hour walk back out. Getting back home in time to fix supper and relax was nice on my day off.


Lately, I've been getting the itch for another backcountry jaunt, perhaps with the backpack and making it an overnight. Then again, I might just spend more time at home. Either way, I enjoyed this opportunity to get into the Smoky Mountains backcountry for myself that is becoming rarer these days. Hopefully it will happen again soon!

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Hatch of Hatches

Most fly anglers who spend any time fishing cold water fisheries have stories of the best hatch ever. If you fish somewhere like the Smokies, then you might not have as many of those stories as someone who, say, fishes Yellowstone National Park. There are destinations across the country famous for various hatches. Most of these revolve around aquatic insects like mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges along with many others. Then again, some land based insects create phenomenal hatches of their own.

Here in the Great Smoky Mountains, we always look forward to the excellent summer terrestrial opportunities. Inch worms can descend out of the trees of a trout stream in mass just about anytime during the warm months. Of course, ants and beetles are often around as well although not in concentrated numbers most of the time. We do have some excellent hatches of aquatic insects as well, but you don't encounter those in big numbers very often. Head out west, and terrestrials also produce some of the most exciting fishing of the year. Hopper fishing in particular is a sight to behold when it is really on fire. 

On the other hand, our tailwaters are renowned for their great hatches. The Clinch River and South Holston Rivers both feature an impressive emergence of sulphur mayflies. The Hiwassee, Holston, and Watauga are all known for their excellent caddis hatches. Warm water fisheries such as Fort Loudon, Watts Bar and Chickamauga lakes are known for the summer hexagenia mayfly hatch. These hexes are huge, looking like hummingbirds flying around. 

Still, I don't think any of these compares with the cicada hatch, if you hit it right that is. One time I did, and it was incredible. Several other times I've hit it well if not perfectly, including a couple of times in the last couple of weeks or so. The downside of these cicada hatches is that the best ones are periodic, meaning they only happen every once in a while. To be precise, there are both 13 and 17 year cicada broods. The good thing is that they are easy to predict. The bad thing? Well, if you happen to live right where they emerge, the constant roar while they're around can get annoying if you aren't a fly angler. However, to fly anglers, they are one of the best sounds in the world, at least for anyone who has fished this hatch.

This hatch, like many others, has days that are better than others. Cicadas are just the opposite of mayflies in that the cicadas love hot dry days. Rainy or otherwise cooler days will slow things down just a little below the usual dull roar. Still, even on those days, there will be enough happening to catch a few fish. 

Two weeks ago, I had an opportunity to fish this hatch once more. I knew this would probably be the last chance I had for this year's hatch, so I had to get things right. Some intel from one of the Trout Zone Anglers guides, Travis Williams, helped locate the bugs and a plan was hatched. We agreed to meet around 9:30 am, late enough in the morning that things would hopefully warm up and get the bugs going. 

When I pulled up to the boat ramp, a distant hum suggested that the bugs were indeed around. Now it was just a matter of finding the fish. We rigged rods and the boat, then put the boat in the water. Before long, we were flinging those big foam bugs that vaguely resemble a periodic cicada, or in the case of what Travis was fishing, look pretty much just like them. The realism with flies nowadays is quite impressive. The day started off slow at first, but once we started covering water, the fish came. 



Bass were the first to appear. Well, other than that bluegill of course. Some of the bluegill weren't much larger than the bugs they were trying to eat, but that's a bluegill for you. The first bass was a nice one and slammed the cicada Travis was casting almost as soon as it hit the water. 



I was mildly interested in bass, but much more interested in carp myself. For anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sight fishing for carp with big foam bugs, you know how addicting that can be. 

The first sighting was in a narrow spot between two small islands. The fish was cruising directly towards us only 15 feet out. I screwed the cast up and the fish sunk out of sight. As we progressed back into a sheltered bay, the bugs got a little louder and things were looking up. Structure can be important with carp, but doesn't always seem to be. This was one of those times that the structure seemed to help. 

I was working a shoreline as we drifted up towards a private wooden boat dock. My first cast was about 6 feet to the right of the boat dock. Suddenly, I saw a dark shadow slide out from the dock and make a beeline towards my cicada imitation. The carp slowed down, but only in that deliberate way that they like to eat. It was fully committed from the moment I first saw it move towards the fly. That is the beauty of this hatch. Fish tend to lose most of their natural caution, with wary fish becoming gullible in the face of an extraordinary bounty. 

Carp on a cicada fly fishing


That carp wouldn't be the first one of the day. However, we had a storm looming on the horizon that was making a rapid approach. Before we would find more fish, we first had to deal with some wind and hard rain. Another bay nearby seemed like as good a place as any to ride out the inclement weather and we made our way there. The storm caught us as we drifted into that area. Within seconds, we were both so wet that there wasn't really any reason to worry about finding shelter. Thankfully there was no lightning, just wind and rain. Travis waited for the worst of the wind to ease, then started casting again. 



Soon, the storm blew through leaving behind gray skies and choppy water. Then, we noticed it. The change in weather had brought a lot of fish up to feed. They had moved up on the banks and were sucking down debris knocked out of the trees by the wind and rain. Regardless of whether they were eating cicadas or some other bugs, they were there and they were hungry. Soon, we saw more and more carp along with some really nice bass. I hooked, played, and eventually lost a big carp. Travis also got in on the action with some more bass and finally his first carp of the day. There would be a lot more of those before we finished. 

fly fishing for carp


About the time that the skies were getting brighter, the wind mostly laid down and we were left with a perfect day for cicada fishing: hot, humid, with just enough breeze to blow some bugs around. The afternoon was pretty much what you dream about when you think of the cicada hatch. I could go on and on describing each catch in detail, but let's just say that we found more fish than any of us deserved. 



One fish in particular does stand out. By this time, another Trout Zone Anglers guide, Pat Tully, had joined us. We were working around a particularly large bay with Travis on the oars. I was in the back of the boat when I saw a carp sucking bugs off the surface and moving directly away from me. Immediately this fish had me shaking. It was easily the largest fish I had seen all day. The length was impressive enough, but the real size of this fish was obvious by the distance between its eyes. In other words, this was a really heavy carp that might or might not be a good idea on the 6 weight I was fishing.

I made a solid cast out ahead of the carp, perfectly in line with the direction it was traveling. This was a mistake. Because the fish was traveling directly away from me, I should have set the fly a couple of feet to the side and let the fish come to get it. As the carp rose to take my fly, moving directly away from me, its snout bumped the heavy tippet before inhaling the fly. Immediately the carp freaked out. These are notoriously intelligent fish, and this one was the perfect example. It disappeared faster than any other fish we saw all day. 

So, in the end, we caught some more bass and another carp or three. Yet, it was the fish that got away that provided the most poignant memory. Next time, I'll be more careful where I cast. There were much better memories of the day as well, such as two carp simultaneously racing each other to get to Travis' cicada pattern. In the end, it is the sum of those memories that has me looking ahead to our next semi local cicada hatch in 2024. If you haven't fished a cicada hatch yet, make plans to do so now in mid May through mid June. You'll be glad you did...