Photo of the Month: Gold in the Smokies

Photo of the Month: Gold in the Smokies

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Great Smoky Mountain Brown Trout Extravaganza

Recently, I posted about fishing for post spawn Smoky Mountain brown trout. The first fish of the day was a good one, but as I alluded to in my previous post, this wasn't the end of the day. In fact, it was just the beginning of one of the best days of fishing I've ever had in the Smokies. As you know if you've followed this blog for any length of time, brown trout are right up there with my favorite fish to target, whether its on the fly or otherwise. I also have a real soft spot for brook trout, but in the winter, my thoughts turn to brown trout. 

December through February has always been exceptionally kind to me when it comes to brown trout. I've caught my largest brown trout during those months and also had my largest Smoky Mountain brown trout caught in that time frame. The low sun angle means lower light, and I prefer to target cloudy days to further enhance that benefit. Rainy or snowy days are best, but are also an exercise in persistence and perseverance. Fishing in cold rain is not for everyone, and on some days I don't last very long, but the results are hard to argue with. 

A few years back, my wife and I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Of course, fishing was a part of the trip along with hiking, photography, and general sight seeing. One thing I did in particular was to make time to fish with my friend Bryan Allison to learn some new techniques that would help me become a more well rounded angler and guide. Bryan is an excellent guide covering a variety of waters in Montana and offering some unique trip options that are difficult to find. You can visit his site here

On our trip, I wanted specifically to work on some trout jigging techniques that he has mastered and are deadly on trout in a variety of waters. Fast forward to now, and you'll find me with a couple of very nice ultralight spinning rods loaded with 4 pound test that rarely if ever see any action. I bought them to be able to offer the option on guided trips, and occasionally mess around with them, but in general I prefer catching fish on a fly rod. 


Large male brown trout in the Smokies


On my recent trip to the Smokies, after catching such a nice brown trout very early in the day on my fly rod, I decided to experiment with the things I had learned from Bryan. My day was already made with that quality brown, so it was time to practice some different techniques. One thing he had taught me was how to use marabou jigs. I figured that was as good of a thing to try as any, so I quickly tied one on and started working it carefully. One huge bonus of using the spinning rod is that you can mostly stay out of the water. That is probably the biggest reason that I try this method more in the winter than at any other time of the year. On really cold days, it keeps me up on the bank, and hopefully away from potential swimming events. 


Smoky Mountain brown trout


It wouldn't take very long to get things going with the marabou jig. Shortly after nailing my first fish on the fly rod, a golden flash blew up my jig and I was fighting another quality fish. And another, and another, and..........well, you get the idea. The fish were keyed in and ready to chase. Every once in a while the stars align and everything comes together for a great day of catching. Of course, every day is a great day of fishing, but the two aren't always synonymous with each other.

 

Healthy brown trout

Nice catch and release brown trout


This was really an ideal day to streamer fish, because you want to hit it when the fish are fired up. However, with the falling temperatures and snow starting to fall, I just decided to stick with the trout jigging and stay out of the water as much as possible. The spinning rod was a good way to mostly keep my hands warmer as well. Since I wasn't handling the fly line every cast, I wasn't getting my hands as wet which translated to warmer hands. I still got them plenty wet often enough though. Some quick fish pictures seemed like a good idea to help me remember the epic day that was developing. One other benefit to staying out of the water is that you aren't endangering the redds with their precious cargo of brown trout eggs. Remember to avoid walking in sand and gravel areas in the tailouts of runs and pools. Fish often spawn in these areas and those eggs won't hatch for at least another month most likely. 


Big brown trout spots

Small female brown trout


After that first stop which produced three or four quality brown trout, I moved on up the river. In almost every spot I stopped I found fish. Interestingly, they were all falling into one of three size categories. I've been discussing the lack of truly large fish with my friends lately. Little River seems to be in between big fish cycles. As with most things in nature, numbers of giant brown trout seems to be rather cyclical. Right now, we appear to be on the downside of a cycle. I've seen good numbers of fish up to 18 inches or so, with a few fish pushing on to the 22-23 inch range, but some of the giants of past years don't seem as plentiful. Quite a few of my friends have noticed a similar trend. 

On this particular day, I was catching a lot of fish in the 10-17 inch range. The big fish just seemed completely missing in action. When the fishing catching is this good, you normally expect to at least see a few larger trout. I decided to double down and really work some areas that historically hold large brown trout. Yet, it continued to be the same story. Plenty of fish, but no monsters.

I was working up one favorite run and had already caught some fish. In fact, I had some nice browns fighting over my offering at one point. It was just one of those days. Working on up past where I normally see the larger fish, I decided to work on up to the head. This time of year, the fish tend to stay farther back in pools, but it was worth a shot. 

As I crept along, I spotted a brown laying on the bottom just upstream. I managed a decent cast and bounced the jig past the fish. Once, twice, three times, it was still as a statue. Suspecting that the fish already knew I was there, I threw one more cast well upstream and began a slow retrieve back past the fish. That was just too much. The fish bolted upstream and out of sight. At no more than a foot long, it wasn't a big fish, but I hate spooking fish ahead of me as they usually alert everything else to my presence. I almost gave up and turned around right there, but something drove me on. 

Maneuvering carefully into position, I cast almost straight across. I got one good bounce with the rod tip and something heavy slammed the jig on the drop. Immediately worried about the 4 pound test line, I hoped my knots were good. The drag was set just loose enough while the flex of the ultralight rod absorbed the head shakes. Soon, I slid a gorgeous post spawn female brown into the waiting net. She just about filled up my big Brodin net and pushed the tape to right at 20 inches. 


Big female brown trout in the Smokies


She was lean after the spawn and clearly needed some good meals before winter really set in. I was careful to keep her in the water except for a couple of seconds for a couple of quick pictures. The big net is really handy for these moments. You can rest the fish in the water in between shots, and not risk keeping them out of their element for more than 3-4 seconds at a time. Careful catch and release methods are essential to the preservation of these fisheries as fishing pressure continues to increase every year. If you can't accomplish this, then you should probably avoid fishing for these fish. 

The good news about all of these fish is that they can also be caught on a fly rod if you don't want to use a spinning rod. In fact, much of the year, a fly rod is a better tool. However, if you are looking for a way to fish in the winter without getting too wet, then give trout jigging a try. Whether you are fishing in the Smokies or on the Clinch or Caney Fork, this technique works. 

One more look at the big female brown trout before release

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Glacier Day One: Lessons Learned, Going to the Sun Road, and Howe Lake Trail


After long days of driving, we finally were ready to explore Glacier National Park. However, we had some lessons still to learn before we could experience everything that Glacier has to offer. We got up reasonably early on our first morning in Glacier. We had stayed at Fish Creek Campground and had a very restful night of sleeping among the pines. It is always tricky reserving a campsite sight unseen, but this was a nice campground and we would definitely stay there again. Since we had one more night at Fish Creek, we were able to get up, enjoy breakfast, and hit the road without worrying about taking down our camping gear. 

Of course, the first thing we wanted to experience was the Going to the Sun Road. There are very few roads in the United States that can rival this one for sheer beauty and scenic views. However, we would soon start running into trouble. Our plan was to hike some every day. However, as we began up the Going to the Sun Road, each trailhead was jam packed full of people. Cars were continuously circling like vultures, waiting for a parking space. After a couple of laps at the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot, we quickly decided to keep going on the main road and look for other options. Each parking area in turn had a similar problem, at least it did if it was anywhere close to a trailhead. With a list full of hikes we wanted to try, we realized that we would have to be a lot more proactive in starting hikes early. 

Going into this trip, I had several good friends that advised me about conditions and hikes in Glacier. There were several common threads such as get a very early start to obtain parking and spend a lot of time at Many Glacier. With the east side of the Park shutdown due to COVID-19, that part of our itinerary was out so we had to start making adjustments. On this first day, with parking at a premium and not wanting to spend the whole day driving in search of parking, we vowed to not get caught searching for parking again. Instead of stressing about missing the hikes we wanted to do that first day, we decided to try something different.


Before going elsewhere, we did find a few pullouts with room for us to park and enjoyed taking our first daytime pictures of Glacier National Park. The rugged beauty was awe inspiring and we couldn't wait to trek through these beautiful mountains, but first things first. It was time to explore. 

A small gravel road took off behind our campground. The Inside North Fork Road actually didn't connect all the way through to the Pole Bridge Entrance. While maps show this as a possibility, current park maps showed part of the road closed. I'm not sure if this is an ongoing thing or if it will be reopened soon. Based on the road we drove, I'm guessing part of the road is washed out or otherwise impassable. 

We started down the dusty gravel road hoping to find wildlife or something else to enjoy. By the time we reached the end, we had seen a few birds, but nothing more. The bright sunny weather probably had the animals moving more nocturnally. We still had a lot of the day to spare and decided to take a hike we hadn't planned on doing. It turned out to be a great decision. 

The Howe Lake Trail begins from a small parking area on the Inside North Fork Road a few miles north of Fish Creek Campground. The hike to the lake is just a couple of miles which made for a good warmup for what we hoped would be a big week of hiking. Little did we know how much hiking we would actually accomplish!


Wildfire affected forest near Howe Lake in Glacier National Park


The hike to Howe Lake is through areas that have been affected by wildfire. This lack of an overhead canopy can make this a hot hike since it isn't as high of elevation as other portions of Glacier. However, the tradeoff happens to make this a worthwhile hike. The wildflowers here are a riot of color, at least they were when we enjoyed this hike in late July. Plenty of sun means plenty of wildflowers. While not the same wildflowers we would later enjoy at higher elevations with more moisture around, this was a very worthwhile hike.


Indian paintbrush along the Howe Lake trail in Glacier National Park

Wildflowers in Glacier along the Howe Lake trail


Howe Lake is really two lakes connected by a swampy channel. It looks like perfect moose habitat and we were really hoping to see one. It was not meant to be, but we did enjoy seeing a trumpeter swan and some ducks afar off. The wildflowers were beautiful on the ridges surrounding the lake while lily pads were producing a few beautiful blossoms on the lake itself. 


Scenic reflections at Howe Lake in Glacier National Park

Lilypads and reflections on Howe Lake


Arguably the best thing about the Howe Lake trail was the solitude. On most of our future hikes in Glacier National Park, we would encounter an endless stream of other hikers and tourists. However, on this trail, we only encountered a couple of other groups of hikers. A word of caution should be mentioned here. Because this is a less travelled trail and you are in grizzly country, I would suggest a bit more care should be taken than usual. While grizzly precautions should be taken on all hikes in Glacier, the busier trails almost guarantee you won't be the first to surprise a bear. On this trail, it is a distinct possibility so plan accordingly. Carry your bear spray, be very familiar with how to use it, and most of all, make plenty of noise.

We found just enough mosquitos on this hike to make us glad that we weren't planning on spending the night. Little did we know how much worse the bugs would be on some of our other hikes. The mosquitos soon encouraged us to leave these tranquil lakes and we were quickly back at the car with a little over four miles of hiking accomplished on our first day in Glacier National Park.

One last look at Howe Lake

 

That evening, after supper, we decided to head out the Camas Road to look for wildlife. We didn't accomplish our main goal, but the evening light on the mountains of Glacier was incredible. The moon setting over skeleton trees was eerily beautiful as well. We stayed busy with our cameras for a bit, but soon decided that we better get to bed. The next day was going to be a busy one as we had to move camp and also wanted to accomplish some hiking. That meant a very early start...

Sunset in Glacier National Park near Howe Lake



Saturday, December 19, 2020

Tying and Fishing David Knapp's PB&J Streamer [VIDEO]

The Motivation Behind the PB&J Streamer

Flies usually come about as the result of either a problem that needs solved or a wild night at the tying bench. Occasionally, both reasons are responsible. When it comes to tying streamers, I've experimented a lot at the vise over the years. I went through an articulated streamer phase. More recently, I've focused on jig style streamers. However, the first killer streamer I came up with was invented quite some time ago.

Over ten years ago, I got addicted to stripers for a couple of years. My good friend Trevor got me started on them and soon we were catching enough to keep us going back. This was back in my teaching days. I would teach all day, go striper fishing at night, sometimes until midnight or after, then make the long drive back home to get up and get to work by 7:00 am. I'm mostly past the staying out late every night stage, but the memories are good ones. 

Late in that first season of striper fishing, we encountered an interesting situation. Smaller threadfin shad were swept through the turbines of the dam at one of our favorite striper spots. The big stripers would set up shop downstream and we would find them sipping shad much like a big rainbow might sip a mayfly. When I say big stripers, I mean fish in the 15-30 pound range. While we have much larger stripers around, those were huge to us. I needed a fly that was weighted and looked like those dead and dying shad. The main purpose was a fly that could be used for sight fishing when these big stripers set up just under the surface to gorge on shad. Enter the PB&J streamer.

The Design Process for the PB&J Streamer

When I got home and set out to tie a great shad streamer, I remembered that my good friend Byron Begley of Little River Outfitters preferred tying shad with EP (Enrico Puglisi) fibers. His EP shad were and still are killer. The only problem is that they were tied weightless and I wanted something with weight that could quickly get down 1-3 feet under the surface without a sinking line to target those big stripers that were sipping shad. 

At that time, I tied very few streamers without some zonker strips. The natural movement of the rabbit fur is killer in any type of streamer. Thus, I combined the best of a couple of patterns. With Byron's EP shad providing the basis for the shape of the fly, I took the wing of a Zonker or similar style fly for extra movement and added dumbbell eyes like a Clouser. Instead of tying the eyes in on top like the Clouser, I found that this fly was easier to tie with the eyes on the bottom which eliminated threading the zonker strip over the hook point. Also, for whatever reason, I found that I was getting better hookups on stripers with the hook point riding down. Add a splash of color (the jelly in PB&J) as a trigger, and the PB&J streamer was born. 

Find the recipe for the PB&J HERE.

Tying the PB&J Streamer

Learn how to tie the PB&J streamer here with this video I put together. Let me know if you have any questions about tying this fly! 




Fishing the PB&J Streamer

This fly came together fairly quickly. Once I had the design down, it was a matter of learning if the fish would like it. That part turned out to be easy. The big stripers it was designed for loved the fly! In fact, I was soon catching more and larger stripers with this streamer. When sight fishing with this fly, I would use a basic 20 lb and 12 lb leader setup. You don't want to get much lighter than 12 lb test because the stripers will really put it to work hard. The key was to locate a feeding striper, then toss this fly 3-5 feet up current from the fish and let it dead drift down. More often than not, the fish would eat. 

Over time, this fly accounted for plenty of stripers along with a lot of random bycatch. I caught sauger, walleye, drum, white bass, largemouth bass, and of course trout on this fly. As I've become more and more interested in fly fishing the shad kill on area rivers, I've focused more and more on trout over the last few years. Ultimately, while I love catching stripers and other fish, trout are my target species of choice and what I keep coming back to again and again. As it turns out, this fly is deadly during the shad kill on trout tailwaters as well. 

You can fish this fly several different ways. One way is to fish it under a large indicator dead drift. You can also tie it on a short leader on a sinking line and strip the fly back to the boat. If you are stripping a PB&J during the shad kill, I recommend focusing on swimming the fly slower, not faster. Imitating the dead and dying shad, you should remember that the natural bait in the water is generally just drifting in the current or maybe twitching a little. Either way, it isn't moving fast through the water. Another good method is to cast upstream on a sinking line and let it just sink as you drift downstream. This technique is risky as you have a good likelihood of snagging bottom. It is usually a matter of if a fish eats before it snags. However, letting it run along the bottom at nearly a dead drift is often deadly. 

When fish are mostly focused high in the water column as often happens during the shad kill, try this streamer on a floating line with a 9 or 10 foot leader ending in 1x. The floating line keeps the fly from getting too deep and under the view of feeding trout. 


Variations on the PB&J Streamer

Over the years, several variations on the original PB&J have also been successful. First and foremost, you can try straying from the original white colors. This thing works in a lot of different color schemes to match various baitfish. Another variation that I really like is to use buck tail instead of EP fibers for the bottom. This gives a much more slender fly that matches various shiners and other baitfish well. Tie the buck tail in just like you would for a Clouser. 

Perhaps the most successful small variation on the original fly is to simply alter the weight. Use smaller dumbbell eyes and maybe tie the pattern itself a bit smaller, say #4 or even #6. This makes a perfect dropper for fishing behind your favorite floating shad. 

Finally, have fun with this fly! Let me know how it works for you and also what interesting variations you come up with. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

First Night in Glacier National Park

While I have visited Yellowstone National Park many times, I had never made the trek further north to Glacier National Park, until this summer that is. This last summer was a strange time to travel to say the least, but my wife and I were not going to be deterred. Our trip was modified significantly, of course, due to COVID-19. Neither of us had ever been to Glacier, so in some ways we don't really know for sure what we were missing out on. However, we were able to experience many amazing elements of one of the most beautiful national parks I have ever visited. 

The trip was in the works since 2019 and we had at least been talking about it longer than that. As we started to enter the window to make reservations for camping, I stressed and put forth a lot of time and effort. You see, camping reservations for Glacier National Park are difficult to obtain. For example, the reservations were released on a rolling basis 6 months in advance. Sites would literally book within seconds. If you were not online and ready to hit reserve at the exact moment the reservations were released, you could forget about it. 

In the first round of reservation availability, I snagged a campsite at Fish Creek for our first two nights, but failed to reserve anything beyond that. I tried day after day to get a campsite at Many Glacier, but it was not to be. Three months later, the second half of the campsites were released. By some miracle, I actually snagged a site for four nights at Many Glacier. The trip was starting to come together. Then COVID hit.

One of the first changes to our itinerary was when Glacier National Park announced that Many Glacier would stay closed for the duration of the 2020 season. In fact, there would be no access to the east side of the Park at all. While this seemed a bit absurd, there wasn't anything to be said or done. We debated cancelling our trip and trying again in 2021, but I knew this would be a great year to travel in terms of costs with gas prices so low. Finally, we did a bit of Google searching and found an alternative. Glacier Campground is a private campground just outside the west entrance to Glacier, and lo and behold, they still had some availability for the time we would be there!

We went ahead and booked a full week at Glacier Campground. Our trip plan involved a little over a week total at Glacier, then a jump over into northern Idaho for some more camping and fishing. My wife is super gracious and readily agrees to me getting some fishing in on these trips. A bull trout was on my bucket list and northern Idaho seemed like a good place to check it off without leaving the country. First, however, we had to get to Glacier National Park and enjoy some time there. 

Fast forward a few months, and our departure finally arrived. We took a northern route through Minnesota and North Dakota because I wanted to check another state off of the list. There's only a small handful I haven't visited. Time for an Alaska trip! 

Overlook of badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

While traveling through ND, we had to stop in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. One of my all time favorite presidents, Theodore Roosevelt spent quite a bit of time in the badlands of North Dakota and was inspired to start the conservation movement based largely on his time there. We were fortunate to spot some bison and enjoyed a great sunset. No trip out west would be complete without seeing some bison!

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Sunset in Theodore Roosevelt National Park


The next day, all that separated us from Glacier National Park was the state of Montana. We headed off on Montana 200S which features two lanes and a 70 mph speed limit. One of my favorite things about the wide open spaces out west is the ability to make some serious time. With 80 mph speed limits on the interstates and 70 mph speed limits elsewhere, Montana is a great place to make haste. The only downside is that it is a massive state. We soon learned why the speed limits are so high. People have to hurry if they want to get anywhere!

We finally made it to Great Falls where we stopped for lunch. One strange thing about this trip was the lack of eating out. Because of COVID, we were being cautious. We didn't want to ruin our trip with a mysterious illness or anything. However, pizza was sounding really good and we reasoned that since it was cooked at 500 degrees or something similar, it was probably safe. We called and ordered takeout which worked out fine. We were still healthy and enjoyed some excellent pizza from Fire Artisan Pizza. A stop for groceries and gas and we were back on the road with Glacier in our sights. 

We took highway 200 to highway 83 which then made a beeline for the West Glacier area. Highway 83 ended up being a beautiful drive through gorgeous forests. We had to watch out for deer as several ran across the road including some impressive bucks. Thankfully we avoided any collisions and made it to Glacier around sunset. It had been a long day, but we were finally there!

Setting up camp quickly in the waning light, we had supper and then headed out to look for a spot to do some nighttime sky photography. Comet NEOWISE was fading fast, and I hoped to catch it over Lake McDonald. As it turned out, the comet was too dim to show up in large scale pictures of the lake, but I did manage some nice night sky pictures of the lake and stars along with a few closeups of the comet. Finally, we decided it was best to head back to camp and get some rest. The next day would be our first full day in Glacier and we didn't want to waste time sleeping!

Night sky over Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Post Spawn Smoky Mountain Brown Trout

The fall brown trout spawn has recently wrapped up for another year. Things seemed a bit later than usual, although there were fish spawning by the first or second week of November. This is a time of year to use extra care while wading and fishing. Spawning fish should be allowed to do their thing in peace. After the fact, it is essential that anglers avoid wading on the redds. Doing so will crush the eggs that were deposited there and severely impact the next generation. They already have enough challenges in reproducing. 

After the spawn is over, the fish feed heavily as we move into the winter months. The fish are trying to regain body mass after the rigors of spawning. This can be some of the most exciting fishing of the year but also perhaps some of the most miserable. That is because the weather often leaves a lot to be desired.

Last week, I had a free day and decided to go fishing for myself. The day started out perfectly and just got better from there. The sky was threatening snow, and snow days have been some incredible producers for me in the past. The temperature started in the low 40s and fell throughout the day. 

The first caught fish of the day was one I spotted on my second or third stop. I was looking as much as fishing at this point. However, when I noticed a hefty brown trout holding near the back of a quality run, I couldn't resist fishing. 

I had been walking and looking without a rod. This is a sure way to guarantee that you actually spend time looking, not fishing. After spotting the fish, I took the time to walk back to the car and rig up appropriately. A big black wooly bugger seemed like the right idea, and I added a worm as a dropper. Winter fish really like both of those flies for whatever reason. 

Back on the water, I took a minute to find my fish again. Sure enough, it was still hanging out in the same general area. I noticed that it ate something drifting by and started to feel the excitement surge. This was a feeding fish and feeding fish are catchable fish. Clambering down the bank took some doing. I dealt with a bum ankle for part of November and wasn't interested in aggravating the high ankle sprain again. Thankfully, each step on the slick leaves held, and I was soon standing on the stream bank. Sneaking upstream along the bank, I reached the point where I would begin my stalk. 

The fish was sitting in a nearly perfect spot, not too far above a large mid stream boulder. Cover like this can make or break a stalk of a big brown. In my case, the fish never knew I was coming because of the ability to sneak in behind the rock. Once I arrived in position, it was time to actually execute. This is NOT the moment to rush. Do everything right, and you catch the fish. It is that simple most of the time. Rushing is probably the quickest way I know to blow a good fish. I've done it many times in fact...

My leader was quite long, enabling me to keep the fish from seeing the fly line. I was using a 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon. The extra reach was going to be critical to keeping the leader and line from getting pulled through the riffle below the run before the fish had time to find the flies. Working out the leader and then some line, I false cast a couple of times to judge the distance. Then I slung all the flies in the riffle below me. I like to water load these casts. It helps to guarantee where the flies are going on the presentation cast. 

Taking a deep breath, I knew that it was time. I quickly made a casting stroke under some low hanging branches and the flies landed a few feet upstream of the fish. My flies were perfectly visible in the clear water. I watched as the brown trout slid to his left and ate the wooly bugger. With just a slight hesitation to let him close his mouth, I gave a strong hookset and couldn't believe when the fly stuck. Some days you just get lucky. I'm always leery of first cast fish, but if they are this quality, then I'm glad to get skunked the rest of the day. On this day, however, things would only get better...

The fight was relatively quick. The flex in the 10' rod allowed me to push the fish hard on the 4x tippet. In what seemed like no time, I had the fish in the net and ready for a couple of pictures. The main reason I carry a large net is to keep fish healthy in between pictures, and I wasn't taking chances with such a gorgeous brown trout. Just a quick lift and snap, and I had the memory. 

While I didn't know it at the time, this would be the first of many fine brown trout on the day. More about that next time... In that moment, though, I just sat down on the bank and took it all in. Big brown trout are always a treat and this one was a beauty. 

Little River post spawn brown trout


Friday, December 04, 2020

Nature Awareness: Bird Language and a Cooper's Hawk in Glacier National Park

As I was going through pictures from this summer's trip to Glacier National Park, a series of shots of a Cooper's hawk reminded me of our last day in Glacier. I'll share more about the trip later, including lots of fishing stories, but the bird pictures reminded me of the importance of nature awareness. While this is a story about birds, it could apply to fishing quite easily. In fact, a great fishing tip is to simply slow down and let the fish tell you what to do. I know that's easier said than done, but you won't ever know if you don't slow down and pay attention to the details. 

This story about bird language goes back a few years to when I was working on a Master's in Outdoor Education from SAU. One of the required classes was "Nature Study Skills." A major focus of one semester of nature study was on bird language. One of our main texts was a book called "What the Robin Knows" which walks the reader through the process of learning bird language. The basic premise is that birds are the sentinels of the forest, and by paying attention to what the birds are doing and saying, we can know what is going on in the woods around us. For birds, the things happening around them are generally a matter of life or death. As you can imagine, they generally pay better attention to their surroundings than we do.

My first time noticing a pair of Cooper's hawks in the woods that really registered happened during this class. We were required to do sit spots (I had to get a total of 90 hours of nature observation over the course of the semester) as part of the process of learning bird language. One day, while I was hanging out at the edge of a small clearing near the house, a flock of robins flew up and landed in the grass close by. I was sitting stock still and they continued feeding closer and closer. Some came within 6 or 7 feet as they hopped this way and that, looking for worms or other goodies. Suddenly, I realized that all the birds had frozen in place and were making a high pitched call unlike anything I had ever heard before from a robin. I later found the same call labeled as the hawk alarm call or some such thing on my bird app. There is a good version of this under the "alarm" call on this page

Suddenly, a pair of Cooper's hawks burst out of the woods from my left (south) at what looked like great speed heading generally north. They zoomed quickly out of the woods before turning west and back into the woods on the other side of the clearing. Moments later, all the robins started moving again and going about feeding like nothing ever happened. How did they know the hawks were coming? Clearly, something further back in the woods had given the alarm and while I had missed it, the robins didn't. This life or death communication happens constantly all day for the wild birds and other critters.

Moving forward, I've had a lot of intriguing bird language moments, but I often find myself too busy with the hustle and bustle of life and have to purposefully slow down and listen when I'm in the woods. One of the best places to see things is while out on the water. People ask me all the time if I see bears while fishing. In general, the answer is actually no. The reason? Because I'm too focused on the water. That isn't all bad, of course, but it does leave me missing out on some neat interactions. Occasionally, however, the birds are so insistent that I have to take notice. 

One such interaction happened a few months ago while on the Clinch River on a wade trip. I was guiding my friends Roger and Brady and was working with Brady while Roger fished just above us. As we were working some fish, I noticed the birds on the far bank were making a fit. Casually, almost offhand in fact, I said half jokingly to Brady that there must be a snake or maybe even a cat over there. Then I forgot all about it. I was focused on putting him on fish after all! Moments later, Brady said, "There it is!" I almost stupidly asked what he was talking about, but quickly remembered my comment based on the birds talking. When I looked up, I couldn't believe it. A large bobcat was working along the far bank, hunting slowly along the shoreline. This is the third or fourth time I've seen a bobcat hunting along the river. On this occasion, I probably would have missed it if it wasn't for the birds telling us about it and Brady looking around to see if he could spot what was bothering the birds. In other words, paying attention to bird language can add tremendous value to your time in nature.

The next memorable bird language moment brings us back to my story from Glacier National Park. My wife and I took a big vacation this summer to Glacier National Park and also into northern Idaho to do some fishing and camping and of course lots of hiking. It was a much different vacation from what we had originally planned. Due to COVID, many of our plans had to change including where we camped. We ended up staying most of the time in a private campground outside the west entrance called Glacier Campground. Our original plan had included Many Glacier, but the National Park Service cancelled our reservations when it was determined that the Park wasn't opening access to the east side of Glacier for 2020. We were originally quite disappointed as you can imagine, but with everything going on, we just felt fortunate to be able to travel at all. Glacier Campground ended up being a fantastic place to camp and we even had huckleberries in the woods around our campsite. 

On our final day in Glacier, we were taking down camp and preparing for the move over to Idaho for the rest of our trip. I was excited to get more serious about fishing, having done a little in Glacier but the Idaho part of the trip was all about fishing. We were nearly packed when I noticed the birds around camp making an absolute fit. When I finally noticed, they had actually been complaining for a few minutes, but I had been too busy to pay attention. It finally clicked, though, and I remembered that this had actually happened a few days prior and turned out to be due to some hawks back in the woods. Once I looked at the closest robin that was complaining, I could tell exactly where to look for the hawks. The robin was staring intently at something back in the woods, and I just had to look where the robin was looking. Sure enough, there was a Cooper's hawk with another one lurking further back in the woods. 

This time, instead of getting caught up in watching the birds, I quickly grabbed my camera which thankfully had the zoom lens already attached. Creeping back in the woods, I played a game with the hawks of how close I could get before they got uncomfortable. These were the pictures I just came across while editing pictures from our trip. I was happy with how they came out. I've been wanting to get a good picture of some Cooper's hawks and this one will probably be about as good as I can get. They tend to be shy I've noticed.

Cooper's hawk in Glacier campground near Glacier National Park


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Stealth Mode: Light and Shadows

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

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

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


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


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

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



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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2020

How To Select the Perfect Fly Rod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Fishing Report and Synopsis: May 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Fishing Report and Synopsis: March 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, March 02, 2020

Flipping A Switch

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 21, 2020

Sacred Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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