Photo of the Month: Happy Wife, Happy Life

Photo of the Month: Happy Wife, Happy Life

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.






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