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