Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Friday, May 28, 2021

Searching For Cicadas

The current "big thing" in fly fishing is cicadas. I can't remember another periodic cicada hatch year being hyped as much as this one has. Brood X has been making an appearance slower than expected, mostly due to cooler than normal spring temperatures, but where they are emerging, the chorus is deafening. Driving around East Tennessee, it is easy to find the cicadas. Just roll your window down and listen. The other day, they were raining out of the sky on me as I drove down the interstate. That's a sure sign there are plenty of bugs around. 

Finding the bugs close to water can be tricky. While we would prefer to fish this hatch with some trout involved, the real action is mostly on warm water streams and rivers. Going into the hatch season, I scrounged up as many old emergence maps as I could find for the Brood X cicadas. The research suggested that the Clinch River probably wouldn't have any, at least not on the trout portions. The same can't be said for some of the upper East Tennessee tailwaters, but that is a long drive when you are tired. We have a new baby in the house, so sleepless nights mean shorter drives are best for right now. 

Part of the search for cicadas involves quizzing all of your non fishing friends as often as possible if they've seen any cicadas where they live or out and about. Most of them probably think I'm a little crazy, but if I strike gold in the form of a bunch of cicadas, it will all be worth it. Three more years from now is a cicada emergence that I do know something about. Brood XIX last hatched in 2011 and produced truly epic fishing around the area. At least I won't have to be calling all my friends looking for bugs then. 

Ultimately, with the new baby at home, I'm mostly sitting this event out with a few exceptions. I do have a handful of clients that want in on the action. Thus, it is my solemn duty to go hunting for the bugs at least a little. I'm honing in on the carp fishing for now. In fact, after my experience fishing the cicada hatch in 2011, I believe the carp fishing is at least as exciting as the trout opportunities and quite possibly more so.

The other day, my friend and fellow guide Travis and friend Tim decided to do a scouting mission on an East Tennessee warm water stream. Travis has a new raft for doing guided float trips, and I hadn't been on it yet. We were hoping to find a few smallmouth and perhaps some carp getting on the cicadas.

Brood X Cicada in east Tennessee


When I arrived at the put-in, Travis and Tim were already getting the raft situation for the float. As soon as I opened my door, I was greeted with the buzz (whine, scream, whatever that sound is) of cicadas. Tim and Travis informed me they had already seen a few and had a picture or two to prove it. Things were looking up. I quickly put together a 6 weight rod, added some 3x tippet to my leader, and tied on my favorite cicada pattern. My boat bag was stashed in the raft, and I was all set. Travis and I ran the shuttle while Tim kept an eye on the boat and tried to catch some fish. Before long, Travis and I were back and we were pushing off from the gravel bar.

With all the cicadas flying around and rustling through the trees, it seemed like we should find fish right away. We did. Redhorse, lots of them, were thick through this section but not at all interested in cicadas. Not a problem, as we were willing to put in the work to find those smallmouth. It wasn't too long before we got some splashy rises to the cicada patterns, but definitely not the fish we were looking for. 

The river began to deepen some, with fewer shallow riffles and more nice runs and deeper buckets. That was where we would find the smallmouth. We started working to get the flies back in the shade under overhanging branches. The cicadas were still loud, so we were sure the fish had seen at least a few of them already. Then, by accident, I got things rolling. I had turned to look behind me before backcasting. When I turned around and lifted the line into the backcast, I was tight to a smallmouth. Seriously. The fish fought valiantly, working the 6 weight more than I expected, but eventually came to the waiting net. The skunk was off and we could get serious about catching some more fish. 

East Tennessee smallmouth bass on a cicada


Not far down the river, Tim got on the board with a big slab of a bluegill. I followed with another, then Tim got another. Things were just looking better and better. It was sometime around the bluegill catching that we noticed fewer voices in the cicada choir. At first it wasn't really noticeable, but eventually we realized the roar had died considerably. Before it was completely gone, we found a really good deep pot on the left bank. All kinds of fish were stacked up in there including a bunch of gar.

Tight to a fish


As this was a scouting trip for future guided floats, we were trying lots of different things. Travis had brought a spinning rod to figure some things out that way for non fly fishing clients. He worked several different lures and baits through the gar. They showed some interested, even nipping at his lure a few times, but hooking up with a gar is notoriously difficult and none of the hooks stuck. 

Since we were anchored and I had some time, I decided to switch to a favorite subsurface pattern that I gravitate towards with smallmouth. Drifting and twitching it through the deep hole sounded like a good possibility. Any bass that had moved into the depths at the approach of the boat would have a chance, at least, to eat my presentation. 

On one of the first few casts, a little smallmouth chased it but wouldn't quite eat. On another cast, a gar seemed to be following it. That got me thinking. I started casting over past the gar, then swimming the fly in front of them with short twitches. No reaction. I made several more casts and was almost to give up when things changed. 

A long cast over to the bank brought the fly past several of the gar yet again. This time, as I twitched it in the face of one of the fish, it turned. I paused, twitched again, and the fish moved forward. I saw the nibble and set hard. Somehow, the hook stuck and the fight started. At this point, I was wishing we had brought a larger net. The gar barely fit and we had to make a couple of tries to get it in. Still, it was good enough. I wanted a picture, forgetting how slimy a gar is. Travis took my picture, then I released the fish and switched to trying to clean my hands.

Longnose Gar in east Tennessee
Photo Courtesy of guide Travis Williams ©2021


About the time my hands were getting cleaned off, Tim came tight to something well ahead of the boat on his cicada pattern. He had already had several blowups that didn't quite connect. Based on the fight, we all assumed it was a smallmouth and we were correct. Eventually, the fish came boat side and Travis scooped yet another fish with the net. Things were moving along at a good pace!

Tim with a nice smallmouth


Then, we left the cicadas behind for a long time. When you are searching for cicadas, it is important to remember that specific emergences can be quite localized. On water that you are fishing, you might find plenty of bugs, just a few bugs, or none at all. We would go long stretches were the only sounds were cars on nearby roads, then the dull roar would begin again just ahead and we would soon find more bugs. Once we left the first bugs behind, however, we wouldn't find many fish seriously looking for cicadas the rest of the float. 


As we continued on, we began to experiment a little. If the fish weren't looking for cicadas, surely they would be eating something else, right? Yes, and no. We were floating on the full moon, and I'm always skeptical of fishing on a full moon. I've had some epic fishing days, but probably many more slow days on a full moon. Lots of theories abound, including that fish are feeding at night, but the fact remains that fishing on the full moon can be hit or miss to say the least. It was a bright sunny day and the water warmed quickly. I think sometimes that rapidly warming water can put fish off also, and this fits well with the pattern of fish feeding well early but slowing down as the day went on. Bright skies can also be tough, but this in and of itself doesn't explain everything.

Still, the day had a highlight or two left. I stuck with my subsurface offering after catching that gar. It is a high confidence fly for me when I'm looking for smallmouth bass. The fading cicadas encouraged me to keep trying different options instead of the topwater bite. Tim was still catching them from the front of the boat with his cicada, so it was increasingly difficult to stick to my plan. I'm glad I did though. 

We were moving through a section of deeper water when Travis said, "Is that a fish?" The dark smudge was swaying just enough in the current to confirm that it was indeed a fish. I quickly turned around to fish to this deeper holding fish, still not sure what it was. A carp maybe or a buffalo? It seemed too dark to be a carp, but the shape was right which definitely suggested a smallmouth buffalo. I didn't have much faith that it would eat as buffalo tend to stick to vegetation. Still, you never know.

I got a good cast up above and beyond the fish to allow time for the fly to sink into the strike zone. As it came across in front of the fish, I started a slow twitch or jig. You can imagine my surprise when the fish turned and started tracking the fly. It continued following until it was just below the boat. I had to do something or the fish would come off of the fly if I kept stripping it upstream unnaturally against the current. Dropping the rod tip, I let the fly drift free back to the shadow's waiting mouth. When the fly disappeared, I set hard.

Immediately, I suspected it wasn't a buffalo. This fish took off strongly and there was nothing I could do to turn it. Travis was back on the oars again and started chasing the fish around the pool. Initially it headed downstream, but then turned and went back up as the bottom started to come shallow near the next riffle and left the fish feeling exposed. When it headed back up, it changed tactics and tried to make it to a bankside log. Straining the 3x as hard as I dared, I put a ton of side pressure to turn the fish away from the log. Once, twice, the fish almost made it to safety, but the tippet and knots held and the hook stayed firmly attached. After several more runs, the fish started to finally tire a bit. I told Travis to float back down towards the riffle so I could jump out of the boat to finish the fight. 

As soon as I could, I jumped out and grabbed the net. It took a couple of tries, but finally the big fish hit the bottom of the net. As it turned out, this was my new personal best freshwater drum or at least close to it. The last time I had caught one this large was well over 10 years ago, so I don't know for sure, but it was definitely one of the better ones I've caught. Travis and Tim took a few pictures for me, and then I released the fish. Such an inspired fight deserved as much, and then I don't ever keep fish anyway. 

East Tennessee freshwater drum caught on the fly
Photo Courtesy of guide Travis Williams ©2021


The rest of the day was a bit anticlimactic, at least for me. After the drum, I really wanted to find a carp willing to eat my fly. It wasn't meant to be on this day apparently. We found another couple pockets of cicadas, but still couldn't find fish looking for them. Finally, as the afternoon got hotter and hotter, we decided to wrap things up and make a big move downstream to the takeout. 

It had been a good float. We had caught enough fish to keep us interested, had some good conversation, and had a nice relaxing day on the water. Much thanks to Travis for bringing his new raft and rowing a lot of the time. Also thanks to Tim for joining us and taking some pictures. It was a great day guys!

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Be Patient, Don't Cast Too Often

Today I'll share another quick tip. There are lots of things that I see as a guide, both good and bad, that tend to fall under the category of habits that anglers have picked up. Some of those things are personality driven. For example, I fish fast, often faster than I should in fact. Guiding has been wonderful for my own fishing in this regard because it has made me slow down and seek to understand. Often, a lack of success is not as simple as the fish not being hungry (hint: they are always hungry). A good angler or guide can find plenty of things to blame the lack of success on, but ultimately slowing down and understanding what the fish are trying to tell you will bring success.

Fishing fast in the Smokies is often helpful. There are plenty of fish around and eventually you'll find a few that will eat what you are throwing. In other words, one strategy is to simply cover water as fast as possible until you find those few trout that are a little less smart if you know what I mean. However, this approach won't help you grow as much as angler. Instead of blazing ahead to try and cover a mile of water, slow down and focus on just three hundred yards of water or less. The fish are there and can be caught with the right combination of technique, drift, and fly selection.

On tailwaters, this urge to hurry really starts to hurt your fishing. If you are satisfied with only catching smaller stockers, then hurrying will keep the numbers moving. Those stockers will hear your flies splashing down and come running to eat. So, cast away as often as possible, again and again. However, if you are interested in finding the monsters, the ones that you daydream about or have recurring nightmares about when they get away, those fish will require that you slow things down and be patient. 

Often, from the rowers seat in my drift boat, I'll watch an angler pick up their line and recast. The following cast often lands in exactly the same spot as the flies were when the angler pulled them out to cast. Every cast should have a purpose. If you are casting to reach another spot, that is one thing. However, if you are just casting because you are getting too impatient and can't stand to watch your flies sit there any longer, force back the urge to cast and wait a little longer. The very largest brown trout that I have hooked every year often come after an extremely long uninterrupted drift. When strike indicators and nymphs start raining down from the sky, those big fish immediately know something is up and won't react well. However, when the flies stealthily drift into the strike zone, the fish doesn't know anything is out of the ordinary and feeds readily.

So, in a nutshell, here is my tip for the day. On big tailwaters like we have here in the southeast and across the south, don't recast unless your fly will change positions by a minimum of 10-15 feet. That's it. If you are going to splash back down within a few feet of where you ripped the flies out, you are probably going to do more harm than good by recasting. Both pulling the flies out of the water and putting them back in will spook fish. That "spook" radius is several feet at minimum and can be as much as 20 or more feet on flat ultra clear water under a bright summer sun. Shoot, on the Clinch River, fish will spook from false casting at 40 or 50 feet or farther at times. 

Now, are there some caveats? Sure. I'm mostly talking about big flat water. Fast broken riffles and pocket water will have a different set of rules. I'm talking about suspension nymphing primarily as well. We blind drift a lot of flies through likely lies. That is the main scenario I'm referring to. I'm also not talking about sight fishing situations which is an entirely different ballgame. If you are on flat water on big tailwaters, however, just remember that the longer your drift, the more likely you'll catch a good fish. 

Friday, May 07, 2021

Fish Within Your Strengths For Success

This short article idea came from many years of observing anglers as a guide, but I was reminded about it several times this spring. Over the years, I have noticed a pattern with many anglers. They always want to do well when fishing in front of a guide, and often end up pushing beyond the limits of their skill set. Specifically, I am referring to fishing distances. What do I mean by that?

Well, first of all, people obviously will find the most success casting at a comfortable distance. Once you start casting too far, then your cast breaks down and you have fewer successful "fly in the water" moments. In other words, if you cast 60 feet of line, but 30 of that lands in a pile, you are not fishing successfully. Try to get a clean hook set with 30 feet of slack. It is not happening. 

As a guide, I often find myself saying, "cast over there to that log," or "cast to that dark spot," etc. This is where an important element of fishing with a guide comes in. If you cannot comfortably do what the guide is asking, say so. It will save time and frustration in failed cast attempts. As a guide, I would much prefer knowing that a client doesn't think they can make the cast and maneuvering them into a better position or angle, than for them to try to force a long cast that doesn't end well. 

The flip side of that is that we are here to help anglers improve their skill set. If I think it is time for an angler to push their skill set a bit, I'll tell them to go ahead and try anyway. That is how you grow as an angler. That said, don't push your abilities too far all day. You'll end up tired with far less success than you could have had. Strategically pick the moments to attempt more.

Another reason to not fish too far is to make sure you can get clean hook sets. One reason I enjoy taking new anglers fishing in the Smokies is that we are rarely fishing very far out. Getting a hook set with two feet of fly line and a leader is much easier than with 50 feet of fly line and the leader out on the water, at least for new anglers. Line management is usually the real culprit for failed hook sets at distances, but regardless of the cause, you still missed that fish. If you have been struggling with hook sets at a significant distance, then fish shorter. It is better to get fewer chances to hook up because you are closer to the boat, but to seal the deal on the majority of those chances, than it is to cast farther and get more chances to hook up but fail in most of them. In other words, you'll catch more fish even if you don't get as many bites.

One other major reason for not casting and fishing too far is the ability to mend. I'll do a future article or even a video or two on mending, but for now, just consider that you need to be able to mend all the way into your leader to the strike indicator. Most people struggle to do that more than 30 or 40 feet out. The key to a good mend is the ability to lift the line off the water before executing the actual mend. Thus, in a situation where you need to do a significant mend, don't cast farther than you are able to do that.

That is all of my words of wisdom for the day. I'm sure I'll think of some other tips that fall within the category of fishing within your strengths, but I'll keep those for another day. 


Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Hunt For Idaho Bull Trout Day Four: Success Found at the Eleventh Hour

Hunt For Idaho Bull Trout: Down To The Wire

With three full days of hunting cutthroat and bull trout behind, we were getting down to crunch time. I had planned on fishing Monday through Friday. However, I had also hoped to have a couple of relaxing fishing days where I could chase hatches, search out risers, and otherwise enjoy what the river offered. The hunt for an Idaho bull trout had been increasingly focused with less and less time to just relax and enjoy a new river system. We were now down to the wire. If I was going to have one day of laid back fishing, then this was the day I had to find a bull trout. 

A chance encounter the day before had shifted my strategy for this day. Based on the recommendations of some Idaho Fish and Game employees, we planned another big hike. This time, I hoped that no one would be camping and fishing on my targeted creek.

We got an early start that morning. Driving up the canyon in the cool of the day, I couldn't help but wonder if we had made the right choice. Miles of beautiful water rolled by, constantly beckoning me to stop and fish. I didn't give in, though, and before long we were back at the trailhead for another big hike. This time, we knew what to expect. That made the hike seemingly go by faster. Before we knew it, five miles had rolled by, and we were staring across the stream at our target tributary.

Backcountry Water for Idaho Bull Trout

Of course, I had to fish the junction pool. It is a gorgeous spot, complete with some big healthy cutthroat. In theory, there probably should have been some bull trout as well. I didn't find any of those, but did miss a couple of eager west slope cutthroat that couldn't quite fit the whole streamer into their mouth. Then, we were finally entering the mouth of the creek I had been planning to fish for almost a year. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

Despite my confidence which was borne of many hours of research, I still had questions. The stream looked small, with lots of skinny pocket water apparently too small for the monsters I was hoping for. Yet, there were also some surprisingly nice pools for such a small stream. That was undoubtedly where the Idaho bull trout I was searching for would be. 


Wandering further and further up the stream, we began to catch some trout. Not bull trout, at least not yet, but beautiful westslope cutthroat trout. In the deeper pools, we would cast dry flies and then follow up with streamers before moving on to the next hole. I pitched my streamer into small buckets no larger than a bathtub and some much larger holes as well. 

Then, several hundred yards up the stream, a small fish came out chasing the streamer hard through some pocket water. I cast again, and again it chased. Baby bull trout. At this point, I was about ready to catch a baby bull just to knock it off the list, but it wasn't meant to happen that way apparently. Despite lots of vicious swipes and attacks, the baby bull trout refused to find the hook in a meaningful way.

Becoming more and more certain that the bull trout was not going to happen, I continued upstream anyway with my wife following gamely along. Eventually, we were both getting hungry and ready for a lunch break. I found a nice log midstream with some of my favorite wildflowers growing close by. We enjoyed a nice lunch here to recharge before hitting it hard through the afternoon. Maybe, just maybe, my Idaho bull trout would be waiting around the next bend.




 


Midday came and went. The sun was beginning to sink towards the western horizon. We weren't in imminent danger of getting stuck out there in the dark yet, but the time to start thinking about the long walk back had arrived. We were probably a good mile up this tributary stream. Either we needed to retrace our steps downstream, or we had to climb up a nearly impossible sidehill and find the trail that was somewhere above. Thankfully, the deer and elk showed us the way. 

I've always been a follower of game trails. In fact, it was one of my favorite ways to hike cross country here on the Cumberland Plateau. Out west, it often helps find manageable routes in backcountry areas that are more vertical than level. This time was no exception. We followed a crude trail that ascended, branched several times, and ascended some more. We kept following whichever trail seemed the easiest. These hardy animals will go up some ridiculously steep terrain, but in wading boots we had some limitations. Finally, just about the time we were debating the intelligence of our wild goose chase, the trail magically appeared above us. Soon, we were hustling back down the canyon high above the water we just so recently been fishing.

Where Are the Idaho Bull Trout?

As we hiked down, the wheels were turning. Bull trout should have been in that tributary stream. If they weren't, then the only possible explanation is that they were still downstream of the junction. After all, this whole journey they undertake every year is more or less a spawning migration. The idea is to intercept them somewhere before the end of their journey. You don't want to pester native (or even wild) fish while they are trying to spawn. So, if they weren't in the tributaries yet, they had to be getting close. It was early August after all. The waters many miles downstream were getting too warm for bull trout who prefer water in the mid 50s or cooler. Thus, these fish couldn't be too far downstream.

By the time we were nearing the entry point for our tributary fishing adventure, I had concocted a plan. One hour of fishing, starting at the mouth and working downstream as fast as possible. With the streamer rod, I should be able to cover water quickly. I turned to my wife and put the question to her, afraid of what the response might be. I shouldn't have been. She is always up for adventure and really was gracious with my fishing on this trip.

Starting back in the junction pool, I finally nailed one of those cutthroat that wanted my streamer. Working quickly downstream, I found another, and another. Each one slammed the streamer so hard that I thought that maybe it had happened. Yet, each cutthroat was obviously not a bull as soon as I started fighting them. The memory of the one big bull trout I had hooked our first day out was still fresh in my mind. The sheer power was and still is mind boggling.


The odds of not catching a bull trout were increasing exponentially with no hope in sight. With time slipping rapidly away and the sun sinking ever lower, I knew we had reached a point of now or never. Then, I saw the deep bucket. 

Last Chance For An Idaho Bull Trout

Deep water was rather uncommon on this stream, or at least it was uncommon in the headwater section we were fishing. Any ambush predator like the bull trout would need the haven that deep water provides. When I saw the small bucket, I thought I might have a chance.

Sure enough, on my first cast, something heavy slammed the streamer. My line throbbed and the rod doubled over. Then, just as quickly, the line went limp, but not before I saw a big dark shadow. A bull trout. Quickly, I cast back and was shocked when the fish hammered the streamer a second time. I've never had a hooked fish come back that fast to eat a second time. I had stuck the fish hard the first time. Sadly, I didn't hook it the next cast, nor the next, nor the next. Each time it tried to eat my streamer but with a little less confidence each time. Finally, by the seventh or eight cast, the fish had moved back a little in the bucket and sulked down deep.

Desperate, I considered changing flies. Maybe waiting fifteen minutes. Anything to catch this bull trout. My poor wife probably figured we would be camping right there for the night. Inspiration struck when I decided to change the angle of my presentation. I cast way across the stream, all twenty or twenty five feet of it. Almost immediately, the streamer was crushed. The little seven inch cutthroat was impaled on the barbless streamer. As I was dragging the poor fish through the pool, a dark blur charged and nailed it. I was back in business! The bull trout again went deep, but would not relinquish its trophy. 

Putting as much pressure on the 1x tippet as I dared, I got the bull trout's head up and scooped. Both the cutthroat and the bull trout were in the big Brodin ghost net. The poor cutthroat was traumatized beyond recovery. The powerful jaws of the bull trout had made short work of the much smaller cutthroat trout.


In the midst of the euphoria of finally connecting with a bull and taking pictures, the question was nagging the back of my mind. Could I call this a fair catch? Maybe if I considered myself a bait fisherman. Not if I was a fly angler. A neat story, no doubt, but I still needed to fair catch a bull trout to complete my mission. Remember a backcountry camp downstream a short distance, I asked my wife if we could fish to there before getting out. After all, scrambling back to the trail from the point I captured the bull trout would have been a hassle. I already knew there was a good access to the trail at that camp. 

Common sense prevailed. We would continue to the easy out spot. Of course, I could fish as we went. It wasn't ten minutes later that we reached what would be the last good hole of the day. When I looked into the pool, I turned to my wife and said, "A bull trout will be in here." Have you ever fished a spot that was just so good you knew it had to contain a fish? This was one of those spots. 

Finally, A Fair Caught Idaho Bull Trout

I made the first cast into the fast water at the head. Almost immediately, the barbless streamer was slammed. At this point in the trip, with all the hard hours put in and agonizingly close encounters, I was certain this one would end just as poorly. The fish immediately raced directly upstream through the rapids at the head. Turning my feet, I gave chase, running almost as fast through that heavy riffle water upstream as I could on a track wearing shorts and running shoes. Somehow, I managed to keep the line tight and the barbless hook attached to the bull trout. 

Suddenly, the fish made a u-turn and rushed straight at me. Nearly running between my legs, I made a desperate stab with the net. When I came up empty, I knew this fight was lost to me. I knew it. And yet, it wasn't. Back in the original pool, I put all the pressure possible to bear on that bull trout. Somehow, the hook held, the seven weight finally turned a bull trout, and the 1x tippet held. 

When that bull trout slipped into my waiting net, all I could do was admire it, staring in awe at this amazing creature. Pictures were quickly taken, and I kept this beautiful yet sensitive fish in the water in between shots. Before long, I let it go, watching it slip right back to the holding spot I had taken it from. Immediately, I knew this was a trip I had to do again.

 

This part of the country is rugged, yet incredibly beautiful. The lack of easy access was a huge part of the appeal. While it probably won't be this year, I'll continue looking forward to the time I get to return to this amazing fishery. The westslope cutthroat trout fishery would be enough to draw me back. Any native trout that rises willingly to dry flies is worth pursuing of course. Still, the bull trout made a good trip amazing. These close cousins of our native brook trout back home had already gotten in my blood. Now, I'm plotting how I can chase these beautiful fish yet again. These Idaho bull trout were awesome, but of course I'm not plotting how to get to British Columbia or Alberta to fish for them as well. So many places to fish and too little time to do it in!



 

Read the rest of the Idaho bull trout story starting at day one.

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day One

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Two

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Three