Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Sight Fishing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sight Fishing. Show all posts

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, August 31, 2016

Redemption

Sometimes you lose on one fish but ultimately win for the day. Those days are a roller coaster, especially when friends are around to witness your defeats. Some of those defeats sting more than others. Last Tuesday I had one that really stung.

I was floating with some friends, not guiding, just fishing together. Everyone had caught some nice trout including one really nice rainbow that was a personal best for the angler. I had spent a lot of time on the oars, more interested in watching my friends catch fish than fishing for the most part. For one section, though, I was willing to give up the oars for a short 200 yard stretch. A large brown had shown itself repeatedly on previous trips, and I was determined to catch him.

Sure enough, as we were drifting peacefully along, I suddenly saw a submarine large brown trout materialize under my indicator and saw his mouth open. Things are a bit fuzzy from that point on, but I'm fairly certain that I set the hook before the indicator even moved. The fish was definitely on, but when the large trout came to that realization, he remembered a very important appointment he had somewhere upriver. The only surprise here is that he didn't break me off and simply spit the fly after a long run which saw my real screaming and my buddy Pat, who was on the oars, asking, "What should I do? What should I do?"

In the end, there was nothing anyone could do because it was over before I even had much chance to think. Both the rower and myself had done everything right (or at least had not done anything obviously wrong) but the fly simply popped out.

The next day on the river, I was floating with my buddy Tim and his friend Andy. They scored what may well be the Double of the Year. That was the highlight of the day at the time, but something else would prove to be even more important a couple of days later. We were floating through an area that always holds a lot of trout. Several quality brown trout were spooked by the boat but that is not unusual. What captivated my interest was one large fish in particular. I made a mental note of where the big fish was hanging out and vowed to return...soon.

On Friday I was finally free. Fishing time for myself always gets me excited, and I took full advantage of the lull in my schedule. Getting to the river right as the water was dropping allowed me to get in and start fishing before the crowds got too bad. I worked my way down to where I had spotted the nice fish. Another angler was nearby so I didn't head right in to fish for the hog.

My original plan was to fish with a dry fly and midge dropper but the higher flows made that difficult. Soon I switched over to an indicator rig which allowed my flies to get down to the level of the trout. That brought some results, but still not the big trout I was hoping for. Finally, after one particularly long drift, my indicator shot down and when I set the hook a big fish immediately started cartwheeling. The pink stripe told me that I had a big rainbow trout on the end of my line. In between the jumps, I was able to turn the fish and assumed I had a good shot at landing it. Then, suddenly, it started to take off, and I could no longer turn it.

About that time, a drift boat edged in behind me and dropped anchor. I turned to see my good friend David Perry jumping out with a net. Suddenly, my hopes revived. I might have a chance with a little help.

As I slowly fought the fish, I realized my problem. On one of the jumps, the top fly had snagged the fish near the tail. In the ensuing commotion, the little midge that had originally hooked the fish had popped free. A 20" tail hooked rainbow is one tough customer. Eventually, I worked the fish in close. Close enough that I was starting to think this might actually happen. Then, the fly simply popped free. There was nothing much to say. David P. jumped back in his boat to continue the float with his two clients. I was left with a memory of a big trout jumping across the river and a screaming reel.

By this time, I was resigned to probably not finding a large trout. Luck seemed to be against me on this week. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and things were definitely not looking promising. About this time, the angler below me worked up a little closer and made some comment about a huge fish cruising around where he was fishing. I knew it was probably the trout I had come looking for but bided my time.

Eventually, obligations pulled him away from the river and I was left to check on the big trout for myself. I waited a little longer as another drift boat was moving down behind me. They moved through the run without noticing the shark lurking under the surface. The fish was still mine. Noticing some risers nearby, I changed back to my dry fly and midge dropper rig to work the nearby fish. Resting the big fish a little more, I finally couldn't stand it any longer and made my way down.

Almost immediately I spotted it. The fish looked even larger than I remembered. Long enough, for sure, but extremely thick. I wanted to catch that trout in the worst way. My position was good for a clean drift. I was up and across from the fish which made a down and across slack line presentation the best option.

I made the cast, tossed a couple of mends and some more slack in the line, and the flies were on their way. The big fish saw my midge and moved confidently over. I saw the mouth open and set the hook...and the fish spooked. Somehow the fly didn't, catch but the fish definitely realized something was wrong. He bolted for cover and disappeared quickly.

Spotting some other trout, I cast to them for a while, hoping for a consolation prize. At this point, I would have been glad to see any fish just to take the sting away from missing such a great fish. In all the excitement I had not really noticed, but now that I wasn't focused on the big brown trout I noticed that my toes were numb. This helped me to remember why I never wet wade on the Caney, even in the heat of summer. I considered heading for dry ground to let me feet recover some warmth and then glanced back to where the large fish liked to feed.

This sounds unbelievable, especially if you know anything about large trout, but the big brown had returned and was again chowing down on midges and blackfly larvae. Fate had intervened to give me another chance. Not willing to risk having someone come by and spook the fish, I quickly made an almost exact replica of the previous cast and drift. The fish moved over again and inhaled my flies, and this time the midge stuck firmly in his jaw.

I almost regretted fishing my 7'6" Orvis Superfine Glass rod at this point. The four weight was no match for the big brown as far as power was concerned, but in the end it was the soft tip of the glass rod that protected the 6x tippet long enough to give me a chance to land the trout. The fish quickly ran me almost into my backing while I stumbled along down the river behind, walking on numb feet and slipping on the algae covered gravel and small rocks. Throughout the fight, I had to remind myself to keep the rod tip up. My arm was getting tired!

Finally, after numerous last minute surges, each of which made my heart stop, the big brown trout slid into my spacious net. Even in the big net this fish looked big. It was also very heavy. I stumbled towards the bank, keeping the fish in the water as I went. Just then, a passing canoeist asked if I would like a picture. He didn't need to ask twice. This blessing enabled me to get a couple of excellent pictures of the big brown, something I probably couldn't have accomplished on my own while keeping the fish in the water well enough. When I measured the fish against the net, he stretched out to between 23 and 24 inches. That made the picture that much more meaningful: this was my personal best brown trout on the Caney Fork. Thanks again to Bob Mansolino for kindly stopping and taking a picture for me!

Photo Courtesy of Bob Mansolino

When I released the fish, he swam off strongly. I'm already planning on catching this fish again in the near future, or better still, helping one of my friends catch him. After losing all those fish last week, redemption was sweet. While I had been fighting this big brown trout, I promised myself that if I landed the fish I would call it quits for the day. After watching him swim off, I remembered my numb toes so keeping that promise was even easier. I walked away from the river while the sun was still well up in the sky, completely satisfied with my few hours on the water.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Runner Browns

As I discovered in the waning evening light below camp, some pools were full of both salmon and brown trout following the bounty of eggs.  Assumedly the trout would soon do their own spawning activities.  That camping trip will live on in my memory as one of the all-time great trips.  The next morning after the catching extravaganza, my goal was to scout a bit more of the stream to see if there were more runner browns in the system.  Starting early in the morning at the same pool as the evening before, I managed a few more brown trout as well as a surprise lake trout thrown in for good measure.  Some days you just never know what to expect on the other end of the line.


The cold was still of the bone-chilling variety so I kept fishing instead of stopping to eat breakfast.  A few chips and a cold bagel provided enough energy to stay focused.  Moving upstream from camp, I came across a deep pool with a nice rock ledge on the far bank near the tail out.  Wonder of wonders, a sizable brown was lying right on the rock ledge just like the browns always do back home in the Smoky Mountains.  While I was watching a much larger brown darted out from some unseen hiding place and blended into the depths until I wasn't sure if I had really seen it in the first place or if it was an early morning vision generated by my hopes of finding a big trout.

Looking up higher in the pool, I noticed a classic sandy bottom.  Fish do not often sit on these spots because they are so easy to see but when they do you can usually catch them.  Suddenly my eyes must have bugged out just a bit, because there wasn't just one or two, but a whole row of fish finning at the bottom of that deep hole.  A second examination confirmed that they were definitely not salmon moving up and were probably, in fact, brown trout.

The big streamer was soon flashing back and forth with me ducking a little on each cast for safety.  I plopped it into the water and started swimming it around and....nothing.  Maybe they are resident fish.  The runner fish seemed much more aggressive towards streamers while resident fish are much more wary, having spent their whole life avoiding predators in the stream.  Lake fish tend to have less fear, having dwelt at great depths where they are generally safe from most predators.

I quickly changed my rig to a big stonefly with an egg pattern trailed behind.  Maybe they are watching for eggs from the salmon spawning upstream.  An indicator completed my rig, and then I was back casting to the fish who were now onto me.  One trout in particular was still sitting out though. Just a little behind and across from a large boulder, I suspected that it would eat given the proper drift.

The current was tricky and definitely not conducive to an easy presentation.  However, with enough trial and error, the correct line was soon discovered.  Hitting that line was also tricky, but finally everything came together.  The big brown moved four feet to inhale one of my offerings, the indicator twitched, and I set the hook.  Immediately the fish went ballistic, running all over the pool before heading towards the faster water downstream.  Resigned to losing the fish, I gave chase but without hope.  Any minute the fly should pop free.  Then I started to gain some line.  Okay so there's a chance. The moment I slipped the net under that trout was almost a miracle.  I rarely have such pessimism about losing a trout as I did with that fish, but everything came together for one of those moments I'll always remember.


Definitely not the largest trout I've ever caught, not even close, this fish was memorable because I had worked hard, going through flies, changing tactics, until I found the one that would work on that fish.  The colors were amazing.  The flash in the picture above dull the colors but the net shot below shows the richness of the golden brown hues along the trout's sides.


Amazingly, my weekend trip was not over and would get, if possible, even better.  Stay tuned for the rest of the trip coming up soon!