Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Sunday, May 15, 2022

My Comments to the Corps of Engineers on the Center Hill Water Control Manual Update

For those interested in what is happening with the Caney Fork, here is what I sent to the Corps of Engineers about the changes that need to happen on the Caney Fork. Please consider sending in your own comments to Cody.A.Flatt@usace.army.mil and note that they need to be in no later than June 4.



Hello,


Thank you for allowing the public to get involved in the process of updating the water control manual for Center Hill Dam and considering all pertinent data in the decision making process.

As a fly fishing guide whose livelihood relies on healthy rivers, this is a topic of special significance for me. Prior to the dam repairs which began in 2008, the Caney Fork River below Center Hill Dam enjoyed an excellent minimum flow due to the leakage around and under the dam. Due to the very real risk to the dam, this leakage was appropriately remedied through the 3 phases of the dam repair, but in the process, eliminated the needed minimum flow that had created one of the best trout fisheries in the southeast.

The dewatered riverbed no longer supports anything close to the biomass it did before the dam repairs and the trout population is suffering as a result. What we need is to not only return the Caney Fork River to the level it once was, but add additional improvements in the process.

Natural reproduction in the trout population has long been something that would be nice to see but hasn't happened to any significant level. Water quality is one of the prime suspects in the lack of natural reproduction in the Caney Fork River, particularly low dissolved oxygen levels. As funding is always a problem for hatchery programs, natural reproduction would be a great (although not guaranteed) by-product of better water quality.

To achieve the goal of a vastly improved fishery, I recommend the following items be mandated in the upcoming water control manual.

The Caney Fork River needs continuous minimum flows. This will achieve several things.

First, continuous minimum flow will keep more of the riverbed wetted and quickly boost biomass. The macroinvertebrates that trout depend on for food cannot survive in dry riverbeds. The gravel bars that have made the Caney Fork famous need continuous minimum flow of between 200 and 500 cubic feet per second (cfs). Ideal targets would be in the 300-450 cfs range. This should be accomplished through utilization of the orifice gate during times of no generation. Some of the best fishing in recent memory happened in 2016 when minimum flows were utilized via the orifice gate. That gives us some idea of what the river is capable of when the proper flows are maintained.

Second, more water in the river will reduce user conflict. As a fly fishing guide, I routinely have people say ugly things when I float through "their" water. Unfortunately, with the current flow regime, there is often a 6-10 foot wide corridor that is deep enough to float a boat (canoes, kayaks, drift boats like mine, etc). Years ago, prior to the dam repairs. there was vastly more water with enough depth to float small craft. Spreading users out means that boaters can be polite and avoid ruining wading anglers' water. It is means we don't have to be as hard on our boats. I routinely have to drag my boat through shallow water that used to stay deep enough to hold fish.

Third, more water in the river will give refuge to the fish. The ability to spread out means fish will be better at avoiding predators, both anglers and natural predators. This in turn will help fish to hold over and grow better in the river, increasing angling quality through larger average catches. Prior to the dam repairs, it was common to catch several heavy trout in the 14-18 inch range each outing. Now, the river is primarily full of small recently stocked fish. The water quality and space to grow just isn't sufficient to support large numbers of holdover trout.



Next, after establishing continuous minimum flow, we need to make sure and keep that water well oxygenated. Low dissolved oxygen (DO) is a well documented problem on the Caney Fork River. During periods of low DO from the generators, the sluice gates should be utilized to help boost DO levels. Further, I recommend utilizing liquid oxygen on the dam side of the embayment at depth to help improve oxygen content before the water passes through the generators. This has worked very well on rivers like the Clinch in east Tennessee and has improved that fishery immensely. Specifically, oxygen needs to be maintained in the Center Hill tailwater that is at least a minimum of 6.0 mg/L at all times.

If these two goals are accomplished, other important goals should also be addressed including:

-Keeping temperature change rates to less than 3.5 degrees fahrenheit per hour

-Maintaining water cold enough to support trout at least down to Stonewall Boat Ramp

Currently, I often measure water temperatures approaching 70 degrees on the river before daily water releases hit. Having water temperatures swing by 15-20 degrees in a matter of minutes is hard on the fish and the macroinvertebrates and even the weed beds that provide habitat for both. Water is rarely cold enough to support trout in the summer months as far downstream as Stonewall. Prior to the dam repairs, trout could often be found all the way to the Cumberland River. The current lack of minimum flow has pushed the trout fishery into the upper 7 miles of river below Center HIll Dam, concentrating anglers and leading to more pressure than that much river should deal with. Spreading anglers out further down the river will also aid in reducing user conflict.

Finally, I would recommend limits be placed on the number of generators that can be turned on or off per hour to no more than one unit at a time. Abrupt changes often have the unintended effect of stranding fish where they cannot get back to the main riverbed. Slower changes give all the fish the chance to move back and forth from high water to low water spots.

All of these changes will have a tremendous economic impact on the local area. Currently, as a fly fishing guide, I won't book trips past September 1 on the Caney Fork due to the very poor fishing that happens by late summer through the fall. This means that there is at least half a year of lost economic opportunity for local communities.

Many of my clients travel from out of state, and stay in local hotels, bed and breakfasts, cabins, and eat in local restaurants, etc. They will fish with me for anywhere from 1-4 days in a row. Since I mostly only book trips on the Caney Fork May through July and recommend people don't bother fishing it later in the year, that adds up to a lot of people not spending their money in the local area, instead opting for better options further east. Water quality improvements on the Caney Fork will open up more economic possibilities in the local area. A great byproduct of good water management!

Let's see the Caney Fork River below Center Hill Dam turned into a quality trout stream instead of a river that happens to have some trout in it.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this very important goal.

Sincerely,

David R. Knapp

Trout Zone Anglers

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Absolutely HUGE Opportunity To Improve the Caney Fork River Tailwater



I'll try to keep this as short as possible. The water control manual for Center Hill Dam is up for revision/renewal. This is a very real opportunity for trout anglers in middle and east Tennessee and beyond to help bring this river back to life.  Above is an example of what this river is capable of if we have good flows consistently to grow these big fish. 

Prior to the work on Center Hill Dam to address leakage around the dam structure, a good minimum flow was maintained in the river due to seepage around the dam. Now, that minimum flow is all but eliminated and the Caney Fork River is in real danger of completing the switch from cold water trout fishery to cool water fishery where trout are no longer as healthy nor as large a portion of the number of fish in the river. That can be largely fixed if we can get a reasonable minimum flow requirement enacted on the river. Currently, the water can be shut off for sometimes entire days. The whole river begins warming up. In fact, even under "normal" flows with daily generation, the daily water temperatures just a few miles below the dam are pushing 70 degrees before the generation water hits each day. 

A better minimum flow could prevent this and greatly enhance and extend the trout fishery downstream from Center Hill Dam. Prior to the dam repairs, trout did well on the entire river all the way to Carthage. Now, TWRA has ceased stocking at the Gordonsville boat ramp (Stonewall) because the water is generally too warm for trout.

So, what can be done? Simply this. Broad public support for minimum flows and a good turnout at the public meeting addressing this situation. 

You can find out more at https://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/Media/News-Releases/Article/3018981/nr-22-12-public-meeting-set-to-revise-center-hill-water-control-manual/ and plan to attend the meeting which is 5 to 7:30 p.m. (Central time) Thursday, May 26, 2022, at the Smith County Agricultural Center in Carthage, Tennessee. 

You can also read the notice requesting public input for this project at https://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/Media/Public-Notices/Article/3018969/corps-seeks-public-input-for-revision-of-center-hill-dam-and-reservoir-water-co/ which includes contact information to send your comments to. Specifically, you can send your comments to: Cody.A.Flatt@usace.army.mil

Please note that the current operations manual only requires ONE HOUR of generation every 48 hours. That is absurd and a death sentence to all of the trout in the river during hot weather. Even if you cannot make the public meeting, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE send in your comments to let them know that lots of people value the trout fishery below Center Hill Dam. 

Unfortunately, since word about this meeting just came out, I am already booked in east Tennessee that day and likely won't be able to make it back for that meeting. If there is anyway to get it done, I'll be there, but that might be optimistic of me. I WILL most definitely be sending in my own comments and hope all of you will also. The Caney Fork River can be a great trout fishery again, but it needs a little help to get there. 

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Great Smoky Mountains Grand Slam Challenge 2022

One of the fun challenges for anglers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is to catch all three species of trout the Park has to offer. Known by a variety of names including a grand slam, slam, hat trick, and others, this challenge is to simply catch a rainbow, brown and brook trout with some set of specified limitations sometimes imposed. These can include catching the fish all on the same day or from the same stream or on the same trip. Having accomplished a slam many times over the years, I now enjoy helping other anglers achieve this challenge through my work as a fly fishing guide. Still, I'm always happy for new motivation to go and enjoy the bounty of the mountains on my own. 

When I heard about the 2022 Grand Slam Challenge from Little River Outfitters, I knew that my motivation was back. LRO has graciously created a pin to commemorate catching the slam this year. All you have to do is stop by the shop, find out the "rules" and let Daniel know you are about to embark upon the challenge, and bring back photo evidence. Of course, you need to keep in mind excellent fish handling techniques in all of your picture documentation. 

I first heard about this challenge from my friend, client, and fellow angler Buddy Randolph. Somehow he had gotten wind of the idea early on and was keen to complete the challenge. Since we already had a trip scheduled for April, we decided to make an effort to incorporate this challenge into the guide trip. I intended to do some fishing for myself outside of the guide trip, so we planned a camping trip that would take us to where this challenge could reasonably be accomplished. 

Cataloochee Valley is one of my favorite places in the Smokies. This quiet and out of the way valley gets more than its fair share of traffic thanks to the good fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities. This was one of the first places that elk were reintroduced inside the Park, and late summer into the fall offers an excellent chance to see these magnificent creatures during the yearly rut. While the elk are a fun bonus, I'm nearly alway there for the fishing. With lots of tributary creeks plus the main stem of Cataloochee Creek, there are plenty of good options for fishing. Even better, brook trout show up throughout the valley along with rainbow and brown trout, so catching the Smoky Mountain slam is usually relatively easy. 

While I'll let Buddy share the details his own story, I will say that we eventually found the slam for him. I got lucky and managed the trick my first evening in camp, fishing within walking distance of my campsite. The brook and brown trout are usually the ones you have to work for and for very different reasons, but I had good balance in numbers between each of the three species. 

A dry fly with a caddis pupa dropper seemed appropriate, and I never really deviated from that approach for my own personal fishing throughout the trip. The fish ate a large Parachute Adams at least as well as the caddis pupa dropper, probably because of all the March brown mayflies that I observed. Both duns and spinners were on the water at different times. Yellow sallies, some other mayflies, and of course caddis were all hatching, but never in particularly big numbers. 

rainbow trout for the Great Smoky Mountain grand slam

Great Smoky Mountain brook trout for the grand slam

brown trout from grand slam in the Great Smoky Mountains 

Upon completing the challenge, I knew there would be a few days until I could claim my prize. The wait was well worth it, however! On Friday, I had a guide trip in the Smokies which allowed me to stop in and see Daniel at Little River Outfitters. Soon, I had my pin in hand. I hope that LRO will continue this challenge or perhaps even expand to include some other challenges in the future. What a fun motivation to get out on the water! 

Smokies grand slam pin


Friday, April 01, 2022

Midging For Musky

Muskellunge, also known as musky or muskie, is the fish of 10,000 casts, or at least that is the rumor. In my experience, sometimes that is accurate and other times people show up and throw a mere couple hundred casts before catching one. Having the right fly is relatively important, but I'm not convinced it is as crucial as putting in the time. Musky are weird fish. They'll eat when they are good and ready but usually not otherwise. That is, unless you can trigger some instinct. That is just one reason that big streamers can be effective. The fight or flight they can trigger usually doesn't scare something this big and bad. No, a musky will stay and fight. If they feel like it. Or else they'll just stare and wander off, too lazy to do anything about it. 

Why Musky Eat Small Meals

Sometimes, instead of big flies, you have to downsize a little. Think about throwing a small snack instead of a big meal. M&Ms instead of a steak. To accurately utilize the advantages that small flies present, you need to consider the life cycle of the muskellunge.

Musky are spring spawning fish. Females and males swim around together and "broadcast" spawn in weedy areas. Those eggs don't take long to incubate and usually hatch within a couple of weeks. The tiny fry grow quickly, going through a list of food sources that are increasingly larger. Once they get "big", favored foods include suckers and other bottom or near bottom feeders, although they are opportunistic enough to eat just about anything. However, even at larger sizes, they still have a memory of those good meals when they were small. 

Another way to think about it that many more fly anglers can relate to is this. Brown trout are often considered the perfect species to target while streamer fishing. Their aggressive nature and willingness to chase down and kill smaller bait means they are susceptible to large flies. However, they at least began their life eating bugs just like any other trout, and given the right conditions, they will return to those old habits. A large hatch is often just the right trigger to get large brown trout eating those little snacks again. 

Last year, the largest trout I had anyone catch on a guided trip with me (27.25") was a brown trout which ate a small #18 midge pattern fished on 6x. That fish undoubtedly ate sculpins, smaller trout, and the odd mouse or other goodie, but it still went back to the tried and true snacks that were always available every day of the year on this particular tailwater. Musky are no different.

Midge Fishing for Musky

Midging for musky first appeared on my radar during an early musky float. This whole obsession started when I got a call from my good friend and fellow fly fishing guide, David Perry of Southeastern Fly. He had got the bug himself and wondered if I wanted to join on a musky expedition. I still remember that first trip. We didn't see fish most of the trip, but close to the end we did have a small musky flash a streamer that wasn't much smaller than it was. Not far downriver, we saw something else strange. At first, and for a few trips after, I thought that the musky were gulping air much like you will see with gar. Eventually, I started putting a few things together. 

These apparently "gulping" fish were exhibiting this behavior almost exclusively during the late hours of evening when swarms of midges were over the water. I don't like to think that I'm slow, but it did take a few times seeing this before the wheels really started turning. Eventually, I finally decided to tie a midge on and the rest is history. 

Area anglers have long wondered why we show up to takeout ramps with what appears to be trout rigged rods. In reality, I just like to take advantage of those latent habits that musky still revert to every once in a while. Just like large brown trout will go back to their favorite snacks from their young days, musky will also start eating bugs, even tiny ones. When they start exhibiting this feeding behavior, they will rarely engage with a traditional large musky fly. They become rather selective, focusing on the tiny emerging midges or at other times, caddis, mayflies, or stoneflies. In the summer, hoppers and other terrestrials are important for the same reasons. You'll catch more smaller fish (think 20-35"), simply because they are closer to the time in life that they regularly ate these types of meals, but large fish can be caught on occasion as well using midges.

While I have enjoyed keeping this under my hat, I finally started feeling a little greedy. Finally, one day I was taking a picture of a midge caught musky and realized I couldn't share the picture with the little midge hanging out of its mouth without giving away my long time secret. So, I decided to share the knowledge with the hope that it will help some other anglers unlock the mystery of the fish of 10,000 casts.

Musky Caught on a Midge
"Midge caught musky for Kendall." ©2022 David Knapp


Rigging Midges For Musky

Probably the best news I can share is that musky are NOT line shy most of the time. Thus, I use the heaviest fluorocarbon tippet that I can fit through the eye of the little hook. Unfortunately, this doesn't usually end up being very big. Something between 0x and 2x is usually the heaviest that you can get through a #18. The tricky part about this whole thing is getting a good hook set without shredding the tippet on their sharp teeth. Because you really can't use the standard steel or super heavy fluorocarbon on such a small hook, you have to rely on good luck. Thankfully, you usually get enough eats when this fishing is at its peak that you can afford a few break offs. Once the hook sticks in the outside edge of their mouth, the key is to fight carefully and take things easy. 

I usually rig just about the same that I would for trout. I prefer hanging a small midge under a tiny strike indicator. When muskellunge are rising to hatching midges, they are normally taking many more bugs just under the surface. A midge pupa pattern will fool most rising musky. I like a pinch of wool for an indicator like the New Zealand strike indicator system. White looks a lot like the bubbles that are also drifting downstream and won't spook fish. While musky are usually not super spooky, they do get cautious when eating bugs since they are sitting high in the water column and visible to areal predators. While eagles, osprey and herons probably can't capture a large adult musky, they will still occasionally try and can leave some serious wounds. 

The rod should be fairly stout, because you will be doing battle with a large fish, but you don't want something that is overkill for the flies you are using. I usually go with a 6 or 7 weight rod, but just make sure it has a good sturdy butt section that will allow you to quickly play the fish. Since you are using light tackle, it is imperative that you push the fish hard. It isn't ethical to play a big fish to exhaustion on light tippets, so at some point you'll need to just start pushing hard and hope for the best. That advice applies to playing large trout as well. 

A basic floating line on a good quality reel rounds out the setup. Don't forget a large net or musky cradle. Because you are using unusually light gear, a good net will often make the difference between landing the fish or losing it at the last second. Don't forget some forceps or long nose pliers for removing the tiny hook. You don't want to get your fingers too close to the business end of a musky. 

A Few Last Tips on Midging for Musky

I don't usually midge for musky except in the cooler months. In the heat of the summer, you don't want to add any extra stress to these fish. If you must fish for them in the warm months, stick to super heavy tippets and get those fish in fast and above all, keep them wet. In the cooler months, water temperatures are not a concern and you can probably do some lighter tippets and smaller flies. If you are out musky fishing and a big hatch starts, look for the tell tale rise forms that first got me started on midging for musky. Once you see them, switch to an imitation of whatever is hatching. You'll be glad you did. Good luck!

Monday, March 28, 2022

Stealth in Fly Fishing is Inversely Proportional to Water Levels

I'll try to keep this one short and sweet along with a quick illustration of the idea. For the mathematicians, the statement should be fairly obvious. For everyone else who forgot what inverse or proportion means, here is my point: fish are much easier to catch and usually don't act as intelligent when water is higher. In other words, high water means you need less stealth. Low water means spookier fish and the need for more stealth in your fly fishing. 

For anyone who has tried fly fishing in the Smokies during the low water of late summer or fall, you know how cautious those fish can become. I've joked about fish running from their own shadow, and I'm only half kidding. A couple of weeks back, I had a guided trip that perfectly illustrated this point. 

We were fishing on Little River, known for big but hard to catch brown trout, my favorite combination. During the spring hatches, some of the larger fish can lose their caution when big bugs are on the water. We had already caught a quality wild rainbow trout and just caught a very respectable brown trout in the 13-14ish inch range on dry flies. On any normal day in the Smokies, these would be worth a celebration. 

Dry Fly caught brown trout from Little River
Jason with a great dry fly brown trout on Little River. ©2022 David Knapp

Still, I knew there should be a larger fish in those pool. I was carrying a second rod for Jason and suggested that he run the nymph setup through the pool a few times. He had fished the pool rather thoroughly with the dry fly, and I figured something else had to bite. 

He started casting and high sticking the pheasant tail nymph through the pool. On just the third or fourth cast, the sighter in his leader stopped and he set the hook. A big commotion immediately commenced as a large brown trout realized it was hooked. There were several times I was certain that the fish had us whipped. Yet, Jason stayed cool, calm, and collected through the fight and eventually worked the fish back to us for me to slip the net under. This fish taped out at 21 inches and is easily one of the best fish I'll have anyone catch in the Smokies this year if not the best. It was all made possible because of higher water flows.

Big brown trout on Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Jason's trophy Little River brown trout in the Smokies. ©2022 David Knapp


The crazy thing about this fish is where it had been sitting. He hooked it one rod length from where we had been standing, casting, splashing around, and even dragging hooked fish over on their way to the waiting net. During the vast majority of the year, any self respecting Great Smoky Mountains brown trout would have spooked long ago. This fish was tolerant, however, because we had much higher than usual water. Flows on this day were between 550 and 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Townsend Little River USGS gauge. Anyone who has fished Little River knows that is considered the high side of good. However, with a little work, we were able to fish just fine and even make some incredible memories for a lucky angler. 

That is why I enjoy fishing higher flows in the Smokies. Those larger brown trout are more likely to come out to play. Low water presents its own opportunities, but they always include spooky and much more challenging trout than the ones we encountered on this March day. 

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

New Series Started Over On My YouTube Channel

Recently, I finished the first short video in a new series that I'll be developing slowly over time. The idea is that of making adjustments. How many times have you gone fishing with a certain game plan that never ended up working out? The ability to adjust your strategies to fit the conditions and also to fit the response of the fish is crucial to consistent success.

Of course, while you are over at YouTube, give my channel a follow please and much thanks!


Watch at: https://youtu.be/d-gg5HFeRVg OR in the player below...




Monday, November 22, 2021

Stay With It

Every year, I take a fishing trip in early to mid November. That trip is usually to the Smokies, and I usually end up camping for at least a couple of nights. This year, I decided to head to Smokemont Campground near Cherokee, NC. A couple of friends were planning on joining, either for both the camping and fishing, or at least for a day of fishing. 

The camping trip was a big success. A good rain the last night meant I was packing up wet gear the Friday morning I left. That slowed me down slightly, but still I was out of camp by a good time and headed to the first of a couple of destinations for that final few hours of fishing. Deep Creek is one of my favorites, probably because something good always seems to happen when I fish there. Nowadays, it seems quite crowded, yet the allure of a stream that has produced so many nice brown trout for me over the years keeps calling me back.

My buddy John was with me who also happened to be along when I caught the big brown trout I had been hunting for over a year. On that occasion, he just happened to have a GoPro with him and captured the whole thing. What a special treat. On this trip, I brought along a GoPro myself and was soon reminded of the importance of really dedicating to the process if I'm going to try and film. 

We had cut through the woods into a semi remote stretch of water where I knew there was a good pool or two. I was rigged and ready with a Tellico Nymph and a small caddis pupa and a euro style sighter. I've been using sighters when high sticking at least half of the time and almost always when I'm trying to teach someone such as on a guide trip. There are some obvious limitations to the use of a sighter section, but also a lot of positives as well. Anyway, I had this rig and started working up through the run. 

I didn't have a lot of expectations. A cold front had moved through during the night and the water temperatures were on the downhill slide. This time of year, water temperature direction seems to be a lot more important than the actual number. I would take 40 degree water after several days in the 30s, but don't want to see 48 degree water after several days in the 50s.

A couple of bumps encouraged me that this might turn out to be a decent day after all. Some small rainbows were messing with the caddis pupa but not quite getting hooked. Finally, I made a longer cast up the far seam. The flies bumped slowly along the bottom of a ledge as they dropped towards deeper water. One of the subtle pauses lasted a fraction of a second longer than the others had been. I raised the rod tip a bit and met slight resistance. Lifting even further, I finally went into the hook set that should have been my first move. Sure enough, the weight of the ledge turned into the weight of a fish after all as the nice little brown started bulldogging. This was another variation on the theme of never giving up on a possible fish. You have to stay with it, and in this case, I did. The fish was my reward for not giving up. 

Deep Creek wild brown trout


The funny thing here is that I was really certain I was stuck on the ledge. Never mind that this was a great brown trout spot with softer water on the edge of a seam over bedrock. I thankfully didn't give up though and the fish hung on just long enough for me to turn it into a hook set. Most days, the fish in the Smokies are too quick and don't give you time for half hearted hook sets though. The real lesson is that you need to set on everything. This is something I preach every day as a guide, and yet here I was relearning the lesson for umpteenth (or billionth) time. This is something I see over and over again as a guide. Whether it is high sticking/tight lining/euro nymphing, or indicator nymphing, or even fishing with a dry dropper, people are quick to write off small jiggles and ticks as "just the bottom" or "just a rock" or, well, you get the idea. When you are nymphing, if there is any glimmer of doubt in your mind that a fish might be eating, set the hook. 

The only bad thing about this fish is that I didn't have the GoPro rolling. Yep, I went to the effort of bringing it with me, but didn't use it nearly enough. The best fish of the day wasn't captured on video because I thought I was just warming up. If you are going to start filming your adventures, my advice is to film everything. You never know when the fish of the day might strike.

Thankfully, the rest of the day had me dialed in just a little better. Soon I was catching some more fish, setting on every slight hesitation. The rainbows and browns were coming willingly, just often enough to keep me focused and engaged. Too much time between fish tends to lull the angler to sleep, but steady action keeps one's reflexes ready to strike.

Deep Creek wild rainbow trout


As we go into the winter season, this lesson is even more important to learn. Trout tend to move slower and more deliberately in cold water. Often, you may not see much indication that the fish has taken the fly, but find an excuse to set the hook every single drift. You'll be amazed at how many of those turn into fish...



Thursday, September 02, 2021

New Great Smoky Mountains Brook Trout Video

So, as you probably suspected from the lack of posts lately, I've been pretty busy. My last two fishing trips that likely would have produced a blog post were both last week, but I've been sitting on them both. The reason being that I got a new toy: a GoPro. Yep, I finally caved and got one. So far it has been a lot of fun as long as I quickly learned its shortcomings and avoided them. The most obvious that I've figured out is that it doesn't focus well up close. That is how it gets such great wild angle footage along with sharp video throughout the depth of field. Somewhere it had to suffer and apparently that is in closeups. Not that it does badly, mind you, but I have to be careful how close I hold it when taking a fish picture or video.

Anyway, I went all out and got a chest mount and a few other goodies for it. Last week, I made the first serious fishing trip while hauling this whole contraption around. It was a day of learning, tweaking, trying new things, and tweaking some more. Eventually, I got enough good footage to try my hand at another YouTube video. That produced its own set of learning opportunities. 

This time around, I played with some color corrections. Some of which turned out really well, some of which, well, the lighting was really funny. Seriously. Regardless, I had a lot of fun and enjoyed trying something new out. While this won't be how I always do my fishing trips from now on (seriously, who wants to spend their whole time just trying to get a good video), I'll definitely be hauling it along from time to time and trying new things. I hope to continue to improve on my videos. While I'll probably never be anywhere close to some of the great film makers in the sport of fly fishing, it is still something fun to play with and learn about. 

So, for my first film with the new GoPro, I want to share "Backcountry Brookies in the Smokies" with you. You can watch it on my Trout Zone Anglers YouTube channel, of course. While you're there, please give me a follow. You can also try watching it in the viewer below. If possible, watch the 4k version for best quality. I hope you enjoy!



Sunday, August 15, 2021

Chasing Brown Fish on New Rivers

Getting out and sampling a new trout stream is one of my favorite things to do. A new smallmouth river is a very close second. Chasing bronze here in middle and east Tennessee is always a good choice. The smallmouth bass is the state fish after all. Here at the southern end of their native range, smallmouth inhabit a wide variety of waters. From small creeks on the Cumberland Plateau, to larger lowland rivers and lakes, smallmouth are plentiful. With the long growing season, they can also get large. 

Last week, my fellow fly fishing guides Travis Williams and Pat Tully and I had planned on checking out a new to me river that Travis guides on. This was a river I had always wanted to fish, but so far had not made it happen. Ever since Travis got a raft, the possibilities have really opened up. I'm never sure about taking the drift boat down new rivers. A hard boat can get damaged in a hurry. The raft is made for wild and rocky rivers, however.

I was up early after a night of barely being able to sleep. Yes, I still get excited about getting to go fishing. That was good, however, as I had a long drive and needed to leave my house by 5 am. Living just into Central time but regularly commuting into Eastern time zone gets old, but at least I gain that hour back when I come home in the evening. 

When I pulled into the gas station we were supposed to meet at, Travis was already there tinkering with the raft. I quickly topped off my gas tank, and then, when Pat arrived, we headed on to the river. This is a river that has been on my radar for years. Largely because of the history in the area, I have always wanted to fish there. The fact it holds plenty of smallmouth made it even better.

After dropping off the raft, it didn't take long to start floating. We tinkered with a lot of different fly combinations with nymphing seeming to be the right strategy early. Big flies under bobbers are effective at catching smallmouth, but what we really were hoping for was some topwater action. Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer and tied on a popper. We had already caught a few, and I just wanted to catch a couple on the surface.


Sure enough, that proved to be the ticket. We would still try nymphing and streamer fishing in the right places, but the vast majority of the rest of our fish came on top. We got lucky with some cloud cover that kept the fish more active and kept us cooler. By the time the clouds burned off in the afternoon, we had caught plenty of fish and transitioned to pounding the shady banks. 

Pat's big smallmouth. 


All of our best fish came from some type of structure. My big smallmouth jetted out of the stained water and crushed the popper I had on. Same thing for each of us. In the end, my buddy Pat caught big fish of the day while Travis got the biggest spotted bass. I was just happy to be out and catching a big smallmouth on top didn't hurt. 

Travis with one of many spotted bass.


Supposedly, this river also contains musky although we never saw any. I'll definitely be returning in the winter to try that out. In the meantime, I'll be dreaming of summer smallmouth on this new to me river. 

Here is a super short video edit I tossed together with a few clips from the day. For best viewing, click through and view on YouTube. Hope you enjoy!



Sunday, August 08, 2021

Pivotal Moments

Each angler has a growth timeline, and everyone's is different. Most likely, the pattern is not linear, but rather includes growth in fits and starts and maybe even some regression. For example, you probably weren't a proficient caster when you first started into the sport. Over time, you learned a basic cast, then maybe something fancier like a reach cast, parachute cast, steeple cast, well, you get the idea. There is a lot of growth that happens as a fly angler if you are spending much time doing it. 


The Beginning

Most of us started our journey of growth with that first trout on a fly rod. I remember mine just like it was yesterday. My dad had taken me fishing in the Smokies and I was trying my best to figure out how to catch a trout. The shiners were easy, and I had caught plenty of those. Same for the chub and other small minnows. What I wanted was a real, honest to goodness trout. 

We were fishing the lower end of Anthony Creek or the upper end of Abrams Creek depending on your definitions. I generally consider Anthony Creek to be the main stream in the upper part of Cades Cove before the water goes underground and Abrams Creek to be the downstream portion where it reemerges at several large springs. We were fishing just below the road crossing on Sparks Lane. A small cuttbank had helped scour a deeper hole in the creek where the water turned hard. At the bottom, I saw what looked like a rainbow trout. 

Sure enough, after tying on a small nymph, I got the cast angle right and the fly drifted down to the fish. Immediately, the trout inhaled the fly, and I set the hook. Soon, I was holding my first wild rainbow trout. That moment is something I enjoy reliving again and again as a fly fishing guide. Watching people start the journey as a fly angler is one of the treats of my job. Then again, the whole job is more or less a treat.

 

First Nice Brown Trout

I also remember my first quality brown trout in the Smokies. Not too long after that memorable rainbow, I was back fishing in the Smokies again. My dad was kind enough to take me fishing even though he wasn't himself fishing. These trips were a big treat, and contributed greatly to me being the angler I am today. Without those early trips, I probably would never have become a fly angler, much less been able to make it a career. 

Anyway, it was late in the day. My dad was tired and had stayed up at the car to probably catch a snooze while I wandered down through the woods to the bank of Little River. A perfect run had a big rapid dumping in from above. The big pocket where the rapid dumped in was separated from the main pool, but it looked fishy. I could just imagine the big trout waiting for me there. 

At that point in my angling career, I still was nowhere close to proficient with nymphs. Nowadays, that is probably what I would have been fishing. Thankfully, perhaps, because a big dry fly is what grabbed the attention of the big brown trout. I had tied on a big yellow Stimulator. High sticking it across the first currents and letting it dance across the surface, a big golden blur swirled on it. Once, twice, three times. Surely this fish wasn't going to keep coming back to my fly. And yet it did. One more time was one too many for the fish. 

Down into the big pool went the big fish with me in pursuit. When I finally landed it, I looked around, hoping my dad might appear with a camera. No such luck happened, and I carefully slid the hook out and released the quality trout. The fish was probably 16 inches or so. Nowhere close to the largest I've ever hooked, this was still memorable as the first really nice trout I caught on a fly rod.


First Quality Smokies Rainbow Trout

My first big wild rainbow in the Smokies was also memorable. So was the second. Eventually, some of the big fish you catch over the years start to blur together. However, for me at least, some of those early ones were pivotal moments that gave me the motivation to stick with it. They were evidence that I was slowly but surely figuring things out. 

The first big wild rainbow trout in the Smokies came on Abrams Creek. The late evening hatches and spinner falls are legendary. I found myself there late one day and was fishing over some rising trout. They wouldn't take what I was throwing. About that time, I noticed bugs skittering up and down just above the water's surface. Occasionally, one would bounce all the way down to the water before flying up again. Now I know that I was witnessing egg laying activity. At the time, I just knew I had to mimic the action of the real bugs. 

Extending my rod tip as far out as possible, I bounced it carefully up and down, making my dry fly dance just like the naturals. Sure enough, a big trout leaped and inhaled my fly. The 14 inch wild rainbow was big for the Smokies. I was sure that I was onto something. Catching another couple of fish with a similar technique had me genuinely excited. However, it was a very specific technique with a very specific application. What about when the fish weren't looking for egg layers? 

The second quality rainbow sort of snuck up on me. It was in the fall, and I was fishing a favorite pocket water stretch of Little River. To this day, I still like that section, probably because of the style of water which matches my preferred style of fishing. Regardless, water levels were at a normal fall low and a dry fly seemed appropriate. I had tied some October caddis and had one on the end of my leader as I prospected my way upstream. The take was rather nonchalant, but the fight was anything but. The 15 inch wild rainbow trout gave both me and my fly rod a real workout. I think a couple of cars stopped and took pictures of the fight, but I was too focused to be sure of that part. When that fish came to the net, I had my second wild rainbow over 12 inches ever. 

This second big rainbow was a pivotal moment because I had caught the fish on a rather lengthy cast compared to my usual high sticking. Normally not as successful with longer casts, this moment convinced me that it was possible to catch fish on longer casts. The line management skills necessary would come with practice. 


Fishing With A Guide

My first time fishing with a guide really propelled me forward in my fly fishing journey. In fact, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that one of the all time biggest contributors to my fly fishing education and growth was thanks to the famous Walter Babb. I wanted to learn to high stick nymphs without an indicator. Today, the buzzword is euro nymphing. Back when I learned, we didn't have fancy indicator tippet, but the techniques are similar. However, the local technique is something that evolved separately, first using a long cane pole and a fixed length line, then eventually a fly rod.

The general idea is to lead the flies through the water without dragging them. When your leader or tippet ticks or straightens out, you have a bite. There are other things like a tuck cast that help make this all come together, but really it isn't too difficult. However, I was having a hard time figuring everything out. The instruction from a professional guide made all the difference in the world, and my catch rates very quickly went through the roof.

My skills in the Smokies were really coming into their own, but there was still a lot of water out there to learn. Tailwaters, smallmouth, and of course trout streams and rivers out west. My horizons were about to expand in a big way and that would further my growth as an angler. 


Sometimes Failure Produces Growth

Interestingly, one of the next major growth moments for me happened almost by accident. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time leads to growth even when you don't catch any fish. This episode happened at Lee's Ferry on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. After reading about this famous tailwater in Fly Fisherman many years ago, I just had to fish there. When a year off in college took me to Arizona, I knew my opportunity had come. 

I stopped at one of the local fly shops, talked to the person there, and ended up buying some zebra midges. They explained how to fish them, and I headed out to the walk and wade access. In the end, I couldn't buy a trout. The big water of the Colorado both humbled and intimidated me at the time. So, I walked away with some new flies, and a memory of a beautiful river I hope to fish again someday. 

Fast forward a few months, and you would find me standing on the banks of Tennessee's Caney Fork River. As I was thinking about what to fish with, I remembered that somebody had said that Caney Fork was a good midge fishery. Remembering those zebra midges, I dug through my boxes and attached one on a dropper below my dry fly. Amazingly, every fish I cast to ate the zebra midge. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement. That day on the Caney and that tough day on the Colorado combined to interest me in midge fishing. Now, I fish them year round and am still learning a lot about them each time I go. 

My midge fishing has evolved continuously from that day. I've caught fish all over the western US on midges. Of course, my home rivers also fish well with them. Even in the Smokies, I fish midge patterns when the going gets tough.


Ability is the Sum of Experience and Knowledge

As an angler, there have since been many other learning moments. I'll never forget my first time in a drift boat, with many others to follow. Good friends along the way have helped to mold the angler that I am today. At the end of the day, an angler's ability is the sum of their experience and knowledge with maybe a little luck thrown in for good measure. Certainly some of my favorite catches over the years were the result of luck to some extent. At least being in the right place at the right time, but ability still is an important component. 

Sometimes, an angler can get in their own way too. I've lost a good many fish over the years. There were fish that I shouldn't have lost. Some were my own fault, probably many in fact. Other times, the fish simply won. Still, a good angler minimizes those times through their vast catalogue of experiences. Other battles won and lost. Other big fish played on light tippets, or maybe other big fish on heavy streamers. 

Sometimes even the little guys teach us valuable lessons. I once fished for a 6 inch rainbow in the Smokies for a good 45 minutes without catching it, mostly because I love sight fishing. Still, I learned a lot about what wasn't working on that particular fish. Those big fish are the ones that keep us coming back. I often tell other anglers, both clients and also friends and family, that to land big fish, you usually have to lose a few to figure out how to fight them properly. You can be coached up to a point, yet if guiding has taught me anything, you can be told exactly what is about to happen and still do the wrong thing.


Losing the Bull Trout of a Lifetime

Last summer, on our western road trip, chasing bull trout was part of the goal. I had done my homework. The knowledge piece seemed to be there, but I needed to gain the experience part firsthand. When I hooked and fought a bull trout for probably a minute or more the first day of fishing, I thought I had it made. Seconds later, the fly simply pulled out. 

In retrospect, there were at least a couple of things I did wrong as well as a few I did right. First, I was fishing the heaviest tippet I thought I could get away with. That was smart. Turns out the tippet was the least of my worries. This big mean fish didn't care whether I had tied the fly on with rope. Bull trout are generally going to eat or they aren't. If a bull trout is in the mood to feed, I'm of the opinion that just about anything will work based on my very limited experience. 

Another thing I did right was to bring as much pressure to bear on the fish when it headed for a big log jam. The big fish turned at the last possible second. Another couple of feet and the fish was undoubtedly gone. Unfortunately, I took that lesson and pushed it too far. 

With the fish in open water, I started trying to end the fight immediately. I had my seven weight doubled up. The fish was no more than 15 feet away now. Suddenly, the line simply went limp. In the end, I using too much pressure when it wasn't necessary and ripped the fly out of the bull trout's mouth. I had lost the bull trout of a lifetime up to that point. That isn't saying much since I had never caught one, but the fish was definitely at least a two footer. A really nice fish that I would be thrilled with any day.


Redemption: Lessons Learned and Lessons Applied

A few days later, I finally landed the big bull trout I was looking for. There was chaos in the moment, yet, somehow I did everything mostly correct. At least, I did enough right to land the fish. There were still some stupid mistakes that thankfully didn't cost me. Looking back, I can learn even from those, however. 

The interesting thing about landing a bull trout is the quiet confidence it gave me back on my home waters. You wouldn't think that those things are related. However, losing that big fish on the first day really settled an old lesson once and for all, at least I hope. Knowing exactly how hard to push the fish without losing it is a tough lesson to learn. I'm 99.9% certain I'll eventually have to learn it again. If not on trout, then on some powerful ocean dwelling fish perhaps. 

Still, when I fish the Clinch River now, I find myself far more relaxed and unconcerned when fishing light tippets and small flies. Not that I never lose trout, mind you, but the fish is often more responsible than I am. The funny thing is that my bull trout lesson was on heavy tippet, yet, the real lesson learned was to not panic in the middle of a fight. 

The first bull trout I hooked ended in too much pressure. Often, as an angler, I found that my lost fish come when I panic and do something that I would otherwise know not to do. In other words, fish are lost when you aren't thinking clearly. To land a fish, any fish really but especially big fish, you need to be singularly focused. Blocking out everything but the task before you is tough in our world today. With so many things competing for our time and attention, tossing all the distraction aside and fighting a trout is easier said than done. 

Landing that big bull trout helped me loosen up. For some reason, it was another significant turning point in my fishing career. Now, I don't put as much pressure on myself. More importantly, I don't beat myself up when I lose fish as much as I used to. Let's face it, none of us likes to lose a trout. Yet, putting that moment into the big scheme of things, a lost trout really isn't too important. And that's coming from a guide who knows that landed big fish can be the difference in a big tip or not. Still, at the end of the day, it is just a trout and just a tip. Once you put those things into the proper perspective, you will fish more effortlessly. Not completely effortlessly, just more effortlessly. And each new growth experience will make that a little bit more true. 


Next Growth Moment

The funny thing about those pivotal moments in life, be it in fly fishing or otherwise, you never know when one is about to sneak up on you. In hindsight, they seem pretty obvious, but sometimes it takes a few days at least and often months or even years to realize the significance. The next growth moment could very well sneak up on me. In fact, I've had a couple of moments on the water lately that might end up being important down the road. Right now, I'm still digesting them. Those moments could just be a small blip on the radar. On the other hand, maybe ten years from now I'll write another article like this one and they will be cited as a pivotal moment of growth. 

So what have been your pivotal moments of growth as a fly angler?