Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

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 Bull Trout Day Four: Success Found at the Eleventh Hour

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.

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 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.

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. 

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. 

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!