Photo of the Month: Bycatch

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Summer Smallmouth Pilgrimage

There was a time that I would fish for smallmouth several times a year. In fact, some years I probably managed 8-10 trips. As I've become busier and busier with guiding, my discretionary fishing time has suffered as a result. Not that I'm complaining mind you. I'm blessed to have the business I do and enjoy watching my wonderful clients catch fish. Still, you do start missing some of your favorite fishing spots when you don't visit them too often. 

Recently, I had planned to go fishing for smallmouth bass with a friend from out of town. Plans were made, flies were tied, and I was excited to hit the water. When something unexpectedly came up and he was no longer able to join me, I decided to go anyway. I'm glad I did. 

The access point was about as sketchy as ever. I'm always rather cautious about leaving vehicles parked at trailheads and other access points, but more so in some places than others. My usual routine for the smallmouth bass streams is to make sure that there is nothing valuable in my car or truck. I only carry whatever rod I'm fishing for that day. Thus, if someone happens to break in, I haven't lost any valuable rods. The obvious downside here is that if a rod gets broken, there are no backup options.

Walking into this stream always reminds me of fishing in the Smokies. Rhododendron and mountain laurel are thick in the gorges that the smallmouth call home near me. Once you get to the stream, however, you realize that these are altogether different than fishing in the Smokies. Personally, I think the Plateau streams are more rugged and also more unforgiving. You have to be careful when fishing these creeks. If something goes wrong in the Smokies, someone will probably be along fairly soon. Here on the Plateau, it could be a day or three weeks before someone else shows up. We have the same potential hazards here on the Plateau except in greater volume. 

The ticks in particular can be bad, so I prefer to get into the stream bed and stay there. For that reason, I carry a Fishpond waterproof backpack instead of my usual waist pack. The hassle involved with changing flies or getting out my water bottle is worth the ability to swim the larger pools instead of getting out on the rocky and brushy banks. I've seen enough copperheads and rattlesnakes that my motivation for staying off of those banks goes beyond the ticks. 

Still, the fishing is close by and the fish are usually willing. On a really good day, the fish will top out in the 16-20 inch range. There aren't as much truly gargantuan smallmouth bass as there are on the lowland rivers, but there also isn't the number of people fishing for them. Everything is a tradeoff, and I would rather have solitude any day. This turned into the first fishing trip I've had in a while where I didn't see another person. No swimmers, no anglers, no hikers. Just me, the fish, and the stream. 

The strange thing on this trip was the lack of big fish. As I just mentioned, big fish here means mid to high teens in length. I only saw a couple of fish that might qualify by those standards. Normally I see several more. Still, the fish that were there were hungry and willing. By the time my day was over, it was probably one of the best smallmouth bass fishing trips I've ever had for numbers. Lots of those fish were caught on the surface, but I caught plenty subsurface as well. 

This trip was a fun one because I explored new water. My usual direction to fish on this stream was there and inviting, but I decided to head down instead of up. Maybe that's why I didn't see big fish. They all hang out upstream. Really, the water was good enough that I don't think that is the answer. Maybe there are more people fishing downstream instead of upstream. The last year has been difficult on fish populations everywhere. With the COVID pandemic, more people than ever have been fishing. With populations exploding and more and more people recreating outdoors, the numbers just don't add up in favor of the fish. At some point, over-harvest will become a serious problem if we aren't there already. If every angler caught and took their limit of fish, there simply wouldn't be enough fish to go around. 

A more likely scenario than over-harvest (on this stream at least) involves poor recruitment from some recent years, limiting some age classes of fish. The three or four years of high precipitation is starting to take its toll on fish populations around our area. Thankfully, based on the numbers of smaller fish, it looks like the future is still bright.

Upon reaching the stream, I worked quickly downstream through an area that normally holds some better fish. I got the first fish on the board (a chunky bream) along with the second (a little smallmouth), but nothing of any size. 



Moving downstream through some shallow riffles, a small slot produced another smallmouth. The next set of riffles led into the first BIG pool of the day. 

These large pools hold all kinds of fish. This one had the usual assortment of redhorse cruising around the head. Since I was looking for smallmouth, I quickly passed them by and started working the much deeper water just downstream. A smallmouth bass attacked my fly, but again the size left me looking for more.



Despite their small stature, the bass so far on this day had all been hard fighters. The water was low enough that they were rather timid. Casts had to be long and accurate. This might have been the lowest I've ever fished this particular river, but not by much. It was somewhat hard to judge since I was on new to me water as I worked downstream.

The wildflowers were better than I expected on this particular trip. I always forget about some of the summer flowers that I enjoy. Some new ones also caught my eye, or at least ones I hadn't stopped to really notice before. American water willow (1st picture) in particular caught my eye along with a Carolina wild petunia (2nd picture). I also found a great example of trumpet vine and snapped a picture (3rd picture).

American Water Willow
American water willow. ©2021 David Knapp Photography

Carolina Wild Petunia
Carolina wild petunia. ©2021 David Knapp Photography

trumpet vine or trumpet creeper
Trumpet vine. ©2021 David Knapp Photography


These gorges never cease to amaze me. Huge sandstone boulders that broke off from the caprock of the Cumberland Plateau have tumbled down the slopes and into the water's edge. In places, piles of these boulders construct the flow, bringing a stream that averages 40-80 feet across down to just 10 feet. At high water levels, these become the huge whitewater features that paddlers come from all over to experience. Since I'm not into whitewater, I haven't seen it when the water gets big. What I do know is that the best whitewater features are also some of the best bass water.

My favorite technique is a long line technique with a sinking fly that I think they take as a crawdad. I let the fly sink down out of sight and watch the leader. If it ticks or jerks, I set the hook. Eventually, I'll start twitching and stripping the fly back if there isn't a strike on the original drop. If the water was a little higher, a deep nymph rig would work like a charm, but these streams are tough to navigate even on low water. If the water levels were good for nymphing, it would be almost impossible to wade. 

As I worked through the narrowest pools of the day, I was amazed as always at how big the rocks along the banks are. Most were way larger than my truck. At least a few were probably nearly as large as my house. This panorama doesn't do any justice, but just know those boulders are all between those two sizes I just mentioned. 


Just downstream from here, I was starting to get tired enough to think about turning around and heading home. Lunch on a rock seemed like a good idea. A hummus wrap (tomato/basil wrap, hummus, spinach, cucumber, bell pepper, and feta cheese) along with a few chips and fresh sweet dark cherries hit the spot. My water had warmed a little in the backpack but was still cool enough to wash everything down with. As I ate, some sunfish played nearly at my feet. I thought about throwing a fly at them, but decided they were more fun to just watch. 

 
Lunch with a view. ©2021 David Knapp Photography


After eating, I started the long slog back up to my "out" spot. Most of the access to these gorge fisheries is difficult to nearly impossible. Once you have a good access point, use it. Don't try to blaze a new path. Trust me. The ticks, chiggers, rattlesnakes, and copperheads will teach the lesson the hard way if you do. 

As I fished back upstream, I put a big hopper back on to try and find a few fish on the surface. I had started the day on top, but had finally switched to a subsurface fly in the big dark pool about halfway down. Now, I was in a better position to fish the topwater fly. Bass were holding in the shallow tailouts and deeper slots facing upstream just like trout. As I waded, I moved slowly and carefully, trying to think like the great blue herons that always seem to out fish me. One misstep would send smallies running in every direction. However, a well executed cast would get an eat as often as not.


I continued moving, but my feet were itching to go home so I moved faster and faster. One final memory was to be had, however. A nice shallow run amongst an otherwise featureless flat had contained some fish on the way down. Now I was in better position to fish it, however. I made a cast way out in the middle and bass came running from all over to see what the commotion was about. One better fish finally ate and the battle was on. Finally, a better fish. This wasn't nearly as large as some I've caught on this stream, but it was the big fish for the day. I saw a couple that would have been larger, but they were smarter than me on this day.


Reaching my exit point, I climbed out and scurried up the bank so I didn't linger near the stream side vegetation. I've seen way too many ticks on this stream before to waste any time. I made the hike back up the hill to my truck and was thankful as always to find it still there and intact. The air conditioning was going to feel good...

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