Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Monday, June 03, 2024

Aurora Borealis in Tennessee

Yes, that's not a typo. By now you have probably seen everyone else's pictures via social media, but almost a month later, I'm still in shock. Seeing the "northern lights" was always on my bucket list. However, I assumed it would take a trip to Iceland or something similar to eventually get to enjoy this incredible phenomena. 

I really owe a debt of gratitude to an old friend of mine who now lives in London. Reuben posted a picture on Facebook of the northern lights as viewed from northern London. I had seen the hype on social media and in the news, but hadn't thought much beyond that. Seeing that picture from Reuben convinced me that it was worth taking a look. 

There is a great dark sky location not far from home, probably 20 minutes away or so. We have used it to view things like Comet NEOWISE. With good visibility down to the horizon in most directions and most importantly looking north, it was the perfect place to try and catch the aurora borealis. After getting the toddler in her carseat, we started driving shortly after sunset. As the light faded in the western sky, our anticipation began to build. 

We met my sister, brother-in-law, and niece on the side of the little country road. Thankfully, it sees very little traffic, so we were able to just stop in the road. When we all started looking, we weren't sure if we were seeing something special or the remaining light from the fine sunset. As it got darker, a shimmering glow began to rise and fall to our north. A quick camera picture with a longer exposure confirmed what we were seeing: it was the northern lights.

From there, the evening was magnificent. We stayed until a little after 10:00 pm which had pushed Little Bit's bedtime much later than ideal, but it was a pretty special set of circumstances. The colors ranged from pink, to red, to green. At the best moments, we could easily see everything with the naked eye. The shimmering lights rose to straight overhead and even south of us as the entire sky lit up.

Now I'll just have to go to Iceland for the fishing I suppose. Here are a few of the pictures from this magical evening in Tennessee.

Aurora Borealis in Tennessee
©2024 David Knapp Photography

Aurora borealis
©2024 David Knapp Photography

red and green aurora borealis
©2024 David Knapp Photography

Lots of colors Aurora borealis
©2024 David Knapp Photography

aurora borealis curtains
©2024 David Knapp Photography

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Cicada Carp Fishing

Why Fly Fish for Carp

Carp are not the first thing that most fly anglers think of when planning a fishing trip. For the few dedicated carp out anglers out there, that is just fine. Carp are a mostly untapped fishery that provides a ton of sight fishing fun with little pressure overall, except during periodic cicada hatches that is. 

While I have begun offering a few guided fly fishing carp trips here and there each summer, it hasn't been something I've pushed hard. Carp fishing generally requires both precise presentations along with nerves of steel. Once a fish is hooked, you then also have to ace the test that comes with the fight. Carp are big, strong, and smart, and will try every possible method to break you off. 

Fly Fishing the Periodic Cicada Hatch for Carp

The periodic cicada hatch offers an opportunity for everyone to get in on the fun, however. The volume of big fish up feeding on naturals on the surface is mind blowing. Anglers of all skill levels will get enough shots at fish to eventually make some count. While this may sound crazy to most people, carp fishing with a fly rod is the thing I look forward to the most with these periodic cicada hatches. Don't get me wrong. Catching big trout on dry flies is a blast and something I'll do as much as possible as well, but carp provide a whole different challenge and set of problems for the fly angler to overcome.

Tips and Tricks for Catching Carp During the Cicada Hatch

Throughout this current brood XIX cicada hatch, I have been noticing a few little details here and there that make landing these fish a lot easier. Some of these tips will apply to your trout fishing as well and more broadly, to sight fishing in general. While there are very few absolutes in fly fishing, most of these are good general guidelines to help you find more success chasing carp on dry flies or any fish you are sight fishing for. 

  1. Use heavy enough tippet - This one may seem obvious, but even on 1X I am often outgunned. My philosophy of tippet (feel free to ask me about that sometime if you don't already know) keeps me from going much heavier than 1X, maybe occasionally down to 0X, but 1X is where I usually land for most "big" fish applications. During my first experience with brood XIX 13 years ago, I found myself using 4X on the Caney Fork. It worked fine on the trout, but for the carp, it was a little more dicey. Now, I have learned a lot and fish much heavier tippet anytime I can get away with it. 
  2. It is always better to miss short - This one isn't quite as obvious, but with carp in particular it is important to not cast too far. Carp have a weird tendency to find the end of your fly line and follow it back to the boat. If you overshoot that cast, they'll immediately quite looking for bugs and come looking for the boat. It is better to be a little short than a little long. If you miss short, you can simply recast and try again. If you are little long, you've likely blown your shot. This applies to most sight fishing situations I'll add.
  3. Lead the fish by a couple of feet - Carp move very erratically while looking for cicadas. It is best to get fairly close with your cast unless you are in very clear water. In that case, you might want to lead them by 5-6 feet. In moving water, you have the added problem of drag if you lead a fish too far. By the time the fly gets to the fish, drag has started to act and the fish won't eat. 
  4. It is best to have carp eat coming towards the boat or at right angles to the boat - This one makes sense once I explain myself. Carp have very sensitive lips. If they feel the tippet before eating the bug, they'll freak out. When they are going away from you, their lips will bump the tippet as they rise before eating the fly. If they eat while moving at right angles to the boat or coming straight at the boat, this problem is generally eliminated.
  5. Wait for the hook set - This is obvious once you've missed a fish or two, but trout anglers will generally set way too early on carp. They will be very deliberate when eating your dry fly. Wait until the mouth closes and the fish turns definitively down in the water column before setting the hook. Then, when you do set, really set the hook. No soft trout sets. Give it the ol' bass hook set. 
  6. Low side pressure is your friend - During the fight, carp will generally try to run for structure. They are very good at finding all the obstacles and sawing your tippet off on logs or other structure. At some point, you'll probably have to turn that big fish. Do so using low side pressure, the lower the better. This is good general advice for fighting trout as well. Low side pressure will generally get fish landed MUCH faster than pulling up. Up freaks them out and makes them fight harder and longer while low side pressure can get them whipped quickly. This has the added bonus of keeping fish healthy instead of playing them to exhaustion. 
  7. BONUS TIP: Don't be afraid to twitch your fly but don't overdo it - This one is particularly tricky. I mostly rely on a dead drift only. Carp often refuse naturals on the water because they are fluttering. The time to twitch a fly is when a fish is in the vicinity but seems to be passing by without seeing your offering. Give it a little twitch to help the fish find it, then stop and let it sit still again. Trout are more likely to like some twitching, but carp mostly don't. However, if fish start refusing your dead drifted flies, try adding a twitch. I had a day last week guiding on the lake where the fish quit eating dead drifted flies around 3 pm. We started twitching and immediately were back catching fish. This was the exception rather than the rule in my experience, however. 

David Knapp with a carp caught on a periodic cicada
David Knapp with a nice carp. Photo courtesy Trout Zone Anglers guide Elam Kuhn ©2024


Saturday, May 04, 2024

Eclipse and Fly Fishing the White River for #BigBrownTrout

Some trips are spontaneous, but most are the result of plenty of planning. After the last solar eclipse I experienced all the way back in 2017, I knew that any and all solar eclipses in the future would require my best effort to see them. In 2017, I had the luxury of having the path of totality crossing my home county. We enjoyed the show without much effort, but the awe inducing experience convinced me that it was worth almost any amount of effort to see again. 

Fast forward to 2023 and my life looks just a little different. I'm still a fly fishing guide, but now I'm married, have a kid, and any trip plans have to be made well in advance or else my guide calendar is full. When I saw that a solar eclipse was on the calendar for early April of 2024, I immediately started making plans. With my lovely wife on board, we decided to visit Arkansas. Since I had never fished the White River, a trip to Mountain Home or vicinity seemed in order. Time to see the eclipse and fish the White all in one trip...it doesn't get any better!

As the day for departure approached, I started getting everything ready that I could. Fishing gear was checked and checked again. Tents were dug out of the gear closet along with sleeping pads, bags, camp cookstoves, oh, and of course camera gear for the eclipse. Our first night's camping reservation started on Sunday, April 7. As things have become with a toddler in our lives, we didn't leave Crossville until MUCH later than ideal. 

At least a little of this also had to do with booking myself right up to our trip. I keep telling myself to block a day or two off before and after each trip, but so far I keep falling for the same mistake of working right up until vacation starts. I spent all Sunday morning packing the car while my wife wrangled the little one. Finally, we more or less had everything ready to go. Off we headed on our big adventure, excited to see what fun we could have. 

Not far down the road, we realized that in all the excitement, lunch time had snuck up on us. Pre toddler, we probably would have either just snacked or grabbed something and kept driving, but having a little one changes how you do things. A longer than necessary stop ensued 45 minutes into our trip. The silver lining was that a full belly and nap time provided us with an hour or so of quiet. 

Eventually, after many changed diapers and pit stops, we finally made it to our campsite in the middle of the night. Okay, it was probably actually around 10:00 pm, but it felt like 3 am. Thankfully, with the big eclipse the next day, we could sleep in, relax, and otherwise take it easy. 

The question surrounding the eclipse was all about whether we would be able to see it. During the 2017 eclipse, some very last minute racing around the country side got us into position to see totality. With lots of large cumulus clouds around, it almost didn't happen. Home court advantage served us well on that adventure because we knew exactly where to go. For our Arkansas adventure and 2024 eclipse, we really needed good weather. By some miracle or stroke of good fortune, we had bright, sunny skies. Much of Arkansas was cloudy on April 8, but the area we had travelled to was blessed with low humidity and minimal cloud cover. 

Around lunch time, the eclipse started. Little Bit was more interested in playing away on the playground next to our campsite, but I relished the opportunity to enjoy yet another eclipse. This time, I had better camera gear than I did the last time around. Of course, you always want something better, but I was happy with how my pictures of totality turned out. Here are just a few.

April 8, 2024 Solar Eclipse Totality
©2024 David Knapp Photography

©2024 David Knapp Photography

©2024 David Knapp Photography

Of course, no trip to Bull Shoals would be complete without fly fishing the legendary White River. Large predatory brown trout are what the White River is especially noted for, and I hoped to connect with a few. A friend and client of mine had recommended guide Taylor Wooten of Flippin Fly Guides. I decided that instead of dragging my own boat out or trying to wade fish, it would make a LOT more sense to fish with a guide who knew the river, had the right kind of boat, and could put me on fish. As a guide myself, I know that guides have a better pulse on their home waters than just about anyone else and generally know the best way to catch fish at any given time.

Monday afternoon, Taylor and I chatted on the phone to formulate a game plan, and then he texted me with a meeting spot for the next morning. We would be fishing where almost all the other guides were fishing which was on the Norfork River with perhaps a little time spent on the White near the confluence with the Norfork. There was a reason the guides were all on the Norfork. The fishing there was on fire compared to the White. As with most any fishing location, flows drive fishing choices on the White River system. The big river had been tough with seasonally low flows, but the Norfork was running just the right amount of water for great fishing. 

Taylor was about as gracious as any guide I've met. He knew I really wanted to fish the White, so we kicked around a little there after meeting up Tuesday morning. Even better, he put me on several big brown trout. I always half joke with people that I'm a better guide than angler, and the results that day proved why it is only a halfway joke. I missed several big fish including one that I would really like to have back. But, I finally connected on my first White River brown which taped out at 19". From there, the trip just got better and better. 

My first White River brown trout
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

After we kicked around on the White for a short time, we motored up the Norfork. Taylor graciously took me all the way up to the dam so I could see it and get some pictures. The rest of the day was a mix of nymphing and streamer fishing. I was glad to catch some nice strong rainbows that pulled as well as any I've caught. Eventually, the water started dropping out and we started heading back down the river. A few more nice brown trout interacted with my streamer but I never could seal the deal. 

Fat Norfork River rainbow trout
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

Norfork River rainbow trout
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

Motoring up the Norfork River
©2024 David Knapp Photography

Dam on the Norfork River
©2024 David Knapp Photography

As we slid into the takeout ramp, we checked the forecast for both weather and flows the next day. Things were looking wet, but there was a small bump of water in the morning on the White. Taylor graciously agreed to take me up to Bull Shoals dam the next morning even though he assured me that fishing hadn't been great up there as of late. I wasn't as worried about good fishing as most clients and more just wanted to see that part of the river system. 

The next morning, the day dawned cloudy and dark. The threat of rain seemed very real and I was prepared for the worst. When we launched, a quick run up the river got us to the base of Bull Shoals dam, or at least as close as you are allowed to get. One thing that was interesting to me was that you weren't supposed to approach too closely to the dam. Here in Tennessee, we regularly get right up to the base of the dam on the Caney Fork River to fish the outflow from the turbines. However, there were very prominent signs everywhere prohibiting boaters from approaching the dam too closely. We went right up to the line and then started floating back down.

Bull Shoals Dam on the White River
©2024 David Knapp Photography

Streamers were the plan for the day. I still don't know how my arm held up, but I tossed my 8 weight Echo Streamer X (an absolutely incredible line of rods designed specifically for streamer fishing) almost the entire day. Taylor had some secret flies and we were ready to hunt. While I had a couple of half hearted follows up near the dam, Taylor was 100% accurate in his assessment of the current fishing up near the dam. It was pretty slow. While the temptation was strong to just hang around and fish that area regardless of the success rates, we started drifting on down the river.

Before long, we got side tracked. More accurately, Taylor let me side track us. We saw several pods of midging fish in a backwater, and I got excited. Midge fishing is just my game, so we stopped for a bit while I rigged up something for these fish. After a few stocker rainbows, it was apparent that I would get pulled in deeper and deeper by the occasional monster cruising around. If we wanted to stick to our plans, we needed to make a move and keep on streamer fishing.

Another move down river was in order, and before long, I was slinging the streamer rod again. The midge fishing interlude was just what I needed to get me going. As we approached a big shoal, Taylor gave me some directions as well as info about the water we were about to cover.

As the boat drifted down the bank, he started to point me to specific structure to target. The first good log produced a very large brown that I straight up missed. There were several fish that ate the streamer that I missed on this trip, and this was one of the better ones. Taylor saw that I was going to stew about missing the fish instead of getting back in the game and quickly pointed out the next log. I slung the fly and gave a strip. What happened next was one of the coolest eats I have ever seen on a streamer. 

A large brown trout came up and rolled all the way over the top of the streamer. From the casting deck on Taylor's Supreme, it was easy for me to see the whole thing unfold. The fish missed the fly entirely on the first pass and by some miracle I didn't pull the fly out of the strike zone. The fish came down, swam downstream right on the bottom of the river, and after getting below the fly, came up to attack it again. This time, it nailed the fly and I got a legit strip set. We were off to the races and soon had the big brown trout in the net. After pulling over and getting pictures, it was time to try again. 

White River brown trout
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

Releasing my first big White River brown trout
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

We moved another fish or two, but it became apparent that the water was dropping out. Taylor made the decision to start a series of big moves down river. Each move was made with the goal of reaching another shoal that had good flow and lots of structure that the brown trout liked to hide in. Each shoal also had lots of fish. I continued to have some opportunities, some larger than others, but the second big fish was eluding me. 

Finally, it all came together again in a particularly fast piece of water where a strong run swept tight to the right bank. This was another very nice fish over 20" with absolutely beautiful dark pumpkin colors. 

White River dark brown trout
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

From there, we kept moving down the river and hitting different spots all the way to Cotter. Amazingly, one of the coolest fish happened right above a particularly famous and picturesque bridge that is recognizable to many people who love the White. It wasn't the biggest fish of the trip, but it provided a neat photo op right before we started a long run back up the river to where we had launched. With rain again threatening, we hurried back up river and got out before the rain arrived. 

Fly fishing the White River in Cotter Arkansas
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

Brown trout on the White River at Cotter Arkansas
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Wooten ©2024

That night was soggy. Our tent was soaked the next morning, but thankfully very little rain made it inside. One door had just a little bit of water under the zipper where the seal wasn't the best, but otherwise we stayed warm and dry. Our original plan had been to do some hiking that day, and then head home the next day. However, the forecast was calling for very chilly weather that next night. With lows down near 40 degrees, we knew it was going to be cold. We had already been a little on the cool side camping, but really hadn't prepared well for lows down to 40 on this particular trip. 

With the sun coming out and a warm breezy day commencing, the thought of getting home a little early and having extra time to decompress and recover from our trip appealed. Once the tent dried out, we started breaking down camp and packing the car for the drive back home. We got a late start due to everything being soaked early that morning, but it was nice to get back home and start to recover from yet another excellent vacation.

I finally added another river to my list, one that I have long wanted to fish. Now I know why so many people love the White as much as they do. I'll be back as soon as possible. There are lots of other exciting possibilities on this river, from spring caddis and sulfur hatches, to late summer terrestrial fishing, to shad kill opportunities in the winter. The White River offers so much trout water and the possibility of a fish of a lifetime at any given moment. If you need a good guide for this river, I highly recommend that you check with Taylor Wooten of Flippin Fly Guides. He knows the river as well as anyone and works harder than most to put you on fish. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Choosing the Best Fly Rod for Smoky Mountains Fly Fishing

If you're like me and have been around the inter webs for a long time, you've seen some variation of the question. What is the best fly rod for.....? You name it. Best fly rod for streamer fishing. Best fly rod for nymph fishing. Best fly rod for brook trout. Best fly rod for brown trout. Best fly rod for Yellowstone. In other words, people are always looking for an edge when it comes to their piscatorial pursuits. This question has been asked via online message boards, in person and on the phone when I worked at a fly shop, and nowadays on Facebook groups. The problem is, they are asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. The title for this short piece is clear enough, but I probably should have called it, "How To Ask the Right Questions About Fly Rods."

The real solution here that very few people actually seem to seriously want is to work hard at becoming a better angler. That could include investing money into some guided fly fishing trips or it could be as simple as just getting out on the water more. Investing a lot of time goes a long ways towards making someone proficient. If you have invested that kind of time, you've probably already figured out the answer to the question of best fly rod. If you haven't been fly fishing long enough or don't have the time to get out more, I'll address one specific version of this question. What is the best fly rod for Smoky Mountains fly fishing?

Before I get too far into my own personal opinions on the matter, I'll share some background. First, this is not the first, and probably won't be the last time I deal with some form of this question. I've covered How To Select the Perfect Fly Rod before. This is a little different from that post as you'll see. Go back and read it first just to be sure.  Second, I've been fly fishing for close to 30 years now or nearly 3/4 of my life. In other words, I have a little experience that has led me on a circutuous journey that has brought me nearly full circle on rod selection. I'll explain more shortly. Finally, note the first sentence of this paragraph. No matter how much I or any other angler may have learned a thing or two along the way, anything we might suggest is simply our own opinion. No matter what anyone else says, there is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions.

When I first started fly fishing, I got a Walmart special. In retrospect, I'm not sure it is even a fly rod. At the time, however, it was perfect. Everything about that rod looks like a fly rod except for how clunky it is and how terribly it casts. I'm suspicious it is actually some sort of crappie rod, and yes, I do still have it floating around somewhere. Still, and this is the important part, I learned to cast with the rod. In fact, I was hauling and even double hauling without knowing that was a thing. The darn rod wouldn't cast worth a flip without a good haul. Necessity is the mother of invention. At the time, I didn't know that hauling was an actual technique, so I made it up as I went. As time went on, I yearned for a better rod. Now I know better. That is a slippery slope, but at the time I was convinced that a better rod would help. 

The next rod wasn't half bad, but still not the right rod for the job. It was a 6 weight, too heavy for what I was doing, but better than my current setup. Of all the rods I've ever owned, I actually have probably used it the least or pretty close to it. Not that anything was especially wrong with the rod, but it wasn't too long after getting this rod that I got my first "nice" rod. That 6 weight did come in handy years later, but that's another story for another day. My first nice rod was an Orvis Superfine 8' 4 weight, known as the Tight Loop. To this day, it is still one of my absolute favorite fly rods. So much so, in fact, that I eventually picked up a second to have as a backup. Orvis doesn't make these rods and hasn't for more than 20 years I believe, so you can't just get a new one made unfortunately.

That rod really molded me as an angler. Because it was the nicest rod I had for several years, it became all I fished. I learned to do a LOT with that 8' 4 weight rod, but what it really excels at is dry or dry/dropper fishing on small to medium sized mountain streams. When I learned to high stick nymphs for the legendary Walter Babb, he kindly suggested that I might want a slightly longer and faster rod. The soft Superfine is just too flexible to be a great tight line rod although it works in a pinch. In fact, I learned to be deadly with that rod, but it is not the most efficient rod I could use for that method. Thus it was that I found myself looking for yet another fly rod. The next rod would be my 4th in case you're counting. Don't worry, the numbers will get really blurry quickly. 

My next "nice" rod was a 9' 5 weight St. Croix Legend Ultra. When I first got the rod, I was in college and had it shipped to my dorm. When it arrived, I hurried to string it up and cast it on the lawn. I was almost convinced the rod was broken. Yet, upon examination, the rod looked intact. You see, my casting stroke had evolved through the prior three rods and settled into something that made the SUPER SLOW Superfine (Say that 10 times fast!) work magic. It was far from fitted for a super fast St. Croix (Try that one also!). It took me quite a bit of work to make that fast action rod work correctly, but I got the hang of it and soon found myself fishing it far more than the Superfine. I had evolved as an angler and was more interested in the most effective fishing tool. The Legend Ultra was an amazing high sticking rod. Being so fast, you could stick most fish that ate instead of missing many like I did on the Superfine. Setting the rod hard enough was no longer my limiting factor.

After the 5 weight Legend Ultra, my next rod was a 9' 7 weight Temple Fork Outfitters TiCr-X. Even though I've had that rod for probably close to 20 years now, it is still one of my favorite streamer rods. I've caught big trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, drum, carp, stripers, musky and many other fish on that rod. Since then, I've picked up just a few more rods. Short rods, long rods, 1 weight rods, 2 weight rods, 3 weight rods, 4 weight rods, 5 weight rods, 6 weight rods, 7 weight rods, 8 weight rods, 10 weight rods, 11 weight rods, well, you get the picture. Some rods have stayed and kept a place in my gear closet, while others have been sold to make room for more pressing needs. The important part here, however, is that I have plenty of options to choose from when I go fishing in the Smokies. In general, I find myself reaching for one of 4 or 5 rods depending on where I am fishing.

If I'm fishing Little River, Abrams Creek, the Oconaluftee, Deep Creek, Cataloochee Creek, or any of the other larger Park streams, I'm probably reaching for my 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon, or a 10' 2 weight Echo Shadow X. The Echo is an incredible rod, but the main reason I don't reach for it every single time is that it is a little light for jigging heavier streamers. I find that my Orvis 10' 3 weight Recon can do anything (for me) from jigging heavier jig streamers, to throwing dry flies, to high stick nymphing. In other words, it can cover any possible situation that might arise on the medium to large streams of the Smokies. It isn't the best rod for beginners because it is a little stiff. That makes it tough to get the hang of for someone new to fly fishing and trying to cast dry flies, but if you have been doing it a while, you can make this rod do everything. The Echo Shadow X is probably more fun to fish, and a nice Smokies fish feels incredible on the 2 weight. I'm just nervous casting super heavy jig streamers on a rod with such a delicate tip. There was a point where I thought you couldn't go too long on fly rods, but for me the 10' rod is the sweet spot. I have an 11' 3 weight Echo Shadow X that is just a little too much rod for me in many situations. If all you're doing is high stick nymphing, however, it is hard to beat as well.

If I'm going fishing for brook trout, then I'm likely reaching for a slightly shorter rod. I've fished 10' and longer rods on brook trout streams, and they are actually pretty useful. However, I like a deeper flexing rod for brook trout, and find myself reaching for the old Orvis Superfine rods or a fiberglass rod more often than not. If I know I'm only fishing dry flies or maybe a dry/dropper, then something between a one and four weight is perfect, and I hope it has a nice slow action. When you hook a 10 inch fish on a rod like this, you'll double the rod up and think you've hung the biggest fish in the Park. Lots of fun! 

At this point, you might be asking yourself, which of these is the best fly rod for Smoky Mountains fishing? And that is the wrong question. What you need to be asking is what rod will I enjoy the most? Or maybe, what rod will help me catch the most fish? Or what rod is most effective for method XYZ? The answers to those questions are not necessarily the same. 

I have long held that many people's recommendations for shorter rods for Park fishing is the furthest thing from the right rod for the job, and I still stand by that belief. However, that only applies for the question of what rod is the most effective rod in the Smokies. I can only think of two or three brook trout streams I've fished where I shorter rod is better suited for the job. For probably 90% or 95% of Great Smoky Mountains fly fishing, a rod ranging from 8'6" to 10" (or even longer) is ideal. This is because we find ourselves high sticking more often than not (for dry flies, nymphs, and streamers even on occasion). Longer rods equals longer reach. The farther you can reach towards the fish without spooking them the better, at least up to a point. There is a point of diminishing returns, however, based on rod swing weight and if it starts getting tip heavy, you've probably gone too long. That said, high sticking can be a mask for a deeper problem. Some high stick anglers continue to only fish that way because they find much less success utilizing other methods. 

And that brings us to the next point. Shorter rods are fine if you just like to cast and don't fish as much pocket water. However, longer rods will still help you mend better because a longer rod can pick up more line off of the water. So now the question becomes clearer. Do you want the most effective rod, or do you want the rod you will enjoy most? If you measure enjoyment by how many fish you catch, then probably go for the longer rod most of the time (and not one that is too soft). Even on brook trout streams, fish the absolute longest rod you can manage without getting in the bushes and trees all day. If you measure enjoyment as a function of the joy of casting the rod combined with the total experience of catching fish in a pristine mountain stream, then a shorter deeper flexing rod might be the ticket. This is especially true if you enjoy playing the fish and not just yanking them in one after another. A true sporting gentleman might take this one step further and make sure the rod is made of split bamboo by a fine rod maker.

Deciding which rod you'll enjoy the most comes down to just casting a bunch of rods. Go to your nearest fly shop and cast a bunch of rods or ask your favorite guide to bring a selection to sample on the next guided trip. Ask questions of your local fly shop employees such as what rod will help me catch more brook trout? Or what rod will make me a better dry fly angler? Or what rod is best for high sticking/euro nymphing/tight lining/whatever else you want to call it? Or what rod brings YOU the most joy to fish? Ask 100 shop employees that last question and you'll get a TON of different answers, just like in that Facebook group.

Most of the best anglers I know aren't hanging out on online forums answering and asking questions about the best fly rods. So just know that your answers on places like a Facebook group will be wildly inaccurate, or at best will be rooted in that person's favorite (and in some cases only) rods. Make sure to ask the correct question, and it will go a long ways towards helping you select your next fly rod. If you need help figuring out what rod you need, don't hesitate to reach out to me. I won't necessarily have the right answer, but I'll definitely have some opinions, and I don't mind sharing those. The best discussion will probably happen on the phone or in person, because there isn't usually a simple answer. I'll work through the question with you to make sure we are asking and answering the intended question to get you the right rod. 

Want to read more? Check out this story of a Smokies autumn fishing trip.

Big Browns in the Smokies in Fall

Sunday, February 11, 2024

From the Rower's Seat

Musky fishing is always a team sport. There is a TON of hard work involved and everyone has a part to play. I have been obsessed from time to time with fishing for muskellunge. Unfortunately I have also found myself not getting out as much as I would like due to other obligations during what I consider musky season. Thus, when a couple of buddies had an epic couple of days back in January, it got me fired up to get back out there. 

My original goal had been to spend quite a few days on the musky streams this winter. In fact, I set myself two specific goals for this winter. First, catch a musky as it has been a while since I have personally caught one (despite lots in my boat from friends and clients), and second, catch a big brown trout on the Clinch on a streamer. My favorite musky system has several different sections that I like to fish with more begging to be explored. The only way to explore them is to simply get out there and spend time on the water. When it got to early February and I still hadn't made any musky trips happen yet this winter, I knew it was time to make a change.

Musky Fly Fishing in Tennessee

I checked in with my buddies Pat and Chris and a plan was made. We would float a favorite section with more than enough water to fish in a day. Between us, we had rods ranging from 7 through 11 weight. The heavier rods were for "real" musky flies, and the lighter rods were for when our arms got tired and we needed to throw smaller stuff. I've seen plenty of musky caught on 3-6 inch flies, so I know it can be done even if the big stuff is more exciting.

We all met up at the takeout first thing and piled all the gear into my truck and boat. Soon, we were headed up to the put in. After a quick pause at the top of the ramp to unbuckle boat straps and rig the anchor, I backed the boat down and it was quickly launched. Parking the truck didn't take long, and soon I was at the oars maneuvering Pat and Chris into position to fish the first narrow pool.

Floating a Small Musky River in Tennessee

We drifted slowly down the river. Several incredible looking holes slid by without any excitement. Then we turned the corner into a big pool that has always looked fishing but never produced. With excitement running high, we got a couple of good casts into some structure and.....promptly hung a log. Oh well, that is streamer fishing. As I was backing in to free the fly, Pat suddenly spoke up excitedly, "There's a musky!" Sure enough, I had finally seen a musky in this pool that just looks too good to not have a fish. We interacted with this fish for a while, getting a couple of half hearted follows, but something clearly wasn't right with our presentation. We changed flies and otherwise worked the fish, but with so far to go in our float, we didn't have time to seriously target this fish. 

Before long, we were drifting on down the river looking for the next fish. It didn't take long. We were entering the major feeding period based on the solunar fishing tables. In the next couple of hours, we moved several great fish. At one point, I had yielded the oars to one of the other guys. As I was doing a figure eight over a deep pot, a fish came out of nowhere and worked through the eights with me for several passes before just disappearing. We backed up and got a slightly less enthusiastic response before coming to the same conclusion that we did on the first encounter: we simply had too far to go to play too long with any one fish. 

Not long after, I switched back onto the oars. Our number of encounters was excellent by musky fishing standards, but we were still looking for that first eat. On our first encounter, I had remembered a fly that I wanted to experiment with and quickly rigged it up. I had kept it sitting to the side and waiting for another opportunity to try it. That moment would come soon. 

Video of My Musky on the Fly in Tennessee

Want to see some awesome footage from this musky? Check out the video my buddy Chris put up on YouTube HERE. While you are there, please give him a follow! Now, for the full story below...

Catching a Tennessee Musky on the Fly

We were coming into yet another amazing looking hole (aren't they all?!?!) when Pat again announced, "There's a musky!" The fish slid off of a shallower sand bottom and slunk into the deep pool. Musky often will "soft spook," meaning they will be uncomfortable with the boat in shallow water or otherwise, but will also lay down nearby and even interact with you again if you are careful. I slowly maneuvered the boat back up until we could clearly see the fish laying on the bottom and then slipped the anchor down ever so slowly. Then the guys started going through both flies and presentations. By the time they were running out of ideas, I was ready to reach for my rod with the experimental fly. Asking permission to target the fish, the guys readily agreed, and I stood at the edge of the middle of the boat where I could see the fish. 

On the first cast, the fish quickly engaged with my fly. Bingo! Sure enough, it followed all the way back to the boat and then seemingly ate. When I set, there was nothing there. I slammed the fly back in the water. Last winter, I was fishing with my buddy Jeff when he had something similar happen. Getting the fly immediately back in the water gave us a second opportunity and he landed the fish. Remembering that moment, I got the fly in front of the fish as quick as I could. Sure enough, the fish seemed to be looking for the fly still. Immediately, the fish turned, put its nose right on the fly before the gills flared and it hammered my fly. Game on!

The excitement in the boat reached fever pitch as I worked the fish back and forth. The guys were excitedly taking turns running video and waiting with the net depending on which end of the boat the fish was on. Finally, after several almost there net attempts, we slid the fish into the net. With several whoops and hollers, we moved the boat over to a shallow spot where I could properly spend time getting the fish healthy and back in the pool it came from. After taping the fish out at just under 40" (a new personal best), I cradled it in the water for a while before it suddenly jetted. 

Tennessee river musky on the fly
Photo courtesy Pat Tully ©2024

Releasing a fly caught musky in Tennessee
Photo courtesy Pat Tully ©2024

Our Day of Musky Fishing 

Goal number one for the winter season accomplished, I jumped back on the oars for a large portion of the day. The agreement early had been that whoever got a fish would be rowing. I was more than happy to spend the rest of the day on the oars. Only when it started to get late and we had a long ways ago did I ask for help on the oars. We took turns to get on down the river. The day ended with ten encounters, 9 follows, and one landed fish. Not a bad day of musky fishing.

Even with the winter fishing season winding down, I'm hoping to get back out there sometime soon. In the meantime, I'll be out on the Clinch looking for that other goal for my winter season...

Video of My Musky on the Fly in Tennessee

Want to see some awesome footage from this musky? Check out the video my buddy Chris put up on YouTube HERE. While you are there, please give him a follow!

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Autumn Getaway

Don't ever become a guide so you can fish more. If you've never heard that saying before, now you have. As a guide, you are on the water every day, fishing in a sense. You just aren't actually holding the rod. In many ways, you actually become a better angler by not fishing all the time, because you spend all day describing how to do it right. On the other hand, it would assumedly be easy to lose the passion if you're doing something every day. That is one thing for which I count myself very fortunate. I still love both my job (guiding) and fishing on my days off. Still, I have to find some way to keep things interesting. If I've already floated the Caney Fork River 75 times for the calendar year, I probably won't float the exact same section doing the exact same thing on my off day. 

There are many solutions to keeping it interesting. Most of them revolve around pushing myself into new experiences as an angler. One is to experiment with flies and presentation, something I constantly do on my days off. On a recent guides' day off, I ripped streamers so hard all day that my stripping arm was my tired than my casting arm. Seriously. I saw some really big fish too and will be back to do it again. Another solution is to chase new species, explore new water, or fish rarely fished waters that still have that "shiny new toy" feel.

This past fall, in early October, a calendar anomaly opened up a short window to camp and fish in early October. Every year, I take a trip in early to mid November, so this was going to be a bonus trip. It is exceedingly rare that I get multiple days in a row off in October without scheduling it that way on purpose. As one of my busiest months, I tend to guide my way through my favorite time of year, with very little "me" time to go fishing for myself. And that's okay. My bank account appreciates it come the middle of January. Still, when back to back days opened up, I jumped at the opportunity. Wonder of wonders, one of my favorite campsites was available at Smokemont Campground, and it was booked just as fast as I could enter my payment information.

Shortly before the trip, I checked with some fishing buddies to see if anyone wanted to join. I've noticed that is much harder once all your fishing friends have young families, a point I'm also at. Still, I finally got one bite and we made plans to hit a favorite piece of water, albeit one I've only hit once or twice. This would be my first time through in the fall. 

We started hiking in fairly early. It was cool enough out that I kind of wanted a jacket but knew the hike would warm me up too much. So, I just trusted my long sleeves to be enough and we headed up the trail. I did wear my Patagonia ultralight wading pants that I bought several years ago. It was too warm for hiking in full chest waders, but I didn't want to get hypothermia either. These were originally bought for backpacking waders, but I occasionally wear them for non backpacking scenarios as well. They kept me from completely overheating, but I was still glad to finally step into the cool stream at the end of our hike. There is always a transition in spring and fall where wet wading is most comfortable mid and late in the day, but the morning hours are just a little on the cool side. That isn't a problem for front country trips, but when you hike in, it is a pain in the rear to carry multiple wading setups for different times of the day. So you just make do as much as possible.

When we got in the stream, I was rigged with a dry/dropper and had high expectations. With a quick rainbow and then a brown, I thought the day was about to bust wide open. Instead, however, the fish were about like what I normally expect on Deep Creek. In other words, they would eat if you did everything just right, but any misstep or bad cast sent them running. The ultra low water didn't help. The ongoing drought conditions in the area had flows even lower than usual for an already dry time of year. Still, we found just enough fish to keep things interesting. Then, finally, as the day warmed a little, the fish really started to turn on.

Wild Smoky Mountain brown trout on a dry fly

Wild rainbow trout in the Smokies

A high overcast delayed the best bite later than we had expected, but things eventually got going. At this point, we were both catching fish. Dry flies and nymphs were both producing. Eventually, some streamers were even tossed to great effect. It was one of those magical days in the mountains. The autumn colors while not quite peak, were good enough to add significant value to the trip for me.

Autumn colors in the Great Smoky Mountains

A couple of the rainbows were more memorable than the rest. While all fish are beautiful, some just stick out in my memory for one reason or another. The first one that really caught my attention had nothing to do with size. In fact, it was on the smaller end of the spectrum for the day. The neat thing about this fish was how dark it was. Occasionally, I catch fish that are super dark. Invariable, and this fish was no exception, they come out of very dark holes or from underneath rocks. I have edited this picture to actually lighten things up a little if that tells you anything. 

Dark wild rainbow trout in the Smokies

The other memorable rainbow was a big surprise because it ate the dry fly. Not that fish on dries is surprising, of course, but when you've caught the vast majority of fish on the dropper for hours, and then a quality fish slurps the dry, it surprises you each time. The fish fought very well, but upon landing it, I can't say with 100% confidence that it is a wild fish. It might be, of course, and that is even likely. However, the line between stocked and wild on this drainage is hazy at best. Most of the fish are small enough and vibrant enough to tell, but with larger fish, I definitely start to have some questions. 

Backcountry rainbow trout in the Smokies

Late in the trip, as we were getting ready to hike out, we found some nicer fish. Not the true monsters that we knew inhabited the stream, but solid brown trout that would make anyone's day. Then, just after catching back to back brown trout, I found one more gorgeous rainbow trout on a dry fly. Talk about a perfect ending to a perfect day. Nothing could beat this day in the mountains, or so I thought. 

Wild brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Beautiful wild rainbow trout on a dry fly in the Smokies

More wild brown trout in the Smokies

Day one fish of the day quality wild brown trout in the Smokies

We got out fairly late, and eventually I made it back to camp and got some supper together. I was missing my family a little and almost drove home that evening. I decided it would be foolish to take down camp just to get home near midnight. I would be much happier and feel better if I got up and headed home in the morning. Such decisions can make or break a fishing trip, I just didn't realize it at the time. After eating chili and tortillas, I hit the sack. I slept well in the cool autumn night air and woke up refreshed.

I got camp broken down quickly and had my thoughts set on home when I thought of a favorite pool nearby. Deciding that it would be silly to drive this far without fishing it, I decided for a quick stop. No more than an hour, I thought to myself. 

Wow! What an hour. In that hour, I caught several fish in the 16-19 inch range and a 22.5 inch fish as the largest of the session. It was easily my best hour long fishing experience in the Smokies for brown trout ever. Not necessarily my best day ever, but right up there in that category as well. All of which just goes to show, you don't know if you don't go. Best of all, I still got home much earlier than originally planned or anticipated. Talk about the best of both worlds!

Big wild hen brown trout in the fall in the Great Smoky Mountains

As a guide, we are often faced with less than stellar conditions. Only rarely are things bad enough that we have to cancel a trip. On some borderline days, I'll find myself saying to the client that exact some phrase, or they'll say it to me when we decide to stick to our plans. If you aren't getting out there, you'll never know how fishing might have been. In 2024, focus on getting out more often. You never know what you might be missing out on by skipping a day on the water.

Sorry for the heavy editing on these pictures, but some of my favorite spots are pretty recognizable. I hope you'll understand that I don't want a bunch of people in "my" spot next time I'm there...

Big wild buck brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains

Big wild brown trout in the Smokies in October during prespawn fishing

Monday, January 15, 2024

Consider Sink Time

This is a relatively short post that would fall in the category of fly fishing tips for success. It applies to both streamers and nymphs, but the main thing I want to talk about is nymph fishing. I do a lot of both short/tight line nymphing without a strike indicator and also longer line nymphing. One of the most common mistakes I see people make is to not cast far enough above the spot they think the fish is. Remember to consider sink time when throwing flies that are supposed to be fished subsurface. 

In very slow water, this doesn't matter as much. Flies will sink almost vertically, especially in lake situations. However, most trout fishing is done in faster moving water. Even if you are using tungsten (which I highly recommend for the faster sink times) or split shot or both, the flies will still have some downstream drift before getting down into the strike zone. However, if you are using a suspension device (strike indicator), not only will that time take longer, but the suspension device will pull your flies back up in the water column if you aren't careful. 

This is why I emphasize big slack line mends when floating flatter water in the drift boat. After your mend, the flies take some time to get down into the strike zone. Any subsequent mending will pull the flies back up in the water column as the indicator drags them up in the water column. On the other hand, you have to consider obstacles on the bottom of the river as part of your equation. If you have a shallow obstacle and then need the flies to get deep quickly behind the obstacle, we'll often throw our flies directly on top of the obstacle or even slightly above it. This applies a lot more in the Smokies. 

In the Smokies, when you are working around pocket water, rocks, and even some logs, you have to be even more careful about both avoiding snagging the bottom, but also getting your flies deep enough. Add multiple currents, both upwelling and downwelling, into the mixture and it can be downright tricky. As a general rule, in the Smokies, I don't like my flies going through pour overs or tailouts of any kind. The reason is that they tend to have sticks wedged into the rocks in those slots that will eat flies. However, those are also some times the best place to throw your fly to get maximum sink time going into the next run. In other words, sometimes you take some chances when throwing nymph rigs in the mountains. 

The same issue with strike indicators applies in mountain streams and is often even exacerbated. The fastest water is nearly always on the surface, so a strike indicator suspension device will usually  have a tendency to drag flies upwards in the water column. This is one reason among many why veteran Smokies anglers usually gravitate towards high sticking without indicators as much as possible. However, there are times that some type of indicator is highly recommended. In those cases, just remember to add plenty of weight to get down. 

Finally, using the lightest possible tippet will help immensely in obtaining good sink times. Thinner tippets have less surface area and result in less drag. Thus, flies are able to sink faster without that extra drag. 

If all of this sounds like more than you have ever thought about while fly fishing, then consider it next time you are out on the water. Putting more thought into presentation than simply just chucking it out there will help your success sky rocket. If you want some on the water coaching, then consider booking a guided fly fishing trip with us at Trout Zone Anglers!

Oh, and about those streamers, if you are using a sinking line, this process can be simplified by understanding your line's sink rate. If it averages 5-6 inches per second, then you can count down until you reach whatever depth you want. For example, 5 feet would be about 10 to 12 seconds. If your streamer is weighted, take that into account so you don't get too deep if you're fishing over structure. 

Good luck and I hope considering sink time will help your fishing!