Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth
Showing posts with label Backcountry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Backcountry. Show all posts

Monday, April 05, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Two: A Bitter Disappointment and Baby Bull Trout

Have you ever had one of those rare trips where all the good things happen right at the beginning? My hunt for bull trout very nearly turned out that way. The first day gave me a taste of what hooking one of these fish was like. If you haven't read that story yet, do so HERE first, and then come back and read this sad tale. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), the good things didn't happen at the beginning. If they had, we probably would have missed out on some really cool experiences and the story wouldn't have turned out as good. 

For several months, I had been formulating a game plan for the fishing part of our trip. The main part of this fishing excursion involved lots of hiking. That wouldn't be a problem after all of our Glacier National Park hiking. We had hiked 75 miles in eight days. Two or three of those days had been rather short hikes while the longest was a hair over 20 miles. In other words, we were in peak hiking condition, at least for us. The tricky part was going to be hauling our fishing gear. My poor wife does not do well hiking in wading boots. I decided it was probably better for my feet to wear normal shoes as well. So, we packed our heavy wading boots the five miles in to our fishing spot.

The day went downhill right from the get go. We were planning on starting about five miles in, but as we approached the area where I expected to start, I was surprised to see a couple of backpacking tents and a campfire. Someone else had beat us there. They looked just about as shocked as we were feeling. This simply wasn't the kind of place you expected to come up on another angler. After exchanging brief pleasantries, I asked them which way they were fishing so we could go elsewhere. The tributary creek I had been banking on had already been fished. Seriously. They had just hit all the water we had drove across the country and hiked a ways to fish. 

Immediately, I had a sinking feeling. Maybe, just maybe, catching a bull trout wasn't going to happen for me on this trip. Luck was clearly not on my side, at least not yet. We contemplated hiking well up the canyon above where they had turned around. In fact, we forded the main creek and hiked a decent distance on out the trail that followed the tributary. We had switched to wading boots to ford the creek, so my wife was now hiking in them. After probably a mile or so, I finally had to admit that the trail just wasn't going to get down close to that creek. That was valuable information for a possible future trip.

After giving up on my first stream choice, we headed back to the ford to fish up the main stream instead. As it turns out, our plan B wasn't so bad. The cutthroat were willing, plentiful, and really nice sized. The wildflowers were phenomenal as well. Later on, I would begin to suspect that it might have been the best choice for bull trout after all. On this day, however, all I could think about was that the wheels were starting to come off on my trip plans.



As we worked our way up the stream away from the trail crossing, we had to remind ourselves that the only way out (that we knew of), was going to be back downstream the same way we came up. There was no trail access into the upper reaches of this drainage. While we might have located some game trails, we weren't counting on that possibility since we were in an unfamiliar area. I don't like taking chances unnecessarily.

The first section of stream was fast riffle water with a few deeper pockets thrown in for good measure. The largest fish we saw in this section was maybe six or seven inches. It felt a lot like fishing back in the Smokies as far as the fish size was concerned. The only difference is that we were catching native westslope cutthroat trout. Fish were rising well to our big foam dry flies that doubled as a good strike indicator. Even more fish were attacking our nymph droppers.



The first good pool we approached looked incredible. I figured that maybe, just maybe, there might be a bull trout in this one. I switched to the streamer rod and gave it a good workout. Unfortunately, there just weren't any fish willing to play, at least not any bull trout. The larger cutthroat trout in this pool made several valiant attempts to eat the streamer. I even hooked a couple that shook off after a brief fight and landed one.

A quality cutthroat
A quality westslope cutthroat trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


I had my wife try the dry/dropper rod and she picked up a couple of fish here and there as well. We soon got into a good routine. When I could, I would fish the larger streamer rod. Everywhere else, I let her fish for the most part. Of course, every once in a while I would borrow the other rod and catch a fish or two that way also.

By this point in the day, we were already getting hungry. Breakfast had long since worn off and we began looking for some rocks or a dry bank to sit on for lunch. The only problem was the numerous wildflowers. Neither of us wanted to crush the beautiful flowers. Finally, we found a spot that had both wildflowers and a small area we could sit. We had carried in hummus and pita chips along with some other goodies. This is always a great backcountry meal, both healthy and filling!

With my hunger under control, I turned towards some of the gorgeous flowers growing along the stream banks. My favorites were the purple monkey flowers (last flower picture). These tend to be a rich fuchsia or magenta, at least the ones I've come across in the northern Rockies. Otherwise, we also saw more flowers than I can count. Here is a small sampling from throughout the day.


Indian paintbrush ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Sticky Wild Geranium ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Showy Fleabane ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Musk Monkeyflower (I think...?) ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Purple Monkeyflower ©2020 David Knapp Photography


While the purple monkey flowers were probably my favorite, the western monkshood was an unusual treat that I don't recall seeing before. New to me flowers are always fun. These were growing along the stream, apparently liking the wet environment.


Western Monkshood
Western Monkshood ©2020 David Knapp Photography


Lunch consumed and flowers photographed, we packed up and continued upstream. Probing every likely spot with either the hopper/dropper or the streamer, we caught plenty of cutthroat but no bull trout. The shadows were soon getting longer and longer over the water. I didn't want to get caught back here in the dark. We had plans other than spending the night in the backcountry. 

Then, in one likely pool, my wife hooked a small fish that immediately looked different and got me excited. Upon landing the fish, I knew we had found our first bull trout. Of course my wife would be the one to catch it. At this point, late in day two, I was getting concerned about catching a bull trout. I would have gladly taken a baby just to knock this species off the list. I was happy for my wife, of course, but even more wanted to catch one for myself.


baby bull trout in Idaho
Baby Bull ©2020 David Knapp Photography

My wife's baby bull trout
My wife's baby bull trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


We soon started to develop a good rhythm. My wife would fish the dry/dropper rig through a hole. Then, I would drag the streamer through a couple of times. She started to catch some really nice fish. In one deep bucket in a hard corner, she hooked the largest westslope cutthroat trout of the day. The fish was in fast water and took some careful maneuvering to land. I jumped in with the net and scooped the fish before it could get in the fast water heading downstream. Of course, we had to get a quick picture of this fine trout!


My wife's big westslope cutthroat trout
My wife's big cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


In one particularly good looking hole just upstream, I had something slam the streamer. It looked a lot like a cutthroat, but I only got a brief glimpse before it bored back under a log. Try as I might, I couldn't turn the fish and soon the hook popped free. The fish had wrapped me around the log and used it as leverage to throw the barbless fly. While I was 95% sure the fish had been just another cutthroat, the power and strength had me questioning that assumption.

It was about this time that we really got serious about the hike back out. We both had some ideas that required daylight to successfully enact. Thus, after one or two more pools, we turned a corner upstream and saw nothing but shallow pocket water for an extended distance and knew our day was over. Hiking back downstream to the trail crossing didn't take as long as expected. However, from the trail crossing, we still had a solid five mile hike out.

Just downstream, the two backpackers had packed up and left. I couldn't resist hitting the junction pool where the other tributary entered and found one last quality cutthroat trout there. Still wanting to find a bull trout, we also hit a couple of spots on the hike down. However, most of the water was generally inaccessible from the trail without a lot of hard work. Our schedule at this late hour didn't allow for much hard work.


One more cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


On the hike in, we had noticed a good supply of huckleberries all along the trail. In fact, there were so many huckleberries that we didn't know what to do. We wandered from one bush to another, filling the ziplock bags I had brought just for such a situation. I had one more bag of homemade pancake mix and we hoped for some more huckleberry pancakes in the morning. In other words, the next day would be a slower day again. We discussed some roadside fishing and decided to try that again. After all, the only bull trout I had definitely hooked so far was just below camp. We filled our two bags fuller than full. These were going to be good huckleberry pancakes. I could already taste the delicious pancakes, but first we needed to hike out and get a good nights rest. Maybe, just maybe, the next day would bring some bull trout finally. 

Friday, June 01, 2018

Cumberland Plateau Smallmouth Bass Memorial Day 2018 Adventure

Every year, I try to fish the Cumberland Plateau smallmouth bass streams a handful of times. The opportunities have decreased the last couple of years since the best summer smallmouth fishing coincides with my busiest guide season. However, I still sneak out at least a couple of days a year. This year, the first trip just happened to be Memorial Day. I kept the holiday weekend open on my guide calendar so I could spend time with friends and family. This worked out perfectly as my wife was able to join me along with Mark Brown from Chota Outdoor Gear and my buddy Jayson who is a smallmouth fanatic as well.

We hit a favorite section of a favorite stream, one that we hoped wouldn't be too crowded on this holiday. Turns out that we picked correctly. Over the course of the day, the only people we saw were just a few people swimming in the old swimming how at the parking area. The rest of the time we had it to ourselves.

Four different things really stand out in my memory of that day. First was a nice bass I caught on my first cast. I was wading up through the stream along one bank with my wife Leah. We had passed Mark who was working the tailout of a large pool. I glanced down and saw this bass charging me to investigate the commotion my wading was making. I quickly grabbed the fly and pitched it a few feet out towards the fish. It turned, glided over, and sucked it in without any hesitation. Sight fishing is my favorite thing to do so that made my day. It wasn't the coolest part of the trip, though.



The next memorable thing was another sight fishing opportunity. Again, my wife and I were wading along the bank. This time we were passing Jayson as he worked the middle of this large pool. Again, another fish came charging over to see what the commotion was all about. This time it was a smallmouth bass. I know that the fish would probably spook if I moved much at all, so I called to Jayson and told him to cast up towards me. The exchange went something like this.

"Jayson! There is a nice smallmouth almost at my feet. Can you see it? He confirmed that he couldn't. Thankfully my rod was already pointing that general direction so I moved the tip just a bit. "The fish is right where I'm pointing my rod, about 5 feet out. Hurry and cast or it will move on."

Jayson started casting and dropped the fly just beyond the fish. It was cruising down the shoreline in his direction and didn't see the fly land. "Strip it hard! You need to get the fish's attention." He made a hard pull on the line and the fly made a satisfying chug while leaving a solid bubble trail. The fish immediately turned. All the while, Leah and I were watching this take place nearly at our feet.

"Okay, the fish turned. He is approaching your fly. Twitch it just barely. There! Get ready....SET!!!" You can't make this stuff up. It wasn't a huge fish by any means, but talk about a satisfying piece of teamwork. It was one of the better smallies of the day. This is why I love guiding. Spotting fish for clients and seeing them make a good cast and catching a fish is incredibly rewarding. The smiles on people's faces are better than catching the fish myself.

Leah and I continued on up the river. Eventually we all reached the highest point we wanted to fish before turning around. Here we stopped for lunch while a light shower cooled things down. About this time, something strange happened. I smelled smoke. Not a campfire, but tobacco smoke like a pipe or cigar perhaps. I knew that none of our group was smoking. Then I remembered seeing some fresh tracks on the stream banks. When I asked Mark, he said that he and Jayson had noticed the tracks as well. Apparently we had a neighbor in the vicinity. The strange part about this is that we were in a really remote area by this point. Knowing that many of these streams have a problem with pot growers, I was hesitant to go any further up the river. The last thing we needed to do was to run into a grow operation and get shot. This is always a concern when fishing these remote rivers and streams and a good reason to not go alone.

We turned around and started fishing back down the river. When we got back to the pool where Jayson caught the bass while Leah and I watched, we decided to fish again. I was in the middle of casting when Leah suddenly said, with a bit of urgency I might add, "There's a bear, THERE'S A BEAR!!!" The first bear that we have spotted here on the Plateau quickly disappeared. I know they are around and have seen bear sign, but it was really cool to have one drop out of the woods while we were fishing. Leah's day was made at this point, but one last memorable moment was yet to occur.

The streams here on the Plateau require many crossings back and forth depending on where you can safely move along the banks and around the deep holes. Right at the parking lot, we crossed back over to where our vehicles were parked and started up the bank. Suddenly I heard Jayson say "Copperhead!!!" rather loudly. Sure enough, the first copperhead of the year was underfoot and Jayson had almost nailed it. Thankfully he didn't or else he probably would have been the one getting nailed.

This trip was a perfect example of how intriguing these streams are with a healthy dose of danger mixed in for good measure. We had a good time, caught some smallmouth bass among other things, saw a bear, a snake, and had a close encounter with some mysterious person. The wildflowers were also fantastic. Fishing the smallmouth bass streams of the Cumberland Plateau never disappoint and this trip was no different. If you are looking for remote fishing, these streams offer endless possibilities to explore.

Leah's nice smallmouth... ©2018 David Knapp Photography





Monday, August 08, 2016

Smallmouth Bass Again



This summer I have been on my usual warm weather smallmouth bass kick and have enjoyed exploring both new waters and old. After my last epic adventure, you would think that staying away from the smallmouth streams for a while would have been the best choice. Despite all of the dangers, I couldn't get the memory out of my mind of the big wild smallmouth fighting on the end of my line. Thus it was, just a couple of days after my last trip, that I found myself heading towards one of my favorite smallmouth streams.

Now, I have to explain the favorite part just a little. Favorite can mean a lot of things. For me, a large portion of what determines "favorite status" is familiarity. This particular stream I'm very familiar with, or at least I'm familiar with the portion that is a reasonable half day trip from the access area. The bass are not the largest or most numerous, but they are there and with a little work are willing to come to the fly.

I grabbed all of my equipment and was soon headed to a section that I enjoy. This is an area I call the Narrows, although I'm sure the white water paddlers have another name for what must be some very serious rapids when the water is up. The cliffs come in tight to the stream and huge chunks of rock all but block the flow of the stream. Getting around this area can be very tricky, but I have, over time, pioneered several rather sketchy routes up on the bank and around the worst of the deep pools and massive boulders. I say sketchy because it looks like snake heaven, and I'm sure it is. I just haven't found them yet.


Anyway, I tied on the same black Chernobyl Hopper that had done well for me on previous trips. A few bass came to hand that way and I stubbornly stuck with it all the way up to the Narrows. After climbing up and over the huge piles of debris that are deposited during high water, I came to a deep but narrow pool that always has some nice fish swimming around in it.

The topwater fly was presented to all the likely areas, and I managed one decent little smallie. Based on the shadows lurking in the depths, I knew that I should be doing much better. Remember a fly that I had done well on during my last smallmouth trip just days before, I pulled out the weighted fly and quickly changed strategies. On just the second or third cast, it happened. A large shadow inhaled my fly at least 5 or 6 feet under the surface. I could see just well enough to know it was time to set the hook.

When I did, it was nearly a repeat of the big bass I had caught a couple of days prior. The fish ran under as many rocks as possible, and I held my breath as the tippet sawed back and forth over the rough edges. You would think that my lesson would have been learned on the last trip, but instead of bringing a heavier rod, I had the same 5 weight as before, and the wily smallmouth bass took full advantage of my lack of leverage.

Finally, the fish slid back out from under the rock it had been trying to make home and I slipped my thumb inside its mouth for a grasp of the jaw. Another great Cumberland Plateau backcountry smallmouth bass to remember!


Saturday, May 03, 2014

Availability

The spring fishing is finally settling into a predictable pattern and this next week is looking perfect.  Trout are active and looking up for a good number of their meals although fishing subsurface will sometimes be best for overall numbers.  May is the one month of the year where anglers will likely catch more fish on dries than on nymphs.  In fact, my best day on Little River ever was in May, and I caught all my fish on dries.

If you are visiting in the area and would like to set up a day to get out on the water, I still have a couple of days available this week, specifically Monday and Tuesday.  Please head over to Trout Zone Anglers or email me if you want to set up a trip.  If you are willing to hike, the Smoky Mountain backcountry is at its best right now.  An easy 3-4 mile hike (easy meaning no major elevation gains/losses) can put us on lots of willing fish or if you want to hit up some brookie streams we can do that as well.