Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day One: Brief Connections and a Hint of Things to Come

On our trip to Glacier National Park last summer, I wanted to check an item off my fly fishing bucket list. My amazing wife graciously agreed to an expedition for bull trout in northern Idaho after we finished up in Glacier. Going into this portion of the trip, I had high expectations. Doing my research, I felt well prepared for this adventure.

Planning the Hunt For Bull Trout

I am a planner. I don't like going into things unprepared. That goes for traveling, of course, and fishing trips especially. Most of my fishing trips are well-researched, from where to stay to what places to fish and how to target the fish. I usually have a pretty good idea of the general outline of the trip and how it will go.   For this trip, that included lots of hours spent on Google and also various maps. I ordered a National Forest Map covering the area we intended to visit.

Bull trout are what lead me to Idaho. In Montana, it is illegal to target them intentionally in all but a few select (and mostly hard to access) places. In Idaho, on the other hand, their numbers are a bit more stable and you are allowed to fish for them with some caveats. One, of course, is that the fishing for bull trout is strictly catch and release. No problem there for me, as that is all I do anyway, but it is good to note for anyone who might not have the same approach to fishing that I do.

Over several months, I read through tons of old blog posts and trip reports from several different sources. I also found info from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. There were scholarly articles with mountains of data. In fact, the scholarly articles is what helped me to finally hone into the area I settled on for this trip. The area was already on my radar, thanks to an old Fly Fisherman magazine article I remembered from my younger years. The cutthroat fishing is noteworthy for the overall quality of the fishery. These days, it is also noteworthy for the pressure the fishery receives. However, after a bit more searching, I found a portion of this overall larger fishery that seemed to be slightly overlooked. Not "we'll have it to ourselves" overlooked, but less pressured than the nearby famous water.

Planning the Camping Part of the Trip


As with most trips, I prefer to have campground reservations in place. However, most of the campgrounds in this area either didn't take reservations or were already full for the time of our visit. There were lots of small first come first served campgrounds in the area along with the usual dispersed camping options that are normally available in the National Forest lands. Thus, we ended up knowing where we wanted to go but really had no idea if it would pan out at all. In other words, I really didn't know where we were going much better than if I had thrown a dart at the wall. The only difference was that I hoped we would at least be in the vicinity of the target. I was up for dispersed camping, but figured slightly nicer accommodations would suit my wife better. Not that we were going to find anything very nice, but even a few amenities are better than none. I was looking forward to at least having a picnic table myself. The fire ring probably would not get any use, but that is also nice to at least have around. 

Finding a Campsite

Fast forward a few months, and you would find us leaving Glacier National Park. It had been one of our all time favorite adventures, but it was time to do something else. Naturally, I was excited to do more fishing than the small taste I had enjoyed in Glacier. 


After some exploring to find the old Knapp homestead, we headed on south and west from Kalispell. Eventually, we found the right town and the right road and headed towards Idaho after a brief stop for gas and ice. The road quickly turned to gravel, and we began to realize the remoteness of the area we would be in for the next several days. By the time we hit the pass that also served as the divide between Idaho and Montana, we were already close to an hour out from town and we were only halfway there.

We began the long descent down the other side into Idaho with the sun trending lower in the sky. I didn't want to be trying to find a campsite in the dark, so we were really hoping that something would be open in the first couple of campgrounds. The first one had an added bonus of no camping fee, but the crowd that was already present looked like they might be more interested in riding ATVs. Nothing wrong with that, of course, we just didn't want to hear them roaring in and out of camp all the time. There were not picnic tables and only one very rough looking pit toilet. There was a spot or two available, however. We decided to keep it as a backup plan and keep looking.

Heading further down the drainage, we began noticing large campsites along the stream. These were all informal "dispersed" camping areas, but some of them were nice. However, we still were hoping for at least a picnic table and toilet perhaps. The next campground we came to had some sites available and we quickly swooped in. After making the usual couple of laps to look everything over, we picked a campsite shaded by giant western cedars. Filling out the camper registration card took no time at all, and soon we were setting up the tent and fixing supper. The hour was getting late, but I almost decided to go fishing anyway. The desire to stay dry for the evening prevented me from trying my luck though. We were planning on wet wading, and I wanted to be dry going to bed.

Two Small Hickups

When we woke up the next morning, I was struck anew with how beautiful this campground was. There were only a few sites, so we didn't have to worry about noisy neighbors. The campsites were spread throughout the beautiful cedar grove, with none of the sites feeling crowded. We did have a couple of small bummers that had snuck up. First, the water from the well didn't seem too clean. It may have just been rust from the pipes, but we weren't interested in drinking it. Thankfully, I had a Platypus Gravity water filtration system ready to go. Except I didn't.

I don't know what happened between the first time I used the filter and this camping trip, but it just wasn't working correctly. When I put it away after my epic brook trout backpacking trip a couple of falls ago, I had carefully followed all the instructions in the owners manual. Still, it didn't work. I should also mention that I never heard back from Platypus when I contacted them after the trip to see what I was doing wrong. In other words, I don't recommend this filter. Thankfully, I had a couple of Sawyer filters with me that I could adapt to the gravity system. Soon, we had clean fresh water again. This was our method for the rest of this trip. I also carried a Sawyer squeeze filter system with us when we were out fishing and hiking. I can't say enough good things about them. They are also very responsive when you contact them with questions. A great company and product!

The other small issue was that this campground didn't have any garbage service. It is strictly pack it in, pack it out. For the small fee of $10 a night, I understand a lack of amenities. Still, it was a little concerning keeping a full trash bag in the car every night. I'm a little paranoid about mice getting into my car due to past experiences. As me about that sometime if you really want to hear some stories. Anyway, I just hoped that the trash in the car wouldn't draw in the undesirables during the night. Of course, I wasn't interested in keeping it outside either. Choosing between bears or mice was tough, but I assumed the bears could ruin the trip even worse.

First Day of Fishing: The Cutthroat Trout

North Fork Clearwater River Idaho


I had brought too many rods as always for this fishing trip. Really, I didn't have that many, but I did have some decisions to make. To ease into the fishing and not take things too seriously, I decided to focus on the cutthroat trout for a while. After all, there isn't much that is better than casting dry flies to willing trout. At least, that is what I pictured when I thought about cutthroat. I rigged up a 9' 5 weight Orvis Helios for myself, and a 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon for my wife. The light rod and extra reach seems to work well for her.

After a short drive up the canyon looking for somewhere to fish, we hit the stream and were soon catching fish. I had to fudge a little on my hopes of good dry fly fishing. To be fair, we did catch some cutthroat on dry flies, but they clearly were getting a little more pressure than I expected and nymph droppers seemed to work better overall. Per the regulations, we pinched our barbs which meant we lost a few more than usual. Still, we both gave a good accounting of ourselves. Here are a couple from early in the day.

westslope cutthroat trout


small westslope cutthroat in Idaho

Over the next few posts, pay close attention to my wife's fish. This was one of the smallest she caught while we were in Idaho with one notable exception that I'll get to another day. In fact, on at least a couple of days, she took big fish honors. I caught a couple of dinks that were even smaller, but managed to avoid taking pictures of them. No proof so it didn't happen, right?

We continued fishing up the stream, catching fish here and there, before we came to a big beautiful pool. This particular section of river was pocket water dominant, so the pool was a welcome change. I just knew there was a good fish somewhere close by. I tried some streamers in case a big bull trout was around, but that didn't really do anything. Then, I noticed a subtle rise way over against the far bank. Crossing over wasn't really an option, so I decided to wade as far out as I could and try a reach cast with some immediate mending. The far bank was really just a big slow back eddy, so I had to get a lot of slack line into my mends to get any kind of a drift. Somehow, someway, I got everything correct and luck was on my side. The first larger cutthroat of the trip was dancing on the end of my line.

This fish was super fat and ate the big stonefly dry I was throwing just like it was the real thing. After several runs through the heavy current, I finally guided the fish over to my side. Soon, it was resting in my big Brodin net. My wife snapped a few pictures and a short video for me, and them the fish headed back for some other angler to enjoy.

Thick westslope cutthroat trout

Lunch Break

By this time, we were starting to think about lunch. Camp wasn't that far away, and it made more sense to go there where we could relax for a bit. We began looking for a good out spot to get back up to the road. That can always be an adventure on a new stream. As I was examining the stream bank looking for fishermen's trails, I started to notice the wildflowers. The shooting stars in particular got me excited. This is one I don't find often back home. I took a few cellphone pictures of these and other flowers before finding a good trail back to the car. 

Idaho Shooting Star wildflower

My wife also took the opportunity to add to her fish count. Notice that her average size catch begins to immediately creep up. 



We got back down to camp where I again stood in awe looking at the trees around our campsite. These western cedars can get really large. In an area that deals with wildfire on a regular basis, I really hope these cedar groves can avoid that destruction. I know it is a part of the natural process, but these trees take a LONG time to reach this size. Look how small our tent appears next to them. 

Camping among western red cedars in Idaho

After resting and relaxing, it was time to fish a bit longer before the sun sank low and the canyon began to cool. The evenings were a great time to fish, but we mostly avoided fishing late. Getting soaked going into the chilly evening hours wasn't our idea of fun. More accurately, I should probably say it wasn't my wife's idea of fun. I don't tend to notice it as much as she would prefer. 

First Day of Fishing: Connecting With a Bull Trout

For the afternoon fishing session, we headed downstream from camp. Not far, we found a pullout with a gorgeous pool a short distance away. I decided to add a streamer rod to my arsenal. If I didn't, then we would probably find all kinds of bull trout. Helping my wife work into position, I soon had her casting to rising cutthroat. Back over on the bank, I began rigging up the seven weight in the hopes of tangling with a monster. It didn't take her long to start catching some fish. I took videos and photos of her fishing, casting, and of course, of one or two of her catch. The fish below is notable as probably the only rainbow trout we took a picture of. This river contains both native rainbow and cutthroat trout along with the bull trout. 

Fly fishing in northern Idaho

Rainbow trout in northern Idaho

Shortly after this rainbow trout, my wife hooked a really nice cutthroat trout in the 16" range. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge dark shadow shot out of nowhere in hot pursuit of her catch. Bull trout!!! She worked her fish hard trying to play keep away. Suddenly, as she got it in close, the bull trout retreated right about the same time her fish threw the fly. We were both left in shock, staring at the spot that the bull trout had disappeared to.

I grabbed the streamer rod and began flogging the water, to no avail. The bull trout had been pretty hot, and I figured it would eat if I could figure out what it wanted. I remembered something from a Yellowstone trip one year. Some huge cutthroat trout on the Yellowstone River had preferred a pearl and tan Zonker dead drifted under an indicator instead of an active streamer approach. It was worth a shot. I took out the Zonker with the barb already pinched from that Yellowstone trip. Tying it on to heavy 1x tippet, I felt confident my rig could stand up to just about anything.

I began casting up towards the head of the pool and allowing the current to bring the streamer back under an indicator. Again and again I cast with no result. Then, I stepped a couple more steps upstream. Casting again did the trick. The fish had moved up a little higher than I thought. Almost as soon as the streamer hit the water, the indicator dove. I set hard, almost as hard as I set when I'm striper fishing in fact. For a split second, I thought I had hooked the bottom. Then the bull trout went ballistic. Seriously. This was the hardest pulling, hardest fighting, baddest fish I've ever hooked in fresh water. I've landed stripers up to 30 pounds on a seven weight fly rod, and this fish was just as strong if not more so.

Bad Luck

Back and forth across the pool we fought. The fish began to tire just a little after about a minute. A couple of runs came dangerously close to rubbing me off on a big boulder across the stream. Still, when the fish was finally out in the middle, I started putting more pressure. Hopeful of turning the fish and quickly bringing it to the net, I pushed even hard. Suddenly, the line went limp. 

I kid you not, the hook simply pulled out. To this day, I don't know whether the barbless hook was to blame or not. More likely, I was simply pulling to hard and it ripped out. I stared in disbelief at the spot the dark shadow had disappeared to. This might have been my one and only chance. A surge of hope led me to cast a few more times. In fact, I cast all over that pool. My wife knew I was bummed out, but them I started to look on the bright side again. After all, we had only been fishing a few hours when this bull trout showed up. If there were that many in the system, finding another shouldn't be difficult.

My plan for the next day involved some highly researched water and a bit of hiking. It was time to head back to camp and get supper and rest. We wanted to be rejuvenated for a 10+ mile day the next morning.

Evening Hatch

After supper, I walked back through the woods to the stream to get water for the filtration system. Right away, I noticed bugs everywhere. This particular pool was deep and sheltered. The long shadows had long since overtaken this water. Mayfly spinners and some caddis were all dancing above the water. Several telltale rises appeared. I quickly went back to camp to tell my wife about my discovery. She agreed to walk down with me. We both stayed on the rocks, trying to stay dry with the onset of evening. I talked her into a few casts and she caught the best fish of the evening right away. 

Dry fly caught evening westslope cutthroat trout

I managed a few casts and fish as well, but only took one picture of one in the net. These are always a good way to have a memory with minimal fish handling. 

westslope cutthroat trout in a Brodin Net

Big bull trout lost not withstanding, it had been a good first full day in Idaho. We had caught plenty of fish, enjoyed wildflowers, had amazing weather, and enjoyed the awe inspiring trees in the canyon. Tired out, we headed to bed early to rest up for another big adventure the next day. Little did I know that the heartache was just starting. Would I ever find a bull trout?


Read Day Two HERE

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Caney Fork Scouting Trip

Low water on the Caney will be a rarity for the next couple of weeks, but I found a few while it lasted. If you haven't subscribed to my YouTube channel yet, you probably missed this video. Check it out below, or even better, head over and watch it on YouTube and subscribe to my Trout Zone Anglers channel while you are there. 



Sunday, January 24, 2021

All It Takes Is One

Most anglers I know like to catch fish when they go fishing. There are more than a few I know that like to catch a lot of fish or even better, a lot of big fish. Then there are the anglers that are content with just a fish. On hard days of fishing, one fish can make or break a trip. As a guide, you generally hope to knock a fish out early because it helps everyone loosen up. When anglers get uptight, they don't fish as well. In fact, I've had at least a few tough days on the water where I knew it was just time to give it up and quit. Not guiding, rather just fishing for myself that is.

I've had many great days in terms of numbers. Occasionally I've even been blessed to enjoy days with good numbers of big fish. Most days, however, tend to feature either one or the other. Head hunting is something that I rather enjoy, but it also comes with the general understanding that there probably won't be a lot of fish caught. Some of the best days are the ones that kind of sneak up on you, however.

Cinch or Grinch?

Last week, I was fishing with my friend and fellow guide, Travis Williams. We had already been on the water a while and things were generally slow. Travis had managed a handful of tugs early on a streamer. We had also seen an indicator dive a handful of times, but we're never sure if it was on fish or the bottom. By mid afternoon, things were starting to look like a typical Grinch day. If you've fished the Clinch very much, you know what I'm talking about. 

The wind had picked up even though the forecast had promised calm winds. One given on the Clinch is wind. In fact, my general rule of thumb is to take whatever wind forecast the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Morristown gives for the vicinity of the Clinch and double it. That will get you at least in the rough ball park of the expected winds. Still, I haven't figured out a rule for a calm wind forecast. Based on our experience Friday, you can probably still count on at least ten mile per hour breezes.

With the wind blowing, I was no longer able to both row and fish. We had spotted a couple of fish rising over a shoal so I dropped the anchor. With the boat stabilized in the falling water, I moved to the back of the boat and we both fished for a while. In fact, I even caught a fish. This typical Clinch rainbow ate a small #22 midge pattern I had been drowning under a slightly larger midge with a New Zealand Indicator holding everything up. The fish pulled hard and generally gave a full account of itself, and I was content. All it takes is one, right? On a Grinch day that is definitely the case. 

Glad to not be skunked, I was about to pull the anchor to row Travis on down the river in search of a fish for him. Right before I pulled it up, Travis said, "There's another rise!" This fish was just barely within casting range. Travis was fishing a new 10' 5 weight Orvis Recon and that thing could really lay it out there. With him in the front of the boat raining casts down on the working trout, I moved back to the rear brace again and threw my flies well upstream of where he was fishing as an afterthought. On the second cast, the indicator dove but I was late to the party. With no resistance, I slung the flies back thinking there was no way the fish would eat again. 

A Big Trophy Clinch River Rainbow Trout Encounter

I guess we'll never know if it was the same fish, a different fish, or if the first plunge of the indicator was even a trout. Either way, when I set this time, there was actually a fish on the end of the line. As I quickly gained line, I expected the usual Clinch slot fish in the 16" range. Not too far out from the boat, the fish got a touch heavier. By the time it got really close and finally realized it was actually hooked, I still hadn't gotten a good look. The fish was staying too deep. That should have been a clue.

The increasingly heavy trout made a u-turn and headed back out to sea, er, the river bank. Mere feet from the bank in the same vicinity as the trout Travis had been hoping to catch, the fish finally came up and broke water. As it rolled, I suddenly realized I was dealing with something a lot larger than my previous guess. Things got pretty serious at that point. Travis rolled up his line to get out of the way and also grabbed the net. 

Somewhere in all the commotion, the fish rubbed me around either a rock or a stick or log. Not much later, it did the same thing again. Each time, I was certain the fish would be gone. You see, I was expecting most of my fish on the smaller midge. That fly was tethered to the other fly via a small section of 6x fluorocarbon. Great for fooling fish, mind you, but not so good for landing them if they get smart. However, once the fish finally came to hand, we discovered it was actually on the larger midge on much more secure 5x fluorocarbon.

The fish absolutely did not want anything to do with the boat, but eventually I got the head up  and Travis made quick work of him with the big boat net. We took a couple of pictures. This might have been my largest Clinch River rainbow trout. Measuring in at 22", the big kype jawed male was a stunner and a true Clinch River trophy. Eventually, with luck, I'll probably find one bigger yet. But for now, I was happy to have landed such a special fish and was done fishing for the day. Really, all it takes is one, but it helps when that one is such a special fish.

Trophy Clinch River rainbow trout

Big rainbow trout on the Clinch River
Pictures courtesy of Travis Williams, ©2021


A Word On Catch and Release on the Clinch River

A big reason this fish was so special is that the protected length range in effect on this river does wonders at protecting fish in the 14-20" range. However, as soon as fish eclipse the 20" mark, they often leave the river on a stringer. While we see lots of fish in the 16-19" range as a result, we don't see fish over 20" nearly as often. Unfortunately, many people don't realize that this is a limited resource and thus choose to harvest these beautiful big fish. While not illegal, it is incredibly short sighted. 

All of our tailwaters here in Tennessee could greatly benefit from more anglers releasing their catch. If you enjoy catching lots of fish and especially lots of big fish, consider that a trophy like that has been in the river for a minimum of 5 or 6 years. Every fish you harvest is one more fish that will never grow to be a monster. I've seen people wishing that our rivers produced 15 or 20 pound brown trout. They can and would, but only if people keep releasing everything they catch under that size. These big trout are a product of several years of growing in our rivers, but they must be released to swim and grow another day. 

Please, if you enjoy fishing our rivers and streams here in Tennessee for trout, consider practicing strict catch and release. It is not worth killing a big beautiful wild or holdover trout. Yes, it is your right, but better fishing starts with anglers making better choices. With increasing numbers of anglers on our rivers creating pressure like never before, it will be up to us anglers to self regulate and do what is best for the river and the fish. 


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Thursday, December 24, 2020

Great Smoky Mountain Brown Trout Extravaganza

Recently, I posted about fishing for post spawn Smoky Mountain brown trout. The first fish of the day was a good one, but as I alluded to in my previous post, this wasn't the end of the day. In fact, it was just the beginning of one of the best days of fishing I've ever had in the Smokies. As you know if you've followed this blog for any length of time, brown trout are right up there with my favorite fish to target, whether its on the fly or otherwise. I also have a real soft spot for brook trout, but in the winter, my thoughts turn to brown trout. 

December through February has always been exceptionally kind to me when it comes to brown trout. I've caught my largest brown trout during those months and also had my largest Smoky Mountain brown trout caught in that time frame. The low sun angle means lower light, and I prefer to target cloudy days to further enhance that benefit. Rainy or snowy days are best, but are also an exercise in persistence and perseverance. Fishing in cold rain is not for everyone, and on some days I don't last very long, but the results are hard to argue with. 

A few years back, my wife and I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Of course, fishing was a part of the trip along with hiking, photography, and general sight seeing. One thing I did in particular was to make time to fish with my friend Bryan Allison to learn some new techniques that would help me become a more well rounded angler and guide. Bryan is an excellent guide covering a variety of waters in Montana and offering some unique trip options that are difficult to find. You can visit his site here

On our trip, I wanted specifically to work on some trout jigging techniques that he has mastered and are deadly on trout in a variety of waters. Fast forward to now, and you'll find me with a couple of very nice ultralight spinning rods loaded with 4 pound test that rarely if ever see any action. I bought them to be able to offer the option on guided trips, and occasionally mess around with them, but in general I prefer catching fish on a fly rod. 


Large male brown trout in the Smokies


On my recent trip to the Smokies, after catching such a nice brown trout very early in the day on my fly rod, I decided to experiment with the things I had learned from Bryan. My day was already made with that quality brown, so it was time to practice some different techniques. One thing he had taught me was how to use marabou jigs. I figured that was as good of a thing to try as any, so I quickly tied one on and started working it carefully. One huge bonus of using the spinning rod is that you can mostly stay out of the water. That is probably the biggest reason that I try this method more in the winter than at any other time of the year. On really cold days, it keeps me up on the bank, and hopefully away from potential swimming events. 


Smoky Mountain brown trout


It wouldn't take very long to get things going with the marabou jig. Shortly after nailing my first fish on the fly rod, a golden flash blew up my jig and I was fighting another quality fish. And another, and another, and..........well, you get the idea. The fish were keyed in and ready to chase. Every once in a while the stars align and everything comes together for a great day of catching. Of course, every day is a great day of fishing, but the two aren't always synonymous with each other.

 

Healthy brown trout

Nice catch and release brown trout


This was really an ideal day to streamer fish, because you want to hit it when the fish are fired up. However, with the falling temperatures and snow starting to fall, I just decided to stick with the trout jigging and stay out of the water as much as possible. The spinning rod was a good way to mostly keep my hands warmer as well. Since I wasn't handling the fly line every cast, I wasn't getting my hands as wet which translated to warmer hands. I still got them plenty wet often enough though. Some quick fish pictures seemed like a good idea to help me remember the epic day that was developing. One other benefit to staying out of the water is that you aren't endangering the redds with their precious cargo of brown trout eggs. Remember to avoid walking in sand and gravel areas in the tailouts of runs and pools. Fish often spawn in these areas and those eggs won't hatch for at least another month most likely. 


Big brown trout spots

Small female brown trout


After that first stop which produced three or four quality brown trout, I moved on up the river. In almost every spot I stopped I found fish. Interestingly, they were all falling into one of three size categories. I've been discussing the lack of truly large fish with my friends lately. Little River seems to be in between big fish cycles. As with most things in nature, numbers of giant brown trout seems to be rather cyclical. Right now, we appear to be on the downside of a cycle. I've seen good numbers of fish up to 18 inches or so, with a few fish pushing on to the 22-23 inch range, but some of the giants of past years don't seem as plentiful. Quite a few of my friends have noticed a similar trend. 

On this particular day, I was catching a lot of fish in the 10-17 inch range. The big fish just seemed completely missing in action. When the fishing catching is this good, you normally expect to at least see a few larger trout. I decided to double down and really work some areas that historically hold large brown trout. Yet, it continued to be the same story. Plenty of fish, but no monsters.

I was working up one favorite run and had already caught some fish. In fact, I had some nice browns fighting over my offering at one point. It was just one of those days. Working on up past where I normally see the larger fish, I decided to work on up to the head. This time of year, the fish tend to stay farther back in pools, but it was worth a shot. 

As I crept along, I spotted a brown laying on the bottom just upstream. I managed a decent cast and bounced the jig past the fish. Once, twice, three times, it was still as a statue. Suspecting that the fish already knew I was there, I threw one more cast well upstream and began a slow retrieve back past the fish. That was just too much. The fish bolted upstream and out of sight. At no more than a foot long, it wasn't a big fish, but I hate spooking fish ahead of me as they usually alert everything else to my presence. I almost gave up and turned around right there, but something drove me on. 

Maneuvering carefully into position, I cast almost straight across. I got one good bounce with the rod tip and something heavy slammed the jig on the drop. Immediately worried about the 4 pound test line, I hoped my knots were good. The drag was set just loose enough while the flex of the ultralight rod absorbed the head shakes. Soon, I slid a gorgeous post spawn female brown into the waiting net. She just about filled up my big Brodin net and pushed the tape to right at 20 inches. 


Big female brown trout in the Smokies


She was lean after the spawn and clearly needed some good meals before winter really set in. I was careful to keep her in the water except for a couple of seconds for a couple of quick pictures. The big net is really handy for these moments. You can rest the fish in the water in between shots, and not risk keeping them out of their element for more than 3-4 seconds at a time. Careful catch and release methods are essential to the preservation of these fisheries as fishing pressure continues to increase every year. If you can't accomplish this, then you should probably avoid fishing for these fish. 

The good news about all of these fish is that they can also be caught on a fly rod if you don't want to use a spinning rod. In fact, much of the year, a fly rod is a better tool. However, if you are looking for a way to fish in the winter without getting too wet, then give trout jigging a try. Whether you are fishing in the Smokies or on the Clinch or Caney Fork, this technique works. 

One more look at the big female brown trout before release

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Video: Big Brown Trout on Deep Creek

Sight Fishing For a Big Brown Trout on Deep Creek

At the tail end of my backpacking trip to Deep Creek, an opportunity for redemption presented itself. I had hooked and lost this big brown trout just over a year prior to this trip. The full story of finding and catching this big Deep Creek brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the link above. You can also find links in that post to the rest of this backpacking trip tale. Here is the edited video from my buddy John of the big brown trout I caught on Deep Creek in April 2019. 





Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Handling a Trout For Catch and Release

This is my busy season. Days off are rare and usually intentionally scheduled. Today, for example, I ended up with a late cancelation and decided to take advantage to get new tires on my truck. The yard will probably get mowed as well. Most days find me on the water taking others fishing. Talk about a great job! I know how blessed I am. As I was considering what to do with my day, I remembered a topic that I've been meaning to address for awhile. How do you properly handle a trout to guarantee a healthy release? Furthermore, how do you hold a fish to get that perfect fish photo?

Today, I'm going to address that first question. Hopefully I'll get around to the second one in the near future. In explaining good technique for holding trout, I'll address at least a few components of good picture taking as well. How to hold trout is a question we get every day. Everyone wants the picture of their catch to look awesome. Before worrying about that picture though, worry about keeping the trout healthy to swim another day.

Before I get to those tips on handling trout carefully, I do want to put in a plug for catch and release fishing. I know a lot of people get enjoyment and pleasure from keeping a few fish and cooking them later. That is a great tradition and a nice way to enjoy a good meal. That said, earth's population is exploding. I see far more anglers out on the water now than I did when I started fly fishing. With the crowded rivers and streams comes more stress on fish populations than ever. There are simply too many anglers and too few fish.

Last summer, I saw a couple of guys fishing on the bank as I drifted down the Caney Fork River. They were catching a few fish to eat. Again, that is fine as long as it is within the regulations. Unfortunately, in lawfully keeping a few trout every day, they soon cleared the majority of the fish out of the hole. Those guys were fishing that hole nearly every day for around two weeks. Late in the second week, as we drifted by, the guys asked how we were doing. When I returned the question, they complained that "A week ago we were catching our limit every day including some big ones, but now we can't find any trout." Even legally keeping fish hurts the fisheries.

Rivers like the Caney Fork and Clinch River can turn out many large trout. Those trout will only get big if you carefully release them to swim another day. If they can get a couple of years in our rivers, they quickly reach 18-20 inches or better. Imagine fishing a river full of big fish? It is possible, but we cannot wait for regulation to fix this problem. Voluntary catch and release is the only way we can see consistently better fishing on the Caney Fork River among others and it needs to be the vast majority of anglers. Also, if you do see someone poaching, please call the Tennessee Poacher's Hotline and report them.

The first and probably most important rule for handling trout is to minimize the time you have the fish out of the water. I've watched many people kill trout, whether intentionally or not, by having the fish out of the water for several minutes. This seems like a no brainer, but since fish breathe by gathering oxygen from water through their gills, they suffocate when out of the water. The #keepemwet is a reminder to treat fish respectfully and release them in the best condition possible. Check out the KeepEmWet.org website for more information.



If you want a picture of your catch, make sure to keep it in the water until the camera is ready. A net is the perfect way to keep a fish corralled and healthy until that moment when you lift it quickly out of the water. Besides, fish pictures are better when water is still dripping off of the glistening fish. Fish should realistically be out of the water for no more than 5-10 seconds, 15 seconds max. With modern cameras, fast shutters, and a good net, this is more than reasonable.

Next, use a rubber net bag if possible. Trout have a protective slime coating that is easily removed with things like dry net bags and dry hands. A rubber net bag is easy on the fish. Just make sure to get the net wet before sliding the fish in. I like to use an oversized net. That way the fish has room to be comfortable while you are getting ready for that picture.

Along with the above, always get your hands wet before handling a trout and any fish really. There has been some pushback against this idea in recent years, but ultimately it cannot hurt. As an angler, I'm all in favor of any practice that will reduce potential mortality to the trout I love to catch and release.

While handling trout, make sure to handle them very gently. DON'T squeeze them, DON'T hold them by the gills or lip them like a bass. DO cradle them gently, DO keep them in the water as much as possible, and only lift them up for that quick picture. Also, DON'T lay trout out on the ground for a picture. If you must beach a fish for some reason (forgot the net???), do it in shallow water and never on dry ground and get it back in deeper water as quickly as possible.

The next tip doesn't apply to everyone, but some people just don't realize there is a problem. If you plan on releasing some fish, avoid using live or scented bait. Fish deeply ingest things like worms, crickets, and yes, PowerBait. A fish that is gut hooked probably won't live, simple as that. Along with this, use only single hook lures and flies if you plan on releasing your catch. I wish that we could get those passed as regulations here in Tennessee on any stream or river with special regulations on size. If you have a protected length range, but people catching those fish are gut hooking them, it defeats the purpose.

If you are a fly angler and serious about catch and release, consider pinching down those barbs. Barbless hooks are much easier on trout. Yes, you might occasionally lose a fish because of a barbless hook, but if you do everything right, you shouldn't lose any more with barbless hooks for the most part.

Play fish quickly and avoid fishing in water that is too warm. I've watched people "battle" a 12 inch trout on the Caney Fork for 5 minutes. There is a good chance that the fish died from that experience even if they released it quickly. Even large trout can be landed quickly. Sometimes it helps to pressure some fish too much and break a few off so you learn the limitations of your gear. That way you will be prepared to pressure the fish just enough the next time you hook a big one.

If you do hook a fish deeply (and let's face it, that can happen even on flies), it is usually better to cut the line than to try to dig that hook out. If a fish is hooked in the gills, same thing. If a fish is bleeding badly and you want to harvest a fish, that would be the time to do it.

Remember, even with good technique, there is some mortality associated with catch and release fishing. If you follow these tips, it will help the fish to live and be in the best shape possible moving forward. The best gift that an angler can give to other anglers is a released fish. I have caught fish that I know for a fact have been caught before. For example, my big trout on Deep Creek recently was caught by my buddy about a year ago. That is proof that catch and release works. Good handling will ensure that many others can enjoy the same opportunities, and we will have healthy trout and other fish populations for years to come.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Something Good Always Happens On Deep Creek

Some fishing experiences tend to end in disappointment while others tend to end in elation. For example, there is a stream in the Smokies that, due to its small blue line status, will remain nameless. It looks fishy and I sometimes catch some fish there, but it never fishes nearly so well as it looks like it should. Every once in a while, I go back and give it another shot, but so far it has been mediocre. Other streams have a tendency to always impress. This has been my experience on Deep Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I have long said that something good always happens on Deep Creek. For me, that has historically been a memorable fish. While all the fish I catch should be memorable, it was beginning to look like my backpacking trip would conclude with lots of beautiful but average trout. The usual Deep Creek lunker had eluded me.

Thankfully, as we began hiking down the trail on our return to civilization, I carried with me the memory of two incredible days on the water in the Smokies. The first day was memorable because I returned to fish a pool that had previously produced my largest brown trout on Deep Creek. The second day was memorable because I had finally achieved my long time goal of fishing around Bumgardner Ridge. The experience had been everything I had imagined, short of 20 inch wild trout leaping onto my hook the whole way that is.

As we hiked down the trail, I began to think about one pool in particular. This pool is in the lower reaches of the creek. It is where I had broken off a rather large brown trout the year before. There are several of these big pools on Deep Creek. Bottomless pools that must contain truly large brown trout, these are the pools that keep anglers coming back and dreaming about the big one.

By this point in our trip, I was simply focused on getting back out to my car and heading home. I was already dreaming about some good home cooked food instead of the backpacking food that required rehydrating before eating. A soft bed also sounded rather nice. Clearly I'm getting soft in my old age, but the comforts of home were pulling me down the trail faster than I had hiked in a few days before. I did some quick math in my head and decided it might even be possible to make it home in time for lunch.

The thought did occur to me that I might discover a big fish. Mostly I hoped that it wouldn't happen, because if it did, then I would probably need want to fish for it. Approaching the final pool of reckoning, I was almost scared to glance into the water. I purposefully left my polarized sunglasses off. If I couldn't see through the surface, then I couldn't find any fish.

Upon first glance, the pool seemed devoid of fish. Whew, close call, right? The smart thing at this point would have been to keep going. However, with no other anglers in sight, I couldn't help but linger. This was the pool that I had been dreaming about for over a year. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to examine every rock, every boulder, every inch, just in case that big fish was still around.

When I saw the fish, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was late enough in the morning and enough people were around that a fish that size should have already moved up into the deep heart of the pool before then. The fish looked about the same as last year, maybe a shade bigger. There wasn't much mistaking this fish though. A an opportunity for redemption was staring me in the face. The fish was clearly eating. The white of its mouth was obvious from our vantage point every time a bug drifted too close.

I had purposefully packed my wading gear inside my backpack knowing that the harder it was to get to everything, the less likely that I would actually stop to fish. This fish was in such a perfect position and looked so big, though, that I just couldn't refuse the chance to cast to it again.

Digging through my fly box, I selected a big black Kaufmann's stonefly along with the same bead head caddis pupa that I had broke the fish off on last time around. Assuming it would spook the fish, but really having no other choice, I also added the smallest airlock indicator they make. I couldn't get close enough to high stick very effectively so the indicator would have to do the trick. I took a while to sneak into position. The riffle just downstream from the pool affords a level of cover, but you still don't want to be too casual about the whole thing.

Soon I found myself kneeling in the riffle downstream of the fish. I could still see it large as life. My buddy John had dug out his GoPro and started filming. Strangely, I didn't feel any pressure. Either the fish would eat or it wouldn't. If it ate, I would either land it or I wouldn't. For some reason, spending a few nights in the woods puts things into better perspective, and I had never been more relaxed while fishing for a large trout.

After fishing for a while, the bottom fly caught the bottom just upstream of the trout. When I gently tugged to get it moving again, the large fish casually cruised up and across the pool and out of sight. Almost ready to leave, I remembered that the fish had done the same thing when I fished for it last time. Thankfully, my memory proved correct. This was a tolerant fish.

Several minutes later, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye as the fish worked back up through the riffle to my left. It casually returned to its feeding lie and sat back down. I waited another minute, absolutely certain that another cast would spook it for good. But it didn't.

Eventually, I was convinced that the fish didn't want what I was offering. I changed the dropper to a small Pheasant Tail nymph. The fish had clearly been eating when I first spotted it. It seemed to know I was there, because its feeding had nearly ceased. In fact, when it finally ate the same big black stonefly I had been throwing the whole time, it was probably the first time it had ate anything for several minutes.

The same thing had happened when I broke this fish off over a year ago. The currents are tricky in the back of this hole, and I'm convinced that the flies just finally drifted correctly through the spot. A good drift is essential to catching trout and this fish proved that yet again.

The fish tried running hard down the river. I made a beeline, running across the tailout to maintain pressure downstream. Trout will generally pull away from the pressure, so by pulling downstream, I encouraged the fish to pull back up into the home pool. With that potential crisis averted, I settled down to fighting the fish. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the fish slid into the shallows and I grabbed its tail.


My buddy John came down the bank and graciously took some pictures for me. He also took a bit more video including of the release. I can't wait to see the final video. It is the first time I've had something filmed like that. The chance to relive that moment will be a lot of fun. In the meantime, I'm already considering how and when I can return to Deep Creek. I don't know what future trips there hold, but it will probably be something good. Oh yeah, I did make it home in time for lunch, albeit just a little late. It was worth running a little late though...

Update: Find the video HERE.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Clinch River Float Trip

The Clinch River continues to fish well and produce quality trout. This fishing is not for everyone as it requires the ability to cast fairly well and manage your line, however those who are willing to work hard on this beautiful tailwaters will be rewarded with some large trout.

Recently, I had the good fortune to float the Clinch with Chris and Eddie and already know this will be a river I'll return to many times. Small flies, light tippet, large trout, it doesn't get any better. The majority of fish were caught on my own midge patterns although some nymphs worked as well.

Both guys caught some really nice trout but Eddie took top honors for big fish of the day. He played it well and kept his composure through several head shaking runs by the nice rainbow. Here are a few fish from out day on the water.





Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Put 'Em Back

Killing large fish is purely selfish. Release them and someone else can have the same joy of catching it. Remember, a large fish is relative to where it lives. On some Smokies streams it may be a 10 inch fish while on other streams it may be an 18 or 20 inch fish. Plus, those are the good genes that we want to see passed on when we are talking wild fisheries. Just saying...