Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Catch and Release. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catch and Release. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

How To Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod

Fighting big fish is the eventual goal for most fly anglers unless you've already passed this stage in your fishing career. Some fights last longer than others. I've personally had countless big trout break off on the hook set over the years and probably even more guiding. If you are going to pursue large trout, it comes with the territory. This is particularly true if you choose to target large selective trout on light tackle. Small flies, light tippets, and to a much lesser extent, if you are streamer fishing. I've seen some truly large fish break off on some heavy tippet.

Before we get too far along into this piece, I need to clear one thing up. I'm far from the best person to be telling you how to fight fish. There are plenty of anglers out there who have caught more and larger trout than I have. However, between my own personal fishing and also my guiding, I have learned a few things over the years. I've lost enough big trout to at least be able to tell you what not to do. Some special trout have come along that I've also been fortunate enough to land, and each one of those taught me something as well.



How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: Rigging

This is an often overlooked part of catching large trout. If your knots don't hold or your tippet is old and brittle, you can have the best fish fighting skills in the world, and you'll still lose most of them. Early in my fly fishing career, I lost a lot of big fish on the hook set. This was due to one or the other of those problems. When tippet snaps, either a knot was bad, the tippet is old, or a combination of both. 

One sneaky problem that is often overlooked in this category is knots combining two types of materials. I routinely use monofilament leaders and add a fluorocarbon tippet. Part of this has to do with me being cheap. However, much more importantly, fluorocarbon has a tendency towards sinking while monofilament has a tendency towards floating. I generally prefer to have most of my leader up on the surface, at least to my dry fly or strike indicator.  Unfortunately, fluorocarbon is much harder than monofilament and often cuts the mono when you attach them together with a knot. 

The first tip here is to use slightly heavier monofilament before tying on the fluorocarbon. For example, if I'm using 6x fluorocarbon for my tippet, I'll generally use 4x monofilament for the leader to the point I tie on the tippet. These can be store bought or hand tied leaders. When you tie the two together, be extremely cautious when seating the knot. Slide the two pieces ever so slowly apart as you pull to tighten the knot. If you are careful, it should be fine. An often better solution here is a tippet ring which eliminates this issue of trying to tie two different materials directly together. However, the tippet ring will want to sink just a bit since it is metal. Thus, it isn't the best approach when you really need to keep that leader on the surface. A bit of mucilin or other paste style floatant can help here.

Another tip on rigging is to use the heaviest line you think you can get away with. Often, if I know I'm targeting large trout, I'll go up to something in the 1x through 4x size range on tippet. Obviously, you probably won't be fishing a #18 midge on 1x, but you might try 5x before going down to 6x. Every little bit of holding power helps. 

Finally, be confident in your knots. I exclusively use a blood knot for tying tippet to leader. That is because I personally tie this knot much better than some of the alternatives and have had the other knots break on me. I rarely tie a bad blood knot and when I do, I was probably joining two different types of materials. Same thing for your tippet to fly knot of course. Always give a little tug after tying a fly one to make sure the knot is good. 

How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: Gear

Closely related to rigging is making sure you have the right gear. This means reels with a smooth drag (unless you just want to make it harder on yourself) and rods with the right amount of flex. If you are fishing streamers or other applications that allow for larger flies and heavier tippets, then you can get away with a fairly fast (stiff) rod. For light line presentations like smaller dry flies, small nymphs, and midges, then consider something with a bit more flex. 

Protecting light tippets starts with a rod with a tip that isn't too stiff. Big fish break off for a lot of reasons, but usually it comes down to something during the hook set or fight. If you set too hard on a big trout while using 6x and a tiny midge, you better not have a broom stick in your hands.

How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: The Hook Set

The hooks is another overlooked part of catching big trout. When guiding, I often spend some time literally just practicing the hook set. I'll hold the butt section of the leader or the fly line and have the angler practice setting until I feel like they have the right amount of pressure. Don't have someone around to hold your line? Then tie on a 6x leader to your line, tie the 6x to a dumbbell or something else heavy, and practice setting the hook. The goal is to come tight (that includes putting a bend in your rod) without breaking the small tippet.

I have noticed an interesting problem on the hook set with a lot of anglers. They lift the butt of the rod instead of coming back with the tip. Remember, the whole point here is to come tight to the fish. That means you have to move the rod tip, not the butt of the rod. A good hook set looks a lot like a backcast. The key is knowing when to stop going back. You want to go until your tight to the fish, no more and no less. 

Of course, this only applies to smaller flies or any other application that requires light tippets. If you are streamer fishing, you'll probably have heavy tippet on. In this scenario, we use a strip set. A hard pull or strip with your line hand helps drive the hook home. If you happen to miss the fish, the fly is still in the water and the fish may come back.

A lot of hook sets break off the fish because the angler comes back too far and too hard. This leads us to our next big point. 

Sometimes You Just Have to Lose Some Big Fish

This one is a tough pill to swallow, but the best way to become proficient at hooking and landing big trout is to do it and learn from your mistakes. I routinely tell people that they just need to lose some big fish to get a feel for fighting them. Each fish will teach you something that you can use on the next one. If you lose it on the hook set, then next time you'll know to not set quite as hard. If you lose it during the fight, then you'll learn what not to do there. Of course, sometimes there is nothing you can do if a fish finds the right piece of structure. You'll learn that you sometimes have to put maximum pressure, knowing full well that the fish will either break off or turn before getting in the structure. If the fish gets in the structure, then you will almost certainly lose it. 

Once you have fought a few fish, then you'll begin to have a fairly good idea of where the breaking point is on 4x tippet, 5x tippet, 6x tippet, and so on and so forth. The ability to push a fish right up to the breaking point without crossing that line is what enables you to successfully fight and land large fish without overplaying them. When a client recently landed a monster brown trout, he asked at least a couple of times if he needed to put more pressure on the fish. This ethical dilemma is something that good fish fighting skills will make an easier choice. I've watched people fight a 12 inch trout to exhaustion unnecessarily. I've also watched people land huge trout on light tippet over the course of 10 or 15 minutes and successfully release the trout at the end. Knowing the water conditions (temperature and dissolved oxygen) helps to make this decision, but in the end, good fish fighting skills are necessary to get the fish in the net as quickly as possible.

How To Land Big Trout On a Fly Rod: The Fight

Once you have a successful hook set and that big fish is dancing on the end of your line, then what? As a guide, I always tell people to keep their rod straight up. This is actually not 100% accurate nor always the best strategy, but for people just getting their feet wet in the world of fighting large trout, it is a really good place to start. That is because it is something easy to focus on in the heat of the moment and accomplishes most of what you want to do. However, it would be more accurate to say that you need to keep the rod bent at the appropriate angle, but where is the appropriate angle? 

While holding your fly rod without being hooked up to a fish, the rod is straight. Once you hook that big trout, imagine the rod is still straight and that you want to keep approximately a 90 degree angle between the tip of the rod and the fly line coming from the tip. This allows the rod to flex deeply but appropriately. If you get the rod tip too far behind you and pointing away from the fish, you'll likely end up breaking the rod. If you point the rod at the fish, then the rod can't flex and the fish will either through the fly or break you off.

People often point the rod at the fish because they've seen or heard the advice to bow to fish when they jump. This is great advice, but much better advice, at least for fighting large trout, is to keep low side pressure. Keeping the rod tip low encourages the trout to not jump as much. Low side pressure will generally whip a large fish much faster than the rod overhead technique I often have people use. This is particularly true for large brown trout and much less so for big rainbows in my experience. In fact, if I know I have a big brown trout on, I'll use as much side pressure as possible. With big rainbows, I'll use a lot more overhead pressure.




Whether you point your rod up or to the side, keep the rod at that 90 degree angle to your fly line. This of course doesn't count for the flex of the rod, so the imaginary direct line extending from the handle of the bent rod is the one that should stay at a 90 degree angle to the fish. Whatever you do, don't get the rod pointed anywhere towards the fish. 

As you get tired during the fight, your tendency will be to give the fish room to run by swinging the tip of the rod towards the fish. This is almost always the point where people lose big fish. Once the rod is pointed at the fish, it can no longer bend/flex and absorb the runs and head shakes of the hooked trout. 

When fighting other large fish, this advice is definitely not as accurate. When I fight big striped bass, for example, I fight them with the butt of the rod and keep the rod angled lower towards the fish. When using heavy tippets for larger trout, the same principle applies. You are using the drag on your reel as much as the rod to fight large hot fish. 

How to Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod: Landing the Fish

If you have done everything right up until this point, there is one more danger point in catching a large trout. More large fish have been lost at the net over the years than anywhere else I'm guessing. A burst of energy always seems to come from nowhere when you go to scoop a big fish. The key is to corral the head first of all. Even if the tail tries to paddle, it will be propelling the fish into the net at that point. 

Don't try to scoop a big fish unless the head is up and under control. Lots of big fish are lost because the fish still has the head down and is ready to run. The introduction of the net at this point will almost certainly cause another big run right when the angler has let his or her guard down expecting things to be over. When in doubt, wait for the next time around. With a big fish, you'll probably only get one shot, so do it right the first time. If you scoop and miss, the chances of bumping the tippet just enough to pop the fly out is really high. 

A long handled landing net is really helpful as is a net with a deep bag. A buddy or even guide is also a big help here but you can do it yourself if necessary. If for some reason you are without a net, then beaching the fish is the next best way to land it. If you choose this approach, make absolutely certain that you choose a spot with plenty of water over the rocks or sand. This is not the time to roll a big fish on dry land. Treat the trout as carefully and gently as possible and grab the meaty part of the tail to subdue the fish quickly.

How To Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod: The Release

Once you land the fish, keep it in the water as much as possible. That means the head and gills in particular. I've seen a lot of people thinking they are keeping a fish wet, but the part that most desperately needs oxygen is out of the water. Fish should only be out of the water for 5-10 seconds OR LESS for pictures and measurements. So, carry a good net that is big enough for the largest fish you may encounter. There are more tips for handling a trout for catch and release HERE.

The actual release should be taken with care on a big fish. You have just given the fish a major workout and they need time to recover. Hold the fish cradled upright in cold water with some current (but not a rapid). The colder the water, the quicker this process will play out. I will hold the fish carefully for longer than probably necessary until I can barely contain the fish. The trout will definitely let you know when it is ready to go. 

The best part about releasing that trophy catch is the chance to again hook it some day. Our tailwaters here in Tennessee can grow some absolutely enormous trout, but the fish have to be left in the river to grow. People often lament the size of the trout they catch compared to the good old days, all while loading up a stringer with 7 inch stocked trout. The only way those 7 inch stocked trout are going to turn into big fish is if you leave them in the river. While many people choose to harvest and enjoy eating their catch, consider practicing more catch and release if you would like to enjoy better fishing. Imagine a river full of 18-25 inch trout. Most if not all of our tailwaters here in Tennessee could offer that kind of fishing. Until management strategies adjust to make this the goal (not likely unfortunately), then it is up to us as anglers to do the right thing and release our catch. 





Monday, July 26, 2021

An Argument For Catch and Release

If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you probably noticed a period where I blogged about the guided trips I do. However, over time, I realized that I didn't want this blog to become part of my "job," and decided to diligently keep those two things separate. Thus, you have been left with the occasional post about my fishing and anything else that strikes my fancy. Yes, some things are at least motivated by experiences guiding, but for the most part I just use this blog to tell my fishing stories. That was my original motive for starting the blog after all, and what better reason to blog than because I want to remember my fishing trips?

Still, the occasional fishing story from guiding sneaks its way in here. The most recent big guiding event was special enough to merit a place here. However, I want to use it to advocate for something I feel very strongly about: catch and release. When I started guiding, I decided right away that my own personal catch and release ethic would also be part of my business. Trout Zone Anglers is strictly catch and release. End of story. You're more than welcome to write and tell me why I'm so wrong. I've had prospective clients that went elsewhere looking for a guide. In fact, I recommend that they do so if they want to keep fish. You can't pay me enough to take you fishing to harvest a fish. 

Part of this is simple economics. If I let every person who I take fishing keep a limit, all of my good fishing holes would be cleaned out in a hurry. I'm not the world's best guide I'm sure, but my clients tend to catch enough fish to put a dent in the population. If everyone out there was keeping their catch, we would be very low on fish in a hurry. I've noticed that fish populations seem a bit decreased anyway right now in the Smokies, so the last thing they need is additional stressors on their numbers.

Another part of this is also simple. I believe that releasing my catch is the best way to pay forward the moment of awe and beauty that happens every time I connect with a trout. Every fish I put back is a fish that some other angler can appreciate and enjoy, and hopefully, will choose to also release so that, eventually, I might get to enjoy the same fish again myself. 

This brings me to the last piece. I enjoy catching big trout. I really despise seeing big fish on stringers (I honestly believe it is selfish so go ahead and roast me), but I also hate to see small trout being taken because those are the ones that will become big trout someday one way or another. On rivers that I fish like the Caney Fork and Clinch, there are good numbers of fish right up to the top of the protected length range but very few over. Instead of catching lots of fish between 14 and 19 inches, I personally think it would be even better to catch lots of fish between 14 and 24 inches or larger. A minimum size limit on brown trout of 30 inches would gain my instant support. There are rivers and places that have such regulations, and there are reasons they have a tremendous following.

A few days ago, I was able to enjoy first hand the benefits of catch and release. Up until recently, the largest trout that I had ever had a client land was 25.5" and it was a brown trout on the Clinch River. That fish was caught by my good friend and client, Chuck Traylor (#bigfishchuck) on a #20 barbless midge on 6x tippet. We were in the drift boat when the magic happened, and I'll never forget that massive hen brown trout. 

Clinch River Trophy Brown trout
Angler Chuck Traylor with a 25.5" trophy Clinch River brown trout. ©2019 David Knapp Photography


The saying goes something along the lines of lightning never strikes twice, but in my case it did. Fast forward in time to just a few days ago, over a year and a half from Chuck's big trout, and you'll find me yet again drifting down the Clinch River. 

My client this particular day was Bill Cash, an excellent angler from the northeast who is on a mission to fish all of the 50 Best Tailwaters. If you don't have that book yet, then check it out by the way. The Clinch River was going to be number 25 on his quest. By some stroke of fortune on my end, I got the call to share the river with him. Some anglers don't really need guides, but they enjoy having someone show them the ropes and shorten the learning curve on new water. Right away, I figured out that Bill was one of those anglers. His casting was very good and fish fighting skills were on point. He would need those skills early on this day. 

We hadn't been drifting very long when the indicator twitched then briefly dipped. He set the hook, but for some reason it didn't stick. That turned out to be a very good thing. Seriously though, when was the last time you were thankful for missing a fish? Not too often I'm guessing. After the recast, we drifted a very short distance downstream when the indicator went down convincingly. This time, there was some weight on the other end. 

Having guided for quite a few years and fished even longer on the Clinch, I was expecting a standard operating model. That would be a rainbow trout somewhere in the 15-18 inch range and probably hot. The fish would likely jump or at least roll on the surface. Initially, things seemed to progress right on schedule. The fish made a hard run from right to left across the front of the boat. I noticed right away that Bill was keeping appropriate side pressure and letting the fish run when it wanted to. Things got interesting, however, when he absolutely could not turn the fish.

When I asked about the fish, he said it was a pretty good fish, probably 18-20 inches. That's a good way to start the day. Then he said something that had me wondering. "It is a brown trout." Okay, so not what I was expecting after all. A brown trout would explain the digging for the bottom and head shakes, however.  Eventually, the fish made it close enough to the boat for me to get a glimpse. I was convinced of the brown trout diagnosis and also began to think the fish might be a little larger, maybe in the 22" range. 

With 6x tippet to both flies and our largest offering a #18 midge, I advised him to not push the fish too hard. The water was ice cold and well oxygenated from the early morning generation pulse. This fish was going to be fine. At this point, Bill was totally focused and putting on a clinic when it comes to fighting large trout. Low side pressure and pushing the 6x to just short of the breaking point was a recipe for success. 

When the fish started a hard upstream run, I realized we would have to pursue. Getting the oars going, we gave chase. This fish eventually took us up and down but apparently it wanted to stay on its home turf and never went too far up or downstream. A couple of times it got dangerously close to some logs, but by some miracle, it stayed out of the structure for us. 

The fish came boat side but was staying deep. I contemplated deep netting the fish, something I've done on big brown trout before. When I stuck the big Fishpond boat net in the water near the fish, I realized something important. The fish was at least as long as the 25" opening on my net hoop. A mistake trying to dredge the fish up with the net would almost guarantee losing this monster. We were going to have to get the big trout's head up before making the scoop. 

Again, out of an abundance of caution, Bill asked if he needed to put more pressure on the fish. I reassured him that he was fine. Any more pressure and that fish was going to be gone. Finally, the fish began wearing down. Another blistering run back downstream got us closer and closer to landing the beast. Finally, the big trout began coming to the surface. Bill was putting enough pressure on the fish that I was nervous. Still, we had to get this fish up somehow. When it rolled near the boat, I was ready or so I thought. What I hadn't counted on was how big this fish was. Even larger than it had looked at depth, this fish was a true fish of a lifetime. The net barely contained the big hen brown trout. I quickly handed the net off to Bill and asked him to keep the trout's head submerged while I got the boat situated. Then we ascertained the situation and got the necessary pictures. 

When we put the trout on the tape, it stretched to 27.25", a true monster and the largest I've had the good fortune to see on my boat so far. The pictures were done quickly, and within about 10 seconds we had the fish back in the cold water. I had jumped out of the boat as soon as the anchor was down and wasn't taking any chances on the health of this fish. We kept her cradled upright and revived her carefully. Finally, with several powerful thrusts of her tail, she sped off back to the depths. 

Then we just sat there and soaked up the moment. Both of us realized that we had reached the pinnacle of the day early. This big brown trout would almost certainly be the largest fish of the day. Once we started fishing again, we began drifting though the same area where the big brown trout had been caught. On our second pass through this area, I noticed a dark shadow shoot under the boat and settle into a large depression not far away. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was the big brown trout that we had released well across the river and upstream. She was back almost exactly where we had caught her already which told me she was going to be fine. 

The rest of the day featured good fishing although it was largely anticlimactic. We caught plenty of rainbow trout up to about 19 inches with the smallest being around 13 inches. No more browns showed up though. Interestingly, a lot of brown trout were stocked early this year. I saw them leaving the river by the stringer load. I don't know what in the world people are going to do with a bunch of 7 inch trout. Personally, I would rather see them stay in the river. We had just witnessed what the Clinch River is capable of producing if the fish are just left in the river to grow. Most of our tailwaters could be full of 16-24 inch trout if people would just release their catch. I for one wish that more anglers would choose this strategy with the long term goal of catching more and larger trout. 

The moment this point was driven home was when I texted Chuck a picture of the big fish later in the day. Not too long after, he responded by mentioning that he thought it was the same trout he had caught a year and a half ago. If so, the fish had grown by 1.75 inches. That is pretty good for such a large brown trout. When they are younger, they can grow much faster. These old big fish grown much heavier but the length doesn't come as quickly. 

When I got home, I checked up on what Chuck had told me. Sure enough, by comparing the spotting on both fish, I realized this was the exact same trout that Chuck had caught before. If he hadn't of released his catch a year and a half ago, then Bill and I wouldn't have had this amazing experience. Thankfully, Bill also released this magnificent fish. I just hope that any other anglers who happen across this fish will do the same thing. Maybe, just maybe, in another couple of years we'll catch her again, and she'll be 30 inches the next time. 

Trophy Brown trout on the Clinch River
Angler Bill Cash with a 27.25" trophy brown trout on the Clinch River. ©2021 David Knapp Photography



Sunday, July 18, 2021

Backcountry Jaunts

Sometimes you just want to have the stream to yourself. Around here, that usually means a hike and the longer the better. On some of our smallmouth bass streams, those hikes don't have to be as far. Those streams rugged nature and difficult fishing means that they aren't buried in people like some trout rivers are. On the other hand, if you head to the Clinch River on a weekend morning, you better bring your own rock to stand on. 

The Great Smoky Mountains fall somewhere between these two extremes, although on some days it can feel awfully crowded these days. Not all that many years ago, you could fish just about wherever you wanted to most of the year. Those days are long gone or at least on an extended pause. Thus, if you want some semblance of a backcountry fishing experience, you better plan on walking. 

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy and fellow fly fishing guide Pat Tully and I trekked into the Smoky Mountain backcountry for a few hours of fishing. This wasn't the longest hike I've ever done to fish in the Smokies, not even close in fact. However, at over four miles, we were far enough into the backcountry to have rather high expectations. As we finally broke through the brush that separates the trail and stream, we were filled with anticipation of a good day ahead. Crimson bee balm brightened the scene even further.


I was already rigged and ready while my buddy Pat still had that task to do. Thus, I quickly eased into the first pool and made a few casts. A couple of wild rainbows inspected the fly, but overall they were surprisingly skittish. Or maybe I should have said suspiciously skittish. Backcountry trout are supposed to be pushovers. That's why we go to all this effort anyway. Still, the day was young and my expectations high. Moving up to the next pocket, I didn't expect much since it was fairly small. When I was greeted with no fish, I just assumed it was too small of a spot.

The third pocket had some potential but was also smack dab in the middle of a big sunny patch. When I drifted my flies through just right, one quality fish made a beeline for my flies before backpedaling and disappearing in the direction it had approached from. Things were definitely looking strange. 

By this time, Pat was rigged and ready so we started to leapfrog. Somewhere around this time, I finally got a small rainbow on my dropper nymph. Then, as I was sneaking past Pat to get to the next spot without spooking his fish, I saw my first clue in the form of water drops on the rocks. Paying careful attention, I found a few more. This was a person (or creature anyway) that knew how to move in water. The tracks were not obvious nor definitive. They could have just as easily been an otter as a human. Still, between the shy trout and the marks on the rocks, I was convinced we needed to adjust.

After consultation with Pat, we decided that the thing to do was to move to another nearby stream. That is always a good choice when it is feasible. We were lucky to be in an area with so much water. A short walk put us on some different water. While it wasn't fast and furious, we were soon finding enough fish to confirm our decision as the correct one.

Backcountry streams in the Smokies all fish similarly but each with its own unique character. These particular streams both have long sections of flatter water with some really great quality plunge pools mixed in. The flatter water is conducive to the occasional brown trout, but the majority of the residents are rainbows. Brook trout also turn up from time to time, becoming more numerous not more than a mile or two upstream from where we were fishing. On this day, I was destined to catch just rainbows, but some of them were memorable. 

We appear to be in the middle of another big fish cycle. Maybe not as much on the brown trout, but definitely on the rainbows and maybe brook trout as well. This is due in no small part to the multi year high annual precipitation event we've had for the last 3.5 or 4 years now. We have lost at least the majority of two age classes for the brown and brook trout due to high flows in the fall and winter. Rainbows have been impacted to at least some extent. The benefit is that we are now seeing some better than average fish. this is part of the natural ebb and flow of life on these streams. Some years the numbers are through the roof, but fish seem to average 5-7 inches. Other years the numbers seem slightly impacted, but the average size is a legitimate 8 or 9 inches.

The fishing was good but somewhere short of phenomenal. Those rare days where every fish seems to be eating any fly on the first cast don't come along too often, but on this day, fish would at least eat if the drift was right and you showed it to them a few times. In fact, I was surprised at how many drifts it took in some pools. 

One particularly good hole was producing lots of hits, but few hookups. I have always caught several fish in this pool and expected no less on this day. My buddy Pat was somewhere just downstream, so I had time to relax and really work the pool. My first several casts produced strikes but no fish. Yes, everyone misses fish on occasion but this is especially true in the Smokies. Eventually, I finally hooked one and realized the problem had been as much the small size of the 5 inch trout. Those little ones eat and also spit the hook back out the fastest making them tougher to hook than the nicer trout. 


Slowly I worked into the head of the pool. Throwing my dry/dropper rig right into the fastest water started yielding more promising takes. I think it was after the second or third trout to hand that the nice fish came up and all but ate my dry fly. Realizing that it was a trout I really wanted to hook, I settled down to show it as many different angles as possible. Finally, several casts later, it happened with the dry fly diving hard into the current. When I set the hook, I was attached to the big fish of the pool. Big on these streams usually means 8-10 inches. 

The fight was fairly short lived. Soon I was admiring a gorgeous wild rainbow that was clearly the top of the pecking order in this pool. I let the rainbow rest in my net while I fished the cellphone out of my pocket. A quick picture and the fish was back swimming in the pool again. These fish are too special to harvest, so all of mine go back.


Right as I looked up again, I noticed something interesting. Way over on the right side of the pool was a small current that curled around some rocks and over a shallow, rocky bottom before rejoining the main flow in the middle of the pool. It was the sort of spot I would generally ignore, especially with the bright sun overhead. Still, what I had seen was definitely a rise, and I'm a sucker for rising trout.

I worked some line back out and made the long cast and a quick mend upstream since I was fishing up and across the current. The correct move would have been to carefully cross the stream and fish from the right side, but I'm always up for a challenge. Right before the line started to drag in the middle of the pool, the dry fly slowly sucked under. I knew it had to be the rocks on the bottom, but out of habit, I set the hook anyway. This was one of those times that I was probably more surprised than the fish on the other end as a gorgeous rainbow exploded out of the water. 

I quickly fought the trout and repeated the process from the previous trout. In the net, rest, a quick picture, then back into the water to enjoy another day. Neither fish was out of the water more than a few seconds. Both will be healthy and there when I return unless someone else harvests them.


 

At this point, we had probably been fishing a grand total of an hour or so between the two streams. Certainly no more than an hour and a half. I was getting antsy though. With a newborn at home, I've been finding more and more excuses to get home fast at the end of a day. We continued leapfrogging upstream, but I had already caught my fish and was thinking more and more about getting back home. At this point, I was enjoying watching Pat catch fish as much or more than catching them myself. One particularly nice fish had me asking for a picture and he obliged. 


Finally, after one last really nice pool, I decided to take my leave. Pat was planning on fishing a little longer, so we parted ways, and I hit the trail for the hour walk back out. Getting back home in time to fix supper and relax was nice on my day off.


Lately, I've been getting the itch for another backcountry jaunt, perhaps with the backpack and making it an overnight. Then again, I might just spend more time at home. Either way, I enjoyed this opportunity to get into the Smoky Mountains backcountry for myself that is becoming rarer these days. Hopefully it will happen again soon!

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.