Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Cumberland Plateau. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cumberland Plateau. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Summer Smallmouth Pilgrimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

 
Lunch with a view. ©2021 David Knapp Photography


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

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


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


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

Monday, February 15, 2021

How Much Is Too Much?

Sitting around this evening, my wife told me that her mom had inquired about a hike we had recently done. When I asked my wife why her mom was suddenly interested, I found out something interesting. Apparently my mother-in-law had seen something about it on TV. Some news piece or something similar was done to highlight different out of the way hikes in the area. My first thought was oh great, another one ruined. 

One of my favorite local hikes and one of the best hikes on the Cumberland Plateau, Virgin Falls used to be an out of the way spot visited by just a few. Same thing with a few others I can think of both in our immediate area and beyond. Now, if you visit Virgin Falls on a weekend, be prepared to share the trail with anywhere from 50-200 of your new best friends and maybe even more. I've seen cars parked down the side of the road in both directions, damaging the shoulder, creating ruts, oh, and of course completely ruining the feeling of solitude that originally brought me to this amazing place.

I've seen the same problem explode in the Smokies. Last year was particularly bad, of course, as COVID sent many people into the outdoors where recreation was not only safer but often free or very low cost. That trend will continue for at least another year it would appear. But COVID really isn't the only one to blame for this problem. The issue of overcrowding was already a thing with Virgin Falls. In fact, it motivated Tennessee State Parks who oversees the area to institute a backpacking fee and permit process. The backcountry campsites were seeing horrendous overcrowding and the surrounding areas were getting trammeled by unconscientious, unlearned, and occasionally unscrupulous adventurers. 

The amount of trash both in the backcountry and also roadside has grown a lot as well. The sad thing with the increase in traffic is that not everyone has the same ideals of leave no trace. In fact, many people ignore it either purposefully or because they don't know any better. Piles of poo and tissue paper abound in the woods near backcountry campsites, while people let their dogs go right in the trail without bothering to clean up after their furry friends. Don't even get me started on the intentional garbage people leave because they don't want to carry out the wrappers their food came in or in extreme circumstances, that heavy tent. 

Yes, the great outdoors is being rapidly loved to death. Yet, during the discussion that motivated all of this, there was something nagging in the back of my mind. Even I am at least partially responsible for this. You see, I tell anyone and everyone about my favorite hikes, just the same as many tell people about their favorite fishing spots. I am always shocked at how many people will ask complete strangers on the internet about the best places to fish and will usually get back incredibly detailed responses on small out of the way trout streams. Yes, technology ultimately is to blame here, but we need to use more than a little self control and common sense.

The free flow of information has allowed people who would never set foot into the Smoky Mountain backcountry to learn about the glorious brook trout fishing found there and head off in search of their own photo op. Blogs like mine don't help. Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time have probably noticed a trend. Older posts contain more information than newer ones. I, along with many others who love wild places, noticed a little too late what all that free information was doing to the previously pristine places we treasure. Yet, information continues to get out.

A few years ago, the internet message boards were all the rage, and woe unto anyone who foolishly decided to hot spot. Never mind, of course, that this was usually done innocently. Some kind person really wanted to help someone else out. People quickly figured out the effects of doing so, and would chase the unfortunate person right off the board who dared to speak of such secret things. Now, all a person needs to do is join the right Facebook group, ask where to go, and some person who has been to stream X once with their cousin's best friend's uncle will pipe up with all the details. Never mind that they probably couldn't catch a cold once they got there. Still, the damage is done as armies of adventurers roam throughout previously untrammeled and untamed wilderness. 

Now, with the rise of click bait, large companies create websites with no more purpose than to answer the specific queries people enter into Google. They go and find some expert to write an article, pay them a little to kiss and tell, make sure the search engine optimization is done correctly, and sit back and enjoy the advertising revenue from all those people clicking their article. Yet, we all do it. And that is the trouble. How much is too much these days? Where do we draw the line in sharing information in a world awash in more information than anyone knows what to do with? Nowadays, we have facts and alternative facts, but in all the mess, wild places continue to suffer from overuse.

It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of asking how dare people fish my stream and hike my trail, but in reality I'm just another person out there adding to the congestion. At what point do we need to step back and add self imposed limits to lessen crowding issues? 

Yet, in it all, there exists much hope as well. With the massive influx of new interest in the outdoors comes the opportunity to convince that many more people that wild places are worth preserving. For fly fishing, we have huge issues with crowding that still have to sort themselves out. At the same time, all of these new converts are more people to advocate for clean air and clean water. Ultimately, all of us suffer if those things are gone. As earth's population continues to soar, it is becoming more and more crucial that we figure out how to balance our desire for wilderness with the footprints we leave. With more people becoming interested, we have an even greater opportunity for positive change.

The one thing we can all do now is, admittedly, somewhat selfish. We can go back to the days when hot spotting was a huge taboo. One of the greatest joys of nature is to explore. When you find your own hidden paradise, you can imagine at least briefly that you have your own secret. When a spot comes to you through a social media tag and you're just there to get your own selfie, it really isn't yours. The hidden spots, the ones you've worked diligently for, those are your spots. The only way they'll stay that way is if you keep them to yourself. 

In fly fishing, as with other parts of life, there is always the tendency to tell one close friend or family member. Of course, they share with just one close friend or family member as well, but eventually the secret leaks out. I have fishing buddies that I share lots of general info with, then I have a very small handful of friends who I share the true secrets with. Those are the ones who I know really will keep it under their hat. Nowadays, there really aren't that many secrets left. And this brings us back to the question: how much is too much? At what point do we draw the line, or should we even draw one, when it comes to sharing about the great outdoors? 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Winter Light Moods

Last week, I was driving home from a quick exploratory trip to the Caney Fork. The day had been perfect with relatively warm temperatures for this time of year. We had even found a few fish which means the river isn't completely barren. Anyway, I got fed up with the traffic on the interstate and decided to take the scenic route home to bypass any potential slowdowns on the mountain at Monterey. The alternative route I chose was highway 70N which more or less parallels the interstate.

The magic happened as I crested the top of the Cumberland Plateau. The late day sun broke through the clouds to illuminate the trees ahead of me. The rich warm glow was too much for my cellphone although I snapped a quick picture to share with my wife. This time of year, with a low sun angle, we got lots of light magic. With an extended golden hour, the sunsets last longer and are often more dramatic than at any other time of year. However, that isn't the only benefit of low sun angles. 

Yesterday, while we are shooting some other unrelated pictures, I happened to glance at the sky as we were wrapping things up. The low sun angle at midday resulted in bright rays slanting through the clouds. Most of the year, there is only a narrow window early and late in the day when this can happen. In the winter, it is possible pretty much all day making it more likely to encounter. 

My camera was already in hand. Almost without thinking, I snapped a few quick shots. Once I got the pictures on my computer, I realized that some editing might be in order. In the end, I like the black and white look as it accentuates the play of light across the heavens and minimizes other distractions. The only thing I can't decide between is whether I like a lighter or darker foreground. These are two edited versions of the same original. Which do you like best?




Friday, June 01, 2018

Cumberland Plateau Smallmouth Bass Memorial Day 2018 Adventure

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Summer Smallmouth Explorations

Last minute cancelations are rare these days which means I'm not doing much fishing. To be clear, I'm participating in fishing a lot these days, just not as the actual fisherman. That is okay, I suppose, because it means business is going well. On the other hand, it means my time to explore has been severely limited as of late. Summer smallmouth exploration trips are probably one of my favorite downtime activities. This is likely at least partly because of how rare they have become.

As a short aside here, if you want to get on my calendar this summer, plan ahead. I'm booked solid until the last week of July although things are not quite as busy in August. That said, August is probably the best month of the year to fish the Caney Fork (in my humble opinion) if you want to find and stalk large brown trout on midges, but enough of that. Back to my smallmouth fly fishing exploration trips.

The first smallmouth trip was on limited time and was a return to an old favorite. That day went well as I caught several healthy fish on topwater foam hoppers on light tackle. This is probably my favorite way of fishing for smallmouth.

When another cancelation happened just a few short days later, I decided to go a bit further afield in search of some new scenery and hopefully good fishing. My dad happened to be off of work as well, and I checked to see if he was interested in a hike. He was, so we quickly made our plans and hit the road for the new destination.

The hike in turned out to be shorter and relatively easier than I expected which was great. The fishing also turned out to be amazing. Fishing topwater flies is probably my favorite way to stalk these feisty bass, so I tied on a black Stealth Bomber. My usual selection is either that fly or a Chernobyl style hopper. Add a rod in the 4-6 weight range (usually a 4 or 5 for me) and you have an afternoon of fun ahead of you. Smallmouth on these creeks can get big, so a rod up to a 7 or even 8 weight isn't the worst idea, but I think more fish eat the fly because of the gentle presentation of the lighter rods.

Once I rigged up and got on my wading boots, I quickly waded into the stream and started casting. A few casts later, and I had my first bass! That fish was soon followed by a second and the day was looking good!



About this time the distant sound of an ATV had grown louder and I stopped fishing long enough to chat with a guy and his son who lived nearby and proved to be a wealth of information about the area. Armed with this additional knowledge, I started working my way upstream while my dad relaxed in the shade on a large rock overlooking the stream. A few more fish came to hand on the Stealth Bomber before I decided it was time to turn around and work back downstream on my way out. Since all of the fish had already seen the top water fly, I decided to go sub-surface with a favorite smallmouth bass streamer.

On my way up, a large fish had spooked out of the tailout of a big pool. This fished wasn't really interested on the Stealth Bomber but I thought it might go for the subsurface offering. Sure enough, as I approached the spot, I could see the fish cruising. My cast landed the fly 5-6 feet upstream of the fish and it immediately charged. After a quick pause to stare at the fly, it inhaled the streamer and I gave a tremendous bass set.

Somehow the 5 weight provided enough power and the fish was soon charging around the pool. I was thankful for a good large arbor reel with its ability to quickly pick up a lot of line. The fish grew tired, and soon I lipped it and snapped a quick picture. This may be my new favorite place to fish for smallmouth!


Knowing that time was short, I worked quickly downstream and back to where I had left my dad. He agreed that the day was warm and humid so we were both ready to leave. I stopped to fish a little off of the rock he had been relaxing on and quickly nailed two more nice bass on the streamer. My dad kindly snapped a couple of pictures with my phone and then we were ready to go!



This is definitely one of my top three favorite smallmouth locations now. The access is not terrible although I'm always nervous leaving a vehicle parked in the middle of nowhere on the Cumberland Plateau. So far I've been fortunate thankfully. The fish are willing and clearly not too pressured. The only difficulty with fishing for smallmouth is the skill required. Short sloppy casts won't work on these fish, and once you get one to eat you better be ready to set the hook hard. That said, the rewards are well worth it. Exploring these remote smallmouth creeks is reward enough, but finding fish like these make it even better!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Busy Is Good: Looking Back on 2016

In any normal year, a low number of posts would be a bad sign for my time on the water. For 2016, the lack of posts has actually been the result of more time on the water. Busy is good if you ask me. Busy is better when it involves setting a new personal record for days on the water in one year. My goal for next year is to pass 200 days on the water. That includes fishing and guiding just to be clear.

While 2016 was a phenomenal year for me as far as guiding goes, the focus of this post is on my own fishing adventures. While I'll throw in a tease or two from my work, check out Trout Zone Anglers and the blog there for a complete year end summary of the guiding for the year. That post should be up in a day or two.

My own fishing for the year started off in early January. One of my favorite days on the water that month was spent in the Smokies. No big surprise there I know. The day was particularly memorable because of the nice brown trout I found. Late in the month, I would spend some time fishing for brook trout with the idea of trying to catch one each month of the year. That worthy goal would sadly not be met, but hopefully I'll have plenty more years to try it.


February was an unusually slow month for me. I didn't get out much although the local farm ponds did keep me from going crazy, and the chance to solve an interesting fishing riddle was as much fun as anything. Being a leap year, we had an extra day available and I made the most of it to keep my brook trout streak going. Ironically, I kept the streak going for the two toughest months of the year before it fell by the wayside.


March was more or less a normal month and included the beginning of my spring trips down to the Hiwassee that I try to squeeze in every year. The change of pace this year included my increasing trips down to the Clinch River. Some nice fish were caught and I began to appreciate this unique tailwater more and more.



April saw the fishing action pick up significantly. In addition to trout, smallmouth bass were becoming quite active. A new favorite trip was born that featured stocked trout in the upper reaches (that we never actually caught) and smallmouth and musky throughout the rest of the trip. I was fishing with my buddy David Perry. With both of us spending so much time guiding, trips together have been fewer as of late, but this is a spring trip that I hope to do again many times.


I hit the jackpot in May when I was able to fish one of those cloudy days that threatens rain. The bugs poured off. The trout rose. The angler was happy. In prior years, I tended to hit these great days when I was guiding, and that is a good time to guide. I'm always super happy when I can show someone a legitimate hatch in the Smokies, but I like to fish it myself as well on occasion.


Somewhere in late spring or early summer, I found myself the owner of a smartphone due to the generosity of a friend. If that hadn't of happened, I'm sure I would still be enjoying my old flip phone. however, since I did have a smartphone finally, I decided to embrace everything about it and started using Instagram. If you haven't been there yet, there are a lot more pictures there then you will find here including a lot from my guide trips as well as my own fishing excursions. Be sure to follow me there as well as on Facebook!

June found me chasing smallmouth harder than ever. In between guiding a lot, I also found some time to float the Caney Fork River with friends Jayson and Pat for Jayson's bachelor party. That turned into one of the best trips of the whole year. We caught and landed both good numbers and some really nice fish in terms of size. I got my first big brown trout of the year on that float. Here is the groom Jayson with one of his twenty inchers and net man Pat...


July was hot, but the river continued to fish very well. In fact, it just kept getting better as the summer wore on. Smallmouth bass were also active and I made a trip I've been thinking about for years. My friend Mark Brown from Chota and I met up for a truly epic adventure. I saw my first live rattlesnake on the Cumberland Plateau ever on that trip and was so surprised I forgot to get a picture. In between bee stings, rattlesnakes, and copperheads, we did manage to find some great smallmouth.


In August, I started things out with more big backcountry smallmouth bass. By this point, the Caney Fork was fishing so obviously well that it was hard to keep me away. I was spending more time on the river than anyone really deserves to spend fishing. It began to pay off finally with some great brown trout, culminating in my personal best brown trout from the Caney Fork River. I caught the fish while sight fishing with a midge and after locating it a couple of days prior on a guide trip. There are some perks to guiding other than just spending time outside every day and one of those is locating great fish!


In September, I did another summer trip I've been considering for a few years. It turns out that it was as scary as I had anticipated and then some, but it was nice to do it once in my life at least. From now on, that will be a winter only trip.


October and November were both great months, but the high points of the year had already passed from a fishing perspective. The one exception to that was a trip with my cousins to camp in the Smokies that was one of the best of the year. We fished all over, caught some nice brook trout, and relaxed. I still caught plenty of big fish and that continued into December with a special brown trout on the Clinch River.




Monday, August 08, 2016

Smallmouth Bass Again



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

High Adventure


This was supposed to be a fishing trip deep into the backcountry of Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau in search of smallmouth bass fishing nirvana. My friend Mark Brown of Chota Outdoor Gear and I had been planning on fishing together for a while. Somehow things had never worked out, until this trip that is. We both had been hitting the smallmouth streams regularly this summer and were looking to get a little farther away from the access points and the hordes of swimmers and other fishermen that can usually be found in easily accessible water. There were a couple of options under consideration, but ultimately the choice was made for a slightly longer walk but one that would leave our vehicles in a safer location.

The forecast for our day on the water called for hot and dry, in other words about the same as the rest of this summer has been. We hit the trailhead by around 8:30 a.m. and started trekking deep into the still-cool woods. The trail was familiar to me but not to Mark so I took the lead. As I started sweeping spider webs out of the way with my face, I started thinking that maybe being in front wasn't such a good idea. For some reason Mark was still happy to stay in the back so I forged ahead.

By the time we hit the trail down through a crack in the cliff, we were both ready to see the river below. Just as we got to the narrowest portion where the trail was hemmed in by steep bluffs on both sides, I happened to look down in time to see a timber rattler relaxing on the trail. I was in such shock that I forgot to snap a picture. This didn't help my nerves. There are more snakes here on the Cumberland Plateau than anywhere else I've ever hiked and fished, and I was already jumpy. Things didn't improve when we looked down the steep and brushy hillside that had to be descended before our goal was attained. I imagined all of the snakes and bees that were probably waiting to eat me. In the end, visions of huge smallmouth slamming our flies propelled me on down the hill.

We emerged stream-side to stare in awe at the incredible water both up and downstream of where we now stood. Towering sandstone bluffs showed near the top of the gorge. If only these streams were more accessible, but of course in that case we probably wouldn't be the only ones enjoying the view.


After a brief pause to enjoy the scenery and snap a few pictures, we both started casting. Smallmouth bass were cruising the deep pool at our feet just waiting for the flies we had ready. Within the first two or three casts, I had landed my first bass and Mark was not far behind. After catching three bass in 10 or 15 casts, my expectations for the day, as if they weren't already high enough, shot through the roof. Becoming greedy, I started thinking about catching larger fish.

We had emerged from the woods towards the back of a large pool, and I imagined that there were probably large bass stacked like cordwood at the head of the pool. The Grass is Always Greener Syndrome was in full effect. The water was too deep to wade, so I moved around behind a large boulder to search for a route to the head of the pool. Looking over, I noticed a copperhead coiled up on top of a large rock and my big fish dreams quickly came back down to earth. Our first pool was now dubbed the Copperhead Hole. Knowing that there was plenty of water downstream, I decided to abandon my efforts and head down to the next pool.


Fishing quickly through some pocket water, I soon found myself overlooking a long pool. Because of a huge deep pot in the back that required getting deeper than I intended, this pool was named the Swimming Pool. Thankfully I didn't have to completely swim, but we did find some quality smallmouth cruising this pool. While I wasn't rigged for it, the pool sure looked like a good muskie hole as well. One of these days I'll be back to explore that possibility.


We continued downstream into a section that looked like giants had tossed huge boulders all over the river. Some of these are as large as a house. Here is a view looking downstream and another looking across to where Mark was fishing to give perspective on how large these rocks were. Can you find the angler in the second picture?



It was here, in the narrows, that I started to find some larger bass. I had switched from a large black Chernobyl style fly to a subsurface offering. Despite hearing cicadas buzzing in the trees along the stream, the bright sun was winning out and the fish were shy about coming to the surface. After covering the entire whole alongside the huge boulder pictured above, I switched to a fly with a lot of weight. Returning to the head of the pool, I started working my way downstream again. As one of my drifts swung in front of the smaller boulder at the bottom left in the picture above, I felt a hard thump and the fight was on. I had brought my 5 weight Helios and for a moment I thought that such a light rod would prove to be my undoing. This bass worked through its bag of tricks, but ultimately I landed it in the shallows.


After a quick shot, I let it go and continued working down the stream. Not far below, another quality fish came to hand and I got another picture.


About this time, Mark and I realized that we should start thinking about the hike out. We were considering a different route back out, but since neither of us had done the whole route we would need extra time in case something went wrong. After a consultation, we decided on a few more fish, a short lunch break, and then starting on our way out.

As it turns out, we were both glad that we fished a little longer. Mark had the first nice fish. He had been fishing in a deep hole. Both of us had switched to the same pattern that was catching fish for me. He had thrown at a deep slot along side some undercut boulders and a nice fish shot out to nail the fly. After watching the battle, I told him we needed at least one good fish picture and so he held up the bass for a moment. 


I had decided to finish my day hunting fish on top again and had pulled out the well-chewed black Chernobyl Hopper and tied it back on. When Mark caught this fish, I was nearly confined to change back. I headed up to the next pool, intent on sitting down to tie on a different fly. As I walked over the boulder that I meant to sit on, I saw one dark slot just above. Deciding it wouldn't hurt to throw the hopper for one last cast, I tossed it in and almost immediately saw the largest explosion of the day. Things got serious for a few moments as the fish repeatedly ran under rocks, sawing my leader and tippet along the rough edges. Somehow, the Rio tippet held as well as the hook. The heavy tension evaporated as I slipped my thump into its mouth. Mark kindly came over and snapped a couple of pictures for me. This is the largest smallmouth bass that I have caught yet on our Cumberland Plateau streams, and best of all it came on a surface fly.

Photo Courtesy of Mark Brown

By this time, we were starting to realize that we should probably begin our climb out. Scrambling up the steep slope was difficult in the afternoon heat, but the good news was that the brush was not as thick as before. I didn't feel in immediate danger from death by snakes, but before long a new danger showed up.

We had been following a trail for a while, knowing approximately but not exactly where to go. A brief pause to discuss which way at a fork proved to be problematic. Almost immediately, as I started moving again, Mark yelled. A stinging sensation on my arm told me what the problem was and I yelled out, "Run!!!" We both found some long since forgotten energy for a brief sprint almost straight uphill before pausing to make sure that the yellow jackets were not following us. Mark had lost a water bottle in the excitement, but neither of us wanted to go back down and recover it. The good news was that we were out on familiar trails again. The car was still quite a trek away but now we knew exactly how far.

My nerves were back on alert. This high adventure was almost more than they could handle. When a sticked cracked, I may or may not have jumped a few feet high. Mark, chuckling behind me, asked quite innocently, "Did you know you just jumped?"

It had been an incredible day. I'm not sure if Mark will be willing to fish with me again after this adventure proved harder than anticipated, but I I'm guessing we'll both recover eventually and be ready to hit the smallmouth streams again.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Remote Smallmouth Creeks

One of the great things about living on Tennessee's beautiful Cumberland Plateau is the abundance of great smallmouth bass streams, some of which also harbor the elusive muskellunge. These streams are mostly in remote, hard to get to areas which adds to the quality of the fishing both from a catching perspective and also just the overall atmosphere. The glorious thing about the Cumberland Plateau smallmouth bass streams is that they are almost always empty except for the people swimming and playing in the creek in very close proximity to the access points.

Given the choice, I would avoid fishing in crowds every day. Not seeing other anglers, except for those I'm fishing with of course, can make a good day of fishing out of a slow day of catching. That is why I love fishing the Smokies in winter so much. Empty streams, fish or no fish, are my overwhelming preference.

I've already been out to check on some of my favorite smallmouth bass streams a few times this year. Some of the trips were very good while only one was what I would term slow. On these streams, slow usually means at least a few fish were still caught and this time was no exception. The pinnacle of smallmouth bass fishing, at least so far this year, was on a trip a few weeks back with my buddy Jayson.

Everything came together at the last minute, with both of us having a day off from work, and we readily agreed that smallmouth bass should be the choice of the day. Arriving at the stream, we both rigged up our preferred smallmouth bass fly rods and were soon walking down to where we wanted to start fishing. I found one really good hole and started going through my fly selection process. Changing flies often is how I like to dial in the flavor of the day. One healthy smallmouth was willing to hit my PB&J streamer, getting the skunk off, but otherwise things were slow.


About the time I landed that first fish of the trip, I noticed that Jayson had disappeared around the bend upstream. Knowing him, I assumed he had found some good water and maybe even figured out the fish. Wandering upstream, I found him tight to a fish. It turned out to be a green sunfish.


Convincing him to get out of the water was not difficult when I mentioned the big bass possible downstream. We hit the trail again and before long got in to a good section that usually has some quality fish. Jayson had figured out that fish would readily hit a popper, so I decided a big black Stealth Bomber would probably work just as well. Turns out I was right!

We both caught a decent number of fish on the surface, not once going back to streamers or nymphs. Some of the fish were quality fish as well which kept things interesting. That big 20" wild smallmouth is still eluding both of us on this particular stream although we have seen some fish that are at least that large.



We ended the day on a good note, with Jayson getting a nice smallmouth while I watched from a perch high on a rock. The fish just couldn't say no to his popper.



The smallmouth fishing will stay strong through at least September. I have several other streams that I want to explore further, but time is not on my side. With some luck, I'll be able to enjoy a handful of other days out fishing for smallmouth this summer. Until then, I have some good memories of a day on the water!