Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Fall Colors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fall Colors. Show all posts

Monday, September 09, 2019

My Favorite Season

This post could be all pictures and my point would be sufficiently made. I'm going to make a feeble effort to put some of it into words, however. As a fly fishing guide, my perspective on seasons has changed over the years. If you asked me when the best time to fish was seven or eight years ago, my answer would have been quick and to the point: fall. Now, I will usually get around to answering fall, but sometimes by a circuitous route full of explanations. That is because, for me, the best time of the year to fish is also my favorite time to fish.

Now, not to wax too philosophical or anything, but everyone's definition of the best fishing of the year differs quite widely. This probably all goes back to the rather old explanation of the stages of becoming a fisherman. It goes something like this. First you want to catch a fish, then you want to catch a lot of fish. Next you want to catch a big fish, then you want to catch a lot of big fish. When the whole process comes full circle, an angler should like going fishing for the sake of going fishing or something like that. As a guide, I quickly figured out that people who wanted to know when the best time to fish were generally sincere. The problem with the question of "when is the best time to go fishing?" lies within the perspective of the one asking the question.

Afraid of rambling too much and people getting bored of listening, I've attempted to put my answer into a concise few words. Still, I'm afraid I haven't done a very good job. What starts as "well, spring is probably the best time on most area waters based on overall flows, consistent daily insect emergences, and the fact that fish haven't been pounded all year, but I personally like fall because I like the fall colors," usually quickly descends into lots of side explanations.

The proper answer to the question of "when is the best time to go fishing in Tennessee?" or "when is the best time to fly fish in the Smokies?" is probably more along the lines of a return question. I like to ask people what they view as good fishing. Is it lots of fish or some big fish? Is it having the stream to yourself? Many times, we quickly determine that they don't even know what good fishing consists of. This isn't to knock the people asking the question, it just means that most of us have some vague idea of what fly fishing nirvana would be, but when it comes down to it, we really can't put it into words.

At some point, I'll return and explain why I think winter is the best season, why I think spring is the best season, and why I think summer is the best season. And it's true, all of those seasons are the best, depending on your perspective.

Where you live might influence your opinion a bit, so let's make sure and establish the fact that I live in Tennessee and regularly fish both the wild streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which also happens to be my favorite place to fish) as well as the great tailwater trout streams found in middle and east Tennessee. You should also know that solitude on the stream is very important to me and factors into my preferences in ranking my favorite season to fish. Although smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, stripers, musky, and a few other species are fun and I fish and guide for them from time to time, trout are what led me to fly fishing and trout are what keeps me interested in the sport. Thus, colorful fish and clean cold water with plenty of oxygen are important to me as well. Finally, if you asked me what my favorite season is, never mind whether the fishing was good or not, my answer would be fall. The fall colors are my favorite thing about fall, so really I'm looking at a rather narrow window for the peak of my favorite season.

All of that said, let's define fall more broadly. I don't care if we stick with astronomical fall which begins at the fall equinox and ends at the winter solstice, or if we go with meteorological fall which runs September 1st through the end of November. Good fishing occurs throughout these time periods for those who know where to look. Since things are still usually hot right now, let's go with astronomical fall which this years runs from September 23 to December 21. That encompasses some of my favorite fishing of the year. Here's why.

First of all, as already mentioned, is the fall colors. Every year, I eagerly watch for the first colorful leaves. This usually happen in June, not because fall is imminent, but because some leaf got too dried out somehow and fell off the tree. As summer continues, these early hints of the coming change of season become more frequent. By late October and early November, the colors are peaking. While this can lead to much frustration for anglers if you are on stream during a windy day, the colors provide a glorious backdrop for what I already view as a rather artistic sport.

Speaking of fall colors, late September through the first two weeks of October will feature brook and brown trout getting colored up and fired up for the spawn. Both of these species are becoming more aggressive and eating heartily in preparation for the rigors of the spawning season. Brook trout in the Smokies are normally spawning by mid October although you can probably find some spawning well into November depending on where you look. Brown trout usually start around the same time although you can often find a few stragglers spawning in the mountains even in early December. These fish should be strictly left alone during the spawn and anglers should avoid walking through areas where they are active. The next generation of trout depends on good stream side manners from anglers during this time of year. Fish staging to spawn can still be caught, and fish that have finished spawning can also be caught.

Since the dry fly fishing is usually great in fall, this leaves open a lot of possibilities. I generally gravitate towards streams with some browns but more rainbows. The rainbows are usually vibrantly colored this time of year and are feeding as hard as ever with winter coming on. Brook trout are especially gorgeous this time of year. If you can catch them before or just after the spawn, you will see arguably the most stunning colors of any fish in the southern Appalachians. Of course, brook trout love dry flies which doesn't hurt my opinion of them at all.

Another reason I appreciate fishing in the fall is that I don't appreciate the summer heat. Fall brings cool relief as well as a welcome drop in humidity. Tennessee can get miserably humid any time of the year, but fall is most likely to be dry with pleasant sunny days and crisp nights. This makes it perfect for another favorite activity, camping, which I generally try to do at least a few times every year but almost always every fall. A good campfire on a chilly fall evening is one of the great pleasures of life.

One small side note here, fall is also a great time for catching stripers, rock fish, whatever you want to call them. I don't do it often, but this is probably my most consistent season for finding large ones on the fly, mostly because I haven't had time the rest of the year, but also because there are some advantages to this season which I won't go into here. Regardless of the reasons, a great big tug on the end of the line is fun on occasion.

Interestingly, my favorite fishing season and my favorite season in general evolved almost in unison. That could be because of the early success I had fishing in the fall. I remember one trip early in my fly fishing career. Just a couple of months prior, I had learned how to high stick nymphs without a strike indicator from the legendary Walter Babb on a half day guided trip. To this day that remains some of the best money I've ever spent on this sport. Anyway, I had been applying my lessons. It was November and I had hiked well upstream above Elkmont. I still remember very clearly that I was fishing a #16 Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear nymph and a couple of split shot on my still favorite old Orvis Superfine Tight Loop. I didn't catch any big fish, but I did catch lots of fish. At that point in my fly fishing career, it was a big deal. The rainbows were all where they should have been and they would all eat a well presented fly. In the years since, other great moments on the water have come and gone, but my love for fall fishing definitely got a big boost on that day in November.

By this point, you might have noticed that I still haven't said that the fishing is the best in the fall. I said it's my favorite. Some people will want a straight answer and my answer is this; for me, the best fishing is in the fall, because there is more to fishing than catching fish. That said, the fishing is usually anywhere from good to excellent as well. Low water can add a wrinkle to this equation, but for experienced anglers, low water isn't all bad either. Later, I'll elaborate on why the other seasons are the best, but for now, let's finish with saying that fall is my favorite. So what's your favorite and why?

If you need a few more reasons why fall is the best, here is a small selection. If you want to fish with me during the fall or any other time of year, feel free to visit Trout Zone Anglers to learn more about guided trips.





Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Before the Big Burn

The wildfire that affected portions of the Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg is already receding into memory for most people. Unfortunately, for those more directly affected, it will take a lot longer for things to be normal again. While the people who tragically lost homes and businesses and even loved ones have suffered the most, the landscape also suffered in the short term.

Portions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park above Gatlinburg will probably be quite different for some time to come. These are the areas where the fire burned the hottest on exposed ridge tops where the wind conspired to do the most damage. Thankfully, portions of the streams that we all know and love, while affected, are mostly not as damaged. There is damage, and the hardest part will simply be in waiting to see when we'll be allowed to fish these waters again, but overall it appears that the streams were spared the brunt of this fire. Until then, we can only remember the good times that once were.

One of the more popular brook trout streams in the Park is near the fire's origin. This is a stream that I had the good fortune of fishing with my cousins back in early November. The air was already hazy from the burns over in North Carolina, but we still enjoyed the opportunity to get out on the water and enjoy the late season warmth. Some of the most beautiful fish you will ever find are brook trout in their fall dress. Here are a few photos from our day on the water. Hopefully these jewels survived and will continue to do so as they have for many years. For more on this trip, check out this full trip report I did over on the Little River Outfitters message board.











Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Slow Days

One of the benefits (and probably curses too) of writing about fly fishing is that you choose what to share. Have a bad day on the water? No problem. Just don't tell the masses. Just share those good days. However, anglers of all skill levels still have slow days, and being a writer doesn't magically make you immune to bad luck, poor conditions, and the least discussed but probably most prevalent operator error.

Once you have been fishing for over 25 years and fly fishing for 20+, there are also self-inflicted slow days. Take my recent musky floats for example. I have now spent two full and long fishless days, happily casting a heavy rod with gigantic flies all in the hopes of catching a fish larger than any of the trout I have ever caught and with far more teeth. Simply removing the fly can be a dangerous game where losing fingers is a distinct possibility. When I say self-inflicted, I mostly mean that I chose to go on those musky floats, but of course there is also the angle where throwing flies at these monsters is not the easiest way to go about catching them. Then again, that is at least 77.7% the point.

Same thing with fly fishing in the Smokies. I've been around these creeks and small rivers long enough to have a good idea on how to scare up a few fish when necessary. So on those days where I hit the water and stubbornly stick to my streamers, you could say the slow fishing is self-inflicted. Some days are just the result of the fact that I don't know it all yet. Those are the days that keep me coming back again and again.

Have you ever noticed how slow days do one of two things? Either they make you feel like you are slowly losing your sanity as you beat the water into a froth trying to drum up a trout or two, or else they cause you to slow down and appreciate some of the additional benefits to getting outside.

Two weeks ago or thereabouts, I took a full day off to take myself fishing. Even as a guide who spends a lot of time on the water, I'm still excited to go fishing for my own enjoyment. This day was no different. The spawn was mostly wrapped up with a straggling pair here and there. The brown trout were definitely hungry and aggressive, a combination I would take every day if possible.

Rain the night before had bumped up the water levels to something just short of perfect for streamer fishing, but higher than I would prefer for good nymph or dry fly presentations. In other words, I had an excuse ready to go in case I didn't catch many fish.

A super secret streamer came out along with a large nymph, both ending up in tandem on the end of my leader. I hit the water full of anticipation. Several large fish had been located over the last few weeks, and I just knew that it was the right day to catch them. The first spot got me thoroughly warmed up with several aggressively chasing fish. One in particular even graced the end of my line and paused just long enough for a picture. Always document that first fish, assuming you want photographs. You never know when you'll catch another. 

Brown Trout on Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Moving up to an area where I had spotted a large fish two weeks prior, I was disappointed without even getting so much as a follow. Same thing with the next spot. Finally, the third spot produced follow, after follow, after follow...I think you get the point. Some good eats too, but I missed every single one of them. Yep, bloggers and guides have bad days also.

On my way back to the car after this third stop, I noticed something. Fall had not quite passed by. One little maple tree was still valiantly holding on. This was just the soothing distraction I needed as my expectations were taking a thorough beating. 

Fall colors provided by a maple tree in the Great Smoky Mountains

The next spot or two produced some more heart stopping hits, but sadly with the same results. This was just not my day. And so, as has happened many times before and I'm sure will happen again, I approached the end of the day thankful for one fish. 

With the light fading fast and the fish somehow missing my hook, I took a drive down Little River and over to Tremont (Middle Prong of Little River). The scenery was perfect, the roads were nearly empty, and I made an interesting discovery: Middle Prong was flowing much higher than Little River. Unsure of the significance of such a discovery, I nevertheless drove as far as I could up this popular little stream until the light simply grew too dim. My last stop required a final picture. If you have fished here, then you know how high the water really was.

Tremont and the Middle Prong of Little River

The funny thing about slow days is that you learn something about yourself as an angler on these days. Some of my friends will pack it in after a couple of slow hours, while others will go to what they know will catch fish. For me, slow days are my time to experiment, constantly tinkering and looking for that edge. Guide trips are different, of course, with success for many people measured in the number of fish caught. Under those circumstances, I always have a game plan ready that will maximize the odds of catching fish. Some days, when I can only take the lack of catching for so long, I'll kick into gear and ask myself how I would get a client into fish. That usually gets me catching again if I'm not too stubborn to listen...

Friday, December 04, 2015

Still Out There

There are still fall colors out there for those willing to look around a bit. I took this shot over in the Smokies this past Tuesday. More on the fishing later of course. I'm just impressed that such great colors can still be found...


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Back to Paradise Valley: Yellowstone Day Four

Cutthroat trout on the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park

After a fantastic day on the Lamar River (click the link and read to get caught up if you have not already done so) on just the second day of my Yellowstone 2015 trip, a return was in order. After a fairly tough day with just a few trout to hand, I wanted my buddy Kevin to experience some truly great Yellowstone fishing. As I told him, when you come to Yellowstone you need to fish for cutthroat trout. I figured that we would have a good time and catch some nice trout in Paradise Valley. Between the Lamar which had treated me so well two days prior and also Soda Butte and Slough Creeks, we had plenty of water to keep us busy for the day.

On the way over, we had to pass Roosevelt. Just south of that junction was the Yellowstone River falls area. We quickly detoured to see that as the day needed some time to warm up. The trout would be a little sluggish until later in the morning anyway. Nevertheless, our visit to the Lower Falls was brief as thoughts of large cutthroat kept nagging at us.

Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River

Upon arriving in the Lamar Valley, we slowly drove up to Soda Butte Creek. Lots of anglers were already on the water throughout the valley so bypassing the Lamar River was an easy choice. Finally, we found a good pulloff near the Pebble Creek Campground. Kevin was anxious to get started and wasted no time rigging up and heading for the stream. I, on the other hand, continued my now established tradition of a stream side breakfast before fishing. By the time I was finished, Kevin had worked through at least a couple of good looking runs without even spotting a trout.

Just as I joined him on the water, he was working up to a particularly good looking pool. His first cast was on the money and a big cutthroat ghosted out from beneath a fallen pine tree to take a look at his hopper. Both of us got excited but that didn't help convince the fish to eat. A dropper was added to the rig but that still didn't put any fish in the net. We continued working upstream, seeing a few fish here and there but not particularly great numbers. It was obvious that the fish had been pounded all summer. Gullible was not in their vocabulary on this particular day. Thankfully, the scenery more than made up for the slow fishing.

Soda Butte Creek and a large bull bison or buffalo

An angler fishes a pool on Soda Butte Creek

After missing some nice fish and in general getting tired, it was determined that we should head back down the valley to the Lamar and try our luck there. I remembered all too well how it had fished so recently and was convinced we would find some fish if we just found some open water there. Sure enough, the fish were there and easy to spot I might add. The water had cleared even more since I had fished it and now the fish were very cautious in the low clear flows of autumn. I had indeed hit it on the perfect day and was appreciating that fantastic fishing more and more by the day. Still, finding fish is at least half of the battle so we were in business with trout that we could spot.

With time and persistence, trout started coming to hand. Not in the mass quantities of two days prior, but better than going fishless for sure. Hoppers were still getting it done although there were some mayflies on the water as well. Kevin got his first Yellowstone cutthroat right at the junction of the Lamar and Soda Butte. He had spotted big fish cruising a large flat there, rising to various bugs including mayflies and terrestrials. After breaking the first two off, he was happy to land this gorgeous fish.

Lamar River cutthroat trout in Yellowstone National Park

Nearby, I also caught some trout and enjoyed the sweeping vistas. The low water was all too obvious though as you can see in the picture below.

The junction of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone National Park

By this time, the sun was moving well towards the horizon and we had a decision to make. Leaving and heading back towards camp would get us there in time for about an hour of fishing in the evening on the Gibbon River. My experience in catching a big brown trout earlier in the week definitely tempted us to take this option. On the other hand, it was at least a good hour to get back and we would be burning valuable daylight to do so. Eventually, we decided to stay on the Lamar and try some different water.

As the river leaves the wide open valley it descends into a short canyon stretch. On both ends of this canyon are some rather large pools I have always wanted to fish. We found an open stretch and found a place to scramble down the steep slope. With daylight getting weaker as nightfall approached, Kevin decided to try streamers. I, on the other hand, noticed some spinners on the water and decided that an appropriate imitation fished behind my hopper might be good. Both of us found some good success! That just happens to be one of my favorite things about fly fishing. If you are persistent, you can usually scrounge up at least a few trout on whatever method you choose.

A closeup of my beautiful dry fly caught cutthroat trout on the Lamar River

A nice cutthroat on the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park

As the sun sank, the low even light made for some great photo opportunities. The mood was enhanced by pronghorn antelope coming down for an evening drink just downstream from me. I almost expected a wolf or grizzly bear to make an appearance and complete the scene. It is probably best that neither showed up though. It was a long run uphill to the supposed safety of my car.

Dusk on the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park

Far downstream, I could see Kevin still working a section where he had caught a really nice cutthroat, probably looking for one even bigger. I was happy with my nice fish and decided to leave all of the other fish alone. The walk uphill to my car went quicker than I expected. With plenty of time, I took off the wading boots and grabbed a light jacket against the chill already developing. My camera was still ready to work so I snapped one last shot to help me remember that great day I had just enjoyed...

Evening on the Lamar River

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

As we take a day to be thankful, I want to thank each and every one of you for taking the time to read my blog. I have been blessed beyond measure this year and appreciate all of you who have contributed through your friendship and kind words.


Monday, November 09, 2015

Goodbye Fall

Just like that, fall is nearly over. The majority of the leaves have already fallen. Today's high water in the Smokies is going to clean the streams out. The early spawning brown trout's efforts were most likely in vain, although time will tell how high the water does get. We still do not have any true winter weather in the immediate future although certainly by Thanksgiving we'll experience much colder temperatures.

The thing I will miss the most about fall is the brilliant fall foliage we enjoyed this year. Of course I will not miss all of the leaf viewers that came with them. Winter is a very close second in the running for my favorite season and a big piece of that is the solitude that can be found during the cold months.

To celebrate the beautiful fall season we experienced, here are a few of my favorite fall color shots. Some I have already shared here while others are showing up for the first time on this blog. I'll be sharing some more over the next days and weeks.








Saturday, September 12, 2015

Black Mountain

Today was drawing to a close before inspiration struck, and I decided to head for Black Mountain. Many happy hours have been spent here wandering through the woods with a camera. On occasion I've also been known to take rock shoes and a crash pad to do some bouldering but not on this day. Here are a few of my favorites from today's trip taking a short hike on Black Mountain.

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Black mountain

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Never Too Soon


Only another 2.5-3 months and my favorite season will have arrived. Yes, it is never too soon to start thinking about fall. Every year, we start seeing some leaves changing colors in the middle of the summer. In fact, last summer, I was already looking ahead to fall by late June. This year, I've been dreaming of the cool dry months of fall ever since May arrived with warm weather and the humidity of summer. Now, I'm starting to see those changing colors. Too bad the main event is still so far out.

This time of year is special too though. One can never fish too many small streams for gorgeous wild trout and what better time of year than the warm months of summer? The high elevation brook trout streams are fishing well right now, finally replenished with some much needed rainfall over the last week or so with more on the way.

The fish in those high elevation streams are happy and more or less easy to catch. Obviously, if you ask me, I'll tell you that having a fly fishing guide will help and what better way to spend a day than with someone who can help you learn more skills to take your fly fishing game to another level? Here is one of many beautiful brook trout caught on a guide trip this past week which saw several more anglers learn the skills they needed to be highly successful in the Great Smoky Mountains National park.



Those cloudy rainy days can be phenomenal if you happen to be there to enjoy them. The low hanging clouds hug the ridges and ride the air currents up and over the peaks that together form the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fish like the low light associated with those cloudy rainy days. Just be careful if there is any lightning in the area and don't get surprised like I did.  And don't get too caught up with the fishing. The scenery is worth enjoying as well.


Monday, December 08, 2014

The Slam or Cataloochee: Part 3

Each fishing trip has its own beauty and memories.  Some trips are rooted in the familiarity of a favorite stretch of stream while other trips are memorable as the first trip to a stream or section of water.  This year I have been making an effort to break out of my normal fishing routines, and I admit it can be hard.  The great thing about water you fish regularly is that you know what to do without thinking too hard.  On new water, it is possible to overthink the situation even though you know deep down that you should approach it the same as all of the other area freestone streams.

During my camping trip to Cataloochee, after a restful night that wasn't as scary as it could have been, I was determined to fish some new water.  That's relatively easy for me to do in Cataloochee since I have not fished there as much as some drainages closer to home.  The methods would be pretty similar though so I still had that comfortable familiarity with just enough newness to keep things interesting.

The stream I chose to fish was like a lot of the North Carolina side streams.  There was a distinct lack of large pools. Instead, a distinct emphasis on flat glides of pocket water that can be a little tricky to find fish in were the norm.  Early on a cracked the code of where to find fish.  That's important as it allows the fisherman to focus only on prime water while discounting large sections of stream.  In the spring, summer, fall, and winter, fish will move to different areas to hold, rest, and eat depending on factors such as streamflow, time of day, hatches, water temperature and the list could go on and on.  On this trip, the fish were in the middle to rear of the pockets and small runs but were holding tight to structure which could be as simple as a small rock.


A dry/dropper rig seemed appropriate for this type of water.  An October Caddis dry worked great on top with a little bead head nymph I'm working on picked up it's share of fish.  I was fishing a 9' 5 weight Helios rod with a leader around 8 feet long.

Not long into my excursion, I caught a brook trout and then another.  According to the Park's distribution maps they weren't supposed to be this low.  That's one thing I love about Cataloochee: you can find brookies throughout the whole valley.


Moving on up the stream, I began catching enough rainbows to keep things interesting.  The fishing was neither as good as I had hoped nor bad enough to cause me to bail on this stream and find another spot to fish.  That's probably actually a good thing.  Those rare days were everything works and every fish eats can spoil a fly fisher if they come along too often.  Instead, days that hint at the possibility of fantastic fishing are what keeps bringing me back for seconds and thirds.  Returning to recreate those magical perfect days rarely yields as good a time as one remembers, and this applies in most areas of life.  When you do find a stream that is a little bit of a tease, you can go back and have a good time regardless. If it doesn't perform like an all-star, you can just accept that it fished about as you remembered.  On the other hand, if it fishes better than anything you have sampled in a while, you can be satisfied that your intuition paid off.




Eventually, I found a few more brook trout and even one small brown trout followed quickly by a tiny young of the year brown.  None of the larger browns were around and interested in playing on this particular day, yet another reason to return I might add.


As the sun slowly shifted past noon, I started thinking about hiking out.  By 3 it was time to go.  My cousin and his wife were supposed to be joining me, and I wanted to get back before they arrived in camp.  The hike out proved that I had covered around a mile of stream in approximately 6 hours.  Next time I'll hike farther before I start, but at least I can now say I've fished that particular stream.