Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Fly Fishing Guide. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fly Fishing Guide. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

When You Just Need More Weight

As a fly fishing guide, there are lots of little tips and tricks I get to pass on to my clients. It would be nearly impossible to compile those into one resource unfortunately. Okay, so maybe not impossible, but it would take me a while to think about it while I'm sitting at home writing. Most of these things have a way of coming up during the natural flow of a day on the water. That is what guides should do, offer advice on how to improve, or at least on different ways to do things. A guided trip should be as much a chance to improve as an angler as it is a chance to catch lots of fish. Those two things generally go hand in hand. 

Anyway, these little tips often come up in the natural flow of a guided trip. One that comes up quite often is the idea of getting your flies down to the fish. One of my favorite guiding moments happens when teaching nymphing strategies, either for the Nymphing Class at Little River Outfitters, or just on a regular guided trip. What usually happens is something like this. 

We are fishing nymphs, either under a strike indicator or high sticking (tight lining/euro nymphing) and not catching any fish. At some point, I suggest that we add some split shot. Sometimes there is even already some shot on the line. However, it sometimes just isn't enough. The split shot needs to be heavy enough to get the flies down. Depending on stream flow, depth, flies used, and technique, you might need anywhere from one #8 split shot to a string of #1 or even heavier shot. Sometimes just one addition works. Other times it can take two or three. Either way, the best part happens when the first cast is made after the correct amount of shot is added. Almost invariably, the angler will catch a fish. That is a much more effective lesson than simply telling someone they should add more shot if they aren't catching fish. 

Of course, if you add too much shot, you'll be hanging on the bottom continually. Thus, a good rule of thumb is to add shot until you're constantly hanging the bottom. Then, take one off and you should be about right. You want to be ticking the bottom some but not losing flies.

The funny thing about tips and tricks is that sometimes you have to remind yourself about them. Yesterday, after a morning guided trip, I had a little time to kill before heading back home. Last week, on a guided trip, I had come across a couple of nice brown trout that seemed willing to eat dry flies. In fact, we missed one of them on a dry fly that day. I had been wanting to see those fish up close and had already devoted one quick stop to try and catch one to no avail. Yesterday seemed like a good opportunity. 

I got to the chosen spot and waded right in. Drifting a dry fly through the run produced exactly zero takes, so I changed tactics and tied on a nymph rig involving a small pheasant tail nymph and a small hare's ear nymph on 6x tippet. To this, I added two #4 split shot. For the depth and current, that seemed about right since I had small flies and fine tippet. A New Zealand Indicator finished the rig. 

For the next five minutes, I got many drifts through what I thought was the sweet spot. There were exactly zero strikes. Knowing how many fish this pool typically contains, I was a bit shocked. Surely something would want to eat my nymphs! I was just about to give up when it occurred to me that I might not be as deep as I had assumed. Deciding to get to the bottom of things so to speak, I added a #1 shot and now felt confident of getting down. 

On the very next cast, I had a quick hit from an eight inch rainbow that just as quickly released itself. That was enough, however, to convince me to try another five minutes of casts. In fact, it only took about three more casts before the indicator dove convincingly yet again. This time, I could tell there was some heft to the fish. In fact, it didn't want to move where I wanted it to at all!

Babying the 6x tippet, I took plenty of time fighting this beautiful brown trout. Every time I thought it was about whipped, it surged back into the depths. Finally, after a couple of downstream runs that prompted me to follow, I got it close and with the head up, quickly scooped with my net. 

Large Great Smoky Mountains National Park brown trout


This was probably one of the larger brown trout I will catch this year in the Smokies, possibly even the largest. I've had plenty of years where this would be my best Great Smoky Mountain brown trout. Not bad for fifteen minutes or so of fishing and just about as much time fiddling with my rigging. Sometimes you just need more weight. I shouldn't be surprised anymore, but for some reason this lesson always gets me. Anyway, next time you aren't finding success with nymphs, try adding some weight. You just might be surprised...

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Fly Fishing At A Crossroads

Recently, my friend and fellow guide, Travis Williams, sent me a link to an article from Kirk Deeter over at Angling Trade Media. The article asks "Is fly fishing going to "implode" as a result of the pandemic?" In the article (which really resonated with me and which you should read), Deeter explores the current explosion of interest in the sport of fly fishing. Much like the "A River Runs Through It" craze back in the '90s, the current pandemic fueled an explosion in the sport unlike anything we've seen before. This is much bigger than the explosion in the '90s and most likely bigger than anything we'll see in our lifetimes.

At first glance, growth in the sport seems like a positive. After years of hearing about declining fishing and hunting license sales and declining interest in outdoor pursuits, we suddenly have a huge influx of new interest. This has been of huge benefit to those who produce and sell gear and equipment and also for guides to an extent. However, all of this new interest comes at a price. In his article, Deeter says that "We’re in a spot where some lovers of this sport are ready to throw their hands up and walk away, and the newbies are also having gag-reactions to their first impressions, because of the circus atmosphere." 

As a guide, I've seen this first hand. In fact, probably I and my fellow guides are even partly responsible. If we weren't out there taking people fishing, many of them would never have tried a sport that is often viewed as difficult and even elitist. In the Smokies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find open water to fish, either on your own or with clients. In many places, there are increasing calls to limit guides and outfitters as ordinary anglers feel squeezed out of the water they have always fished. This moment is both an opportunity and a danger for our sport. 

Guides like myself will need to take a long hard look at how we do business. For our part at Trout Zone Anglers, we have been intentional about keeping our business small. Most of our friends in the business are doing the same. We also seek to keep rates rising to balance demand. Instead of maximizing the number of clients through cheap trips, we focus instead on quality of both guides and trips and hope our clients appreciate those efforts. Still, we have to recognize that we are yet another one or two of those guides on the water that are adding to the crowding and over utilization of some of our waterways.

Moving forward, our sport will have to take a long hard look at how we do or don't do business. As I've argued before, a piece of the puzzle moving forward will be better management of our fisheries. In some cases, this might be setting and following our own higher standards instead of the ones put in place by the regulating authorities. Catch and release has worked in many of our country's greatest fisheries as a management strategy to promote more and better fish, but it will take time to shift the public opinion in areas such as ours. This is where guides, outfitters and fly shops should come in. 

While we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to screw up our sport, perhaps permanently, we also have a once in a lifetime opportunity to help grow lifelong practitioners of the sport who do things the right way. One unintended consequence of guides in outdoor sports is the notion that if you just pay enough, any inexperienced individual can go and have a once in a lifetime moment or day on the water. Unfortunately, we as guides and outfitters have pushed this notion by filling our social media feeds with tales and pictures of big numbers days, trophy fish, and hero shots. These help sell things, but at what price?

Maybe we need to turn back the clock on our sport at least in some areas. This could happen in a lot of ways, but it is important to consider that the idea of catching lots of big fish has always been a goal yet rarely attained...until now that is. Modern advances in materials, design, and yes, the actual techniques and tactics have allowed us to catch fish more than ever. Euro nymphing, modern streamer techniques, drift boat fishing and more all allow us the opportunity to catch fish regularly that were once just a dream. As a guide in the Smokies, I gravitate towards giving anglers a nymph and an indicator. Even beginners catch start catching fish quickly this way. 

And here is an important point: that is all well and good. These techniques have nothing wrong with them in and of themselves, but they do create one dimensional anglers. Anglers who can successfully catch fish high sticking nymphs under an indicator in the Smokies might struggle wading on low water on the Clinch River. Those who have mastered streamer fishing for big fish on tailwaters might struggle to crack the code during a rare thick hatch in the mountains. As guides, we need to be creating lifelong learners and practitioners of the sport, not just fish mongers. Instead of emphasizing how many or big of fish a client has caught, we need to be celebrating their good execution of a new technique or cast. We need to be teaching them how to decipher what trout want under all scenarios.

But, and this is even more important, we need to teach people to be satisfied sooner rather than later. When you have hit twenty trout in the first two hours on nymphs, it is time to experiment. Teach people to have that same experimental interest that drives us to tie on a dry fly even when we're killing it on nymphs. When the fish are really biting is the time to experiment, not necessarily when the fish have lockjaw. While it is fun to sometimes catch 100 fish in a day, if everyone out there was doing so, our fisheries would really begin to suffer quickly. 

Back in the purist days, anglers would sit by the stream to wait for the hatch. In fact, there are still anglers who prefer to fish this way. I've seen them sitting on the banks of the Firehole River in Yellowstone and resting pools in the Smokies. Setting yourself the goal of catching fish on a dry fly adds a level of difficulty that gives the fish some refuge. Instead of probing every inch of the water column, perhaps we need to be giving them a chance. Those modern techniques and materials have made it ever easier to catch fish. Flies like the squirmy worm are dangerously close to fishing with lures instead of flies, yet we keep on pushing the envelope when it comes to fly development. At what point do we realize we have sold out our sport? At what point do we have too great an advantage over the fish we seek?

Does this mean we need to return to the days of fishing with bamboo and dry flies fished upstream only? No, or at least, not for everyone. However, we do need to be encouraging our fellow anglers to progress. For some, that might mean learning to nymph with a strike indicator. For others, that might mean graduating to high sticking without an indicator. Others yet might be ready to progress to limiting themselves to dry flies on occasion or perhaps learning the bugs so they can match the hatch when it happens. In other words, instead of glorifying the result of many large fish caught, we need to promote the process. That is what makes our sport so interesting and is what will bring lasting enjoyment to all the new anglers in the sport. If we all slow down and enjoy the process, we might not be running around as fast as possible, running over each other in the process.

Part of this process has historically been rooted in a lot of tradition. Many of those traditions are good or even great. Some not so much. The elitist attitude that has long encumbered our sport should be left behind. The idea of harvesting your catch also needs to be left behind, and instead, we need to teach good catch and release techniques. We also need to leave behind the outdated idea that fly fishing is for well heeled gentlemen only. Fly fishing is for everyone.

Some old traditions need to return, however. The often unspoken ideas of stream etiquette probably need to be broadcast louder than ever. One byproduct of the huge influx of new participants has been a rapid distancing from our polite past. Often, anglers view each other as competitors or worse. I can't begin to count all the times I've started to generally wander towards a piece of water only to have someone else go running to make sure they get there first. The telltale signs are all too obvious when someone is trying to win a footrace to their chosen water. Not too long ago, many anglers would stop to chat with each other and get an idea of where everyone wanted to fish. People would make concessions and everyone would be satisfied with their own bit of water.

As a guide, I greatly appreciate and respect my amazing so called competition. In my own sphere, at least, there is a level of respect and courtesy among the various guides. Rob Fightmaster and Ian and Charity Rutter immediately come to mind as guides who regularly go out of their way to ask where I'm planning to fish with my clients. I've also received the same courtesy from guides like CJ Stancil of Smoky Mountain Angler. I always try to return the favor and even extend that to other anglers I meet out on the water. Unfortunately, I know this level of professional kindness and respect is not universal. At least in some places, guiding is rumored to be a cutthroat business. As guides, we need to be modeling the behavior we hope our clients will develop, and it is crucial that we teach etiquette to our clients.

I'll never forget when I had a couple of newbies out on the water one day in the Smokies a few years back. We were fishing some favorite roadside water on a less than crowded day. There were plenty of empty pullouts along Little River Road. In other words, it was a great day to be out fishing. We had been fishing for about 10 minutes and were just about to start working upstream towards the next run when another vehicle pulled into our pullout. An angler jumped out, grabbed all his equipment, and started hustling up the road. He looked like he had just stepped out of an Orvis catalogue if you know what I mean. As soon as he got to the next run 20 yards upstream, he jumped into the stream and started to fish. The anglers with me looked shocked. One of them turned to me and said, "He really isn't supposed to do that, is he?" Even a beginner with minimal experience knew better than to act the way this guy did. Yet, there is at least the possibility that this guy really didn't have a clue. Maybe no one ever told him.

As guides, we are in an excellent place to educate the next generation of anglers, but it can't be left just to us. While many anglers choose to use a guide to get started or progress in the sport, there are plenty of others who choose not to or cannot afford to. That is where fly shops and outfitters come in. If you work in the fly fishing industry, cut back a little on the focus of helping people catch tons of fish. Yes, you want them to find success, because a successful angler will come back to purchase more flies, equipment, tackle, and all the other necessary stuff, but we need to instill in new anglers the love of the process. Part of the process is slowing down, and taking things as they come. We should only take what the stream offers. We should show courtesy to fellow anglers. We should bring back the days of stream side chats with other anglers to ask where they want to fish and then making every effort to give them the water they were hoping for. 

We have the opportunity almost every time we get out on the water to teach someone whether we are guiding or not. If it is done in kindness, then it is much more likely to make a difference. The health of our sport needs this. The health of our fisheries needs us to be satisfied with not just catching fish but in enjoying the process itself. Learn good fish handling techniques if you must handle them at all. Keep fish in the water. Skip harvesting any fish, always. Even with more people than ever out there fly fishing, we have the ability to improve the fishing, but it will take all of us working together to make it happen.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Flipping A Switch

There is never a dull moment when you are fishing as long as you approach each trip with a learning mindset. Some days the action is fast and furious. Often, I'll stick with what is working and simply try to catch as many fish as I can. Other times, I'll start experimenting. When the fishing is good is a great time to find out what will and also what won't work. Of course, when the fishing gets tough, you find out what truly works. Magic flies or techniques are few and far between, so most people keep them close under their hat when they discover such a thing.

Many days of fishing progress predictably with hot and cold stretches as fish shift through their daily cycle. This cycle changes month to month, season to season. In fact, it often changes from day to day.

The average day in the mountains depends a lot on the time of year. For example, during the summer, the best fishing is often early and late in the day with the fish taking a break during the hotter hours of midday. The bright sun overhead probably doesn't help either. In the cool of morning, both trout and the bugs they feed on are active. During the spring, the best fishing is often in the middle of the day. Additional factors can often wreak havoc on these norms, however.

Last week, on a guided fly fishing trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, we were reminded about the natural rhythm and how sensitive it often is. Our day started with mostly sunny skies. Occasional clouds did not stick around long. The bright sunlight allowed the water temperature to begin climbing. This time of year, that almost guarantees bugs. Fish moved up into the faster riffles and heads of pools as they fed on nymphs that were rapidly preparing to hatch. By around 11:00 am, some adults were beginning to hatch and fish responded enthusiastically.


About that same time, the wind started to pick up and the sky filled with clouds. Around 12:30 pm, the wind shifted rapidly and temperatures started to plummet. What had been a promising hatch dried up entirely by 1:30 pm with the last fish taken on a dry fly at about 1:15 pm. The abrupt change in water temperature made all the difference in the world. It was like flipping a switch. One minute we were casting to risers and the next our day was effectively over.

If the water temperature had kept rising, in other words, if the cold front didn't pass, the clouds in and of themselves were not an issue. In fact, some of my best spring dry fly fishing happens on lousy weather days with clouds or even rain. That said, once a cold front passes and the water temperatures start dropping, bugs usually shut down along with the fish, although not always.

That "not always" is what keeps it interesting. Blue winged olives come to mind as a bug that loves lousy weather days. Interestingly, a big cold front early in the fall can have the opposite effect, setting off a feeding frenzy.

Sometimes, the switch gets flipped but it is more like a gradually dying campfire flicker instead of a lightbulb going off. One of my best days ever fishing in the Park was in May quite a few years ago. I had hiked in a long ways, earning myself solitude and good fishing in the process. The rainbows, browns, and even a brook trout or two were greedy. By the end of the day, I had caught 70 trout, all on dry flies. By the end of the day, I was probably working a little too hard, wanting to hit that nice round number. Regardless, things just sort of slowed down. I remember getting hung up on several numbers, 65 for example was hard to get past. That said, the fishing slowed down and finally quit. Number 70 almost didn't happen, but one suicidal brook trout just couldn't help itself.

That was a strange day, not bad, just strange. It was the day I knew it was going to be good fishing. That may not seem too odd, but I also knew I was going to see a bear. Up until then, I had never seen one while fishing. It happened too. Go check out the full story via the link above.

On the very best days, it seems you can do no wrong as an angler. Those days are rare, however, and should be full savored when they do happen to come around. The rest of the time, be prepared for that switch too flip. It could go from poor fishing to excellent, or it could be the other way. Whatever happens though, don't stop learning...

Friday, October 21, 2016

Solo Mission

Despite having the boat for going on three years, I had never been on a solo journey until last week. For me, floating is as much a good time with friends as it is a fishing trip, so I had not dealt with the hassle of unloading and loading a boat by myself yet. Finally, with the river fishing so well, that moment arrived when I could not find any friends to float at the last minute, and I was faced with either floating solo or not going. Solo it was...

Everything was already rigged and ready to go from the previous day's guide trip which had been epic enough to motivate me to float on my own. I was about to continue a current trend I've been experiencing: banner days with clients and slow days on my own.

To be fair, I usually experiment at least half of the time when I'm fishing on my own. After all, that is how I dial in new patterns and continue the endless innovation required to keep putting people on big tailwater trout. There is no substitute for testing flies on real live trout. In other words, I have to go fishing so I can be successful at my job. I know, life is tough.

This trip began smoothly and before long I was cruising down the river, being tossed to and fro with the strong winds. That wasn't in the bargain. The weather reports lately have been terribly optimistic when it comes to wind. A standard forecast has been "partly cloudy with calm winds." When it claims  that winds will be light up to 5 miles per hour, I know I'll be fighting the wind all day long. Either forecast usually results in variable winds with gusts up to 20 miles per hour. Go figure. Variable meaning they vary in intensity and direction. The winds come from all points of the compass. So, fishing by myself was possible if the calm winds forecasted materialized. As it turned out, I had to anchor up to fish some parts of the river. There was simply no way to track straight without constantly working the oars which made it difficult to also work the fly rod.

Thankfully, in some sections the wind would magically die down for anywhere from 30 seconds to sometimes 15 or 20 minutes. Those were the easy times, were my drifts were perfect and long, and the indicator dipped just often enough to keep me interested.

One section gets hit by every boat coming down the river, so I realized I needed to fish it differently. That meant choosing a line that was not the same as other boats. This was one of the calm sections so I could managed to fish effectively without fighting the boat. A long drift was in the process of becoming longer when the indicator shot down. The fight literally took me all over the river, and I almost lost the fish due to some submerged structure, but eventually a beautiful holdover rainbow graced my net. I was all set up to take pictures quickly without stressing the fish and tried it out for the first time on this fish. Turned out well I think!


The float would continue about the same. Lots of wind, a few fish, lots of relaxation. Late in the day, I hit a shoal that has been fishing well and anchored up for some of the best action of the trip. Back to back to back to...well, you get the point. Several casts in a row produced fish, and although none were large, I was happy to enjoy these beautiful rainbow and brown trout. This was the first truly good consistent action of the day so I probably stayed out longer than I should have.


I never did find any of the big fish I was hoping to catch. That is the funny thing. I've had a lot of great days lately with clients still catching several big fish, but more often than not I'm only catching normal fish whatever that means. The big brown trout have eluded me since that bruiser back in August. I've been having a great time though regardless of whether I've been catching big trout. My clients have and that is the important part. I enjoy watching others catch big fish at least as much as I enjoy catching them myself. Want to see some of these big fish? Check out my Instagram and Facebook Accounts (search for Trout Zone Anglers).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Prime Dates Still Open

If you have been thinking about a guided fly fishing trip in the Smokies, do not delay too long. The calendar is really filling up although I still have some of the best days of possibly the entire year available during the first week in May. Right now, I have Tuesday through Friday available, May 5-8. I do have some scattered dates available the rest of the month for weekdays. That is great if your goal is for good fishing as weekdays will see smaller crowds and less pressured fish. If you are interested in a guided fly fishing trip, contact me today to discuss details and trip options. Email is the best option at TroutZoneAnglers@gmail.com or you can call/text (931) 261-1884. The first option is more reliable as I'm often out of cell service guiding.

This has been a banner spring so far with some very good dry fly fishing at times and consistent nymph fishing most of the time. Fish are fat and healthy and looking for a meal. Bugs are hatching well now although May is usually considered the very best month for fishing in the Smokies. Don't miss out!