Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth
Showing posts with label Great Smoky Mountains. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Great Smoky Mountains. Show all posts

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Quick Getaway

Fishing trips are few and far between these days, at least the kind where I get to hold the fly rod and do the catching. One amazing perk of life as a fly fishing guide is getting to be on the water every day. However, your own personal fishing time usually suffers. This year, I'll fish even less than usual since we have a little one on the way. Last week, I enjoyed what will probably be the last overnight fishing trip until fall at the earliest. It was a much needed getaway to get me excited about the guide season that is now in full swing. 

Spring Hatches

The first hatches of spring have commenced. Quill gordon and blue quill mayflies are hatching well most days and provided excellent dry fly fishing on the Oconaluftee River. On the first day, in particular, my friend and fellow guide Pat Tully and I took our time seeking out risers in the afternoon. The hatch was a bit slow to get started with very cool overnight temperatures. Once it started though, we found rising trout the rest of the day until quitting for the evening. 

Blue quills have the edge in numbers, but where quill gordon mayflies hatch in enough numbers, the trout get excited about them. That said, we caught a lot more rising trout that we targeted with smaller patterns instead of larger. In addition to the mayflies, we are seeing good numbers of early brown stoneflies, little black stoneflies, and little black caddis. Midges hatch prolifically every day as well.

Fishing the Oconaluftee

I enjoyed this river all three days, but really focused on it the first and last day of my trip. The surprising part of the trip was how poorly certain sections fished. That is typical of early season fishing, however, and probably has a lot to do with the fact that the wild rainbows are largely busy spawning right now. Thankfully, the brown trout were looking up by afternoon every day and we caught enough to keep busy. Here are a couple of pictures from my time on the Oconaluftee. 



Fishing Noland Creek

One thing I have become much more intentional about the last few years is trying new and different things. That is how I stay interested and enjoy fly fishing even while my career means I'm on the water every day. This has been a huge benefit to me over the last few years. I've got to explore more and further, and fishing new water is always a blast. 

On this trip, I was debating fishing Deep Creek which is a long time personal favorite. When it came time to head over there, I even stopped by the parking area at the trailhead. However, I decided to continue my policy of trying new places to fish at least once per trip. This led me on a short drive down the Road to Nowhere to fish Noland Creek. 


Now, this wasn't the first time I've fished Noland Creek. I had fished there before, but always down towards Fontana Lake. I've caught some nice fish down that way as well as seeing some big bear tracks along the lake shore. Anyway, this trip would be my first time venturing upstream from the Road to Nowhere.

When I got to the parking lot, I took my time rigging up. No one else was there, so I didn't need to rush to find that perfect place to fish. After checking and double checking to make sure I had packed my light lunch, I headed down the trail. It really didn't take too long before I just couldn't help it anymore and had to duck in and start fishing. This is one of the prettiest streams and was just the perfect size to fish. The fish were not large, but they were willing for the most part. Here is one of the larger rainbows. Notice all the spots. 


Over the next few hours, I caught and released 30 or more wild rainbow trout. Supposedly there are some brown trout in Noland Creek as well, but I never found any. The rainbows were absolutely stunning. Since we are right around the spawn, they are colored up about as well as you'll ever find them. This one had fewer spots but a stunning red stripe.


One rainbow even had some "cutthroat" markings that suggested something other than pure rainbow trout in its lineage. You see that on most Smokies streams from time to time. Way back in the day, hatcheries were sending all types of trout all over the place. Official stocking records don't ever show cutthroat being stocked in the Smokies, but some of the fish certainly appear to have a few cutthroat trout genes. This fish looked a lot like cutthroat and had almost no spotting but had the red slash under the jaw like a cuttbow.



The fishing was fairly simple, with a Parachute Adams or Pheasant Tail nymph doing most of the damage. While I caught good numbers overall, I still had to work just a little. By the time I fished, ate some lunch, and caught a few more fish, I was getting tired. I decided to walk out before it got too late. Surprisingly, there were several cars in the parking area with at least a few people now fishing close to the road. Still, this seems to be a generally underutilized stream overall. 

A Good Trip

Overall, this was an excellent trip and a nice quick escape before I'm slammed with guide trips. I'll probably end up with one or two more days to fish if I choose to do so this spring, otherwise I'll be busy for a good long while before I get out to fish again. 

Instead of fishing, I'll be thinking about past and future fishing trips. Coming up soon, I'll try to share the next installment from our Glacier trip. The last full day in Glacier is next, then it is on to the fishing part of the trip!






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? 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Great Smoky Mountain Brown Trout Extravaganza

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

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

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

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


Large male brown trout in the Smokies


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


Smoky Mountain brown trout


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

 

Healthy brown trout

Nice catch and release brown trout


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


Big brown trout spots

Small female brown trout


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

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

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

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

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


Big female brown trout in the Smokies


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

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

One more look at the big female brown trout before release

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Post Spawn Smoky Mountain Brown Trout

The fall brown trout spawn has recently wrapped up for another year. Things seemed a bit later than usual, although there were fish spawning by the first or second week of November. This is a time of year to use extra care while wading and fishing. Spawning fish should be allowed to do their thing in peace. After the fact, it is essential that anglers avoid wading on the redds. Doing so will crush the eggs that were deposited there and severely impact the next generation. They already have enough challenges in reproducing. 

After the spawn is over, the fish feed heavily as we move into the winter months. The fish are trying to regain body mass after the rigors of spawning. This can be some of the most exciting fishing of the year but also perhaps some of the most miserable. That is because the weather often leaves a lot to be desired.

Last week, I had a free day and decided to go fishing for myself. The day started out perfectly and just got better from there. The sky was threatening snow, and snow days have been some incredible producers for me in the past. The temperature started in the low 40s and fell throughout the day. 

The first caught fish of the day was one I spotted on my second or third stop. I was looking as much as fishing at this point. However, when I noticed a hefty brown trout holding near the back of a quality run, I couldn't resist fishing. 

I had been walking and looking without a rod. This is a sure way to guarantee that you actually spend time looking, not fishing. After spotting the fish, I took the time to walk back to the car and rig up appropriately. A big black wooly bugger seemed like the right idea, and I added a worm as a dropper. Winter fish really like both of those flies for whatever reason. 

Back on the water, I took a minute to find my fish again. Sure enough, it was still hanging out in the same general area. I noticed that it ate something drifting by and started to feel the excitement surge. This was a feeding fish and feeding fish are catchable fish. Clambering down the bank took some doing. I dealt with a bum ankle for part of November and wasn't interested in aggravating the high ankle sprain again. Thankfully, each step on the slick leaves held, and I was soon standing on the stream bank. Sneaking upstream along the bank, I reached the point where I would begin my stalk. 

The fish was sitting in a nearly perfect spot, not too far above a large mid stream boulder. Cover like this can make or break a stalk of a big brown. In my case, the fish never knew I was coming because of the ability to sneak in behind the rock. Once I arrived in position, it was time to actually execute. This is NOT the moment to rush. Do everything right, and you catch the fish. It is that simple most of the time. Rushing is probably the quickest way I know to blow a good fish. I've done it many times in fact...

My leader was quite long, enabling me to keep the fish from seeing the fly line. I was using a 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon. The extra reach was going to be critical to keeping the leader and line from getting pulled through the riffle below the run before the fish had time to find the flies. Working out the leader and then some line, I false cast a couple of times to judge the distance. Then I slung all the flies in the riffle below me. I like to water load these casts. It helps to guarantee where the flies are going on the presentation cast. 

Taking a deep breath, I knew that it was time. I quickly made a casting stroke under some low hanging branches and the flies landed a few feet upstream of the fish. My flies were perfectly visible in the clear water. I watched as the brown trout slid to his left and ate the wooly bugger. With just a slight hesitation to let him close his mouth, I gave a strong hookset and couldn't believe when the fly stuck. Some days you just get lucky. I'm always leery of first cast fish, but if they are this quality, then I'm glad to get skunked the rest of the day. On this day, however, things would only get better...

The fight was relatively quick. The flex in the 10' rod allowed me to push the fish hard on the 4x tippet. In what seemed like no time, I had the fish in the net and ready for a couple of pictures. The main reason I carry a large net is to keep fish healthy in between pictures, and I wasn't taking chances with such a gorgeous brown trout. Just a quick lift and snap, and I had the memory. 

While I didn't know it at the time, this would be the first of many fine brown trout on the day. More about that next time... In that moment, though, I just sat down on the bank and took it all in. Big brown trout are always a treat and this one was a beauty. 

Little River post spawn brown trout


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Stealth Mode: Light and Shadows

The original idea of "Stealth Mode" was created for an article I did in the Little River Journal quite a few years ago. Yesterday, while on a guide trip, something happened that is quite common, yet it struck me in a special way. It reminded me of the original premise of Stealth Mode and so I decided to expand on that original idea.

There are a multitude of opinions and ideas about the importance of stealth in fly fishing. Probably more accurately, I should say there are lots of opinions and ideas about the importance of different elements of stealth, such as whether clothing color matters. Thus, for this article, I'm going to mention up front that I'm writing mostly from the perspective of fly fishing in the Smokies. Furthermore, I'm quite interested in differing opinions or ideas because I can always learn more, so please leave a comment if you have similar or other ideas on the subject!

The moment that motivated this particular "Light and Shadows" version of Stealth Mode happened when my client and I were faced with a choice: cross the creek where I normally do, or continue working up the bank we were already on. I had already mentioned to him that we should cross when I looked upstream and noticed the distinct difference. The far (east) bank was lit up by the late afternoon sun slanting in from the southwest. The near (west) bank was shaded by the overhanging trees and rhododendron. Plenty of light was coming through increasingly bare branches, but there was definitely a LOT more light on the other bank. If we moved up that side of the creek, we would practically be glowing. Not a good way to approach fish if you ask me! 


Fly fishing from the shady bank on Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains


So, I mentioned our options to him, and we decided to stay on the near side of the stream. Turns out it was a good decision as we caught a fish shortly just upstream. If we had been on the other bank, I'm not so certain that a caught fish would have been the result. In fact, based on all the fish that I had seen spooking out ahead of us in the seasonally low water of fall, I doubt we would have caught any fish in that pool. 

I should take a minute to add a caveat. This advice applies more than anything to flatter water such as the long pool we were approaching when this moment happened. In broken pocket water, you can often get much closer to the fish, especially as long as you stay relatively low. The fast water helps hide your approach. That said, we continued on up around the bend on the shady side of the stream, and I think it helped us out. The difference between the two banks was at times striking and at other times less obvious, but staying in the shadows is generally a good idea in the Smokies.



In addition to considering which side is sunny or shady, you should also consider your own shadow. As we moved upstream, the late day sun was slanting across the river from our left. At times, our shadows were falling across the stream in the direction we wanted to fish. Sending a big dark shadow over a pool is as good a way to spook fish as anything I know. Instead, fish from further back. In fact, it would probably be better to cross over and fish from the sunny bank instead of casting a shadow across the pool. 

So, next time you are out fly fishing, consider being stealthy as more than just sneaking up behind boulders and crawling on the ground to approach a fish. Consider the light and how you interact with it. That consideration could make or break your fishing trip. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Fishing Report and Synopsis: May 31, 2020

Wow, what a lot has happened since the last fishing report update. I had to quit guiding for the month of April as the Great Smoky Mountains were closed due to COVID-19. In March and April, I typically book all or nearly all guided trips for the Smokies as water levels are normally great along with hatches and willing trout. With tailwaters running high, there just wasn't any way to rebook guide trips and people weren't really traveling anyway. Fast forward to May, and things are quickly returning to normal in terms of guide trips/business, but the threat of the virus still looms and we are taking appropriate precautions to keep everyone safe and healthy.

I have spent most of my time on the tailwaters this month, especially the Caney Fork. It has fished very well and of course the fishing in the Smokies has been good also. Unfortunately, I have good and bad news on both fronts.

In the Smokies, the light colored bugs of late spring and summer are here and have been for a while. The sulfur hatch was particularly strong this year and now the little yellow stoneflies are out in force. That means good fishing for the near term at least. Good water levels continue to be the story as it is raining more often than not this year. Hopefully we'll continue to stay wet, at least up in the mountains, and fishing will remain strong right through the warm summer months. Expect the yellow bugs to continue. Some larger golden stoneflies should be around and offer the larger fish some big bites. Don't forget terrestrials now as we transition into summer. Green weenies, beetles, and ants are all important at times in the mountains. The one small sliver of bad news? Crowds are as bad as I've ever seen them in the Smokies. The National Park Service is keeping the Elkmont area closed for some reason with the official reasoning having to do with COVID-19. That means a longer walk if you want to fish upper Little River. Otherwise, most of the Park is open and accessible now.

The Caney Fork was fishing great the last few weeks. It looked like we were on target for a good to excellent year of fishing there. Unfortunately, the Corps of Engineers slammed the brakes on that at least temporarily by conducting spill operations on the Caney this weekend. Why in the world you would dump warm lake water into a cold water fishery is beyond me. In fact, on Saturday, the generator was even shut off for about an hour, meaning the ONLY flow was warm lake water. After all the river has been through, I can't believe that they decided the best idea was warm water. We can only hope that the fish hunkered down and made it through. As long as the generator is on, there might still be enough cool water to not kill all the trout. Unfortunately, this surge in water temperatures is going to draw all the stripers up into the river now. That will probably mean the end of good spring fishing on the Caney about a week or two earlier than normal. If the trout make it through the spill operations the past couple of days, then we might have some decent fishing a bit longer, but things are probably on the annual downward spiral now. I just hope I'm wrong about that. The one silver lining this year is that the dam is being operated on a normal schedule, meaning there is more cold water storage available for summer and fall. Hopefully there will be some trout left to take advantage of that.

Smallmouth streams have been often running too high for good wade fishing like I enjoy. Over the next 1-3 weeks, that should change and with the heat of summer will come good smallmouth fishing here on the Cumberland Plateau.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Fishing Report and Synopsis: March 24, 2020

You may have already noticed some changes around here. The first and most important is that I'm changing how this fishing report displays. Instead of a static block at the top of this blog, I'm now going to try and keep an updated fishing report up as a blog post. That could mean weekly, and hopefully it will at least mean monthly. If things get too crazy, maybe I'll even do one more often than that.

Speaking of crazy, the shutdown of life as we know it is accelerating right now. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is officially closed at least through April 6. Unlike some past closures, you are NOT allowed to enter the Park even on foot at this point. While it seems like the great outdoors is one of the best places to be right now, apparently too many popular trails and features were still crowded with people ignoring current social distancing guidelines. Since the Park closed down all facilities including restrooms, this is probably for the best. Lots of people don't know how to go in the woods if you know what I mean.

For me, this means I'm out of work for at least the next couple of weeks. This is a very tough time to be running out of work since early spring is an important time to start making money again after a couple of winter months not guiding much. Hopefully this whole thing blows over quickly and we can all get back to work, fishing, family get togethers, and everything else we're missing out on.

If you are sitting at home bored, take some time to scroll through old blog posts here. Share them with a friend or family member. More page views here means at least a small chance of making up a little lost revenue here on the blog. Not enough, but every little bit helps.

Now, on to what you were really wanting to hear about: the fishing. The fishing was good to excellent in the Smokies the past few days before this closure. I was very fortunate to have scheduled a cabin stay with my wife before this all got crazy, so we spent a few days late last week and through the weekend enjoying the Park. Hiking, looking for wildflowers, photography, and of course fishing were all on our list of things to do. We accomplished all of them! Some streams were only mediocre, while others were excellent. The dry fly fishing has been okay but not great, but nymphing has been very good. We hit some small streams that I've been wanting to fish for a while and found eager fish everywhere. A Guides Choice Hares Ear nymph along with a Tellico nymph proved to be a big hit when high sticking. On this trip, I taught my wife to high stick and she picked it up quickly. Of course, she caught the largest fish of the trip as well. For full disclosure, this fish was caught while indicator fishing but we spent more time high sticking than not.


With lots of rain forecast, fishing won't be great anywhere for at least a few days unless your thing is high water and big streamers. In that case, the Clinch or Caney Fork might be a good option to get outside and enjoy some fresh air. An extended dry spell is looking more likely starting by next week or early April. That has been our norm for the last few years, so look for flows to drop rapidly and become fishable by mid to late April on many area rivers.

Smallmouth will start turning on when flows are reasonable. We hope to be out chasing them sooner rather than later.

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...

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.





Sunday, April 28, 2019

Fly Fishing The Bend Around Bumgardner Ridge on Deep Creek

The Bend. Bumgardner Ridge. The stuff of legend. This is remote Smoky Mountain fishing at its finest. Inaccessible water that rarely gets fished, this is just what everyone is looking for. It also happens to be some of the toughest water I have ever fished, and it is about as remote as you can get. Our day started a bit earlier than the previous day. We would need to walk about three miles back down the trail before reaching our entry point for the day's fishing. Breakfast was quickly cooked and eaten, lunches were stowed in our day packs, and we hit the trail.

On the hike down, I kept getting distracted by the wildflowers. The day was about as perfect as can be for an early spring hike. Many wildflowers were spotted on this trip, but as the focus was on fishing, I eventually pulled myself away and kept moving down the trail. I took quite a few pictures of the flowers, but most don't do them justice. These two will probably make you think that everything blooming was purple which isn't true. They just happened to be two of the better shots I got. By the way, explain to me why those violets are called "Blue" if you can. They look purple to me and my eye doctor assures me that I am not color blind.

Great Smoky Mountain Dwarf Crested Iris along Deep Creek
"Dwarf Crested Iris" ©2019 David Knapp Photography

Great Smoky Mountain Common Blue Violets along Deep Creek
"Common Blue Violets" ©2019 David Knapp Photoraphy

When we reached campsite #60, we also reached the access point for our fishing marathon. The bend around Bumgardner Ridge features a lot of high gradient water and this starts immediately above this backcountry campsite. In fact, we were almost tempted to bail on this fishing trip before we made it more than a hundred yards. The water was still on the high side from lots of recent rainfall. This made moving back and forth across the stream challenging at best.

We weren't catching fish at a lightning pace either. Because this water is close to a backcountry campsite, the first few hundred yards assumedly receives a fair amount of fishing pressure. As we moved higher up the drainage, we began to feel like we were truly on remote waters. The trail here loops far back from the stream as it crosses Bumgardner Ridge. Thus, once we entered this section, we were committed to make it through or have to wade all the way back down to our starting point.

Fish started to show up, although not in huge numbers. We caught one here and one there, but never several in one spot. More than anything, this was a product of heavy water that was borderline for fishing in many spots. Some of the better pocket water was simply too fast and turbulent. Here, my buddy John fishes one pocket next to a rapid. Once the water drops a bit more, what was then heavy water will turn into the best fishing water in this section. Overall, I think this section would fish better in the summer or even fall.

Smokies fly fishing on Deep Creek

Great Smoky Mountains fly fishing on Deep Creek

Moving on up the river, we came to several gorgeous pools. There were probably 4 or 5 excellent pools in this whole stretch. In other words, a LOT of wading and a LOT of work for a few prime fishing spots. We persevered, however, and were rewarded with some beautiful wild rainbow and brown trout. This is the Great Smoky Mountains backcountry, and the real reward here is a pristine and remote environment where you won't see another angler all day. This seems to be increasingly hard to find these days. For this reason, the fishing was great even while the catching was a little slow.

Deep Creek brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains

By mid day, the fish were looking up and we kept switching between nymph rigs and dry/dropper rigs depending on the water type. As much as possible we stuck with the dry fly setups. A seriously good hatch never really materialized on this trip, but there were enough bugs around to get the attention of the trout. John got several dry fly eats in this hole, for example.

In the Great Smoky Mountains on Deep Creek, we find the Orvis 10' 3 weight rod in its natural habitat



An angler on Deep Creek in the Smokies hooks a nice trout and gets the rod bent

John was fishing an Orvis Superfine rod which was perfect for dry flies on this type of water. I had brought an Orvis 10' 3 weight Recon which not only fishes dry flies very well, but is also perfect for high sticking nymphs as anglers have done in the Smokies for a 100 years. Back in the day it was done with a long cane pole, and today we use modern graphite fly rods, but otherwise the techniques are still nearly identical. The long rod is used to run heavily weighted nymphs through deep dark runs where trout like to hide and the result is truly amazing.

There are many fish in these creeks and an angler who is effective at high sticking will find lots of those trout. While similar to the newer techniques known collectively as "euro nymphing," high sticking still has its own distinct flavor. For example, on this trip I left the sighter or indicator tippet at home. Split shot is used in addition to weighted flies. There are other subtle differences, but in reality euro nymphing is a new spin on an old method we have been using for a long time here in east Tennessee.



Even in the high water, stealth was important. We were able to get closer than usual, but still made sure to stay low and sneak up on the trout. The fish in the Smokies are some of the spookiest I've ever fished for. If I could share one piece of knowledge with visiting anglers, it would be to focus on stealth. Dress to blend in with your surroundings, stay low, and think like a predator. Stalk the trout you are after.

By late afternoon, we were both getting tired. This had turned into one of the longest and hardest days of fishing I've ever had in the Smokies, but I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. This was a long time goal of mine, and I'm thrilled to have finally made it to fly fish around the bend below Bumgardner Ridge. We had taken some very specific observations early that morning on the hike in and now we got out of the creek a bit short of the accepted exit point for this stretch which is directly across from Bridge Creek. We climbed out before that and were glad that we did. Both of us were tired and that is when accidents usually start to happen. Better to quit and fish another day than to push on and get injured.

Back in camp that evening, we discussed the next day. Our original itinerary involved moving upstream to a couple more camps over the next two nights, finally exiting to Newfound Gap Road on Monday. The last weather report we got called for rain and storms on Sunday as well as a good chance of rain on Saturday. We knew the fishing would get tough if we stayed and decided that hiking out the following morning would be the best plan. Neither of us was dying to stay holed up in a tent while it rained or, even worse, stormed all day. This proved to be an excellent decision but we wouldn't know how good until the next day.

Deep Creek is one of my favorite fly fishing destinations in the Smokies. While I don't always catch as many trout as on other streams of the Smokies, something good always happens. On this trip, it was beginning to look like the "something good" for this trip was fulfilling my longtime goal of fishing around Bumgardner Ridge, but we still had the hike out.

To be continued...


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Return To An Old Favorite: Deep Creek

Rivers are like old friends. You may not see each other for a while, but when you do, things pick back up right where you left off. Deep Creek on the North Carolina side of the Smokies is just like that for me. I'll routinely go several months and often more like years between trips there, but each time I stop by, it always seems to show off for me. I once caught my largest brown trout at that point in my angling career in the Great Smoky Mountains in Deep Creek. I've also spent more long hiking days there then anywhere else in the Park, at least with a fly rod in hand.

My favorite trips have tended to be multi-day backcountry trips. Several days in the woods with a fly rod is good for the soul. That said, I'm selfishly glad that more people aren't lining up to try it out. Solitude is always a huge part of the draw for me when I'm in the mountains. I've made many good memories on Deep Creek, and I just got back from yet another incredible excursion.

The most recent trip happened the way most trips do, with an offhand comment. When my friend John mentioned that he enjoyed backpacking, I agreed with a "if you ever want company on a trip let me know."  Several months later, we both had cabin fever and were thinking about the good fishing of spring. I have fished nearly all of Deep Creek at some point or another, but never in one sitting. I floated the idea of a hike from top to bottom or perhaps bottom to top and John quickly agreed. From there on, the trip took a life of its own.

Once permits were secured, we were mostly committed to heading in on a Wednesday and not hiking out until a Monday, a glorious five nights and six days in the backcountry. I say mostly because the whims of weather, among other things, are what actually dictates any camping trip. While I have no problem roughing it, I also don't want to be in the middle of the mountains during an extreme weather event. Then, two weeks before the scheduled departure date, I came down with the flu. Staring at a hard deadline to get well, I committed to lots of rest and plenty of fluids and Vitamin C.

The weekend before our trip started, I found myself hiking 5+ miles and feeling good the next day, so things were looking up. After following that up with a couple of days of guiding, I knew that I would be fine. I had scheduled Tuesday off, so it was spent with a last minute trip to the grocery for a few food items and with packing which consists of cramming way too much stuff into my old Lowe Alpine backpack.

My packing list seemed a mile long, yet I couldn't reasonably get rid of too many things from that list: backpack, tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow (a tiny inflatable job), headlamp, trekking poles, various items of clothing, jacket, rain jacket, TP, bear spray (a simple precaution), cookware, cookstove, fuel, food, water filter, water bottle, camera, oh and plenty of fishing gear. I normally carry way more fishing stuff than I need and this trip was about par for the course. The highlight of this particular trip was my new Patagonia ultralight wading pants. I think they call them the Gunnison wading pants. Turns out they were one of the better purchases I have made in a while along with the ultralight wading boots from the same company. My wading gear now weighed less than just my usual wading boots. They are great boots, I should add, but a little heavy for backcountry camping. In the end, I was torn between wet wading and taking my new wading pants, but ultimately I knew that the water would be cold in the mornings if nothing else.

Finally, the big day had arrived and we met up in Townsend at Little River Outfitters. This allowed us to get any last minute necessities if we thought of something. From there, we made the drive over the ridge on highway 441. Lunch was a quick stop for Italian food in Bryson City and plenty of carbs to power our hike. Over lunch, we made what turned out to be a very smart decision. With the weather forecast was looking good, up until Saturday. From there on, it would deteriorate to a day of rain and perhaps storms on Sunday. We decided that the smart thing would be to hike out on Saturday before the nasty weather arrived.

Hitting the trail, we finally started towards our destination for the next three nights, backcountry campsite #58. The spring wildflowers were blooming in profusion, and I was wishing that the camera wasn't packed away so efficiently. We really needed to make it to camp, though, so I mostly left it alone. The one exception to that was when I saw a Painted Trillium by the side of the trail. This was a treat, especially at the lower elevation we were hiking at. I took off my heavy pack and dug out the camera for a quick picture.

Deep Creek trail and a Painted Trillium


Continuing along, we managed the always painful climb over Bumgardner Ridge before descending back to the creek. The final approach to our campsite featured a series of short climbs and descents with some level stretches mixed in for good measure. The trail sticks to the east side of Deep Creek except in the lowest reaches, so there is a lot of up and down as the creek meanders up against the steep hillsides. Finally, we passed campsite #59 and then Nick's Nest Branch. As we turned the corner from the creek, our campsite was dead ahead. As it turns out, #58 was a very nice campsite with benches alongside the fire pit. This was perfect for us to spread our gear out and cook our meals among other things.

We got our tents up, and otherwise organized the campsite for our stay. Firewood was collected, and supper was cooked. With a full stomach, I soon turned my attention to other important items.

Campsite #58 on Deep Creek

Campsite #58 on Deep Creek setting up camp


As the sun sank low in the western sky, I decided to quickly rig up. I was dying to try my new wading pants and catch a fish or two! The water was still up from recent rainfall, so I went with a deep nymphing rig including my favorite caddis pupa and a light pink worm pattern. Some split shot made sure I was getting down. Finally, in a small pool just above the campsite, it happened. My line ticked, I set the hook, and the first rainbow trout of the trip soon came to hand. The gorgeous rainbow was fired up and jumped several times.

Rainbow trout on Deep Creek

When I caught this rainbow, I was about out of daylight and thus legal fishing hours. I reeled in, got my wading pants off, and considered the first day a big success. The hike in hadn't caused as much pain as I anticipated so that was a big plus. We got the fire going and enjoyed a quick fire before heading to bed. Neither of us wanted to stay up too late. Rest was important for the big days of fishing ahead...


Read part two of the story on this backpacking trip HERE.

Find information on a Great Smoky Mountains fly fishing guide HERE.


Friday, December 29, 2017

End of Season Brown Trout

Winter fishing for brown trout is one of my favorite ways to spend time on the water. Not that I'll turn down fishing at other times, but having a stream to yourself is well worth the numb hands and frosted ears and nose that usually accompanies fly fishing this time of year. Not long ago, I managed to get out for a day on the water with my then girlfriend Leah (now fiancee!!! so more on that in another post!) and a couple of our friends.

The day was cool with clouds, but not as cold as what we are experiencing now. The fish of the Smokies were still just active enough that we had a chance. In fact, Leah started the day off in a hurry, catching a nice rainbow and a beautiful brown in short order. I was a little slower getting going, and thought I had messed up my day when I missed a really nice brown trout on a streamer several casts in a row. This was one hungry fish! Unfortunately, I could not connect, and so we went looking for other fish.



About this time, our friends Jayson and Hailey showed up. We all went into this day knowing that the fishing would be good but the catching might be slow to nonexistent. Instead, we were just glad to get out and enjoy some time in nature with friends. Imagine my surprise when we found a really nice fish sitting out at our next stop. Actually, to be more accurate, I saw the fish and spent the next few minutes trying to decide whether it was worth a cast or not.

Most of the time with large brown trout, it is a waste of time if they are just sitting down and not moving. That's not to say one won't bite under those circumstances, but they tend to be a little finicky to begin with. A fish that's not moving is not a feeding fish. This fish was moving side to side just enough that I figured there was a chance. After asking everyone else if they would mind, I ran and grabbed a rod and slipped down to the water.

Moving slowly into position, I had the advantage of a large boulder to sneak up behind. This allowed me to get within casting range without spooking the fish. After a handful of casts, the nice fish sat down, and I realized that, despite my careful presentation, somehow I had spooked the fish. Suddenly, I saw a shadow and realized that another fish was moving nearby. I was shocked to realize there was more than one big trout in this spot, but quickly made the cast. My leader ticked ever so slightly, and I set the hook hard.

The big brown trout came to the surface and rolled. Meanwhile, my buddy Jayson slid down the steep bank from where everyone had been watching and quickly grabbed my net to help. Amazingly, the 10' 3 weight TFO BVK rod I was fishing handled the fish in short order. The rod had a soft enough tip that I could really put a lot of pressure on the big trout without risking breaking my tippet. Yet, there was enough backbone deep towards the handle that it could turn the fish. Soon Jayson swooped in, and I was looking at one of the larger fish I've caught in the Smokies this year.

I'm not sure who was more surprised about me actually hooking and landing the fish. It isn't often that everything comes together just right when sight fishing one of these big brown trout. I was thankful to have pulled it off when I had friends around to help with pictures. Leah grabbed my good camera and started shooting away. I think she has natural talent with the camera because they turned out great!


Over the next 3-4 months, there will be more opportunities to sight fish to large brown trout. The cold water of winter is a lot clearer than the warm waters of summer. Cold water doesn't hold suspended solids as well, so even after a big rain it will clear quickly this time of year. Spend plenty of time walking the banks and looking for big trout. I find it helps to leave the rod in the car until a fish is located, otherwise you'll find yourself fishing just because. Once you find one, keep going back until you catch it out feeding. With enough time and effort, these big wild brown trout of the Smokies are catchable.

I'll be out there again through the cold months, but not as much as usual. I have a lot going on to keep me busy between work, school, and an upcoming wedding. Stay tuned for more on all of those! In the meantime, thanks for stopping by and letting me share with you.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Beetle Fishing

With the hottest days of summer also comes some of the best terrestrial fishing of the year. Ants, bees, hornets, grasshoppers, inch worms, and beetles are abundant and often end up in the water. Never mind how they get there, the important thing is that these bugs fall in the water and the fish eat them. Of all the options, ants probably provide the most consistent fishing while hoppers and beetles provide the most exciting fishing. Let me explain.

Ants fall into the water throughout the warmer months. In fact, fish can be caught on ants in the Smokies almost year round and certainly from April through October. This includes some of the larger brown trout a few select Park streams are known for. Subsurface offerings are usually the most consistent both in the mountains and on area tailwaters, although you will occasionally catch some really nice fish on top as well.

Hoppers and beetles, on the other hand, provide visually exciting sight fishing to wary trout, often in shallow water. Fish will usually eat a beetle given the opportunity. Hoppers are not far behind, but knowing your local water is important here. For whatever reason, there just isn't much hopper fishing in the Smokies. Not that you can't find a few fish willing to crush one, but that is definitely the exception rather than the rule. Beetles seem to be rather widespread however. I had this reinforced just a couple of weeks ago.

After a half day day morning guide trip, I decided to hit the water for a couple of hours to see how the fishing was on Little River. My goal was to either fish streamers or terrestrials with a strong preference for the terrestrials. Streamers are better in the winter, or at least that is when I prefer to fish them. Beetle fishing is best during the heat of summer once the Japanese beetles make their annual appearance. I made my way up to the river after a stop at Little River Outfitters and was soon looking down at a nice pool.

Sure enough, a quality brown trout was resting in a favorite lie in the back of the pool. This is a prime spot because it is accessible and easily approached without spooking the fish. I rigged up with my favorite black beetle pattern and dropped into the stream well downstream of the fish. Working slowly up the bank, I snuck into position behind a boulder just downstream of the trout.

Pulling enough line off the reel, I made a quick false cast and dropped the fly into the water just to the right of the fish and....nothing. Another cast looked perfect but the fish didn't even seem to know the fly was there. The third cast, well, the third time is a charm. The cast was about two feet upstream of the fish, and it rose confidently and ate without any hesitation. The hook set was clean, and while there were some tense moments during the fight, I soon had the fish in my net and ready for a quick picture.

Brown Trout Caught on a beetle in the Great Smoky Mountains on Little River

My day was made at this point. Sight fishing is my favorite thing to do in fly fishing so I was content. Thankfully, I didn't stop at that point.

My next stop was a pool that had several quality brown trout in it, at least it did as of a few months ago. I already knew where the fish should be but couldn't spot anything from my vantage point. Regardless, I wanted to throw a few casts so I scrambled down another bank and worked my way across the riffles downstream to get into position. Moving up, the first cast was right where it needed to be. Sure enough, a nice brown was waiting for me. This fight was less stressful than the last, but it was still satisfying to slide the net under another healthy fish.

While the day had been made twice already, I decided to try one more spot. Working up a rough section of water, the fish I had gone looking for didn't seem to be home. Not far upstream, I was ready to call it a day. There was a good rock wall where I could climb out, and I started up. Just as I hit the top, I glanced upstream and notice a shadow near the bank. Sure enough, another nice brown trout was sitting out just waiting for me.

A few casts later, I had my third quality brown trout in the net. Not bad for an hour or two of fishing with minimal expectations. I decided to call it a day before I pushed my luck too far. The stream had been more than generous, and I was satisfied.

 Last beetle caught brown trout on Little River for the day in the Smokies

The key to summertime beetle fishing is presenting the fly to the correct water. This seems obvious, and yet two of the three fish I caught were in water that most anglers would have overlooked. These mid-summer terrestrial eating fish are usually in shallow or shaded water (or both), often in "dead" water that most people don't even expect to see a fish in. Success is much higher if more time is spent looking than casting. Yet, for those who are patient, this pinnacle of fly fishing sport is a lot to offer. Rainbow and brook trout will also eat beetles well this time of year.

One word of caution is needed here. Water temperatures in the lower elevation brown trout streams are often getting higher during the day than an ethical angler should fish in. Please carry a thermometer and curtail your fishing activities if the water temperature is 68 degrees fahrenheit or above. My personal cutoff is 66 degrees and above. If you do find warm water, simply look higher in elevation for your fishing experience. Good fishing can still be had through the hottest part of the summer for those willing to explore.

If you are interested in learning more about beetle fishing in the mountains or on the tailwaters, I offer guided wade and float fishing opportunities across middle and east Tennessee. Please visit my guide site for more information on guided fly fishing trips.