Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Great Smoky Mountains. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Great Smoky Mountains. Show all posts

Thursday, September 02, 2021

New Great Smoky Mountains Brook Trout Video

So, as you probably suspected from the lack of posts lately, I've been pretty busy. My last two fishing trips that likely would have produced a blog post were both last week, but I've been sitting on them both. The reason being that I got a new toy: a GoPro. Yep, I finally caved and got one. So far it has been a lot of fun as long as I quickly learned its shortcomings and avoided them. The most obvious that I've figured out is that it doesn't focus well up close. That is how it gets such great wild angle footage along with sharp video throughout the depth of field. Somewhere it had to suffer and apparently that is in closeups. Not that it does badly, mind you, but I have to be careful how close I hold it when taking a fish picture or video.

Anyway, I went all out and got a chest mount and a few other goodies for it. Last week, I made the first serious fishing trip while hauling this whole contraption around. It was a day of learning, tweaking, trying new things, and tweaking some more. Eventually, I got enough good footage to try my hand at another YouTube video. That produced its own set of learning opportunities. 

This time around, I played with some color corrections. Some of which turned out really well, some of which, well, the lighting was really funny. Seriously. Regardless, I had a lot of fun and enjoyed trying something new out. While this won't be how I always do my fishing trips from now on (seriously, who wants to spend their whole time just trying to get a good video), I'll definitely be hauling it along from time to time and trying new things. I hope to continue to improve on my videos. While I'll probably never be anywhere close to some of the great film makers in the sport of fly fishing, it is still something fun to play with and learn about. 

So, for my first film with the new GoPro, I want to share "Backcountry Brookies in the Smokies" with you. You can watch it on my Trout Zone Anglers YouTube channel, of course. While you're there, please give me a follow. You can also try watching it in the viewer below. If possible, watch the 4k version for best quality. I hope you enjoy!



Sunday, August 08, 2021

Pivotal Moments

Each angler has a growth timeline, and everyone's is different. Most likely, the pattern is not linear, but rather includes growth in fits and starts and maybe even some regression. For example, you probably weren't a proficient caster when you first started into the sport. Over time, you learned a basic cast, then maybe something fancier like a reach cast, parachute cast, steeple cast, well, you get the idea. There is a lot of growth that happens as a fly angler if you are spending much time doing it. 


The Beginning

Most of us started our journey of growth with that first trout on a fly rod. I remember mine just like it was yesterday. My dad had taken me fishing in the Smokies and I was trying my best to figure out how to catch a trout. The shiners were easy, and I had caught plenty of those. Same for the chub and other small minnows. What I wanted was a real, honest to goodness trout. 

We were fishing the lower end of Anthony Creek or the upper end of Abrams Creek depending on your definitions. I generally consider Anthony Creek to be the main stream in the upper part of Cades Cove before the water goes underground and Abrams Creek to be the downstream portion where it reemerges at several large springs. We were fishing just below the road crossing on Sparks Lane. A small cuttbank had helped scour a deeper hole in the creek where the water turned hard. At the bottom, I saw what looked like a rainbow trout. 

Sure enough, after tying on a small nymph, I got the cast angle right and the fly drifted down to the fish. Immediately, the trout inhaled the fly, and I set the hook. Soon, I was holding my first wild rainbow trout. That moment is something I enjoy reliving again and again as a fly fishing guide. Watching people start the journey as a fly angler is one of the treats of my job. Then again, the whole job is more or less a treat.

 

First Nice Brown Trout

I also remember my first quality brown trout in the Smokies. Not too long after that memorable rainbow, I was back fishing in the Smokies again. My dad was kind enough to take me fishing even though he wasn't himself fishing. These trips were a big treat, and contributed greatly to me being the angler I am today. Without those early trips, I probably would never have become a fly angler, much less been able to make it a career. 

Anyway, it was late in the day. My dad was tired and had stayed up at the car to probably catch a snooze while I wandered down through the woods to the bank of Little River. A perfect run had a big rapid dumping in from above. The big pocket where the rapid dumped in was separated from the main pool, but it looked fishy. I could just imagine the big trout waiting for me there. 

At that point in my angling career, I still was nowhere close to proficient with nymphs. Nowadays, that is probably what I would have been fishing. Thankfully, perhaps, because a big dry fly is what grabbed the attention of the big brown trout. I had tied on a big yellow Stimulator. High sticking it across the first currents and letting it dance across the surface, a big golden blur swirled on it. Once, twice, three times. Surely this fish wasn't going to keep coming back to my fly. And yet it did. One more time was one too many for the fish. 

Down into the big pool went the big fish with me in pursuit. When I finally landed it, I looked around, hoping my dad might appear with a camera. No such luck happened, and I carefully slid the hook out and released the quality trout. The fish was probably 16 inches or so. Nowhere close to the largest I've ever hooked, this was still memorable as the first really nice trout I caught on a fly rod.


First Quality Smokies Rainbow Trout

My first big wild rainbow in the Smokies was also memorable. So was the second. Eventually, some of the big fish you catch over the years start to blur together. However, for me at least, some of those early ones were pivotal moments that gave me the motivation to stick with it. They were evidence that I was slowly but surely figuring things out. 

The first big wild rainbow trout in the Smokies came on Abrams Creek. The late evening hatches and spinner falls are legendary. I found myself there late one day and was fishing over some rising trout. They wouldn't take what I was throwing. About that time, I noticed bugs skittering up and down just above the water's surface. Occasionally, one would bounce all the way down to the water before flying up again. Now I know that I was witnessing egg laying activity. At the time, I just knew I had to mimic the action of the real bugs. 

Extending my rod tip as far out as possible, I bounced it carefully up and down, making my dry fly dance just like the naturals. Sure enough, a big trout leaped and inhaled my fly. The 14 inch wild rainbow was big for the Smokies. I was sure that I was onto something. Catching another couple of fish with a similar technique had me genuinely excited. However, it was a very specific technique with a very specific application. What about when the fish weren't looking for egg layers? 

The second quality rainbow sort of snuck up on me. It was in the fall, and I was fishing a favorite pocket water stretch of Little River. To this day, I still like that section, probably because of the style of water which matches my preferred style of fishing. Regardless, water levels were at a normal fall low and a dry fly seemed appropriate. I had tied some October caddis and had one on the end of my leader as I prospected my way upstream. The take was rather nonchalant, but the fight was anything but. The 15 inch wild rainbow trout gave both me and my fly rod a real workout. I think a couple of cars stopped and took pictures of the fight, but I was too focused to be sure of that part. When that fish came to the net, I had my second wild rainbow over 12 inches ever. 

This second big rainbow was a pivotal moment because I had caught the fish on a rather lengthy cast compared to my usual high sticking. Normally not as successful with longer casts, this moment convinced me that it was possible to catch fish on longer casts. The line management skills necessary would come with practice. 


Fishing With A Guide

My first time fishing with a guide really propelled me forward in my fly fishing journey. In fact, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that one of the all time biggest contributors to my fly fishing education and growth was thanks to the famous Walter Babb. I wanted to learn to high stick nymphs without an indicator. Today, the buzzword is euro nymphing. Back when I learned, we didn't have fancy indicator tippet, but the techniques are similar. However, the local technique is something that evolved separately, first using a long cane pole and a fixed length line, then eventually a fly rod.

The general idea is to lead the flies through the water without dragging them. When your leader or tippet ticks or straightens out, you have a bite. There are other things like a tuck cast that help make this all come together, but really it isn't too difficult. However, I was having a hard time figuring everything out. The instruction from a professional guide made all the difference in the world, and my catch rates very quickly went through the roof.

My skills in the Smokies were really coming into their own, but there was still a lot of water out there to learn. Tailwaters, smallmouth, and of course trout streams and rivers out west. My horizons were about to expand in a big way and that would further my growth as an angler. 


Sometimes Failure Produces Growth

Interestingly, one of the next major growth moments for me happened almost by accident. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time leads to growth even when you don't catch any fish. This episode happened at Lee's Ferry on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. After reading about this famous tailwater in Fly Fisherman many years ago, I just had to fish there. When a year off in college took me to Arizona, I knew my opportunity had come. 

I stopped at one of the local fly shops, talked to the person there, and ended up buying some zebra midges. They explained how to fish them, and I headed out to the walk and wade access. In the end, I couldn't buy a trout. The big water of the Colorado both humbled and intimidated me at the time. So, I walked away with some new flies, and a memory of a beautiful river I hope to fish again someday. 

Fast forward a few months, and you would find me standing on the banks of Tennessee's Caney Fork River. As I was thinking about what to fish with, I remembered that somebody had said that Caney Fork was a good midge fishery. Remembering those zebra midges, I dug through my boxes and attached one on a dropper below my dry fly. Amazingly, every fish I cast to ate the zebra midge. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement. That day on the Caney and that tough day on the Colorado combined to interest me in midge fishing. Now, I fish them year round and am still learning a lot about them each time I go. 

My midge fishing has evolved continuously from that day. I've caught fish all over the western US on midges. Of course, my home rivers also fish well with them. Even in the Smokies, I fish midge patterns when the going gets tough.


Ability is the Sum of Experience and Knowledge

As an angler, there have since been many other learning moments. I'll never forget my first time in a drift boat, with many others to follow. Good friends along the way have helped to mold the angler that I am today. At the end of the day, an angler's ability is the sum of their experience and knowledge with maybe a little luck thrown in for good measure. Certainly some of my favorite catches over the years were the result of luck to some extent. At least being in the right place at the right time, but ability still is an important component. 

Sometimes, an angler can get in their own way too. I've lost a good many fish over the years. There were fish that I shouldn't have lost. Some were my own fault, probably many in fact. Other times, the fish simply won. Still, a good angler minimizes those times through their vast catalogue of experiences. Other battles won and lost. Other big fish played on light tippets, or maybe other big fish on heavy streamers. 

Sometimes even the little guys teach us valuable lessons. I once fished for a 6 inch rainbow in the Smokies for a good 45 minutes without catching it, mostly because I love sight fishing. Still, I learned a lot about what wasn't working on that particular fish. Those big fish are the ones that keep us coming back. I often tell other anglers, both clients and also friends and family, that to land big fish, you usually have to lose a few to figure out how to fight them properly. You can be coached up to a point, yet if guiding has taught me anything, you can be told exactly what is about to happen and still do the wrong thing.


Losing the Bull Trout of a Lifetime

Last summer, on our western road trip, chasing bull trout was part of the goal. I had done my homework. The knowledge piece seemed to be there, but I needed to gain the experience part firsthand. When I hooked and fought a bull trout for probably a minute or more the first day of fishing, I thought I had it made. Seconds later, the fly simply pulled out. 

In retrospect, there were at least a couple of things I did wrong as well as a few I did right. First, I was fishing the heaviest tippet I thought I could get away with. That was smart. Turns out the tippet was the least of my worries. This big mean fish didn't care whether I had tied the fly on with rope. Bull trout are generally going to eat or they aren't. If a bull trout is in the mood to feed, I'm of the opinion that just about anything will work based on my very limited experience. 

Another thing I did right was to bring as much pressure to bear on the fish when it headed for a big log jam. The big fish turned at the last possible second. Another couple of feet and the fish was undoubtedly gone. Unfortunately, I took that lesson and pushed it too far. 

With the fish in open water, I started trying to end the fight immediately. I had my seven weight doubled up. The fish was no more than 15 feet away now. Suddenly, the line simply went limp. In the end, I using too much pressure when it wasn't necessary and ripped the fly out of the bull trout's mouth. I had lost the bull trout of a lifetime up to that point. That isn't saying much since I had never caught one, but the fish was definitely at least a two footer. A really nice fish that I would be thrilled with any day.


Redemption: Lessons Learned and Lessons Applied

A few days later, I finally landed the big bull trout I was looking for. There was chaos in the moment, yet, somehow I did everything mostly correct. At least, I did enough right to land the fish. There were still some stupid mistakes that thankfully didn't cost me. Looking back, I can learn even from those, however. 

The interesting thing about landing a bull trout is the quiet confidence it gave me back on my home waters. You wouldn't think that those things are related. However, losing that big fish on the first day really settled an old lesson once and for all, at least I hope. Knowing exactly how hard to push the fish without losing it is a tough lesson to learn. I'm 99.9% certain I'll eventually have to learn it again. If not on trout, then on some powerful ocean dwelling fish perhaps. 

Still, when I fish the Clinch River now, I find myself far more relaxed and unconcerned when fishing light tippets and small flies. Not that I never lose trout, mind you, but the fish is often more responsible than I am. The funny thing is that my bull trout lesson was on heavy tippet, yet, the real lesson learned was to not panic in the middle of a fight. 

The first bull trout I hooked ended in too much pressure. Often, as an angler, I found that my lost fish come when I panic and do something that I would otherwise know not to do. In other words, fish are lost when you aren't thinking clearly. To land a fish, any fish really but especially big fish, you need to be singularly focused. Blocking out everything but the task before you is tough in our world today. With so many things competing for our time and attention, tossing all the distraction aside and fighting a trout is easier said than done. 

Landing that big bull trout helped me loosen up. For some reason, it was another significant turning point in my fishing career. Now, I don't put as much pressure on myself. More importantly, I don't beat myself up when I lose fish as much as I used to. Let's face it, none of us likes to lose a trout. Yet, putting that moment into the big scheme of things, a lost trout really isn't too important. And that's coming from a guide who knows that landed big fish can be the difference in a big tip or not. Still, at the end of the day, it is just a trout and just a tip. Once you put those things into the proper perspective, you will fish more effortlessly. Not completely effortlessly, just more effortlessly. And each new growth experience will make that a little bit more true. 


Next Growth Moment

The funny thing about those pivotal moments in life, be it in fly fishing or otherwise, you never know when one is about to sneak up on you. In hindsight, they seem pretty obvious, but sometimes it takes a few days at least and often months or even years to realize the significance. The next growth moment could very well sneak up on me. In fact, I've had a couple of moments on the water lately that might end up being important down the road. Right now, I'm still digesting them. Those moments could just be a small blip on the radar. On the other hand, maybe ten years from now I'll write another article like this one and they will be cited as a pivotal moment of growth. 

So what have been your pivotal moments of growth as a fly angler?


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Backcountry Jaunts

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


 

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


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


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

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...