Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Smallmouth Bass. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Smallmouth Bass. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Summer Smallmouth Pilgrimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

 
Lunch with a view. ©2021 David Knapp Photography


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

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


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


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

Friday, May 28, 2021

Searching For Cicadas

The current "big thing" in fly fishing is cicadas. I can't remember another periodic cicada hatch year being hyped as much as this one has. Brood X has been making an appearance slower than expected, mostly due to cooler than normal spring temperatures, but where they are emerging, the chorus is deafening. Driving around East Tennessee, it is easy to find the cicadas. Just roll your window down and listen. The other day, they were raining out of the sky on me as I drove down the interstate. That's a sure sign there are plenty of bugs around. 

Finding the bugs close to water can be tricky. While we would prefer to fish this hatch with some trout involved, the real action is mostly on warm water streams and rivers. Going into the hatch season, I scrounged up as many old emergence maps as I could find for the Brood X cicadas. The research suggested that the Clinch River probably wouldn't have any, at least not on the trout portions. The same can't be said for some of the upper East Tennessee tailwaters, but that is a long drive when you are tired. We have a new baby in the house, so sleepless nights mean shorter drives are best for right now. 

Part of the search for cicadas involves quizzing all of your non fishing friends as often as possible if they've seen any cicadas where they live or out and about. Most of them probably think I'm a little crazy, but if I strike gold in the form of a bunch of cicadas, it will all be worth it. Three more years from now is a cicada emergence that I do know something about. Brood XIX last hatched in 2011 and produced truly epic fishing around the area. At least I won't have to be calling all my friends looking for bugs then. 

Ultimately, with the new baby at home, I'm mostly sitting this event out with a few exceptions. I do have a handful of clients that want in on the action. Thus, it is my solemn duty to go hunting for the bugs at least a little. I'm honing in on the carp fishing for now. In fact, after my experience fishing the cicada hatch in 2011, I believe the carp fishing is at least as exciting as the trout opportunities and quite possibly more so.

The other day, my friend and fellow guide Travis and friend Tim decided to do a scouting mission on an East Tennessee warm water stream. Travis has a new raft for doing guided float trips, and I hadn't been on it yet. We were hoping to find a few smallmouth and perhaps some carp getting on the cicadas.

Brood X Cicada in east Tennessee


When I arrived at the put-in, Travis and Tim were already getting the raft situation for the float. As soon as I opened my door, I was greeted with the buzz (whine, scream, whatever that sound is) of cicadas. Tim and Travis informed me they had already seen a few and had a picture or two to prove it. Things were looking up. I quickly put together a 6 weight rod, added some 3x tippet to my leader, and tied on my favorite cicada pattern. My boat bag was stashed in the raft, and I was all set. Travis and I ran the shuttle while Tim kept an eye on the boat and tried to catch some fish. Before long, Travis and I were back and we were pushing off from the gravel bar.

With all the cicadas flying around and rustling through the trees, it seemed like we should find fish right away. We did. Redhorse, lots of them, were thick through this section but not at all interested in cicadas. Not a problem, as we were willing to put in the work to find those smallmouth. It wasn't too long before we got some splashy rises to the cicada patterns, but definitely not the fish we were looking for. 

The river began to deepen some, with fewer shallow riffles and more nice runs and deeper buckets. That was where we would find the smallmouth. We started working to get the flies back in the shade under overhanging branches. The cicadas were still loud, so we were sure the fish had seen at least a few of them already. Then, by accident, I got things rolling. I had turned to look behind me before backcasting. When I turned around and lifted the line into the backcast, I was tight to a smallmouth. Seriously. The fish fought valiantly, working the 6 weight more than I expected, but eventually came to the waiting net. The skunk was off and we could get serious about catching some more fish. 

East Tennessee smallmouth bass on a cicada


Not far down the river, Tim got on the board with a big slab of a bluegill. I followed with another, then Tim got another. Things were just looking better and better. It was sometime around the bluegill catching that we noticed fewer voices in the cicada choir. At first it wasn't really noticeable, but eventually we realized the roar had died considerably. Before it was completely gone, we found a really good deep pot on the left bank. All kinds of fish were stacked up in there including a bunch of gar.

Tight to a fish


As this was a scouting trip for future guided floats, we were trying lots of different things. Travis had brought a spinning rod to figure some things out that way for non fly fishing clients. He worked several different lures and baits through the gar. They showed some interested, even nipping at his lure a few times, but hooking up with a gar is notoriously difficult and none of the hooks stuck. 

Since we were anchored and I had some time, I decided to switch to a favorite subsurface pattern that I gravitate towards with smallmouth. Drifting and twitching it through the deep hole sounded like a good possibility. Any bass that had moved into the depths at the approach of the boat would have a chance, at least, to eat my presentation. 

On one of the first few casts, a little smallmouth chased it but wouldn't quite eat. On another cast, a gar seemed to be following it. That got me thinking. I started casting over past the gar, then swimming the fly in front of them with short twitches. No reaction. I made several more casts and was almost to give up when things changed. 

A long cast over to the bank brought the fly past several of the gar yet again. This time, as I twitched it in the face of one of the fish, it turned. I paused, twitched again, and the fish moved forward. I saw the nibble and set hard. Somehow, the hook stuck and the fight started. At this point, I was wishing we had brought a larger net. The gar barely fit and we had to make a couple of tries to get it in. Still, it was good enough. I wanted a picture, forgetting how slimy a gar is. Travis took my picture, then I released the fish and switched to trying to clean my hands.

Longnose Gar in east Tennessee
Photo Courtesy of guide Travis Williams ©2021


About the time my hands were getting cleaned off, Tim came tight to something well ahead of the boat on his cicada pattern. He had already had several blowups that didn't quite connect. Based on the fight, we all assumed it was a smallmouth and we were correct. Eventually, the fish came boat side and Travis scooped yet another fish with the net. Things were moving along at a good pace!

Tim with a nice smallmouth


Then, we left the cicadas behind for a long time. When you are searching for cicadas, it is important to remember that specific emergences can be quite localized. On water that you are fishing, you might find plenty of bugs, just a few bugs, or none at all. We would go long stretches were the only sounds were cars on nearby roads, then the dull roar would begin again just ahead and we would soon find more bugs. Once we left the first bugs behind, however, we wouldn't find many fish seriously looking for cicadas the rest of the float. 


As we continued on, we began to experiment a little. If the fish weren't looking for cicadas, surely they would be eating something else, right? Yes, and no. We were floating on the full moon, and I'm always skeptical of fishing on a full moon. I've had some epic fishing days, but probably many more slow days on a full moon. Lots of theories abound, including that fish are feeding at night, but the fact remains that fishing on the full moon can be hit or miss to say the least. It was a bright sunny day and the water warmed quickly. I think sometimes that rapidly warming water can put fish off also, and this fits well with the pattern of fish feeding well early but slowing down as the day went on. Bright skies can also be tough, but this in and of itself doesn't explain everything.

Still, the day had a highlight or two left. I stuck with my subsurface offering after catching that gar. It is a high confidence fly for me when I'm looking for smallmouth bass. The fading cicadas encouraged me to keep trying different options instead of the topwater bite. Tim was still catching them from the front of the boat with his cicada, so it was increasingly difficult to stick to my plan. I'm glad I did though. 

We were moving through a section of deeper water when Travis said, "Is that a fish?" The dark smudge was swaying just enough in the current to confirm that it was indeed a fish. I quickly turned around to fish to this deeper holding fish, still not sure what it was. A carp maybe or a buffalo? It seemed too dark to be a carp, but the shape was right which definitely suggested a smallmouth buffalo. I didn't have much faith that it would eat as buffalo tend to stick to vegetation. Still, you never know.

I got a good cast up above and beyond the fish to allow time for the fly to sink into the strike zone. As it came across in front of the fish, I started a slow twitch or jig. You can imagine my surprise when the fish turned and started tracking the fly. It continued following until it was just below the boat. I had to do something or the fish would come off of the fly if I kept stripping it upstream unnaturally against the current. Dropping the rod tip, I let the fly drift free back to the shadow's waiting mouth. When the fly disappeared, I set hard.

Immediately, I suspected it wasn't a buffalo. This fish took off strongly and there was nothing I could do to turn it. Travis was back on the oars again and started chasing the fish around the pool. Initially it headed downstream, but then turned and went back up as the bottom started to come shallow near the next riffle and left the fish feeling exposed. When it headed back up, it changed tactics and tried to make it to a bankside log. Straining the 3x as hard as I dared, I put a ton of side pressure to turn the fish away from the log. Once, twice, the fish almost made it to safety, but the tippet and knots held and the hook stayed firmly attached. After several more runs, the fish started to finally tire a bit. I told Travis to float back down towards the riffle so I could jump out of the boat to finish the fight. 

As soon as I could, I jumped out and grabbed the net. It took a couple of tries, but finally the big fish hit the bottom of the net. As it turned out, this was my new personal best freshwater drum or at least close to it. The last time I had caught one this large was well over 10 years ago, so I don't know for sure, but it was definitely one of the better ones I've caught. Travis and Tim took a few pictures for me, and then I released the fish. Such an inspired fight deserved as much, and then I don't ever keep fish anyway. 

East Tennessee freshwater drum caught on the fly
Photo Courtesy of guide Travis Williams ©2021


The rest of the day was a bit anticlimactic, at least for me. After the drum, I really wanted to find a carp willing to eat my fly. It wasn't meant to be on this day apparently. We found another couple pockets of cicadas, but still couldn't find fish looking for them. Finally, as the afternoon got hotter and hotter, we decided to wrap things up and make a big move downstream to the takeout. 

It had been a good float. We had caught enough fish to keep us interested, had some good conversation, and had a nice relaxing day on the water. Much thanks to Travis for bringing his new raft and rowing a lot of the time. Also thanks to Tim for joining us and taking some pictures. It was a great day guys!

Friday, February 21, 2020

Sacred Places

Every angler should have a secret place. The probability that no one else fishes a particular piece of water is low, but hope springs eternal in the minds of anglers and the possibility does technically exist. Maybe, just maybe you can find that one perfect stream or pond that no one else visits. Or, if they do, maybe only a handful of other anglers know about it.

My secret places are scattered across the country. There is that canyon stream in Arizona. While I know it does get fished, the number of anglers is clearly low based on the lack of a stream side fisherman's trail. In Colorado, two of my favorite small streams clearly don't get fished much based on the reception I always receive from their clean finned residents. The fish are generally pushovers and obviously don't see much pressure. In Yellowstone, a favorite section of the Yellowstone River itself always fishes well. It is almost as if no one else wants to walk that far off trail in grizzly infested country. This is precisely a big piece of why it fishes so well and also has a lot to do with why I'm normally a bit jumpy on the hike into this bit of water.

Closer to home, some of my favorite water on the Cumberland Plateau obviously doesn't see much pressure. At least, the fish are about as gullible as smallmouth should be while still reserving just a bit of cunning to make things interesting. This could be explained by the copperheads, rattlesnakes, ticks, and chiggers you have to get past first. Yet, I keep going back if only once or twice a year to one of these streams or another. In a good year I might make half a dozen trips. The overlap between gaps in the guide calendar and good smallmouth fishing just doesn't exist, so these trips are at least a bit intentional and not just a last minute whim. Still, when a cancelation comes in late during the warm months, chances are high that I'll head to a smallmouth stream the next day.

In the Smokies, which are my true home waters if you overlook the hour and a half drive, lightly pressured water is getting more and more difficult to find. Despite the constant barrage of "facts" showing that our sport is declining, I keep seeing more and more anglers on the water. This isn't all bad either. More anglers equates to more people advocating for our fisheries. Of course, it also means that I'm more likely to hike three miles only to find the entire stream saturated with other likeminded optimists.

When I hike any distance anywhere, I mostly expect to find the stream devoid of other anglers and the fish willing to the point of stupidity. Rarely does it work out that both of those things happen, although I can still find water to myself more often than not. The fish just aren't the easy things they were when I started into this sport and the streams were less crowded. Back then, an hour's walk basically guaranteed a phenomenal day of fishing. Now, the day might still turn out rather well, but the fish are more educated and require a few tweaks to the fly selection before becoming agreeable.

Some would say that the fishing is getting more technical. I don't know about that other than to say that some of my best fishing in the mountains lately has been on midges. Is that because I finally tied on a fly that no one else is really fishing? Or is it because there were massive midge emergences both times I've been up there lately? Probably the latter but one never knows for sure. Just in case, I'm still keeping all of my old tried and true flies in their respective boxes in the hopes I can leave the midge box at home again soon. In the meantime, I'll keep tying on a midge more often than not. At least I can get away with 5x instead of the 6x required on my local tailwaters.

Last year, I made a point to fish some new water. That could mean new to me streams, or sections of streams I haven't fished before. More often than not, these adventures ended up taking longer than I intended, but I'm not complaining. At least once, I inadvertently fished a new section of stream when I bushwhacked in at the wrong spot. That was one of my favorite trips of the year.

A healthy hike is required to reach this particular stream. The rainbows have faded out at this elevation, leaving just native southern Appalachian brook trout for anglers willing to work hard to reach them. I've fished this stream off and on for at least 15 years and perhaps longer. What I do know is that this is some of the best brook trout fishing I know of. On its best days, this stream can leave you feeling like you are the only one who ever fishes there. Those days are more common on this stream than not, but I've also had days where only a handful of fish were caught. On those days, one always wonders where the fish have gone.

The trip can be done about as easily as an overnight or longer trip or as a day trip. Lately, I've started to become interested in backpacking more again. Since I don't fish as often as I used to (pro tip: don't start guiding if the goal is to fish more), I've begun planning my trips with more care, aiming for quality instead of quantity. So far it seems to be working. This particular trip started with a casual discussion with a friend who was interested in trying some backpacking. Greg has a strong preference for brook trout in wild places. Since I also have a soft spot for our arguably most beautiful native fish, the decision was easy. Three nights with two hard days of fishing and perhaps some fishing on our arrival and departure days seemed about right.

I described the amazing little creek to him but tried to hold back a little, probably afraid it wouldn't live up to either of our expectations. However, when all was said and done, the stream really outdid itself. Between the two of us, we caught, well, let's just say we caught a lot of brook trout and never mind exactly how many. The real beauty of this stream was the quality of the fish there. Some of them were pushing nine inches which is really nice for a brook trout in the Smokies. The largest was caught by Greg and measured 10.5" exactly. Oh, and most were on dry flies. These native brookies are real gems, almost too beautiful to touch.

Brook Trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of my 9" native brook trout from Stream X. ©2019 David Knapp Photography

While I normally gravitate towards the ease associated with nymphs, I prefer dry flies whenever and wherever possible. On this trip, I took just a few basic bead head droppers just in case and then an inordinate number of dry flies. I think I may have used a grand total of 4 or 5 the entire trip. The longevity of each fly had a lot to do with tying them myself and adding a few reinforcements. Yellow dry flies brought fish to the surface just like they should in the Smokies. Orange was starting to work some also with the approach of fall.

The fish were generally where they were supposed to be, but surprises showed up in some not so obvious places as well. The big plunge pool beneath a small waterfall didn't yield many, while some other large pools produced fish after fish. One rather nice brook trout was hiding in a tight little pocket under a dark plunge. I let my fly drift back into the blackness, and no matter how fishy that spot was, I was still shocked when the tip of my fly rod jerked down hard. That was also the day that the fishing seemed a little off.

The first part of the day was decent, but the catching would just start and stop for no apparent reason. We ended up with nearly as many trout as we had caught on the first day, but had to work a little harder for them. Some sections of stream seemed rather barren, and I was left wondering if I had come along behind the Park fisheries crew.

On another backpacking trip, my friends and I had marched miles and miles into the backcountry with expectations of gloriously easy fishing. That was the trip I stepped over a rattlesnake on the trail too many miles from help if things had gone differently. Thankfully the snake was sluggish and downright genial. That same day, our neighbors in camp had found and killed a large rattlesnake on a midstream boulder and seen three others. They were planning on eating the snake that night. My buddy Pat explained to them that, as this was a National Park, all of the wildlife was protected, and if a ranger showed up, they better make the dead snake scarce. I don't know if they got the message or not, but we didn't spend too much time worrying about it beyond a momentary sadness.

That was another trip where we had started with great hopes of walking many miles to find pristine water. When we found another party there with the same ideas, we had to make some adjustments. The funny part about that trip is that the Park fisheries crew had been there just the week prior and the trout were still in a stupor on the creek they had sampled. We caught a few fish, but either the stream didn't have as many or they were still all in shock, pun intended.

Fly anglers are eternal optimists, doggedly pursuing small, surprisingly difficult quarry in tiny creeks and streams, all in the hopes of discovering fly fishing nirvana. On that trip, we didn't find what we were looking for. When the stream started branching into more and more little branches and things got tight, we finally gave up and traipsed back down to camp on the nice trail the fisheries crew had trampled down the week before. That trip seems like a lifetime ago now, but the trip to my favorite brook trout stream is still clear in my mind.

As the last day of fishing on that brookie stream started to wind down, we found ourselves far from the trail. We finished fishing that evening at a big plunge pool high in the mountains with many miles of good brook trout water above us. We were both a little tired I think, Greg and I. Living on backpacking rations works well, but once your metabolism catches up to your increased activity levels, freeze dried food just doesn't satisfy anymore. We were both running strong on the high of adventure but also starting to think about home.

As we walked back to camp for one more night in the mountains, I asked him if that was the best brook trout stream he had ever fished. After thinking about it a while, Greg agreed that it was an incredible stream, but also mentioned his own favorite stream. Every angler should have a sacred place and his was possibly elsewhere. Only more time on both would ultimately determine which was his favorite. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with having several sacred places either.

Most of the places I fish are ones I'm willing to talk about. I do have some sacred places though, and this brook trout stream is one of them. Probably there are many places in the Smokies that still have fishing as good as we experienced in those two days, maybe even better. This one is mine, though, and while I don't mind letting people know that a place like that exists, I won't be drawing maps for anyone anytime soon. In the winter months, I'll be pouring over trail and topographic maps searching for yet another amazing backcountry trout stream. More places like this exist, but it takes determination and lots of effort to track them down.

Lately, my exploring has been done via Google and Google maps. I've been researching for a big trip this summer to Glacier. My wife has graciously agreed for me to pursue bull trout somewhere west of there after we hike in Glacier National Park for a week, and I've honed in on one place in particular. What drew me to that area was a plethora of documentation that shows where the bulls should be. In other words, I've never been there, but feel certain, that I can walk almost to the very spot where I should be able to find some bull trout. That is the danger of the inter webs. Good information used to be the result of lots of research. Now, with the click of a few buttons, I can find where to catch a bull trout to within a hundred yards of a likely spot.

For now, I'm selfishly glad that the information was so accessible. I've never caught bull trout, so this will be a bucket list item checked off if all goes well. On the other hand, once that happens, I might add this stream system to my list of sacred places. In that case, you may get a report, but it will be fuzzy on the details which is as it should be.

Back closer to home, I've been looking for new places to dump my boat in the water close to home for a few hours. Again, Google maps has been a lot of help. There are numerous small lakes in the area, and at least some of them have to have a boat ramp, right? The larger lakes sound interesting too. With Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Watts Bar, and lots of other big reservoirs in middle and east Tennessee within an hour or hour and a half, the appeal of new fishing opportunities draws me in. Yet, for some reason, I haven't gone very far out of my way to try these different options. When I want true adventure, I usually tend to look for moving water. The smaller the better. That's probably because of the difficulty of enjoying your own fishing hole with bass boats jetting past at 60 miles per hour.

One stream that I really like to fish feels a lot like brook trout fishing. It's one of those trickles that you pass on your way to better known water. I don't know of anyone else that fishes there. The beauty of this little stream lies in the resident coosa bass. For some reason they are there, probably a past stocking experiment that everyone has forgotten about. The fish are small but generally aggressive. When I say small, it is truly like brook trout fishing on a tiny Smoky Mountain stream. Lots of 5-7 inch fish but much larger starts getting into the trophy category. Most people would find this boring when there are 3 pound smallmouth just down the road, but knowing that this is my stream keeps me coming back. Eventually, I'll probably find out that someone else is fishing there as well. In the meantime, I'll keep it on my list of sacred places. When I find another fisherman, I'll hope it is one of their sacred places as well.






Friday, June 01, 2018

Cumberland Plateau Smallmouth Bass Memorial Day 2018 Adventure

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Tuesday, January 09, 2018

2017 Year in Review

Every year has its special moments, and 2017 will always be one of my favorite years. There were some great moments both fishing and guiding, and of course I found an amazing girl who actually goes fishing with me. That last one is what makes this past year so special to me, but some other moments stood out as well.

A quality brown trout started 2017 off on the right note. I had traveled to the Smokies for the famous "Bigsur's New Year's Day Karma Tradition" to see friends and hopefully wet a line. After saying hello to everyone, I snuck off to the stream and was lucky to be first through a good hole right near the picnic area. Sure enough, a nice brown trout slammed the streamer I was working against the far bank and my year was off to a great start!

Fishing stayed hot through the winter months and into early spring. We never had any extremely cold weather so the fishing in the Smokies stayed feasible right on through the winter. The highlight for me of this winter season was catching another beautiful brown on a favorite sculpin pattern while streamer fishing.


This fish was not a monster by Smokies standards, but the colors were great. And did I mention it slammed a streamer?

The spring hatch season started in a big way and just got better from there. The Blue Quills came off starting around February 20 or thereabouts. Fish rose every day. The problem was finding the hatch and the rising trout. On any given day, I rarely found more than 2-3 pools that were worth fishing. The hatch progressed upriver in an orderly fashion. If you found the bugs, then you also found the fish.

Two early season highlights stand out for me. The first was the slightly overcast day in late February that I fished with my buddy Pat Tully. We found great numbers of Blue Quills in several pools as well as an occasional Quill Gordon or Blue-winged Olive. The sight casting possibilities were endless. Because of the overcast, the hatch lasted much longer than it normally does on sunny days. We fished dry flies for hours. When the hatch petered out, we prospected with streamers and found another fish or two. I can't think of a better day on the water.

Photo Courtesy of Pat Tully ©2017





The second early season highlight was an early March guide trip that produced a large Smoky Mountain brown trout on a dry fly. Spencer had booked a day to polish some of his mountain techniques. We worked hard on nymphing throughout the day, but wanted to get in some dry fly fishing. I had a pretty good idea on where there might be some bugs. When we arrived at the pool, we found a few risers but not as many as I had hoped. The bright day probably had fewer fish rising than if it had been cloudy. Thankfully, we got lucky with one big brown at the head of the pool that liked his Parachute Adams.


After the early season hatches, things went into high gear and I was too busy to fish much. However, each exception to that produced some memorable highlights. One of my favorites was when I fished with David Perry and Susan Thrasher. We had a day to remember as time spent with friends is always hard to beat. The highlight was when I doubled up with Susan on a nice rainbow and brown trout. David Perry graciously snapped a picture for us to remember the day by! Guides guiding guides was certainly one of the highlights of 2017!

Photo Courtesy of David Perry ©2017

Early season guiding on the Caney was mostly limited to high water streamer and shad floats. These trips consistently produced some huge trout as should happen again this year. The one low water float of the early spring produced the largest guide trip fish of the year. The story surrounding this big trout was particularly amazing as an old curse was defeated. Check out the link above for more on that.


One of my absolute favorite trips of 2017 was in June. I actually had a few favorites in June and July, but the trip to Roan Mountain State Park to see the rhododendron and azalea was certainly one of the best. The rhododendron was as amazing as advertised, but the real highlight of this trip was the moment I realized what a special catch I had made. Leah and I had been dating for close to a couple of months at this point, but we had yet to go fishing. Leah was a good sport and agreed to fish a little on this trip up to northeast Tennessee.

We hit the Doe River in Roan Mountain State Park and found a few fish before the afternoon thunderstorms drove us off the water. Right before the rain started in earnest, Leah took big fish honors by starting off her fly fishing career with a big brown trout considering the small stream we were fishing. I couldn't have been happier. I'm still not sure if she knows how big of a deal it was to catch this fish on her first ever fly fishing trip, but I'm pretty sure she has some idea based on how excited I was.



The heat of summer often produces some of the best fishing of the year if you know where to go. This past year was no different. Guide trips produced some big trout on the Caney Fork and gorgeous brook trout in the Great Smoky Mountains. Smallmouth fishing had hit a consistent stride and night time trout trips on the tailwaters were heating up.


My favorite fishing in June, July, and August is usually the beetle fishing in the Smokies and on the Caney Fork River. This year was no different. My most memorable Smokies fishing of the summer involved an afternoon off after a morning 1/2 day guide trip. After dropping off my clients, I headed back to the Park to get in a couple of hours of fishing. In that time, I caught three trout. Two of them were sight fished with the beetle while the third also ate the beetle as I blind fished it in likely places.


The pinnacle of the whole year in terms of my own fishing and catching happened in late July. My buddy and fly tier extraordinaire Brandon Bailes and I had discussed a nighttime mousing trip on the Caney Fork. We finally got our schedules together and set off for an evening of fun and hopefully large trout.

We launched with some daylight left and spent our time alternating between nymphs/midges, streamers, and some dry flies when we found late evening sippers in slack water. We were almost halfway through the float when it got dark enough to begin the main event. Heavy rods, stout leaders, and meaty rodent imitations were tied on and we kept floating into the growing darkness.

Throughout the next couple of hours, we had two big blowups but failed to connect. Each heart stopping moment served as motivation to keep slinging the meat. Finally, we were approaching the takeout ramp and it looked like the mousing portion of the evening would be just enough to wet our appetites and not much more.

I was throwing to the shallow side of the boat and had made up my mind that this was the last cast when it finally happened. Something slurped quietly out there in the dark and my line came tight. I just kept stripping into things came tight. Momentarily I thought maybe I had snagged a log. When the log started swimming upstream I knew that I was in trouble. This was one strong fish! Thankfully, everything went smoothly and Brandon made a great net job on this big fish. My new personal best Caney Fork brown trout and on a mouse no less. Much thanks to Brandon for both the picture and the winning mouse fly! Let's make sure we do it again this year and get your monster brown in the boat Brandon...

Photo Courtesy of Brandon Bailes ©2017

There were lots more guide trip highlights throughout the second half of 2017. However, my fishing began to slow down somewhat. The exception to this also produced the last two highlights of the year for me. The first was in late August. I had been discussing a smallmouth bass excursion for a while with Daniel Drake of Little River Outfitters and Mark Brown of Chota. We finally nailed down a day that would work for all of us.

The day came and went much to fast, but I was left with some great memories of time spent on the water with friends. The interesting part of this fishing trip is that we didn't get any monster smallmouth. Most of the time, these Cumberland Plateau streams are good for at least one big smallie per day, but it was not meant to be on this particularly trip. Nevertheless, we found plenty of willing fish and had a great day of exploring with friends.


The last highlight of the year for me happened on a day of fishing with friends. I began the year with a nice brown trout in the Smokies, and I ended the year with a nice brown trout in the Smokies. Talk about the perfect way to begin and end the year!

Photo Courtesy of Leah Shulley ©2017

Now, while not fishing related, the best and most exciting highlight of the year happened on November 25, 2017. On that day, I asked my best friend to marry me and she said yes!!! Leah Shulley is an amazing young lady who loves the outdoors almost as much as I do. She is beautiful, smart, kind, thoughtful, loves adventure, and most importantly loves God. I'm super excited about sharing life with her!








Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Summer Smallmouth Explorations

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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



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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Busy Is Good: Looking Back on 2016

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

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

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


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


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



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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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