Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Monday, May 25, 2015

Relief On the Way

The extended dry spell may be coming to an end. I won't get too excited until the rain actually falls since a lot of rainy forecasts lately have not panned out. Nevertheless, I'm cautiously optimistic that we are about to turn the corner towards wetter and better times. If you are looking to fish the Park, remember that fishing can improve drastically whenever the river spikes up. Just be careful for rapidly rising water and flash floods. Lightning is always a concern as well.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Beginning a Drought?

Temperatures are up and stream flows are down around middle and eastern Tennessee. Across the Smokies, we are experiencing flows normally reserved for August and September. Same thing goes for the Cumberland Plateau smallmouth bass streams which, by the way, are fishing well even with the low water.


Are we on the verge of a drought? Only time will tell. The one bright spot under these conditions are the great tailwater fisheries across the state. The Caney Fork has been fishing well most of the time. During the slower periods, a few quick fly changes have kept us catching fish. Sometimes different fish are eating from different menus.

Last Thursday I fished the Caney to explore a couple of spots. Lots of fish were obviously in the river, but they were tougher to catch than the previous week. After a few fly changes, the hot fly was located, and then my rod was bent for a couple of hours. During the excitement, I did pause long enough to take a couple of stomach samples. You have to be extremely careful if you are going to do this and avoid sampling any fish less than 12 inches. However, the results were intriguing.

Just to confirm, I tied on one of the usual patterns we fish out of the boat and then dropped a much more exact imitation of the obvious menu item that showed up in both samples. The pattern that killed them the previous week was getting one hit for every 10 fish I caught on the hatch matching fly. Big surprise there I'm sure, but the point is that if you aren't catching fish, keep on changing patterns or put your face down to the surface and look for bugs.

Later in the day, further down the river, I found out again that the fish didn't want the "usual" pattern so I started changing. Surprisingly they didn't want the second one either. Seeing some Sulfurs hatching got me excited and I tried dry and nymph versions of those. Nada. Finally, after seeing a few caddis flutter by, I tied on a favorite caddis pupa pattern and was immediately back into fish including this beautiful brown trout. Notice the fleece jacket sleeve on my arm. The high temperature here at home never got out of the low 50s last Thursday! I briefly thought I had died and gone to Heaven the Rocky Mountain high country.


With the low clear water, long casts and leaders were mandatory if I wanted to actually catch fish. If you are planning on floating with me, I would suggest considering brushing up on your casting before you come out for the day. It will help you enjoy your trip a lot more if you haven't been consistently casting 40-50 feet. When I fish in the mountains, I rarely cast more than 20 feet so I can often go long stretches without a longer cast. Heading out to my favorite casting pond gets me back in the zone for a great day of fishing no matter where I plan to fish.

Over in the Smokies, we are seeing more and more of an emphasis on small and medium sized streams. Just a little bit of rain will change that, however. This week we have a good chance of rain just about every day so hopefully the streams will rise a bit and fishing will return to normal. If not, keep chasing those Smoky Mountain jewels on the steeper mid and high elevation streams.


Despite the low water, conditions remain good for both fish and fishermen as long as you come prepared with low water stealth mode enabled. Last Wednesday, Logan and Rick were up to enjoy some time in the mountains and wanted to enjoy a new to them stream in Cades Cove. After telling them that the conditions were a bit less than optimal, they still wanted to try Abrams Creek so we decided on a late day trip (1/2 day trip) and hope for an evening hatch.

The fishing ended up being very good despite very low water conditions. Logan worked hard to learn some high stick nymphing techniques without a strike indicator and was soon catching hungry rainbow trout. Rick caught on quickly to our Smoky Mountain fishing techniques despite being more of a tailwater guy. By the end of the evening, both guys had caught numerous rainbows up to 9 or 10 inches on both dry flies and nymphs. We witnessed a good variety of bugs but the hatch was never as concentrated as I was hoping for. That didn't prevent the fish from feeding though! Here is Logan with a nice rainbow trout.


The Mountain Laurel is in bloom in the Smokies right now. That made for some incredible photo opportunities along the stream.


The highlight of the evening was when a deer waded out across the slick ledges and posed midstream for us.


With the rain in the forecast, I expect good things for the fishing in the mountains. Hopefully we won't receive too much that we get the tailwaters messed up. The Caney is in great shape for drifting right now so don't delay if you want to get a trip in. I'm avoiding the river on the weekends and hitting it when the crowds moderate slightly during the week. The next two weeks are booked solid but I do have some opening starting after that.

If I can help you with a guided fly fishing trip in the Smokies or on the Caney Fork River, please contact me via email at TroutZoneAnglers@gmail.com or call/text (931) 261-1884.


Friday, May 15, 2015

The Isonychia bicolor

As we head into the heat of summer, Smoky Mountain anglers should begin adjusting to the changing conditions. The banner hatches of April and early May are giving way to the yellow and cream insects of summer. Most anyone who regularly fishes in the Park can tell you that yellow is the color to fish this time of year. There is of course, as with most things, an exception and a significant one at that.

The Isonychia bicolor (Slate Drakes) mayfly is arguably as important as the famed Yellow Sallies that everyone is trying to match. The interesting thing about this hatch is that, at least in many places, the nymph is the only important stage that fishermen need concern themselves with. One very notable exception to this is the Hiwassee River where the duns emerge mid stream and fishing from a drift boat can produce excellent action during the hatch. However, on the mountain streams, Isonychias generally crawl out onto the rocks in and around the stream and hatch out of the water. That means the fish rarely see a dun and the spinner falls are only rarely important, at least during legal fishing hours.

Earlier this week, I found large quantities of shucks on one of my local smallmouth bass streams and eventually a gorgeous dun that was still sitting on the rock it hatched on. Here, you can see the shucks where the nymphs crawled out of the water to hatch. The second picture is a newly hatched dun.

Isonychia Bicolor or Slate Drake nymphal shucks

Slate Drake or Isonychia Bicolor Dun Adult

These are large bugs, often a size #8 or #10 and the fish react accordingly. In the Smokies, trout will often take a nymph imitation when nothing else is seeming to work. In fact, one of the better brown trout I caught last summer ate my own Isonychia pattern.

Smokies big brown trout

If you don't have your own secret pattern, a Prince nymph does a reasonably decent job at imitating these bugs as well as a variety of commercially available Isonychia nymphs that you should be able to find at your local fly shop. Want to take a stab at my favorite, an Isonychia Soft Hackle? Here is a picture and a recipe.

David Knapp's Isonychia Soft Hackle


David Knapp's Isonychia Soft Hackle


Hook: #8-#12 TMC 5262 or 3671 (I use mostly #10-#12)
Weight: .020 Lead-free wire
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Brown hackle fibers
Body: Several strands of peacock fibers, twisted together for durability
Rib/Gills: Gray ostrich herl
Back/Stripe: Pearl or silver Flashabou or small pearl tinsel
Hackle: Speckled Brown Soft Hackle Hen Saddle patch feather (2-3 turns)

Tying directions: Add wire first and then start thread and cover the wire with a thread base. Tie in tail and then flash. Tie in ostrich and then peacock herl. Wind peacock herl forward, adding more if you need it to get a nice full body. Tie off. For added durability, wind thread back and forth over body several times. The thread will bite into the herl and should be mostly invisible but it will help hold the body together once fish start chewing on it. Next, palmer the ostrich herl forward and tie off. Pull flash strip over back and tie off behind the head. Finally, tie in soft hackle feather, wrap 2-3 turns depending on how thick the fibers are, and tie off. Whip finish and add a small drop of glue to the head and you are done!

How to fish

When fishing an Isonychia nymph pattern, you need to understand the naturals. The nymph is an active swimmer. This means that your normal dead drift is fine, but if that isn't working, try changing it up by adding a jigging motion with your rod tip or swinging the fly at the end of each drift. Some of the best trout that I've caught in the Smokies have come on an Isonychia nymph pattern so try one out this summer on the Little River or other larger Park stream and see if you agree that this is one of the most important hatches of the summer. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Boulder Garden

Smallmouth on the Cumberland Plateau are coming on strong now. Our weather is always a bit cooler than down in the lowlands so the local fish are not as far along as fish down around Knoxville and Chattanooga. However, with the recent hot dry weather, fishing has improved rapidly and it is time to get out and enjoy the remote creeks and rivers.

This past Sunday, after cooking a Mothers' Day breakfast for my mom, I took off for an afternoon of visiting a local favorite. This stream is remote and flows through some of the most rugged terrain in Cumberland County. The plan was to explore a stretch I fish a fair amount and have even guided on occasionally.

Driving through the country side, I noticed that we are transitioning rapidly to late spring/early summer flowers.

Photograph or painting?

Later, along the stream, I saw that spring favorites like the Pinkster Azalea were just about finished although a few held on in shady spots.

The last few blooms on the Pinkster Azalea were beautiful.

When I started fishing, it became apparent that the rock bass were hungry since I caught several right away. In the past, I would usually take this as a sign that the smallmouth were not feeding very well, but I persevered and kept progressing upstream. 


Supposedly some musky have been stocked on this local creek so I carried two rods: a four weight rigged with a small Clouser for the smallmouth and a seven weight with a wire bite guard and much larger fly for the possibility of a musky. Most of the water in this stretch is too shallow to be considered prime musky water but I did probe the depths of a few seriously deep pools but to no avail. Either the musky were stocked in a different section or they weren't showing themselves on this day.

The insect life along the river was intriguing on this particular trip. I did not find any golden stonefly shucks yet but the Isonychias (Slate Drakes) are hatching in good numbers based on the shucks. A dun sitting on a rock stuck around to have its picture taken so I shot a few before moving along.


The smallmouth started to get active though. As I moved farther away from the access point, the action improved rapidly but of course no surprise there. Towards the top end of the section I like to fish is what I can best describe as a huge boulder garden. Just below the boulder garden lies two fantastic pools where I have seen nice smallmouth in the past. Happy to have already caught a few smallmouth, I was surprised to see a big fish (for this stream) race over to crush my Clouser shortly after it hit the water. Last summer I spooked this fish a few times but never could seal the deal. On this day, things just worked out. The four weight rod got a serious and unexpected workout, but soon I was admiring a gorgeous fish.


Not long after, another nice fish came out of the same hole.


Those two fish ensured that this would be a memorable trip, but I decided to push my luck a little. The Boulder Garden is a section of river that flows under a high cliff face that drops huge chunks or rock into the river. Looking towards it from either up or downstream, it appears that the creek just vanishes into the rocks.


One other time, I had scouted a line across the boulders part way through, but since I was feeling lucky, I decided to brave the snakes and other dangers to maneuver through this whole section. Nervously hoping I wouldn't come across a rattler or copperhead, I moved painstakingly through and across the rocks, looking over, under, and around all obstacles before stepping or reaching out with my hand. Finally, I was through! A whole new stretch of water opened before me, flowing away into the depths of wilderness. 

Few people ever see this stretch, and I guarantee that the fish are some of the most unpressured in the area. The fishing was accordingly very easy. I spotted a nice bass holding near the head of a pool. One cast, three quick strips, and it was fish on. This must be what it was like to fish these streams 200 years ago. In addition to the fishing, I had to document my progress. The camera was employed in taking some shots of the beautiful scenery. Looking upstream, the water beckoned to further exploration, but that would have to wait for another day.

The shadows were growing longer, and I don't like pushing my luck on these remote waters. If you head out too late, I guarantee you will find more snakes and other critters. Lots of fresh hog tracks lined the stream, and I didn't care to spook a herd of those either.

Back at the car, I got the usual strange looks from the locals at the swimming hole as I wandered out of the woods in camo carrying two fly rods. This time, however, I was spared the usual question of "Are there trout in here?"

My Boulder Garden adventure is hopefully the first of many. I'm excited to see what other adventures are in store for me there!


Monday, May 11, 2015

Fishing With Dad

Last week, I had a great opportunity to fish with my dad, but it was a chance that almost didn't happen. On Tuesday, I decided that I wanted to fish on Wednesday and based on how well the Monday guide trip went, I knew I had to get out on the Caney Fork. After a couple of texts to friends to see if any of them were free or wanted to ditch work, I figured I could check with my dad. At this point, it is important to emphasize that he really doesn't fish. Yes, he does enjoy going along with me from time to time, but getting him to actually go fishing is another thing. When he agreed to go along, I was pleasantly surprised to say the least and even more so when he agreed to fish on the trip!

After a late night run to Walmart for a fishing license, we were ready for the next morning. A breakfast of waffles had me fueled up for a few hours of rowing, and when we threw some sandwiches and sides into the cooler along with some water, we were ready to go. Before long, we were dumping the boat and ready to float.

I gave my dad the quick lecture on how to cast and then got him fishing. As is normal with most beginner fly fishermen, it took some time to figure out the whole "hook set" thing. I was using the boat to help achieve long drifts, subtly dipping an oar here or there to keep everything moving steadily and without drag. Several times, the indicator shot under and one fish even found itself briefly hooked, but still a fish in the net eluded us.

Finally, I changed up patterns, adjusted the indicator, and not too long after we saw the indicator go down yet again. This time, dad came tight on a feisty rainbow trout that found its way into the net. Posing for a quick picture took a few seconds, and I soon had proof that my dad went fishing. The fish was freed to be caught again another day, and we continued drifting.


One fish down helped a lot. Once that pressure is removed, it allows everyone to relax and most people fish better without too much pressure. Dad was soon in a groove, catching fish and remembering to carefully count, announcing each one before it even hit the net. I reminded him that he couldn't count fish until they were landed, but of course he told me that he was going to land them all. Can't argue with that!

Eventually, we got to a shady spot to eat our sandwiches and potato salad. After a delicious lunch, I hopped out of the rower's seat and waded up to the top of a shoal that always holds fish. Working the Sage Accel 904-4, I made a long cast to the middle of the river. Soon the indicator dipped and when the fish flashed I briefly panicked. Thankfully, the next flash convinced me it was not quite as large but still a beautiful holdover. My dad did a fantastic job on the net as I fought the fish down to where the boat waited and then again with the camera. What a rainbow trout!


I jumped back behind the oars and my dad quickly resumed catching fish. One promising spot was good enough to anchor on for a few minutes so we both fished. I climbed into the back of the boat and dad was in front. A few casts later, we landed our first double!


After the double, I started rowing again since the water would start coming up before too long. I didn't want to get caught with rising water at the boat ramp. Almost immediately, my dad hooked another trout. The pink stripe was so gorgeous and the fins so healthy that I took a quick shot before I let it go and then one of dad fishing out of the front of the boat.



One final spot called for us to anchor up so stopped the boat and we both fished again. My last fish of the day was a gorgeous 14 inch brown trout that fought like a much larger fish.


At this point, my dad was quickly closing in on around 20 trout for the day. Somewhere around 16 or 17 we both lost track but when he caught a few more we decided it must be 20 and probably more. I was impressed with how quickly he caught on and started catching a lot of fish. He was probably getting tired of my "coaching" (hey, it is hard to quit guiding), and I could tell from his casting that he was getting tired. Most people who are not used to fly fishing get tired after a long day in the hot sun catching lots of fish. He hung in until right at the end but thankfully the ramp was just ahead. We pulled the boat out just as the water started to rise and were soon enjoying the air conditioned car on the ride home.

Dad got a year long license so I'm sure I'll convince him to get out on the water with me again. You don't want to waste all that money after all!


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Closeup

This week is shaping up to be just about perfect. I'll be taking some time to spend with friends and also fish for myself. I don't get that luxury as often now that I'm guiding. Today I kicked things off with my first local smallmouth trip of 2015. The trip was incredible in so many ways. Until I digest it a bit further and actually take the time to write about it, here is a closeup of one from today that is my best fish to date from this creek.


Thursday, May 07, 2015

Spring on the Cumberland Plateau

Spring is my second favorite time of year, only barely edged out by my top favorite, fall. Yes, I love the transition seasons although summer and fall are both great as well. Summer gets a little hot and muggy and of course winter produces some slower fishing at times (although not always), but all of the seasons have their own charm. This year, spring has been glorious.

Starting out cool and wet in March and early April, we have finally transitioned into late spring. Bass are on the beds along with bluegill and shellcracker, at least up here on the Plateau. In the mountains, early spring hatches of dark colored bugs have given way to the lighter shades of summer. Most of the trees have finally leafed out although some are still getting going in that department.

One of my favorite things about spring and fall is being able to hike comfortably without experiencing the extreme temperatures of the other two seasons. Last Saturday I headed to a favorite local hike. Brady Mountain has a segment of the Cumberland Trail that climbs steeply from a trailhead on highway 68 until reaching the higher elevations on top of the mountain.

While the steepness of the mountain side can make the hike a daunting challenge, the solitude and views gained from the top make it a worth while hike. In the spring, wildflowers reign. The late afternoon sunlight filtering through the fresh green of spring made for some beautiful sights in the woods. Here are some pictures from my hike this past weekend.









Thursday, April 30, 2015

Be Bug Aware


Today, while out guiding, I had an experience that reinforced the importance of really paying attention to what is going on while you are out on the water if you want to be successful fly fishing. We were fishing Little River through some fantastic mayfly weather. You know the type: cloudy, cool, and wet at times. With rain gear on we were staying pretty dry, but as might be expected the bugs were struggling to get off of the water which meant that the trout were feasting heavily.

When we first got to the edge of the water, I knotted on a #16 Sulfur Parachute. With a few sulfurs on the water, that seemed like an obvious choice. Within a couple of casts the first fish ate and was quickly landed and released. We then moved up just a little in the pool to cast to more risers. A few fish hit but somehow missed the hook, and after another 10 minutes we realized that the number of strikes had dwindled even though the fish were still eating something.

Putting my face down to the water didn't help much other than to confirm there were microscopic midges, but I was convinced the fish weren't eating those for the most part. The takes were too boisterous. Squinting a little, I saw some little bugs. Blue-winged olives were hatching. Using the larger sulfur to help find the little bug seemed like a smart strategy so I added 6x tippet to the bend of the hook on the #16 and added a tiny #20 Parachute BWO dry fly. Immediately we were back in business. This went on for several fish and culminated in the largest fish of the day, a wild rainbow that easily went 12 inches which is a nice fish for the Park.

Jack with a beautiful wild rainbow.

However, shortly after the big rainbow, the hits became few and far between again. We moved to another pool and again quickly caught a fish on the combo rig we had been fishing, but after several refusals on both the BWO and the sulfur, it was clear that we needed to make a change. The fish were rising vigorously and it was apparent why when we simply glanced around. Big yellow pale evening duns were hatching, and because of the rain were having a hard time getting airborne. A quick adjustment had us back in fish in a short time that culminated in a healthy 10-11 inch brown as the last fish of the day. However, this story would have been over by the end of the second paragraph above if we had not made adjustments. Instead, we figured out what the fish wanted and played the game.

If you are seeing fish rising but getting refusals, take time to sit back and watch. This is where a guide can really help since they can focus on figuring out what the fish are eating while you focus on watching your flies. If you do not want to hire a guide, then just stop casting and watch the fish for a bit. Put your face down near the water, look in the air around you. Eventually something will click and you will pull out the right fly and be into fish again. Don't stick with a fly just because it worked last time. Every fish is a new puzzle and that is one of the things that makes this sport beautiful. If it was too easy we would all give up soon.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Variety

There is a lake nearby that I've been fishing off and on for a few years. Despite a lot of pressure, it seems to always produce something, even if it is just big bluegill and redear sunfish. The lake is managed for quality bass fishing and in the winter it receives a stocking of trout. Oh, and it has a boat ramp, one that I've never used.

All of my previous forays have been on foot. The lake is relatively accessibly to the shore angler and there is something fun to me about sneaking around a lake with a fly rod and trying to quietly approach fish near the banks for a good presentation. Naturally, as soon as I got the boat last year, I started to wonder how the lake would fish if I could really get around and chase the fish properly. Fast forward to last week when a friend mentioned that they would be passing through and wanted to do a little fishing. I saw a great opportunity to get out and do some exploring and also have a good time catching fish.

When we dumped the boat in at the ramp, the first thing I noticed was a steady breeze out of the southwest. Wanting to row to the southwest end of the lake, I mentally prepared myself to fight the wind. Soon we were moving along nicely. I anchored up a bit off shore so he could tie on a lure. 

While he was busy, I started using one of the 3 fly rods I had along. A four weight, five weight, and seven weight would allow me to fish a variety of flies and hopefully target different fish. The four weight had a small bead head Simi Seal Leech, the five weight had a Clouser Minnow, and the 7 weight had a Diamond Hair Minnow in rainbow trout colors. Those bass grow big by feasting on the leftover stockers in the spring as the water warms.

After fishing a few minutes, I started rowing again and at our next stop, I quickly caught two small bass on the leech. Soon my buddy Alex was convinced to try the fly rod. After a brief description of the cast, he was casting well enough to catch fish and we kept fishing. Over the next 30 minutes, I found another bass, this one nice enough for a quick picture, and Alex lost or missed several fish including at least one nice trout and several bass. Thankfully he finally caught a good bluegill before he could get too frustrated.



We continued on around the lake, and eventually Alex caught the trout he was looking for which was his first ever as well as first on a fly rod obviously.


I rowed for the most part although when a particularly good section of bank would come along, down went the anchor and I fished the Clouser, catching a few nice bass in the process.


Finally, it was getting late. Alex had a long drive back home ahead of him so we headed back out. I'm sure he will be back because, when we finished, he told me that it "was the best fishing I've had in a long time!" I know for sure I'll be back. I never did find those big torpedo shaped bass that will chase the rainbow trout. The variety is also fun, and I can't wait to try it again!

If you are interested in a guided trip here, please contact me at (931) 261-1884 or via email at TroutZoneAnglers@gmail.com.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Prime Dates Still Open

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

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