Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Hatch of Hatches

Most fly anglers who spend any time fishing cold water fisheries have stories of the best hatch ever. If you fish somewhere like the Smokies, then you might not have as many of those stories as someone who, say, fishes Yellowstone National Park. There are destinations across the country famous for various hatches. Most of these revolve around aquatic insects like mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges along with many others. Then again, some land based insects create phenomenal hatches of their own.

Here in the Great Smoky Mountains, we always look forward to the excellent summer terrestrial opportunities. Inch worms can descend out of the trees of a trout stream in mass just about anytime during the warm months. Of course, ants and beetles are often around as well although not in concentrated numbers most of the time. We do have some excellent hatches of aquatic insects as well, but you don't encounter those in big numbers very often. Head out west, and terrestrials also produce some of the most exciting fishing of the year. Hopper fishing in particular is a sight to behold when it is really on fire. 

On the other hand, our tailwaters are renowned for their great hatches. The Clinch River and South Holston Rivers both feature an impressive emergence of sulphur mayflies. The Hiwassee, Holston, and Watauga are all known for their excellent caddis hatches. Warm water fisheries such as Fort Loudon, Watts Bar and Chickamauga lakes are known for the summer hexagenia mayfly hatch. These hexes are huge, looking like hummingbirds flying around. 

Still, I don't think any of these compares with the cicada hatch, if you hit it right that is. One time I did, and it was incredible. Several other times I've hit it well if not perfectly, including a couple of times in the last couple of weeks or so. The downside of these cicada hatches is that the best ones are periodic, meaning they only happen every once in a while. To be precise, there are both 13 and 17 year cicada broods. The good thing is that they are easy to predict. The bad thing? Well, if you happen to live right where they emerge, the constant roar while they're around can get annoying if you aren't a fly angler. However, to fly anglers, they are one of the best sounds in the world, at least for anyone who has fished this hatch.

This hatch, like many others, has days that are better than others. Cicadas are just the opposite of mayflies in that the cicadas love hot dry days. Rainy or otherwise cooler days will slow things down just a little below the usual dull roar. Still, even on those days, there will be enough happening to catch a few fish. 

Two weeks ago, I had an opportunity to fish this hatch once more. I knew this would probably be the last chance I had for this year's hatch, so I had to get things right. Some intel from one of the Trout Zone Anglers guides, Travis Williams, helped locate the bugs and a plan was hatched. We agreed to meet around 9:30 am, late enough in the morning that things would hopefully warm up and get the bugs going. 

When I pulled up to the boat ramp, a distant hum suggested that the bugs were indeed around. Now it was just a matter of finding the fish. We rigged rods and the boat, then put the boat in the water. Before long, we were flinging those big foam bugs that vaguely resemble a periodic cicada, or in the case of what Travis was fishing, look pretty much just like them. The realism with flies nowadays is quite impressive. The day started off slow at first, but once we started covering water, the fish came. 



Bass were the first to appear. Well, other than that bluegill of course. Some of the bluegill weren't much larger than the bugs they were trying to eat, but that's a bluegill for you. The first bass was a nice one and slammed the cicada Travis was casting almost as soon as it hit the water. 



I was mildly interested in bass, but much more interested in carp myself. For anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sight fishing for carp with big foam bugs, you know how addicting that can be. 

The first sighting was in a narrow spot between two small islands. The fish was cruising directly towards us only 15 feet out. I screwed the cast up and the fish sunk out of sight. As we progressed back into a sheltered bay, the bugs got a little louder and things were looking up. Structure can be important with carp, but doesn't always seem to be. This was one of those times that the structure seemed to help. 

I was working a shoreline as we drifted up towards a private wooden boat dock. My first cast was about 6 feet to the right of the boat dock. Suddenly, I saw a dark shadow slide out from the dock and make a beeline towards my cicada imitation. The carp slowed down, but only in that deliberate way that they like to eat. It was fully committed from the moment I first saw it move towards the fly. That is the beauty of this hatch. Fish tend to lose most of their natural caution, with wary fish becoming gullible in the face of an extraordinary bounty. 

Carp on a cicada fly fishing


That carp wouldn't be the first one of the day. However, we had a storm looming on the horizon that was making a rapid approach. Before we would find more fish, we first had to deal with some wind and hard rain. Another bay nearby seemed like as good a place as any to ride out the inclement weather and we made our way there. The storm caught us as we drifted into that area. Within seconds, we were both so wet that there wasn't really any reason to worry about finding shelter. Thankfully there was no lightning, just wind and rain. Travis waited for the worst of the wind to ease, then started casting again. 



Soon, the storm blew through leaving behind gray skies and choppy water. Then, we noticed it. The change in weather had brought a lot of fish up to feed. They had moved up on the banks and were sucking down debris knocked out of the trees by the wind and rain. Regardless of whether they were eating cicadas or some other bugs, they were there and they were hungry. Soon, we saw more and more carp along with some really nice bass. I hooked, played, and eventually lost a big carp. Travis also got in on the action with some more bass and finally his first carp of the day. There would be a lot more of those before we finished. 

fly fishing for carp


About the time that the skies were getting brighter, the wind mostly laid down and we were left with a perfect day for cicada fishing: hot, humid, with just enough breeze to blow some bugs around. The afternoon was pretty much what you dream about when you think of the cicada hatch. I could go on and on describing each catch in detail, but let's just say that we found more fish than any of us deserved. 



One fish in particular does stand out. By this time, another Trout Zone Anglers guide, Pat Tully, had joined us. We were working around a particularly large bay with Travis on the oars. I was in the back of the boat when I saw a carp sucking bugs off the surface and moving directly away from me. Immediately this fish had me shaking. It was easily the largest fish I had seen all day. The length was impressive enough, but the real size of this fish was obvious by the distance between its eyes. In other words, this was a really heavy carp that might or might not be a good idea on the 6 weight I was fishing.

I made a solid cast out ahead of the carp, perfectly in line with the direction it was traveling. This was a mistake. Because the fish was traveling directly away from me, I should have set the fly a couple of feet to the side and let the fish come to get it. As the carp rose to take my fly, moving directly away from me, its snout bumped the heavy tippet before inhaling the fly. Immediately the carp freaked out. These are notoriously intelligent fish, and this one was the perfect example. It disappeared faster than any other fish we saw all day. 

So, in the end, we caught some more bass and another carp or three. Yet, it was the fish that got away that provided the most poignant memory. Next time, I'll be more careful where I cast. There were much better memories of the day as well, such as two carp simultaneously racing each other to get to Travis' cicada pattern. In the end, it is the sum of those memories that has me looking ahead to our next semi local cicada hatch in 2024. If you haven't fished a cicada hatch yet, make plans to do so now in mid May through mid June. You'll be glad you did...





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!

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Be Patient, Don't Cast Too Often

Today I'll share another quick tip. There are lots of things that I see as a guide, both good and bad, that tend to fall under the category of habits that anglers have picked up. Some of those things are personality driven. For example, I fish fast, often faster than I should in fact. Guiding has been wonderful for my own fishing in this regard because it has made me slow down and seek to understand. Often, a lack of success is not as simple as the fish not being hungry (hint: they are always hungry). A good angler or guide can find plenty of things to blame the lack of success on, but ultimately slowing down and understanding what the fish are trying to tell you will bring success.

Fishing fast in the Smokies is often helpful. There are plenty of fish around and eventually you'll find a few that will eat what you are throwing. In other words, one strategy is to simply cover water as fast as possible until you find those few trout that are a little less smart if you know what I mean. However, this approach won't help you grow as much as angler. Instead of blazing ahead to try and cover a mile of water, slow down and focus on just three hundred yards of water or less. The fish are there and can be caught with the right combination of technique, drift, and fly selection.

On tailwaters, this urge to hurry really starts to hurt your fishing. If you are satisfied with only catching smaller stockers, then hurrying will keep the numbers moving. Those stockers will hear your flies splashing down and come running to eat. So, cast away as often as possible, again and again. However, if you are interested in finding the monsters, the ones that you daydream about or have recurring nightmares about when they get away, those fish will require that you slow things down and be patient. 

Often, from the rowers seat in my drift boat, I'll watch an angler pick up their line and recast. The following cast often lands in exactly the same spot as the flies were when the angler pulled them out to cast. Every cast should have a purpose. If you are casting to reach another spot, that is one thing. However, if you are just casting because you are getting too impatient and can't stand to watch your flies sit there any longer, force back the urge to cast and wait a little longer. The very largest brown trout that I have hooked every year often come after an extremely long uninterrupted drift. When strike indicators and nymphs start raining down from the sky, those big fish immediately know something is up and won't react well. However, when the flies stealthily drift into the strike zone, the fish doesn't know anything is out of the ordinary and feeds readily.

So, in a nutshell, here is my tip for the day. On big tailwaters like we have here in the southeast and across the south, don't recast unless your fly will change positions by a minimum of 10-15 feet. That's it. If you are going to splash back down within a few feet of where you ripped the flies out, you are probably going to do more harm than good by recasting. Both pulling the flies out of the water and putting them back in will spook fish. That "spook" radius is several feet at minimum and can be as much as 20 or more feet on flat ultra clear water under a bright summer sun. Shoot, on the Clinch River, fish will spook from false casting at 40 or 50 feet or farther at times. 

Now, are there some caveats? Sure. I'm mostly talking about big flat water. Fast broken riffles and pocket water will have a different set of rules. I'm talking about suspension nymphing primarily as well. We blind drift a lot of flies through likely lies. That is the main scenario I'm referring to. I'm also not talking about sight fishing situations which is an entirely different ballgame. If you are on flat water on big tailwaters, however, just remember that the longer your drift, the more likely you'll catch a good fish. 

Friday, May 07, 2021

Fish Within Your Strengths For Success

This short article idea came from many years of observing anglers as a guide, but I was reminded about it several times this spring. Over the years, I have noticed a pattern with many anglers. They always want to do well when fishing in front of a guide, and often end up pushing beyond the limits of their skill set. Specifically, I am referring to fishing distances. What do I mean by that?

Well, first of all, people obviously will find the most success casting at a comfortable distance. Once you start casting too far, then your cast breaks down and you have fewer successful "fly in the water" moments. In other words, if you cast 60 feet of line, but 30 of that lands in a pile, you are not fishing successfully. Try to get a clean hook set with 30 feet of slack. It is not happening. 

As a guide, I often find myself saying, "cast over there to that log," or "cast to that dark spot," etc. This is where an important element of fishing with a guide comes in. If you cannot comfortably do what the guide is asking, say so. It will save time and frustration in failed cast attempts. As a guide, I would much prefer knowing that a client doesn't think they can make the cast and maneuvering them into a better position or angle, than for them to try to force a long cast that doesn't end well. 

The flip side of that is that we are here to help anglers improve their skill set. If I think it is time for an angler to push their skill set a bit, I'll tell them to go ahead and try anyway. That is how you grow as an angler. That said, don't push your abilities too far all day. You'll end up tired with far less success than you could have had. Strategically pick the moments to attempt more.

Another reason to not fish too far is to make sure you can get clean hook sets. One reason I enjoy taking new anglers fishing in the Smokies is that we are rarely fishing very far out. Getting a hook set with two feet of fly line and a leader is much easier than with 50 feet of fly line and the leader out on the water, at least for new anglers. Line management is usually the real culprit for failed hook sets at distances, but regardless of the cause, you still missed that fish. If you have been struggling with hook sets at a significant distance, then fish shorter. It is better to get fewer chances to hook up because you are closer to the boat, but to seal the deal on the majority of those chances, than it is to cast farther and get more chances to hook up but fail in most of them. In other words, you'll catch more fish even if you don't get as many bites.

One other major reason for not casting and fishing too far is the ability to mend. I'll do a future article or even a video or two on mending, but for now, just consider that you need to be able to mend all the way into your leader to the strike indicator. Most people struggle to do that more than 30 or 40 feet out. The key to a good mend is the ability to lift the line off the water before executing the actual mend. Thus, in a situation where you need to do a significant mend, don't cast farther than you are able to do that.

That is all of my words of wisdom for the day. I'm sure I'll think of some other tips that fall within the category of fishing within your strengths, but I'll keep those for another day. 


Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Hunt For Idaho Bull Trout Day Four: Success Found at the Eleventh Hour

Hunt For Idaho Bull Trout: Down To The Wire

With three full days of hunting cutthroat and bull trout behind, we were getting down to crunch time. I had planned on fishing Monday through Friday. However, I had also hoped to have a couple of relaxing fishing days where I could chase hatches, search out risers, and otherwise enjoy what the river offered. The hunt for an Idaho bull trout had been increasingly focused with less and less time to just relax and enjoy a new river system. We were now down to the wire. If I was going to have one day of laid back fishing, then this was the day I had to find a bull trout. 

A chance encounter the day before had shifted my strategy for this day. Based on the recommendations of some Idaho Fish and Game employees, we planned another big hike. This time, I hoped that no one would be camping and fishing on my targeted creek.

We got an early start that morning. Driving up the canyon in the cool of the day, I couldn't help but wonder if we had made the right choice. Miles of beautiful water rolled by, constantly beckoning me to stop and fish. I didn't give in, though, and before long we were back at the trailhead for another big hike. This time, we knew what to expect. That made the hike seemingly go by faster. Before we knew it, five miles had rolled by, and we were staring across the stream at our target tributary.

Backcountry Water for Idaho Bull Trout

Of course, I had to fish the junction pool. It is a gorgeous spot, complete with some big healthy cutthroat. In theory, there probably should have been some bull trout as well. I didn't find any of those, but did miss a couple of eager west slope cutthroat that couldn't quite fit the whole streamer into their mouth. Then, we were finally entering the mouth of the creek I had been planning to fish for almost a year. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

Despite my confidence which was borne of many hours of research, I still had questions. The stream looked small, with lots of skinny pocket water apparently too small for the monsters I was hoping for. Yet, there were also some surprisingly nice pools for such a small stream. That was undoubtedly where the Idaho bull trout I was searching for would be. 


Wandering further and further up the stream, we began to catch some trout. Not bull trout, at least not yet, but beautiful westslope cutthroat trout. In the deeper pools, we would cast dry flies and then follow up with streamers before moving on to the next hole. I pitched my streamer into small buckets no larger than a bathtub and some much larger holes as well. 

Then, several hundred yards up the stream, a small fish came out chasing the streamer hard through some pocket water. I cast again, and again it chased. Baby bull trout. At this point, I was about ready to catch a baby bull just to knock it off the list, but it wasn't meant to happen that way apparently. Despite lots of vicious swipes and attacks, the baby bull trout refused to find the hook in a meaningful way.

Becoming more and more certain that the bull trout was not going to happen, I continued upstream anyway with my wife following gamely along. Eventually, we were both getting hungry and ready for a lunch break. I found a nice log midstream with some of my favorite wildflowers growing close by. We enjoyed a nice lunch here to recharge before hitting it hard through the afternoon. Maybe, just maybe, my Idaho bull trout would be waiting around the next bend.




 


Midday came and went. The sun was beginning to sink towards the western horizon. We weren't in imminent danger of getting stuck out there in the dark yet, but the time to start thinking about the long walk back had arrived. We were probably a good mile up this tributary stream. Either we needed to retrace our steps downstream, or we had to climb up a nearly impossible sidehill and find the trail that was somewhere above. Thankfully, the deer and elk showed us the way. 

I've always been a follower of game trails. In fact, it was one of my favorite ways to hike cross country here on the Cumberland Plateau. Out west, it often helps find manageable routes in backcountry areas that are more vertical than level. This time was no exception. We followed a crude trail that ascended, branched several times, and ascended some more. We kept following whichever trail seemed the easiest. These hardy animals will go up some ridiculously steep terrain, but in wading boots we had some limitations. Finally, just about the time we were debating the intelligence of our wild goose chase, the trail magically appeared above us. Soon, we were hustling back down the canyon high above the water we just so recently been fishing.

Where Are the Idaho Bull Trout?

As we hiked down, the wheels were turning. Bull trout should have been in that tributary stream. If they weren't, then the only possible explanation is that they were still downstream of the junction. After all, this whole journey they undertake every year is more or less a spawning migration. The idea is to intercept them somewhere before the end of their journey. You don't want to pester native (or even wild) fish while they are trying to spawn. So, if they weren't in the tributaries yet, they had to be getting close. It was early August after all. The waters many miles downstream were getting too warm for bull trout who prefer water in the mid 50s or cooler. Thus, these fish couldn't be too far downstream.

By the time we were nearing the entry point for our tributary fishing adventure, I had concocted a plan. One hour of fishing, starting at the mouth and working downstream as fast as possible. With the streamer rod, I should be able to cover water quickly. I turned to my wife and put the question to her, afraid of what the response might be. I shouldn't have been. She is always up for adventure and really was gracious with my fishing on this trip.

Starting back in the junction pool, I finally nailed one of those cutthroat that wanted my streamer. Working quickly downstream, I found another, and another. Each one slammed the streamer so hard that I thought that maybe it had happened. Yet, each cutthroat was obviously not a bull as soon as I started fighting them. The memory of the one big bull trout I had hooked our first day out was still fresh in my mind. The sheer power was and still is mind boggling.


The odds of not catching a bull trout were increasing exponentially with no hope in sight. With time slipping rapidly away and the sun sinking ever lower, I knew we had reached a point of now or never. Then, I saw the deep bucket. 

Last Chance For An Idaho Bull Trout

Deep water was rather uncommon on this stream, or at least it was uncommon in the headwater section we were fishing. Any ambush predator like the bull trout would need the haven that deep water provides. When I saw the small bucket, I thought I might have a chance.

Sure enough, on my first cast, something heavy slammed the streamer. My line throbbed and the rod doubled over. Then, just as quickly, the line went limp, but not before I saw a big dark shadow. A bull trout. Quickly, I cast back and was shocked when the fish hammered the streamer a second time. I've never had a hooked fish come back that fast to eat a second time. I had stuck the fish hard the first time. Sadly, I didn't hook it the next cast, nor the next, nor the next. Each time it tried to eat my streamer but with a little less confidence each time. Finally, by the seventh or eight cast, the fish had moved back a little in the bucket and sulked down deep.

Desperate, I considered changing flies. Maybe waiting fifteen minutes. Anything to catch this bull trout. My poor wife probably figured we would be camping right there for the night. Inspiration struck when I decided to change the angle of my presentation. I cast way across the stream, all twenty or twenty five feet of it. Almost immediately, the streamer was crushed. The little seven inch cutthroat was impaled on the barbless streamer. As I was dragging the poor fish through the pool, a dark blur charged and nailed it. I was back in business! The bull trout again went deep, but would not relinquish its trophy. 

Putting as much pressure on the 1x tippet as I dared, I got the bull trout's head up and scooped. Both the cutthroat and the bull trout were in the big Brodin ghost net. The poor cutthroat was traumatized beyond recovery. The powerful jaws of the bull trout had made short work of the much smaller cutthroat trout.


In the midst of the euphoria of finally connecting with a bull and taking pictures, the question was nagging the back of my mind. Could I call this a fair catch? Maybe if I considered myself a bait fisherman. Not if I was a fly angler. A neat story, no doubt, but I still needed to fair catch a bull trout to complete my mission. Remember a backcountry camp downstream a short distance, I asked my wife if we could fish to there before getting out. After all, scrambling back to the trail from the point I captured the bull trout would have been a hassle. I already knew there was a good access to the trail at that camp. 

Common sense prevailed. We would continue to the easy out spot. Of course, I could fish as we went. It wasn't ten minutes later that we reached what would be the last good hole of the day. When I looked into the pool, I turned to my wife and said, "A bull trout will be in here." Have you ever fished a spot that was just so good you knew it had to contain a fish? This was one of those spots. 

Finally, A Fair Caught Idaho Bull Trout

I made the first cast into the fast water at the head. Almost immediately, the barbless streamer was slammed. At this point in the trip, with all the hard hours put in and agonizingly close encounters, I was certain this one would end just as poorly. The fish immediately raced directly upstream through the rapids at the head. Turning my feet, I gave chase, running almost as fast through that heavy riffle water upstream as I could on a track wearing shorts and running shoes. Somehow, I managed to keep the line tight and the barbless hook attached to the bull trout. 

Suddenly, the fish made a u-turn and rushed straight at me. Nearly running between my legs, I made a desperate stab with the net. When I came up empty, I knew this fight was lost to me. I knew it. And yet, it wasn't. Back in the original pool, I put all the pressure possible to bear on that bull trout. Somehow, the hook held, the seven weight finally turned a bull trout, and the 1x tippet held. 

When that bull trout slipped into my waiting net, all I could do was admire it, staring in awe at this amazing creature. Pictures were quickly taken, and I kept this beautiful yet sensitive fish in the water in between shots. Before long, I let it go, watching it slip right back to the holding spot I had taken it from. Immediately, I knew this was a trip I had to do again.

 

This part of the country is rugged, yet incredibly beautiful. The lack of easy access was a huge part of the appeal. While it probably won't be this year, I'll continue looking forward to the time I get to return to this amazing fishery. The westslope cutthroat trout fishery would be enough to draw me back. Any native trout that rises willingly to dry flies is worth pursuing of course. Still, the bull trout made a good trip amazing. These close cousins of our native brook trout back home had already gotten in my blood. Now, I'm plotting how I can chase these beautiful fish yet again. These Idaho bull trout were awesome, but of course I'm not plotting how to get to British Columbia or Alberta to fish for them as well. So many places to fish and too little time to do it in!



 

Read the rest of the Idaho bull trout story starting at day one.

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day One

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Two

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Three

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Hunt For Bull Trout Day Three: More Disappointment and a Glimmer of Hope

By morning on the third day of my bull trout pursuit, I was becoming resigned to the distinct possibility of not finding one of these amazing fish. Or, more accurately, I was resigned to not finding one in the bottom of my net. The previous day had seriously deflated my hopes and expectations. While I still believed there were bull trout around, I was beginning to doubt I would find one. Still, I knew where at least one had been from my brief connection on day one. On this third day, I wasn't feeling like hiking 5 or 6 miles into the backcountry again, and we settled on another day of roadside fishing. My logic was fairly good. If there had been a bull trout near camp a couple of days prior, then there had to be some around on this day as well.

The morning started on a high note despite my creeping disappointment. On our hike out the previous day, we had harvested more huckleberries than we needed for another round of huckleberry pancakes. If you've read along on this trip with me, then you know how we started this up while in Glacier. Thankfully Idaho has plenty of huckleberries as well and we were determined to take full advantage. Due to the big harvest from the day before, these pancakes would be LOADED!!! See what I mean?



After making and consuming a large quantity of huckleberries with a little pancake, er, I mean huckleberry pancakes, we were ready for another day on the water. Driving slowly down the canyon from our camp, my bull trout pool was already occupied. Things were still not looking promising apparently.

A little farther down the canyon, we finally found a promising stretch of water. There was even a rise or two. At this point, while not entirely giving up on bull trout, I was ready to just catch a few fish. The beautiful westslope cutthroat trout that call this area home would be my main goal at least for a while. A big hopper with a nymph dropper seemed appropriate, and I set up rods for both me and my wife. I also carried the streamer rod. Some of these holes begged to be probed by a big juicy streamer. It didn't take very long to get things going. The cutthroat were willing although not complete pushovers. If you did everything just right, the fish would eat. I struck first before my wife even got a line wet. She politely took a picture for me then went to find some fish of her own. 


It didn't take very long before I glanced upstream and saw her rod bent as well. The fishing was excellent as we both caught fish after fish although nothing was too large. 


After thoroughly working this pool, we headed upstream through the riffle you can see in the above picture. Working our way across to the right bank, we were now on the inside bend of a large pool with some amazing water. My wife picked right up where she left off in the previous pool. Of course, she had to go and catch the daily big fish as well. This pool screamed big trout so I wasn't shocked when she landed this fine specimen. This is one of my favorite fish pictures from our trip.


We worked a little farther upstream. Of course, before doing so, I had to run my streamer through that beautiful pool. While several quality cutthroat trout slashed at the streamer, no bull trout made an appearance. Nymphing at the very top of the pool where the gravel shelf dropped into deeper water, my wife picked up another first for us on this trip. A mountain whitefish! While I know these are looked down on by many anglers who prefer catching trout, they are always an enjoyable unique experience to me on my trips out west. They are indicative of a healthy ecosystem with clean cold water, so from that perspective they are also good to see. 


Moving on upstream, I saw some nice pockets and decided to change tactics when it came to the bull trout. Maybe, just maybe, one might be laying along an undercut bank of in the shadow of a boulder. If they are as opportunistic as I've read, why not try a mouse? This seemed like a better idea than a streamer on this bright sunny day. The streamer had been fished hard through two large deep pools with no results. Out came my fly box, and I quickly changed to a floating line and mouse pattern. The very first spot was perfect with a large boulder and an undercut bank all creating some excellent habitat. I cast just upstream and started swimming the mouse back through the pocket when an explosion rocked my fly. I started yelling in excitement while my wife was trying to figure out what in the world was going on. My first clue should have been how quick I whipped this fish on the 1x tippet. It was in the net in mere seconds. Definitely not a bull trout. However, the take and fight were so violent, that until the fish hit the net I thought maybe, just maybe it was a smaller bull trout. No luck. This chunky cutthroat was pretty cool to land, however, especially on a mouse. 


This seemed like the time to transition to a new spot. We were working upstream into a long stretch without good road access. That is great for fishing, of course, but we were interested in seeing some new sections and also getting lunch together. This timing turned out to be important. 

As we were climbing back up to the road, these two guys that had pulled in near our car were coming down. They were in wetsuits and had snorkels and masks. My curiosity got the best of me, so I asked them what they were doing. As it turns out, they were from the Idaho Game and Fish and were doing visual fish surveys. Talk about a neat job! I briefly asked about bull trout in the area, then we headed on. Not more than a half mile down the road, I turned to my wife and said, "I'm an idiot! I should have asked them where to go for bull trout!!!" I had just inquired in general about them and left it at that. I don't know what I didn't ask for more info, but a golden opportunity appeared to have passed. Thankfully, our hunger would provide a second chance. 

At the next spot, we still hadn't had lunch. The plan was to drive back the quick 10 minutes to camp and eat. I wanted to hit one more hole though. This pool would provide me with my own whitefish, but otherwise didn't do much. Oh well, it was nice to get another species for the trip.


By this time, I was hungry and knew my wife was also. We turned our car back up the canyon towards camp. Rolling slowly along to take in the scenery, I noticed a vehicle approaching and eased over to give them as much room as possible. Suddenly, I recognized it as the truck for the game and fish biologists. I stopped and put my hand out to flag them down. I wasn't missing this opportunity again! I asked if they had found anything interesting, then quickly pivoted to more important topics like bull trout. One of the guys was fairly reticent and probably rightfully so. Bull trout are a very special fish and need all the protection they can get. The other guy started talking plenty so it worked out thankfully.

I told them about our experience so far and my hope to catch a bull trout. When I mentioned the upper roadless area, the guy said that yes, that was probably the place to find bull trout at this point in the summer. In fact, they seemed a little surprised that I had found one down in the canyon close to camp. As they were pulling away, my wife turned to me and said, "We probably should hike again tomorrow shouldn't we?" 

I didn't want to wear her out and sour her on fishing. "I wasn't going to say it, but if you are willing then I would definitely like to," was my reply. She was game, and even though we hadn't had lunch yet, we began planning the fourth day of our trip. The rest of day three was fairly benign. We explored all over, fished some different places, saw more wildflowers and amazing scenery, and otherwise enjoyed our time. 



While I enjoyed all of the exploring immensely, I was already getting excited about the possibilities of the next day. Would I find my bull trout? Or would I have to chalk this trip up to a learning experience and try again someday? 



Monday, April 12, 2021

Just Had a Camera Along

Lately, I have gotten away from carrying a camera everywhere I go. Oh, sure, I have my cellphone. I also snap way too many cellphone pictures, but they often leave something to be desired compared to what a dedicated camera can accomplish. Thus, when it so happened that I had my camera in tow this evening, I was prepared for the sunset picture I stumbled across. 

The last time I saw an amazing sunset at this same spot was not too long ago. I went whizzing by and had a brief realization of the beautiful reflection there. Still, I was in a hurry for some reason or another. Furthermore, my camera was safe at home and I knew the cellphone just could not do the scene justice. Tonight, I was again racing past when I saw it. A perfect calm reflection of the sky in this little pond. And tonight I had my camera.

I'll have to go back to this spot again. The opportunities are just too perfect. This initial batch of pictures came out okay for a quick 30 seconds of shooting. None of this would have happened except that I just had a camera along. I need to do this more often. Anyway, here are my favorites. 






Monday, April 05, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Two: A Bitter Disappointment and Baby Bull Trout

Have you ever had one of those rare trips where all the good things happen right at the beginning? My hunt for bull trout very nearly turned out that way. The first day gave me a taste of what hooking one of these fish was like. If you haven't read that story yet, do so HERE first, and then come back and read this sad tale. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), the good things didn't happen at the beginning. If they had, we probably would have missed out on some really cool experiences and the story wouldn't have turned out as good. 

For several months, I had been formulating a game plan for the fishing part of our trip. The main part of this fishing excursion involved lots of hiking. That wouldn't be a problem after all of our Glacier National Park hiking. We had hiked 75 miles in eight days. Two or three of those days had been rather short hikes while the longest was a hair over 20 miles. In other words, we were in peak hiking condition, at least for us. The tricky part was going to be hauling our fishing gear. My poor wife does not do well hiking in wading boots. I decided it was probably better for my feet to wear normal shoes as well. So, we packed our heavy wading boots the five miles in to our fishing spot.

The day went downhill right from the get go. We were planning on starting about five miles in, but as we approached the area where I expected to start, I was surprised to see a couple of backpacking tents and a campfire. Someone else had beat us there. They looked just about as shocked as we were feeling. This simply wasn't the kind of place you expected to come up on another angler. After exchanging brief pleasantries, I asked them which way they were fishing so we could go elsewhere. The tributary creek I had been banking on had already been fished. Seriously. They had just hit all the water we had drove across the country and hiked a ways to fish. 

Immediately, I had a sinking feeling. Maybe, just maybe, catching a bull trout wasn't going to happen for me on this trip. Luck was clearly not on my side, at least not yet. We contemplated hiking well up the canyon above where they had turned around. In fact, we forded the main creek and hiked a decent distance on out the trail that followed the tributary. We had switched to wading boots to ford the creek, so my wife was now hiking in them. After probably a mile or so, I finally had to admit that the trail just wasn't going to get down close to that creek. That was valuable information for a possible future trip.

After giving up on my first stream choice, we headed back to the ford to fish up the main stream instead. As it turns out, our plan B wasn't so bad. The cutthroat were willing, plentiful, and really nice sized. The wildflowers were phenomenal as well. Later on, I would begin to suspect that it might have been the best choice for bull trout after all. On this day, however, all I could think about was that the wheels were starting to come off on my trip plans.



As we worked our way up the stream away from the trail crossing, we had to remind ourselves that the only way out (that we knew of), was going to be back downstream the same way we came up. There was no trail access into the upper reaches of this drainage. While we might have located some game trails, we weren't counting on that possibility since we were in an unfamiliar area. I don't like taking chances unnecessarily.

The first section of stream was fast riffle water with a few deeper pockets thrown in for good measure. The largest fish we saw in this section was maybe six or seven inches. It felt a lot like fishing back in the Smokies as far as the fish size was concerned. The only difference is that we were catching native westslope cutthroat trout. Fish were rising well to our big foam dry flies that doubled as a good strike indicator. Even more fish were attacking our nymph droppers.



The first good pool we approached looked incredible. I figured that maybe, just maybe, there might be a bull trout in this one. I switched to the streamer rod and gave it a good workout. Unfortunately, there just weren't any fish willing to play, at least not any bull trout. The larger cutthroat trout in this pool made several valiant attempts to eat the streamer. I even hooked a couple that shook off after a brief fight and landed one.

A quality cutthroat
A quality westslope cutthroat trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


I had my wife try the dry/dropper rod and she picked up a couple of fish here and there as well. We soon got into a good routine. When I could, I would fish the larger streamer rod. Everywhere else, I let her fish for the most part. Of course, every once in a while I would borrow the other rod and catch a fish or two that way also.

By this point in the day, we were already getting hungry. Breakfast had long since worn off and we began looking for some rocks or a dry bank to sit on for lunch. The only problem was the numerous wildflowers. Neither of us wanted to crush the beautiful flowers. Finally, we found a spot that had both wildflowers and a small area we could sit. We had carried in hummus and pita chips along with some other goodies. This is always a great backcountry meal, both healthy and filling!

With my hunger under control, I turned towards some of the gorgeous flowers growing along the stream banks. My favorites were the purple monkey flowers (last flower picture). These tend to be a rich fuchsia or magenta, at least the ones I've come across in the northern Rockies. Otherwise, we also saw more flowers than I can count. Here is a small sampling from throughout the day.


Indian paintbrush ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Sticky Wild Geranium ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Showy Fleabane ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Musk Monkeyflower (I think...?) ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Purple Monkeyflower ©2020 David Knapp Photography


While the purple monkey flowers were probably my favorite, the western monkshood was an unusual treat that I don't recall seeing before. New to me flowers are always fun. These were growing along the stream, apparently liking the wet environment.


Western Monkshood
Western Monkshood ©2020 David Knapp Photography


Lunch consumed and flowers photographed, we packed up and continued upstream. Probing every likely spot with either the hopper/dropper or the streamer, we caught plenty of cutthroat but no bull trout. The shadows were soon getting longer and longer over the water. I didn't want to get caught back here in the dark. We had plans other than spending the night in the backcountry. 

Then, in one likely pool, my wife hooked a small fish that immediately looked different and got me excited. Upon landing the fish, I knew we had found our first bull trout. Of course my wife would be the one to catch it. At this point, late in day two, I was getting concerned about catching a bull trout. I would have gladly taken a baby just to knock this species off the list. I was happy for my wife, of course, but even more wanted to catch one for myself.


baby bull trout in Idaho
Baby Bull ©2020 David Knapp Photography

My wife's baby bull trout
My wife's baby bull trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


We soon started to develop a good rhythm. My wife would fish the dry/dropper rig through a hole. Then, I would drag the streamer through a couple of times. She started to catch some really nice fish. In one deep bucket in a hard corner, she hooked the largest westslope cutthroat trout of the day. The fish was in fast water and took some careful maneuvering to land. I jumped in with the net and scooped the fish before it could get in the fast water heading downstream. Of course, we had to get a quick picture of this fine trout!


My wife's big westslope cutthroat trout
My wife's big cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


In one particularly good looking hole just upstream, I had something slam the streamer. It looked a lot like a cutthroat, but I only got a brief glimpse before it bored back under a log. Try as I might, I couldn't turn the fish and soon the hook popped free. The fish had wrapped me around the log and used it as leverage to throw the barbless fly. While I was 95% sure the fish had been just another cutthroat, the power and strength had me questioning that assumption.

It was about this time that we really got serious about the hike back out. We both had some ideas that required daylight to successfully enact. Thus, after one or two more pools, we turned a corner upstream and saw nothing but shallow pocket water for an extended distance and knew our day was over. Hiking back downstream to the trail crossing didn't take as long as expected. However, from the trail crossing, we still had a solid five mile hike out.

Just downstream, the two backpackers had packed up and left. I couldn't resist hitting the junction pool where the other tributary entered and found one last quality cutthroat trout there. Still wanting to find a bull trout, we also hit a couple of spots on the hike down. However, most of the water was generally inaccessible from the trail without a lot of hard work. Our schedule at this late hour didn't allow for much hard work.


One more cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


On the hike in, we had noticed a good supply of huckleberries all along the trail. In fact, there were so many huckleberries that we didn't know what to do. We wandered from one bush to another, filling the ziplock bags I had brought just for such a situation. I had one more bag of homemade pancake mix and we hoped for some more huckleberry pancakes in the morning. In other words, the next day would be a slower day again. We discussed some roadside fishing and decided to try that again. After all, the only bull trout I had definitely hooked so far was just below camp. We filled our two bags fuller than full. These were going to be good huckleberry pancakes. I could already taste the delicious pancakes, but first we needed to hike out and get a good nights rest. Maybe, just maybe, the next day would bring some bull trout finally.