All posts by Owl

Owl Jones is an evil mastermind whose plans for "Fly Fishing World Domination" were short-lived when he realized that dominating the entire fly fishing world would take real work. So, he settled for Single Website Domination and started up OwlJones.com back in 2009. He lives in North Georgia and frequently haunts the waters of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, pretending to catch fish.
Madison River Wildflowers

The Madness of Fly Fishing

“Sometimes I caught fish – sometimes I didn’t. …….I lived merrily, mindlessly, uncomfortably on the fringe where fishing bleeds into madness.” – Nick Lyons, The Intense Fly Fisherman

There was a time in my youth when I chased fish with all the passion I had within me – with all the force and vigor and excitement I could muster. I would get up two hours before dawn and drive four hours just to reach the first available trout water. I’d fish all day, stopping only to eat a quick lunch or move to another spot on the river. When darkness fell, I continued to fish – pushing the limit of effective fishing and the legal limit of fishing regulations. A four hour drive back home would end with me dragging myself into the house, leaving all my gear in the truck to be cleaned out the next day, or the day after that perhaps. I was “on fire” for fly fishing and I ate it – drank it – obsessed over it – loved it – was consumed by it. 

 

This went on for some time. Years passed, then decades and then one day I experienced a great tragedy in my life when my father passed away suddenly. At the same time, I lost my job. I was devastated. I stopped fishing almost completely. I think I may have spent time fishing, just a few hours each time, only twice that year. In my salad days fishing happened every other weekend for years and years. I fished only twice in that most terrible year and thought several times that I might give it up altogether. Over the next few years, there were times when I felt like flinging my rod and reel into the lake or river. No, I’m not kidding. I just couldn’t get that passion back, even though when I wasn’t fishing it was still there and as strong as ever.

 

I still consumed fishing articles, photos and chat like they were going out of style. I loved to talk about bass on poppers and trout flies that sit just so, right in the film. I’m still a sucker for hearing  another angler talk about a river that’s new to me. Last year I even took my very first trip out west to fish in Montana and Wyoming. I’m fishing more now – probably twice a month or so when I can get away and I’d fish more often if I had the time and money. So, I had to ask myself – what happened? How did I come back from the brink of leaving the sport behind me for good?

I think what it all came down to, was that I had to realize two things: that I didn’t have that 24-hour-7-days-a-week passion that I had in my youth, and that not having that passion was OK. Once I stopped worrying about the fact that I didn’t go fishing as much (and frankly didn’t catch as much either) I was able to begin to enjoy my time outdoors again. These days it’s not so much about the fishing. It’s more about being outside and enjoying time spent around the water. It’s the feel of the river on my legs and the fleeting glimpse of a deer on the drive home. Now that I’ve had a couple of years of this relaxed fishing life, I think I rather prefer it to living on, as Nick Lyons so accurately put it …the fringe where fishing bleeds into madness.” Maybe someday you’ll be there, too. Maybe you already are?

Dragon Fly

The One that Got Away

What would fishing be without “the one that got away?” Much better! I hear you – but there’s something good about losing a nice fish, too. Actually, there are a few good things about losing the big one, right?

For starters, we know he’s still in there. Somewhere in that big bend or deep cove, that fish still swims – or at least one or two like him. We know we had him on the line, and now he’s a little smarter than before maybe, but he’s still out there. If we fish long and hard enough, we may run into him again.

Secondly, the next time we see him, he might be even larger. Not everything in fly fishing is about bigger, faster, stronger – but you can’t deny that most of us would rather catch big fish than little ones, right? If you do run into that lunker from your past again, maybe he’s put on a couple of inches or a few pounds. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?

Hang on a minute! Is this just going to be a list of reasons we should be happy about losing a nice fish?

Why no. This is going to be a story about losing a nice fish and why, ever since the day I lost him, I try to look on the bright side of things when it comes to “the one that got away.

I was 16 years old and sitting in a borrowed boat with my very pretty new girlfriend. We were having a wonderful day fishing and I’d already landed several small bass and a few bluegills. She was getting the hang of it, but was enjoying the sun and water more than the fishing.

I cast a #6 black wooly bugger alongside a floating dock that had some brush sticking up just off to one side. Something struck! I struck back! The fish headed for open water and I got all cocky and said “I’ve got a big one this time, baby!” The fish zigged and I zagged, he went deep and I held on. He pulled my drag – I palmed the spool. (This was before the days of affordable, quality drags in freshwater fly reels)

Then, Mr. Bigmouth jumped into the air. All roughly 9 pounds of him! Airborne. Thrashing. Shaking. Mouth as big as a basketball. I yelled out “Nooooooooo!” but it was too late.

The wooly bugger landed two feet in front of the boat with a pitiful ker-splat and it was at that moment that I heard crying. I’d let the big one get away. There was despair, anger and an immediate depression over the loss. It was the biggest bass that either of us had ever had on the fly. There was some whimpering and some kind of guttural sobbing sound. This wasn’t just the one that got away, it was a monster that got away. The whimpering continued and… I suddenly realized that it was ME! You can only begin to imagine the ridicule I faced back at school. Crying over a bass. The very idea. How stupid.

So, if you can…don’t let the one that got away worry you too much. There will be others – or maybe even that same fish, if you put in the effort to try and find him again. Try to remember that fishing isn’t always about the catching and that there’s no crying in fly fishing or bass fishing …there’s just no crying in fishing at all, OK?

At least, not when you’re bigmouth girlfriend is in the boat.

Hypertension Hole

Maybe it’s just me, but I have this problem with a certain fishin’ hole that has it in for me.

It’s just a little run, no different from a thousand other little runs I’ve fished. One low-hanging tree limb complicates the cast a little, but not too much – and the fish that live there are almost always eating.

Easy, right? You’d think so! However, year after year this spot that I’ve named “Hypertension Hole” denies me a fish. I’ve been fishing, and “not catching” Hypertension Hole for almost 7 years now and it’s always the same…

 Six years ago, I first fished the little creek. I rounded a corner in the stream and there it was – the prettiest little trout house you’d ever hope to see. It had a deep enough run on the left bank, a nice big rock to hide under, and an overhanging tree that would keep less skilled anglers from casting to it effectively. It was perfect. It was beautiful. It was just waiting for a schmuck like me to get lucky and make a good cast. Or so I thought…

After catching nothing but 6 inch trout all morning, my heart rate got a little faster when I saw a good trout rise two, three, four times in row. Who knew what he might be eating? This was the South and trout normally just wait in a buffet line and gobble up whatever buggy-looking thing floats by them. I’d go with what I had tied on, a #14 Elk Hair Caddis.

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, returned my polarized glasses to my nose, and stripped out twenty feet of fly line. The trout rose again and this time, he’d chased whatever it was he was eating five feet below him. This was an aggressive trout – the kind of trout that hits before you’re ready. The kind of trout that makes you set the hook too soon and curse loudly without looking around first to see   if anyone might be nearby. I false-cast twice and promptly put my fly into the overhanging branch.

I let the fly sit there, the line hanging over the Hole. I’d probably blown it. But then – the trout rose again, right under the line! Was this guy suicidal? Wiggling the line, the fly miraculously popped free and landed on the water, but too much in the shallow water to get the trout’s attention. If he’d hit then, with all that loose line rumpled up on the water, I’d have needed 10 foot long arms to set the hook.

Two more false casts. Easy now….that’s it! Right under the limb… the caddis imitation landed with like a feather. POW! He blasted it! I slammed home the hook! Fly line and leader and tippet and fly went whizzing right by my head and the big trout rolled on the surface and slapped his tail in defiance. I remember it like it was yesterday. Twenty more casts wouldn’t bring him back up and in fact, probably pushed him further under that rock or a quarter-mile upstream.

Each year I visit that stream at least once, and each year I sneak up on Hypertension Hole. And so far, each and every year, whatever trout is living there leaves me with a slack line and a smushed fly. But high blood pressure or not, I’d miss it if it wasn’t there. I’d miss the game if I ever won it.

Despite the frustration of Hypertension Hole, I always end up hoping that there is never a trout living there that is somehow more stupid that I am. Maybe you have a spot like that? If not, I hope someday you find one just like it. Just don’t forget to take your meds if you do.

Stuck in tree

On Friendship and Fishing

It’s been said that each day spent fishing is not deducted from a man’s life. I don’t know who first uttered those words, but I’d like to thank him. I might even buy him a beer, because that fellow, whoever he was, at least makes us all feel a little better about leaving the wife and kids at home for a day of cold feet and tired arms. I’m not sure how many days I spent alone on the water, my brain laser-focused on the goal of catching the next fish, before I realized that I was alone. Being alone wasn’t a problem though, because that just meant that no one else would have a shot at the fish in front of me. I didn’t have to trade pools back and forth and I didn’t have to share those short-cuts through the trails to the best water. I was a man on a mission, and that mission was always, ALWAYS to catch more fish, bigger fish,…the most fish.

Later though, as I got older and my personal case of fly fishing fever mellowed a bit, I started to notice the other things around me. Birds, animal tracks, and insect life for example…and rocks. Did you know that most rivers are absolutely packed FULL of rocks!? Well, it’s true! Big rocks, little rocks, medium-sized rocks, brown rocks, gray rocks, white rocks – even rocks with trees growing out of them! You just have to look around a bit and remind yourself that everything in fishing isn’t chasing the fish. And so I did, but I realized much more than rocks and birds and otter tracks and such…

You see, when you finally make the seemingly odd discovery that fishing is not just the pursuit of fish, you’ll no doubt find “fishing friends” along the way. Sharing the water with someone you like is always a pleasure, although it’s something that may push the actual act of fishing toward the proverbial back-burner. After leaving behind our salad days, time with friends on the water (or at camp) becomes at least as much of a reason to go fishing as the thought of hooking into your biggest rainbow ever. Let’s face it, most of the time the fishing we do on any given weekend isn’t usually World Class Angling anyway – so it often helps if there’s another reason we go – and it sure doesn’t hurt!

Which brings us to three sun burned, smiling, middle-aged fellows who are scratching their heads, looking sideways at each other, standing in a creek which holds only the smallest trickle of water. A creek that just a couple of years before was full of both water and fish. Between the three of them they caught maybe four fish while fishing all day. Wild, native brookies, none of them were over 12 inches in length. Somehow though, that hardly mattered later, sitting around a roaring fire on a cool spring night when the tall tales began. The size and quantity of the fish that day were forgotten a little more as the meager camp food began to taste like a five-star meal. The moon rose over blooming dogwood trees and towering tulip poplars, and laughter filled the camp. Those three have learned that although fishing is at the core of their adventures, it’s not always about the fishing. Sometimes, it’s just about the friends.

 

One Beautiful Day

There’s something special about Spring. It’s so special in fact, that I frequently capitalize the word out of sheer joy. Dogwood trees in bloom, bass falling in love, and carpenter bees trying to duke it out for who knows what.

On a small dirt path that was once a road for jeeps and the like, I carry a fly rod, a small pack and a bottle of water. A few Canadian geese, who obviously missed the signs that spring was back, honk in the distance. As I turn the corner and the little pond comes into view, a Great Blue Heron takes flight. As he skims the surface, barely gaining altitude for a dozen yards or so, several bass are startled from the shallow grass flat.

“Hey now…just what I was hoping for…”

As I approach the edge of the shallow flat, two more “rolls” of water leave the bank to my left and I fire a quick cast in that direction. A small 4 inch worm on an equally small #4 hook sails across the sky, cartwheeling it’s way towards it’s own imminent doom. It’s almost as if the worm is in slow motion with the 6 pound test line trailing along behind it in ever widening coils.

The little black and purple worm lands with a splat and suddenly there’s a small, suspicious bulge in the water near it. I hold my breath and give it a twitch. Then another. Then a third. Nothing happens so instead of another twitch, I wiggle the rod slightly. Suddenly there is a bigger bulge and a whirlpool erupts where the line enters the water. The eager large-mouth rather miraculously hooks itself and high-tails it for a nearby stump. The line “tings” as it strains against the rod. I raise it high and begin a battle which, to the fish, is a life and death struggle.

Just one minute later I’m looking at the hungry bass eye to eye, face to face, man to fish. He put up a short but inspired fight, but ultimately I hold his fate between my fist and thumb. I removed the hook, admire him for just a few seconds and then slip him back beneath the glassy surface. He promptly thanks me with a flip of his tail, spraying water on my legs and, for whatever reason – making me smile in the process.

No doubt about it. It was one beautiful day.




The Ammo

Fine Tune Your Fly Fishing

There was a time when I’d throw nothing more than a wader bag, a couple of rods, a hat and some peanut butter into the back seat and head for the trout streams. There was never any research or planning – not in my pre-trip rituals or in the actual fishing. I’d walk the river, casting at random to whatever looked “fishy.” I caught some trout, but I always suspected I was missing more than I was catching. If I went after bass, it was the same thing. Grab the rods and a tacklebox and drive to the lake. Cast everywhere. Try baits at random. It was less than productive unless they were really biting.

Then, I got a wild idea one day to “fine tune” things a bit. I subscribed to a few fishing magazines, did some research online, actually tried to learn more – even though I already knew it all, or at least thought I did. Instead of throwing a streamer all over the river, I’d sit and stop a while. I’d watch the water. I’d watch the birds. I’d turn over some rocks in search of nymphs or crawfish or whatever I could find.

In my spare time I’d read about “high sticking” and dry fly tactics. I poured over articles about fly fishing for bass and bluegills. I thought about each part of the fly fishing system and how I could improve both my understanding of the gear and the fish. I stopped using 6 lb test mono for a leader and paid more attention to articles on leaders, tippets and what’s needed to “turn over” a #12 hopper pattern. I spent time concentrating on understanding how and why fish feed, where they feed, and on what.

I was no longer just a guy going fly fishing! I was someone who was beginning to learn the in’s and out’s of the game. It wasn’t necessary of course – I could go on just floundering around out there while having loads of fun, but it was clear from the early stages of my fine tuning that concentrating on more than just the basics was paying off. I started to pick up fish more often, and the size of the fish seemed to be getting larger on average. In addition to that aspect of it, I found myself enjoying a deeper immersion in the sport.

The thing about fly fishing is that there’s always so much to learn, no matter how long you’ve been at it. And if you’ll put forth the effort to “fine tune” your learning, it will also fine tune your approach. Your cast, your ability to read the water, your fly choices even your appreciation of the great outdoors. Catching fish is fun. Catching more fish is more fun!

Goodbye Winter, Hello Bass

For nearly 20 years I’ve chased the bass of Marben Farms. Of course, almost no one calls it that anymore, since the State of Georgia purchased the land 21 or 22 years ago. But at one time, one family owned everything for miles around. The Marben family named each pond – Dairy, Stump, Otter – and each dirt road that criss-crossed their land. There’s an old cemetery there, near the road between two of the larger ponds. It’s so old that many of the graves are marked with concrete boxes that sit above ground – a tradition I’ve not seen very often in the Deep South. But the cemetery is posted now, like so much land in so many other places these days.

Yes, Marben Farms and I go way back. I caught my first bass there in 1992, and my largest – an 8 pound female full of eggs, in ’95. In those days, there weren’t many people fishing the ponds because word hadn’t gotten out yet. With the city of Atlanta a short hour drive away, that would all change in the late 90’s, though. By the mid-90’s there were more and more folks coming to Marben. They were mostly after catfish and bream and crappie – but for a bank angler, it made working around them a bit tough sometimes. A friendly “How ya doin?” or “Catchin’ any?” made it easier to share the water with people. I’ve yet to meet anyone there who was unfriendly and that alone could make a place pretty special these days.

Crowded or not, each winter as spring approached I’d check the TV at least twice a day, counting the days between cold fronts on The Weather Channel.(It’s funny to me today, with the internet in full force and weather at your fingertips, to think about all the time I spent waiting to see my local forecast.) Two day warming trend? Not quite enough – but the next week there might be three warm days together and I would plan a trip to Marben. That first trip was usually full of muddy tires, dirty boots and disappointment – but my daydreaming of spring and hungry bass would usually get the best of me and I’d make that first trip every year way too early. I still do it to this day, truth be told.

However, on the second or third trip I’d often hit it just right, and have one of those days you dream about your whole life. I once caught over 60 bass in a day there, and three of them were over 5 pounds. It’s not uncommon in the South to catch a bass that weighs 5 pounds but it was very uncommon for me to catch one, much less three in the same day! Marben offered up catfish too, and crappie and several types of sunfish – bluegills, redbreast, shellcrackers and “warmouth bream” whose mouths are so large they chase down 4 inch bass plugs with reckless abandon. Marben Farms still offers all that and alot more as “Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center” but to me it will always be “Marben”,… the place where my winter blues got washed away each year.

So that brings us to this winter; this spring and this year’s bass fishing season. And for whatever reason, I’ve decided that this year for the first time ever, I’ll fish the lakes and ponds of Marben Farms with only the long rod and fly. I have no doubt that the fish will be willing, because they see few flies among what must be thousands and thousands of offerings each year – but I do have a little doubt in my ability to entice them with “just flies.” But that’s part of the fun isn’t it? The challenge of something you haven’t tried before! A new species of fish, a new place to catch them, or a new way to do it! The making of a totally new tradition, perhaps? There’s almost nothing sweeter than the hurried goodbye to another winter, and the warm embrace of a long, beautiful spring.

Goodbye winter…….. Hello bass!

Hot Summer Trout

It’s 7 a.m. on a foggy Blue Ridge Morning

“I’ve got him! Ohhhhhh, man…don’t go into that log….come on, baby….come on….hold tippet! Hold!” It was fourteen inches of angry brown trout in two feet of clear, cold creek. The thing wasn’t giving up without a fight, even though Tommy was putting on the pressure as best he could. “Whaddya got on there? Is that 6X?” I yelled. Tommy was too busy fighting him to reply, but I knew we’d both decided that 6X was the only way to go in this gin clear water.

“He keeps trying to drag me into that log!” Tommy shouted. “Hang on, I’m comin’…”

“Bring the camera!”

“Almost there…”

“ Aaaaaaahh…man…he’s off. He’s off….”

And so it goes with summer trout fishing in the Appalachians. Early to rise and fish until your feet get numb. It’s not that the trout “turn off” come mid-day. They really don’t. It’s that you know darn well how hot it’s going to be later on, and any extra time you can squeeze into the early morning hours well worth the effort of doing some squeezing. We pushed further up the little creek, dodging hornet’s nests and spider webs the size of dinner plates. “No one has been through here in a while” I said has I gently pulled line out of a reel three times as big as anyone could possibly need for this kind of water. Under my breath I told myself…“There should be one under that far bank, near the rock…”

The fly sailed through the air in a perfect little loop for all of six feet. Exactly one inch into the drift a slender, dark form sliced up from beneath the overhanging rock ledge and slammed the fly so hard it flew up and into a tree branch hanging overhead. It was stuck solid; wrapped around that limb twenty different ways. “Now what?” I thought. Tommy nudged me with the butt of his 3 wt. rod and extended the handle. We traded rods and he held the still attached line out of the way so I could make another cast under it, just inches off the water.

Another small, tight loop… another plop…and that son of a gun rose again. This time he sucked it in, and the fight was on! It took me nearly twenty seconds to land him. Nine inches of green, wormy-backed brook trout with a mouth so big it looked as if it belonged on a smallmouth bass. “Nice” said Tommy. “Yeah, he’s pretty big for this creek” I replied.

“Yep. This is why we do this, isn’t it? The pre-dawn drive and the hike and the bushwhacking…”

“And the climbing. And the snakes.”

“You know it.”

“ Alright…the next run is yours…gotta be another big one hiding ”