Category Archives: Stories

Winter Redfish on the Fly, Charleston, SC

Here in the east, it’s been a mild winter, which has given anglers even more opportunities for cold-weather fishing. At the beginning of the month, I got a couple of days off from guiding for trout and working the shop here at Curtis Wright Outfitters in Asheville, NC and headed down to Charleston, SC, to chase some winter redfish on the fly. Through a mutual guide friend, I got put in touch with Scott Davis of the Low Country Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant (just over the Ravenal Bridge from Charleston). My fishing buddy Pat and I met up with Scott for drinks to come up with a game plan and the following morning at dawn the adventure into the coastal flats of the South Carolina coast began.

Unlike during the warmer months of the year, the redfish, also known as spot-tails, red drum, and channel bass, don’t venture as far into the spartina grass of the flats, where they commonly “tail” in the summer as they spread out from one another and root around for fiddler crabs and shrimp. Instead, they tend to group together in schools ranging in size from about fifty fish to hundreds at a time and, like a giant vacuum cleaner, work over the oyster bars and flats for shrimp, mullet, and whatever else they can find.  For this reason, winter fishing can be both incredibly productive or incredibly frustrating; if you can find a school and keep up with it, you’ll have shots at lots of fish, but if you can’t find the school (this where having a great guide like Scott helps) you simply won’t have anything to cast at and you’ll return home smelling like a skunk.

Lucky for Pat and me, we were on the boat of a truly expert guide and the sight-fishing conditions the first morning we went out were postcard perfect: sunny skies and glassy water. Within twenty minutes Scott had us poling toward a school of about a hundred fish on a two foot deep flat, and as the sun began to rise so did the snouts and tails of the fish, which is not a common sight in the dead of winter. As far as tackle goes, we were slinging sinking shrimp flies and diving mullet patterns on our eight weights loaded with Rio’s Redfish Line. The fish weren’t all that selective; the name of the game was anticipating the path of the school and then casting your fly on the right trajectory (like with bonefish) and working the fly enough to catch their attention, but not so much to spook them. Most of the time, we retrieved the fly the way you would work a big streamer for trophy trout, but occasionally we’d slow it down to give the fish an extra few seconds to see it if the school changed direction at the last-minute. From the get-go, the action was heart-pounding, with several especially nice fish boated and several more lost. An added bonus was the fantastic scenery, numerous porpoise sightings, and the simple fact that we didn’t see any other boats. The best part, though, was knowing that we got to do it all over again the next day. If you ever get a chance to fish for this hardy species on the fly, I highly recommend you go for it. When these bull-headed fighters take a run into your backing there’s no slowing them down…

Walker Camp and the Power of Place

I don’t think this place would classify as a river. During times of extreme rain it is little more than a high running creek. The water most days is an endless series of pools accentuated by small rushes of channeled white water. Its life is narrow and thin as it finds its beginnings atop the higher peaks of the Smokies. But this small stream is a sanctuary, a sacred place. The spirit here is profound and thick and it is amazing the amount of clarity you can find if you will allow yourself the opportunity to settle down to its pace.

The canopy of trees and laurel bushes drape over the water as if to protect it. Dark shadows given by the hardwood can be disturbing to those who don’t understand, but for those who see the bigger picture, these sentinels and the shade that they create speak of ancient times; of times we will never know. The moss-covered rocks, the smattering of tiny wildflowers, the deadfall scattered about in wonderful and divine chaos surround this stream. And within this blessed cacophony of nature, I find rest.

I was first introduced to Walker Camp by my friend Jeremy. He didn’t bring me here because of monster trout, or superior angling opportunities. He brought me to that place simply because, like him, he knew I would “get it”. He and I have fished multiple tailwaters throughout the southeast, and though the fishing in those places was good and sometimes downright amazing, the fish were stocked. These expansive southern trout rivers were a result of the great depression and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The small streams of the Smokies were a result of creation itself, and the fish who live their lives here are native. They never knew a stock truck. They never had fins rubbed raw by hatchery walls. They were not relocated to this place; they are this place.

I remember standing at the edge of a large deep pool watching Jeremy moving on upstream, and considering my mortality as my footprints mingled with multiple bear tracks, tracks that were recent and defined. I began roll casting Yellow Sallies to the head of the pool at the point where the water rolls and foams as it falls from the pool above it. The water of Walker Camp is clear, amazingly clear and seemingly devoid of anything but rocks that perhaps began as boulders before the hydrology of the stream, over time, reduced them to stones of brown, grey, and bronze small enough to cup in your hand.

Then, as if by magic, a fish appears. Its bright orange fins tipped in the purist white show up in places where just moments ago you would look and find nothing. Life is hard in the high elevation streams, and the opportunity to eat is not to be squandered, so when the fish commits itself the attacks are swift and sure. It is easy to miss these strikes because once the moment has passed, the fish disappears and you are left looking at an empty stream bottom once again, astonished.

Here in the steep mountains, you must also be aware of the danger of acoustic shadows. Echoes of thunder may reverberate around you so loud that you can feel the vibration in your clothes, yet the sky overhead is cloudless and blue. Storms at this altitude are harsh, and with the sound bouncing from every peak and rise, the bad weather could be many miles away, or just over the next ridge. On this day, the rain came and I found quick shelter beneath one of the stone bridges that traverse the stream. Soaked to the bone I huddled tight against the walls of the passage way until, as quickly as it sprang upon me, it was gone.

The leaving of the rain always brings heavy fog. Fog that gave this place its name crept slowly down from Newfound Gap, draping itself around the treetops, settling into the low places. First you feel the air around you cool, then, within the fog you become invisible and the fishing is easier. You are no longer a foreign shape hovering above the water. You are a formless part of a larger backdrop.  Stealth becomes effortless when you have no need to hide.

I cast my fly, the bright yellow hackle glowing like a beacon through the mist. It drops softly on the surface, and I am not looking for a strike, the visibility is to poor for that. I am just waiting for the moment when the fly vanishes. Then I know of the take.

I lose sight of the fly, hear a splash of water, and raise my rod tip swiftly to the sky.  Setting the hook, I feel the transference of energy up the line, through the bamboo, and to my hand. Violent and urgent, the trout struggles against the unknown, until finally it is pulled from its world into mine. Gold lines meander across the green of its back, the orange of the fins, the dark mouth. It is healthy and large for this stream.

“Nice.”

Startled I wheel around to see Jeremy who had been behind me for God knows how long.  He is soaked and crouched under a mountain laurel leaning the tip of a cigar into a flame.  The earthy smell of the blue-gray smoke mingles with the decay of the forest floor and does not seem out-of-place.

“Amazing.”, I say, lifting the brookie up for closer examination.

“I knew you’d like this spot.” he says with a sly smile.

No more than thirty feet from where I am standing, the steady rumble of traffic echos through the trees.  Windows rolled up tight, air conditioners on, they traverse this magnificent place oblivious to the amazing fish I hold in my hand; a fish whose lineage here goes back to the very foundation of time.  Jeremy snaps a quick photo and I lower the trout back into the pool where it glides from my hand as soft and delicate as a whisper.

In the years since that first trip, I have gone here many times with Jeremy.  We don’t speak much while on the stream.  Most of the time we don’t even see each other till its time to go.  Now, I am making preparations to take my four-year old son to Walker Camp.  The first trips with him will not place fishing on the agenda, that is still a year or so away.  I feel that before he looks at the place as a location to fish, he should first see it in its entirety.  Bugs, animal tracks, the unique stones, imaginary creatures these are the things that make a place more than a means to an end, they will hopefully make Walker Camp a familiar friend, which in itself is the beginning.  For me Walker Camp is more than a fishing hole, it is a place to be protected and sustained, and I hope to teach my son what it means to have more than a passing investment in a blessing such as this.

I take very seriously the responsibility of keeping our native trout waters healthy and safe.  It is of utmost importance to people like myself, my friend Jeremy, and hopefully my son to protect these sacred locations wherever they may be found.  The impacts of air pollution, litter, poor personal practices by visitors, commercial irresponsibility, and the ongoing struggle against climate change, are daunting.  But there are those who are its watchmen.  A great deal of thanks are in order to people like the Fisheries Management staff of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited who work diligently to insure that the clear waters of this important tributary are preserved in the manner in which it is so worthy.

Each year the Little River TU chapter holds Troutfest and much of the monies raised go to protect and maintain the myriad of fishable streams within the park boundaries.  When I go to these events it is almost like a family reunion, because we are all linked deeply to streams like Walker Camp.  When we discussed these waters during the festival, you can see a similar look in the eyes of those in the discussion.  Just as Jeremy said to me long ago…”they get it.”

 

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!

Puget Sound Orange Gold

In the state of Washington there is a body of water that stretches from Deception Pass in the north to the state capital Olympia, WA. At approximately 100 miles long and reaching depths ranging 200-600ft and a max of 930ft; The Puget Sound is a massive body of water teeming with life. Between Halibut, Crab, Ling cod, Rock fish, 5 species of Pacific salmon, and Steelhead Puget Sound is a fisherman’s Paradise. With most people trying to go big or go home with their fish they are missing one of the most fun, most exciting, line ripping fish that Puget Sound has to offer. There is a species of trout that most people don’t even know of that fish the vast waters of Puget Sound. The Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout.

The Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout is a species of trout that stays in Puget Sound, and is only found between south Alaska and North California. It does not travel out into the Pacific Ocean. It stays local and can be fished all year long. The nice thing about this fish is that it is extremely pron to hit flies. With streamers being the most productive of patterns that are used to catch these fish you know that they are going to be aggressive takes and hard fighters. Averaging from 12-15 inches and trophy fish that do reach18-22 inches in length. But there is something special about this Sea-run trout. I have had 15 inch Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout strip more line of my reel that 20 inch Rainbows. These fish are as if they are on steroids. Easy to find and easy to catch these Sea-Run Cuts stay close to the beach so there is no boat needed to target these amazing trout. Staying in 2-5ft of water and in normal conditions no farther than 20-60ft from the shore. Experienced or beginner it’s a great fishery and a fun way to spend your day.  You can fish them any time of the year; personally my favorite time is the beginning of January through mid February and the end of march into May.

In the month of January Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout begin to stage outside of their home rivers, creeks, and streams for spawning. I love this time because you have your highest chances of catching trophies. This goes on through February. Last January I had Three days of back to back to back fishing were I landed 27 fish with 8 of them over 15 inches and 3 over 18 inches. 2 of which were on back to back casts.

In the Months of late March through May the trout are back from spawning and hungry….. VERY HUNGRY! and to feed them are thousands of Chum Salmon fry. The Chum Fry are fresh out of the creeks and rivers and swimming around the local beaches getting smashed apart by Cutties… (CUTTIES) WESTERN WASHINGTON SLANG FOR – SEA-RUN CUTTHROAT TROUT. This time of year is explosive with excitement. Casting into this massive mound of swimming bait trying to get one of the many Cutties in the vicinity to find and tear into the small fly that is attached to the end of your leader.

But even then the fishing is not done. Through the summer the fishing stays fantastic and as it goes on so does the entertainment. For those that are dry fly fishermen you are not left out. In the month of September there is a Termite hatch that breaks out and even the Cutties can’t resist. That’s right…. I am talking about dry fly fishing the beaches of Puget Sound.  This orange Termite is one of our favorite hatches in Western Washington. The only thing you got to keep in mind is that light tippet won’t work. They hit them so hard that your tippet can snap with ease if you don’t use at least 6lbs test.  My favorite fly to fish is a size 8 Elk Hair Caddis with a long dark wing and a bright orange body.

When it comes to fishing for Cutties; staying with in 70ft of the shore and your fine. Though when you start you need to make a few casts before you get too close because they will sit right up close to the shore. A lot of the time I end up walking out to knee-wast deep water and start casting parallel to the shore line. Rocky beaches are best, and those that have a creek, river, or some kind of fresh water trickling in just increases your chances. Moving water is also preferred. So check your tides before you head out to go fishing. Night fishing is also a great idea. In the winter time when there is little day light, hitting the beach with glow flies can be really fun. Remember when your fishing at night there are more things in the water around you. While using glow flies i have had nights were I got nothing but squid, and every now and then a Black Mouth. Ranging from 20 inches to 10lbs, and rarely some up to 20lbs. BLACK MOUTH: RESIDENTIAL CHINOOK SALMON.

GEAR: 5-6wt rod is preferable, at night 6-7wt. 8-11ft leaders, but if you use a sink tip then a 3ft tippet section is perfect. These fish are not leader shy. A net is also a great idea. Waders even in the summer are smart. Puget Sound is full of Jellyfish and it’s not fun when you get hit by them.

FLY BOX: Clouser Minnows in about any color that you can think of, Shrimp patterns, and Sculpins are best for year round averaging 1-2 inches in length. In the summer Sliders can be a great option. Watching trout fins come to the surface and chase down your fly like a shark. Its an exciting site to see, and if your not careful you can set to early and pull the fly from the fish before it even gets to your fly… I know because I have done it my self.

Remember… Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout are CATCH AND RELEASE ONLY. So please care for your fish and release all the Cutties that you catch.

 

The Senex

The Senex – Part 2

Continued from The Senex – Part 1

With the ease of decades of practice, he stripped three or four arm lengths of line from the reel, letting the current pull the slack form the line.  With the quickness of a man half his age, the old man let loose a perfect roll cast, placing his bushy dry fly in the calm water behind a small, mossy rock protruding from the surface of the clear water.  Within a second, the current grabbed the line and pulled the fly violently from the pocket of water.  Another quick roll cast saw the fly land exactly where the previous cast had put it, clinging to the slack water momentarily before being pulled once more from its rest by the relentless current.

Taking a few sure but steady steps upstream, the old man took a moment to more thoroughly examine his surroundings.  He stood in a shallow run at the tail of a small pool.  While only a few yards long, the pool was deep, perhaps deep enough that only the crown of a man’s hat would peek through the surface should he decide to wade into its depths.  Maybe it had been a swimming hole back in the days when people still lived in these woods, isolated from the hustle and convenience of the blossoming town downriver.  At the head of the pool was a small waterfall, maybe three or four feet high, that would have provided the ideal platform from which the smiling, squealing children of the woods would splash into the icy water below.

I was brought back from my daydream by the glint of morning sunlight against the glossy bamboo of the old man’s rod.  He had begun a cast, letting the line unfold gracefully behind him before moving his arm forward in a motion apparently executed thousands of time before.  The cast was perfect, the loop as tight as I’ve ever seen, and the fly dropped so naturally just inches from the froth created by the falling water.  I saw the old man bend slightly forward, anticipating the rise which he seemed sure would come, only this time it didn’t.  He straightened his back, looking perplexed but not overly concerned, and began to unfurl another graceful cast as elegant as the last.

The soft light of the morning sun lit fire to the small droplets of water flung from the line before they found themselves extinguished once again in the current, brought back from a singular moment of brilliance to the anonymity of the unified motion of the current.  I could hear the silk line cutting through the thick morning air.  The line unfurled exactly as before, leaving the fly to drop softly onto the water at the base of the tumbling falls.

In an instant, I saw the bronze flash, the violent attack of an enormous brown trout unleashed upon the inanimate fly mistaken for an insect, surely disappointing the beast.  The old man lifted his arm, and I saw the smooth, beautiful bend in the bamboo rod, probably grown accustomed to the tug of fish large and small.  As soon as the rod had bent, it straightened back out.  The fly was pulled from the depths of the pool, flying over the old man’s shoulder and left to drag in the current downstream.

It was at this moment that the old man turned his face toward me, smiling a large smile that told me he had been aware of my presence all along.  He turned his eyes back to the pool with a look of serenity and satisfaction before making his way deliberately toward me.  I stood as he stepped from the water, pulling my hat from my head and extending my sun-browned arm.  He grasped my hand firmly, his paper-thin skin indicating an age even higher than I had previously thought.

“Tough luck there,” I said.  “Looked like a nice one.”  He smiled, revealing a white set of artificial teeth.

“Yes, he certainly was a nice one.  One of the larger fish I’ve come across on this creek,” he replied, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“Been fishing here for a while?” I asked in a thinly veiled attempt at obtaining his age.  His expression was one of longing, his eyes looking through me and into the dense forest behind.

“Son, I’ve been fishing this creek since before your folks were born.  I was born in a small cabin not too far upstream of this very spot.  The cabin is gone now, but the chimney is still standing.  I visited once not too long ago, but my blood ran cold at the sight of what once was a small, struggling community.”  I immediately felt sorry for asking the question, but a smile returned to his face as he placed the battered hat back upon his head.  I asked the old man what fly he had been fishing, and he paused for a moment before pulling a slightly rusted and severely dented aluminum fly box from his vest.  His gnarled fingers shook with the strain of age as he pulled a bushy dry fly from the box and deposited it into my waiting palm.

“You might not land as many fish as you are accustomed to, but you’ll surely fool a great many of them,” he said, returning the fly box to his vest pocket.  I looked down to examine the fly he had given to me.  I was an exercise in simplicity and grace, but something was wrong.  The body was covered generously in grey dubbing, the tail a small bunch of what appeared to be squirrel hair.  Long brown hackle nearly consumed the thin white wings below.

After my brief examination, the cause of my earlier confusion immediately became apparent, the most notable feature of the fly having gone unnoticed at first glance.  The hook point was nowhere to be seen.  The fly had been tied on nothing but a straight shank of metal, leaving no possibility of actually hooking and landing a fish.  I was confused, and I looked up to question the man who now seemed slightly crazy to me.  He was no longer standing in front of me; rather, he was walking slowly up the trail, and I caught just a glimpse of his hunched figure before he disappeared into the trees.

It was at this moment that the true meaning of the encounter hit me.  The old man had no interest in hooking a fish and watching it struggle in fear as it was pulled from the water and into the waiting hand of a violent intruder.  He had no desire to conquer nature, but only to become a part of it.  The satisfaction was in the act of fooling the trout into taking the fly.  I laughed silently to myself, thinking that perhaps both he and the fish gained from the encounter instead of the zero-sum game so often practiced by those of us who intrude into the wilderness with visions of the pioneers in our heads, exercising our strength and sublimating the forest to out desires.  I laughed once more, this time audibly, before clipping off my Stimulator and tying on the old man’s fly as I slid into the current, moving slowly and peacefully toward the pool.

The Senex

The Senex – Part 1

It’s funny how certain sounds and smells can remind you of a place.  There is one song, for example, that brings to my mind late nights on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, driving too fast with no lights on and all the windows rolled down, the stars shining like millions of eyes looking down at me.  I can’t walk past a Middle Eastern cafe without thinking of the roast lamb I ate at a street stand in Cairo while I watched a friend play soccer in the street with a dozen children half his size.  And I can’t smell honeysuckle without remembering a morning I spent on my favorite mountain stream.

I have never been an early riser, and there are few things which will pull me out of bed before the sun, but the thought of rising trout is one.  On this particular morning, sometime in early spring in western North Carolina, I was out the door just as the first light of the morning was peering over the eastern horizon.  There was a chill to the air in the cover of the early morning fog, but it was the sort of morning one knew would soon make way for a prematurely hot afternoon.  I broke the stillness of the quiet morning with the slamming of the rear doors of my slightly rusted, forest green 1962 Land Rover.  The air conditioning doesn’t work and the engine sometimes overheats on the hottest of summer afternoons, but I’ve never loved a truck like this one.  I opened the driver side door and allowed Tucker, my young Brittany Spaniel, to hop across into the passenger seat.  He was young, but he had realized that obedience to my commands would be paid off in my affection.

I leaned over to roll down the creaking passenger window so Tucker could poke his floppy-eared head out of the window to bark at anything we might pass.  Although we had an hour drive, followed by an hour hike, before we would get the first cast of the day in, I felt that familiar feeling of excitement and anticipation tightening my chest as soon as I turned off of the gravel driveway on onto the smooth, newly-paved road upon which our house sat, hidden back from the road behind a stand of old growth timber.  Soon, we had made our way to the interstate and headed west, racing the sunrise.  Having had enough of the morning chill, and probably frustrated at having been so unceremoniously risen at such an early hour, Tucker had curled up on the seat with his head resting on my leg.  I leaned over to roll up the window and settled in for the easy drive ahead.

The Land Rover is a fantastic truck on abandoned logging trails and forest service roads, but she feels out of place and a bit frustrated when pushed to her maximum speed, which isn’t fast enough to avoid the condescending states of the tourists and new money folks in their shiny black sedans.  They treat the roads as their racetracks in a vain attempt to prove that their over engineered, track-tested luxury cars are worth the inflated prices they paid for them.  They rarely are.

Some time later, I saw the sign for Bryson City and exited the interstate, thankful to be back at speeds more reasonable for my machine.  I wound through town, stopping briefly at a favorite coffee shop to top off my thermos and remark briefly upon the weather, before making my way toward the Road to Nowhere.  Originally intended to circle Fontana Lake, the road dead-ends before entering some of the most pristine wilderness left in the Eastern United States.  As much as most people want to see the road completed, there is a small, eco-terrorist voice deep within me that screams every time I come to the place.  I tell myself that if I ever see a bulldozer up here, I’ll fill the gas tank with sand.  Maybe I’ll do worse, placing a small bomb underneath the machine to put it out of commission permanently.  I don’t know if I’d be capable, but I suppose we all like to think ourselves revolutionaries when something dear to us is under threat.

The road ends abruptly not long after passing over Noland Creek, one of the half dozen or so streams that flow down from the upper slopes of Clingman’s Dome before emptying into Fontana Lake below.  Even with such easy access for a determined trout-seeker, Noland Creek provides a fantastic window into the world of small stream fishing, where any fish over 10″ can be considered a trophy.  Those of us who frequent these waters find satisfaction in the solitude, enjoying the brightly colored brookies that look like they’ve been painted in the most brilliantly natural hues.

After parking my truck under the branches of a young oak at the edge of the poorly maintained dirt road, I stepped out into the sunlit morning, followed by Tucker.  According to the local regulations, dogs aren’t welcome these parts.  Tucker isn’t like other dogs, though, so I let him walk without a leash, knowing that the smallest snap of my fingers will bring him quickly to my side.  I unloaded my gear, pulling on a pair of waders and double-knotting my wading boots.  All the water worth fishing requires a degree of effort which I’ve found most weekend fisherman unwilling to exert.  I usually end up replacing my boots each season after putting well over one-hundred trail miles on then in addition to wading.

I carry a large pack when fishing, keeping all of my supplies directly related to the task at hand in front and all of the equally important, yet less frequently used, gear in the back, such as rain slicker, thermos, water, first aid kit, and food for Tucker and me.  For this type of backcountry fishing, I fish a Scott fiberglass rod, a 7′ 3 wt. with a beautifully balanced feel and the delicacy needed to land active fish on light tippet.  I paired it with a little green Galvan reel and a dark green fly line, giving myself some small illusion of stealth and camouflage.

Before starting the hike, I tied on a small Yellow Stimulator, one of my favorite flies for these small, backcountry streams.  With Tucker at my side, chasing the shadow of a bee flying above him, we set out on what might one day become, God help us, a road to somewhere.  An easy thirty minute hike led us to the point where we would drop off of the main trail and do a bit of bushwhacking as we made our way upstream.  I suppose I should mention, at this point, that I am intentionally leaving the name of this particular stream from my tale, choosing instead to grant it some degree of anonymity, although quick investigative work would surely reveal a few likely candidates.

On this stream, I like to head to head upstream for half of a mile or so in order to achieve the feeling of true solitude. I’ve always been uncomfortable in crowds and utterly disgusted by close proximity to fisherman who didn’t arrive with me.  Upon reaching my favorite starting point, I stopped dead.  I saw an old timer lining up a gorgeous amber-colored bamboo rod with silk line.  My frustration at finding another angler in my favorite spot began to subside as I observed the gentleman make his way carefully into the shallow stream.  Not wanting to be seen, I found a fallen tree on which to sit and observe.  A snap of my fingers brought Tucker to my side.  He looked up at me, slightly confused, before making himself comfortable on a bed of bright green ferns.

The old man’s movements were deliberate and carefully considered.  He moved with the ease of youth, albeit slightly tempered by the weight of age.  Settling in the quick current, he paused, standing motionless for a full minute before moving again.  Maybe he was acclimatizing to his surroundings; maybe he was letting the trout become accustomed to his presence.  Either way, he had become, in just a moment, a fixture in the stream as seemingly permanent as a fallen tree or water-rounded boulder.  His face was emotionless, calm but for a flaming intensity in his gray eyes.  He didn’t act as though he owned the stream; rather, he had become part of it.

Continued here: The Senex – Part 2

Freak Show Flies

I have so much junk in my fly boxes.  I have a collections of odd flies I have tied that have never been used, and unless I have a chance encounter with a trout that is fond of the works of Salvador Dali, it is doubtful that I will ever use them.  Most of these freak show oddities were tied at the end of a late night when I was tired; and it shows.  Flies tied with every type of material known to man, these missing links contain bits of Care Bear fur, Parakeet feathers, even some puffy stuff that fell off of one of my kids shirts.  Like I said, these things are odd.

But occasionally, when the fishing has been so exceptional that it really doesn’t matter if I hook another, I will tie on one of these flies from The Island of Misfit Toys.  And once in a very blue moon…one of them will actually catch a fish.

Case in point.  I was on a trip to the Nantahala Gorge in western North Carolina and the fishing had been epic.  Nearly every cast brought either a fish or a good natured attack. I had pulled the Nantahala Hat Trick (Brown, Bow, and Brook), and it was getting late in the day.  As with most trips that I take with my friends, the point in the afternoon had been reached when the conversation started to override the need to catch anything.  So, I tied on this ugly fly that was made with black Ostrich and hot pink marabou from a Barbie evening gown (the advantage of having three daughters) with a crystal flash beard and red rubber legs.  Honestly, it was gaudy and gross.  As I recall it was tied on a size ten hook.  No weight.

I couldn’t keep the Brook Trout off of it.  I guess they were trying to induce a mercy killing.  Strikes prompted by pity.  The fish hit it so hard, and so often, that by the end of the day it looked more like something that had been coughed up by a very sick cat than a fly.  As a matter of personal principle, I did not tie another one.  Actually, I don’t think that I could duplicate the thing.  Sometimes when you play Dr. Frankenstein at the vise, you only get one shot.

I have a few other knick knacks in my box that have worked quite well.  One is called a redruM (those who saw The Shining will get it) Black marabou tail, red wire body, black marabou at the head.  That fly saved me from getting skunked on the Caney Fork River two years ago, and later on that year it hooked the largest brown trout of my fishing career (26” but who’s counting).  People all around me were casting to these monstrous Browns with no success.  I cast maybe three times and got the hook up.  When they say that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good…they speak truth.

Then I threw together something that I called The Church Fly.  I really don’t feel comfortable saying I came up with this pattern because it no doubt has other names and I have seen variations on the theme in fly fishing catalogs from everywhere.  It’s nothing more than a soft hackle zebra midge using starling as the collar.  This fly caught fish for me on a day when no one was catching anything.  It was so successful that a gentleman came up to me on the river and asked me what I was using.  I gave him a couple.  He caught the heck out of the trout too.  Several months later my buddy Brad called to tell me that some guy was in his fly shop asking for Church Flies or if Brad knew how to tie one.  He laughed, told the gentleman that they were not a stocked item, but he was kind enough to provide the man with everything he needed to tie his own. Now my Church Fly is legendary, even if I can only take credit for the name. I first used it while fishing in front of a church on the Clinch River in East Tennessee.  Not very creative in the naming department, but, for me at least, it fits.  With this little fly I have pulled trout from nearly every tailwater in my area and in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Proof is in the pudding.  I always have a bunch in my box.  The odd thing about this fly is that I have experimented with different types of soft hackle material and not one time have I caught fish on anything but the original.  If you are going to tie one, you must have Starling.  If not, you might be in for a long day.

A local angler has a pattern he calls the Smoky Mountain Blackbird.  He guides throughout East Tennessee and at some point in the trip, he’s bound to tie one on for his customer, and it isn’t often that they fish it without success.  This fly uses the same theory as the Church fly, but still a different and unique pattern of its own merit.  This gentleman is a master at the vise and he has created more original patterns than I could fish in a lifetime.  The Blackbird and the Church fly both use Starling, it is in the application where the two diverge, but the premise is basically the same.

T-Dub, one of my fishing friends, fishes with flies he has made up almost exclusively.  He will be catching fish like crazy and if you ask him what he is using, he won’t be able to give you a name.  There are beautiful little twists in his tying that make them his own.  The one fly that he has made legend is called the Pink Harlot and it is without a doubt one of the wildest looking fish attractors I’ve ever seen.  Hot pink, body made of glass beads.  Looks more like it should be hanging from a spinster’s ear as she sits in front of a slot machine in Vegas than in a mountain trout stream; catches some big fish though. He wisely maintains that as much pressure as the trout streams in the Southeast receive, you almost have to show the fish something it hasn’t seen before.  T-Dub is an exceptional fisherman and I have watched him take these flies and absolutely rock the socks off the river.

The purist in me wants to fish only with tried and true patterns that are tied with the utmost of skill; flies that have earned their place into nearly every fly box in the known world.  The purist in me wants flies that are proven and no matter where you are, if the water is cold and trout are on the prowl, you can take it to the bank that these age old fly patterns will work.

The Pheasant Tail nymph, The Hares Ear nymph, Adams dry, Blue Wing Olive dry, Elk Hair Caddis.  If you were to go right now to your fly box and inspect its contents, I would venture to guess that you have some form of each one of these flies in stock, and in a variety of sizes.

The Nonconformist in me however, loves to have fish in hand, spectator close by, and engage in the following conversation…

“Nice fish.  What do you have tied on?”

“Size 10 redruM”

“A what?”

It is at this point in the discussion that I free the fish and show the fly to them.  I have heard the following statement several times on the stream.

“What in the world is that?”

I now have several fishing buddies who have redruMs and Church Flies in their boxes, which is something that brings an odd feeling of pride.  It’s kind of like having a dog with three legs that is an expert at catching a Frisbee.  It is doing what countless other dogs do…it just looks a little odd in the attempt.

In a recent discussion with some friends about our fly boxes and what we use the most, I commented that if I could boil my box down to what I use the most, I would have nothing but Pheasant tails- weighted, unweighted, soft hackle, Sulphurs- soft hackle and comparadun, Zebra Midges, Church flies, Adams and Elk Hair Caddis and a few redruMs.  There are situations where I might wish I had something other than the aforementioned, but year in and year out I use these patterns more than any other.

I may, by this writing, imply that I am a traditionalist who does not deviate from the established form of historically productive patterns, but no matter what, I will always have the few odd balls.  Who knows, one of those unfished oddballs may someday get rid of a skunk or become a local legend.

I Suck At Dry Flies

I suck at tying and fishing dry flies. If you want a nymph, I can fix you up. Soft hackle? No problem. But if it is a dry fly, you can forget it.

Dry flies are congruent, poised, and angelic. Nymphs and soft hackles are chaotic, archaic, and wild. Perhaps this speaks volumes about me.

A dry fly is pretty much predictable. It floats, with a few exceptions can only be fished one way, and represents the end game. Maybe that is why I have never been much of a dry fly angler. It requires a level of grace that I dream of but never quite achieve. Its movement across the water, barely dimpling the surface film, is a ballet of sorts. Nymphs/ soft hackles are always working under the surface. You can only guess what is going on, and the predictability of its meanderings down the river is purely conjecture. You can dead drift it, swing it, strip it, but in the end you have only limit control and you have to watch your line very carefully because anything could happen at any time.

Dry flies dance to Mozart, George Winston. Nymphs and soft hackles dance to Coletrane, Muddy Waters, and The Allman Brothers. And while I am making this comparison, it should be noted that streamers dance to anything that would be found in a mosh pit, college frat house, or sleazy strip joint.

I do not like streamer fishing. Perhaps it is just a little more aggressive than my style will permit.  These flies, monstrous looking piles of fur and flash with hooks just come across as menacing.  The unhidden splash they make as they find the water only to by yanked back to the rod tip.  To be certain, if you want big fish, or if you want to cover a lot of water, streamers are the way to go.  But for me…it’s just not my style.  If I wanted to fish like that I would hang up my fly rod and throw jerk baits with a spinning rod.

I have fished Dries, and on some occasions I have fished them exclusively with much success, yet the whole time I felt like a kid in a new suit for Easter.  I just never can seem to settle into the comfortable rhythm or pace of the dance.  I have friends who, when fishing with a dry fly, look as if they were part of a painting by Michelangelo.  I watch them and think to myself…”There can be no other way for this man to fish…he has reached perfection.”

I guess at the end of the day, I am a nymph/ soft hackle guy who hopes someday to have the grace to be a dry fly guy.

But then don’t we all?

Grace is a pursuit that we may touch, but will never fully achieve. It is the point where all the poor mechanics and technique are put aside. Grace is a gift. One we don’t deserve in our fallen state. But with a little help, we may find ourselves granted its music. And then we not only dance, we fly…..

TroutSicle

Four-Legged Fishing Buddies

It has been said that a dog is man’s best friend. Never has this adage been more true than with the relationship between an angler and his/her dog.  Fishing dogs are loyal, willing partakers of the adventures we pursue as anglers.  The connection is deep enough to wonder if dogs inherently understand angling.  Most love the water, are seemingly oblivious to inclement weather, and are perfectly happy when wet, cold and hungry regardless of the fish count.  When I begin packing for a fishing trip, my dog exhibits behavior that can only be described as sincere hope that her name and gear are on the packing list.  If she gets to go she expresses something rare and precious in this world; pure joy.  If she is left home she creates a list of her own, household items that must be destroyed before I return.  Upon arrival at our angling location she will scout the immediate area while impatiently waiting for me to prep my gear. I must admit that I am a bit slow in getting ready to hit the water.  My dog always gives me the look that says “c’mon buddy let’s go already!”  When I sense that particular gaze upon me, I always reassure her that the better prepared I am now, the longer we can stay.  She then sets about occupying herself with predatory preparations.  Rolling in the nearest cow pie in order to disguise her scent is a favorite.  The fact that trout don’t smell cow pies is somehow irrelevant.

The connection between man and dog runs so deep that we are inclined to anthropomorphize their thoughts.  Below are some examples of “thoughts” that I’m sure have occupied my dog’s brain between squirrel sightings and manure anointings:

  • You – Snag a tree branch on a back cast., Dog – Fishing a little high don’t you think?
  • You – Snag and reel in a piece of driftwood., Dog – Nice catch. Can I keep it?
  • You – Kerplunk, gasp! Followed by lying on your back, feet in the air, draining the water from your waders., Dog – Hey, now you smell like me. Now, shake off like this.
  • You – Staring a a fly box trying to select the perfect fly for the situation., Dog – Who are you trying to fool? Just pick one and go!
  • You – See a muskrat swim through the seam you are  fishing., Dog – Did you see THAT?!!
  • You – Another angler approaches., Dog – Shall I bite him? Swim through his drift? Go find his lunch?
  • You – If approaching angler is female., Dog – Time to break out the puppy dog eyes.

Some people believe that the blank stare is all there is to a dog. Those of us with fishing dogs know better. Note, there is no such thing as a fishing cat, goldfish notwithstanding.

We enjoy our canine companions in nearly everything we do.  We share our experiences, our food, our accommodations, our feelings, indeed our very souls.  This connection runs so deep that when the tragic day we lose them arrives, we experience a profound sense of loss.  We have truly lost something that is irreplaceable. When the editor of my favorite publication lost is four legged companion of 15 years, he wrote a wonderful tribute that touched the hearts of all who read it.  He ended the piece with the words “We had a snowstorm a couple of weeks after his death. When I looked out the window that morning, there were no paw prints leading away from his doggie door. No paw prints at all, just perfect untouched snow in a suddenly empty world.”  I’m confident that Tom will see Trask again, just as I believe I will see Boscoe, Sam, Jed and Maggie again.  I have always said that if dogs don’t go to heaven, I don’t want to go either.  After a time we start again, obtain a puppy, lose some furniture legs, boot linings, cork, and begin to embark on new adventures, despite knowing where it will ultimately lead.  Why? Because it is worth it, totally worth it.