“One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.” ― Edward Abbey
My teenage daughter, Kerri, likes to fish. Once a year, we catch a few crappie on spinning gear and she’s happy. Especially if I bring along her favorite junk food. However, she LOVES big, scary roller coasters. Or anything that sends her equilibrium for a loop – quite literally.
Last summer, I suggested a trip to Yellowstone Park. My exact words: “Geysers, waterfalls, white-water rafting, zip-lining – that’s what we’ll be doing.” She was excited. I also asked her if she’d like to try fly-fishing. From a boat… Drifting down at river… With rapids… She said sure.
I booked a float trip with guide Hank Bechard and asked him if he thought Kerri would be better off with a spinning rod. He replied, “When in Rome…” He was confident the fly rod would work.
We spent a day white-water rafting down the Gallatin River. And another day zip-lining over it. One afternoon we waded a gentle run and I taught Kerri how to roll cast, mend line, and control slack. She wasn’t Lefty Kreh, but she could flip an indicator rig 20 feet upstream and let it drift back down.
After a day sight-seeing in Yellowstone, I phoned the guide to check arrangements for the float trip. Hank told me our original destination, the upper Yellowstone, was still clearing up; we would be fishing the Boulder River instead. He promised whitewater rafting with fly rods. Kerri was pumped! (And so was I!)
The next day, we were in his raft, heading down the Boulder River. Big, ugly rubber-legged nymphs were hanging underneath big, ugly foam indicator flies. I have to admit that I thought I made a mistake for about the first ten minutes. I’d been in drift boats before but I wasn’t used to my rear end hanging WAY out over the back of the raft. The targets were zipping past as we bounced down the river; I had a mess of line in my lap and not much in the river. I had NO idea how Kerri was doing at the front of the boat.
Finally, I shortened up my line and starting dropping the fly where it was supposed to go. Hank stopped the boat in a calm spot and gave Kerri a few quick casting lessons. In no time, he had her picking the fly up and slapping it back down about 20 feet away. (Forget about roll casts!)
The rest of the day was tremendous! The raft rocked and rolled through riffles and rapids. The casts were short and the fish were eager. Kerri caught her first fly rod fish – a 15” ‘bow – and at least 6 or 7 more.
Crappie fishing will never be the same…
A few years ago I saw a foam wing salmon fly nymph pattern that was killer looking and very popular on the Yellowstone River in Montana. The fly was called “Real Black Stone” if I remember, but I never found the pattern available commercially and never saw a recipe or a tutorial. The fly was more complicated with eyes, individually cut wing case segments, knotted rubber legs, and all black dubbing of some sort. This is my version, but I added the tan dubbing, and brown rib for better contrast and realism, and simplified the pattern by deleting the eyes, the knotted legs, and forming the wing case out of one piece of foam instead of several pieces.
Notes; if you are worried about the foam adding to much buoyancy, don’t. The added lead more than makes up for the foam. If you are still worried, add more lead, if you are still worried add a 3.2 mm tungsten bead behind antennae, if you are still worried use .5 mm foam for wing case instead of 1mm, and if you are still worried use thin skin and forget about the foam altogether.
Hook; TMC 200R #6
Thread; 6/0 or 140 Denier Tan and Black
Tail; Black Goose Biots
Abdomen; Tan Micro Chenille, Waspi Antron dubbing Chestnut
Rib; Small Brown Holo Tinsel
Thorax; Light Tan Waspi Sow Scud dubbing
Wing Case; 1mm Black Foam
Rear Legs; Black Flexi Floss
Front Legs; extra-small Black Round rubber
Antennae; extra-small Black Round rubber
Weight; .025 lead wire
Step 1; tie on antennae, form a small head and whip finish if you are tying several flies or continue to step 2
Step 2; tie on lead wire down one side of hook shank, and leave a gap near the hook eye. If you want a heavier fly tie on an additional length of lead wire on the opposite side too.
Step 3; twist off extra lead and wrap thread several times to secure
Step 4; tie a long length of micro chenille on top of hook, this forms the anal gills and adds bulk to the fly
Step 5; tie on a long length of brown holo tinsel
Step 6; wrap chenille fwd and trim at the point of the gap. Note; wrap one wrap of chenille behind rib, so the rib doesn’t slip off the chenille and loosen. This is basic fly tying technique but a lot of tiers still miss this important step.
Step 7; tie in goose biots for the tail, stop the thread about 1/8 inch fwd of the end of the chenille to form the anal gills
Step 8; apply, chestnut Antron dubbing evenly and sparsely to thread
Step 9; dub fwd covering the tan chenille, stop dubbing at about ½ the hook shank length
Step 10; wrap the tinsel fwd about 6-8 turns and tie off
Step 11; tie in rear legs so that they angle back, trim to desired length. I leave them long for more movement
Step 12; whip finish black thread, and go have a drink, you’re about half done
Step 13; start your tan thread
Step 14; dub a sparse amount of tan dubbing to the end of the chenille
Step 14a; prepare a 1/4 inch strip of 1mm black foam at least 2 inches long and cut a small notch in one end. I use a small Chernobyl cutter
Step 15; tie in notched end of foam wing case, the apex of the notch should be at the transition point of the tan and brown dubbing
Step 16; tie in middle legs with flexi floss, angle almost straight out
Step 17; dub around legs with additional tan dubbing and whip finish
Step 18; start your black thread again, fold foam wing case back, loop forward and tie off at the end of your tan dubbing
Step 19; begin tying down foam fwd toward hook eye
Step 19a; advance thread to just behind hook eye
Step 20; tie in front legs (round rubber) and angle slightly fwd
Step 21; fill in the gap, and around the front legs with chestnut Antron dubbing
Step 22; fold foam wing case back and secure with a few wraps of thread
Step 23; add a small amount of chestnut Antron dubbing to cover thread wraps and whip finish. Trim off excess foam in a semi-circle shape. Trim all legs and antennae to desired length.
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…
If I had to think about the one style of nymph that’s caught more large fish than any other it would have to be… Well, being completely honest it’s technically not a “nymph”, it’s an annelid. Yes the mighty worm! From the simple San Juan to the heavily weighted pig sticker they simply get munched and by fish. I can’t think of a better time to fish worms than late winter through runoff. Since that time is coming up it’s always a good idea to have a few different worm patterns in a handful of colors, sizes and weights. Considering how easy they are to tie there really isn’t a good reason to not have a decent assortment in the corner of a box somewhere. This is one of my go to flies when I want something light and on the smaller side. It holds up extremely well and is very fast to tie with cheap materials. Good luck and happy worm dunking.
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!
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.
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.
“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.”
The Simms Tarpon Trucker Hat features a high crown and a snap back closure…and it’s awesome.
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!