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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!

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.