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South Florida Nightlife on the Fly

Late last week, I had to take a last minute business trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  With meetings scheduled both day and night, I would be lucky to leave the hotel during the entire three day stay.  There was one opportunity for fun, on the last night of my stay.  Given the last minute nature of the trip, I didn’t have the opportunity to even think about staying another day and possibly booking a day of fishing, let alone finding a captain available in early May.  I know that Tarpon are primarily night feeders and I began to wonder if anyone ever attempts to fish for them at night.  A Google search revealed that not only do people attempt, there are captains who provide such a service.  I found a guide who was willing to work in a night trip despite having day trips booked on either side.  His name is Captain Shawn Fairbanks (www.saltH20.com).

Embraced by the Atlantic Ocean, New River, and a myriad of scenic inland waterways, Fort Lauderdale is known as the “Venice of America”.  It is the inland waterways that provide the greatest opportunity to fly fish at night.  With over 300 miles of navigable waterways, it pays to hire a guide who knows their way around, especially at night. Captain Fairbanks fits the bill since he has been fishing these very waters for more than 20 years.  Many of the homes located with waterfront have underwater dock lights which make the monumental task of parking some of the largest yachts I have ever seen, just a bit easier in the dark. The lights, while aesthetically pleasing, act as magnets for baitfish.  Schools of glass minnows and other baitfish congregate around these lights like moths to a bug zapper.  From this simple underwater oasis, an entire food chain aligns itself.  Jack Crevalle, Lookdown fish, Snook, and Tarpon may all be present within a reasonable proximity to these lights.  Now you might be thinking, isn’t that cheating? Akin to shooting fish in a barrel?   Nope, these fish are easily spooked.  This is true sight fishing and you had better make your cast count or you will be left counting glass minnows in a landscape otherwise devoid of the desired predators.  Having said that, it isn’t making 60 yard casts with a ten weight on the flats in the wind, but if you have cast dry flies to rising trout, you understand the need for accuracy.  More than once, I flopped a fly right into the light and watched in horror as every fish scattered as if I had cast a grenade.  The idea is to spot the Snook or tarpon sitting at the edge of the light occasionally darting in and out in pursuit of their prey.  You are targeting a specific fish and casting the fly such that you can bring the fly past his nose on the retrieve.  I managed to land a couple of Jack Crevalle, and a Lookdown fish before truly focusing on the Snook.  My dreams are filled with Tarpon but the Snook were presenting themselves far more often.  I had Snook completely ignore my fly, even swim away from it, but more often than not, they would follow it; inspecting it very closely right up to the tip of the rod. We changed flies a lot! I varied the retrieve from long slow strips, to very short energetic strips.  Apparently we found more followers than leaders on this night.  At one point, Shawn had just cut the fly off to try another pattern when a LARGE shadow intently moved through the periphery of the light.  TARPON!  He was interested in what was going on, but didn’t stick around long enough for me to make any kind of presentation.  I tried a few hopeful casts in the direction he was headed, but to no avail.  That will be the fish that haunts my dreams for the next few months.

As we moved throughout the city at high tide, it became apparent why Captain Fairbanks had removed the poling platform from the Maverick.  We went under some bridges that were so low that we both had to duck; and I mean crouch and duck.  It was emerging from one of these low bridges that we spotted a tarpon hiding behind a dock pylon at the edge of the light.  Shawn expertly positioned the boat such that I had the best shot at making the right cast.  I began false casting, paying out line with each cast until I had about fifty feet of line in the air.  Just as I made the decision to place the fly, I created a wonderful tailing loop, which caused the fly to firmly embed in my left pant leg.  Yes, grace under pressure.  Fortunately, all of the line piled up on the deck of the boat and in the water behind me, thus not spooking the fish.  I patiently gathered myself, unwinding line from my ankles, from around the rod, and from around the trolling motor mounted on the bow; never once taking my eyes off the fish nervously munching away.  The second attempt, although much more tentative, delivered the fly into the darkness beyond the light.  As I began to strip, the fish instantly saw the fly and decided that he wanted it, and wanted it bad.  The strike happened so fast that I swear I set the hook on pure instinct rather than by any measure of cognitive intent.  The instant the line went tight, the fish went literally ballistic.  It went straight out of the water much like a missile being launched from a submerged nuclear submarine.  When it landed back in the water, it streaked to the boat so fast that I had to strip line as if my very life depended upon it.  He swam right past me at the bow of the boat as if it were underwater lightning.  Indeed that is the best way to describe hooking into a tarpon; it is as if you stuck the tip of a nine-and-a-half foot graphite fly rod into a light socket. Miraculously, I managed to avoid stepping on the line that I had just so feverishly stripped in, because the fish took that back through the guides of the fly rod in a nanosecond.  When I finally got him to the reel, he launched out of the water a second time.  I had heard that you are supposed to bow to the tarpon when they breach but that critical tidbit was buried too deep in my brain and any chance I had of retrieving it was overwhelmed by the massive adrenaline dump surging through my body. So I acted on instinct to keep the line taught.  He landed with the fly still firmly lodged in his jaw as Shawn gently instructed me to take the slack off while the fish performs aerial acrobatics.  As the fish rounded the stern of the boat, obviously intent on fouling me on the prop, I was running down the gunwale in hot pursuit attempting to foil his plans.  Another show of aerial ability, this time accompanied by the appropriate postural tribute on my part; bow to the Silver King!  A second later I was on another trip along the gunwale toward the bow making it to the casting deck just in time for another aquatic air show.  The fish and I were circling the boat counter clockwise so fast that I wondered if even the tarpon in Florida are fans of NASCAR.  Just as I made it to the stern again, he managed a tremendous black flip behind the outboard and the line went suddenly slack. The electric rod had been unplugged. The leader had finally succumbed to the sandpaper-like lips of the beast. Perhaps my inexperience the second time he launched had cost me after all.  The fish always teach the most effective lessons, and this session, albeit short, will leave me pondering for some time.  All hail the mighty tarpon!   Well after the stroke of midnight, without spotting another poon, I walked up the dock toward my rental car, grinning from ear to ear.  Captain Fairbanks was headed home to prepare for another client headed to the Everglades a mere five hours later. I was headed back to a hotel to grab a bit of shut eye before the flight that would carry me 2,500 miles away from this beautiful place, and the tarpon that I will never forget.

Catching the Spring Creeks Off Guard

Should a Woolly Bugger kind-of-guy celebrate March Madness in Paradise Valley at a BWO hatch?

I used to look forward to a week of skiing in Montana at the end of every March.  And somewhere along the line, probably as I passed through Livingston –  with the sun shining and the Yellowstone River underneath the Interstate – I got to wondering about the fishing.

As it turns out, it’s pretty darn good.  The crowds are gone, the rivers are in good shape –  ‘cause it’s pre-runoff  – and the temperature is likely to be 50 or 60 degrees.

So a few weeks ago, on our way to ski, my girlfriend and I stopped by the Yellowstone Angler in Livingston.  They pointed us toward Armstrong’s Spring Creek and stuffed our fly box with egg imitations, BWO’s, and midges.

A day on Armstrong’s during the height of the summer PMD hatch means booking a year in advance and paying a $100 rod fee.  We got there on a gorgeous Sunday morning and paid the off-season rate of $40.  And had the river all to ourselves.  All the snow was on the ski hill and would have to wait…

I have to admit.  I was a little apprehensive.  Spring creeks and their technical, flat water are a bit of a mecca for small fly gurus.  But I’m no small fly guru.  To me, finesse is replacing the big split shot under my indicator with a small split shot.

Nevertheless, for every flat water glide, there was a deeper, rumpled run.  A 20 mile per hour wind was keeping the BWO hatch at bay.  We tied on indicators, beadhead zebra midges underneath eggs, and a split shot.  I must have been in finesse mode; it was a small indicator and a tiny split shot.

There were six or seven browns and rainbows in those deeper, rumpled runs that definitely wanted to play.  The browns smacked the eggs and the rainbows sucked in the midges.  The browns bent the rods double and went deep.  A couple ‘bows did cartwheels.   The biggest fish was a solid 16 inches.  Not a spectacular day’s fishing, but extremely satisfying.  Especially when fishing back home would be not much more than gazing at an eight inch hole in the ice.

Next year, we may just forget about the skiing altogether…

(We actually spent the next day wading the big, broad Yellowstone River.  There were risers in the slack water by the bank as we pulled up.  I was eager to work on my small fly skills but a 30 mile per hour wind came up and ended the hatch.  So back to an indicator rig with zebra midges and small pheasant tails.  A few eager rainbows and cutthroats soon found our flies.  Unfortunately, after a couple hours, the wind started to feel like a gale and it was time to quit.  Or at least think about going skiing.)

Humbled by the King!

The Silver King. In my extremely humble opinion this fish is the epitome of saltwater fly-fishing. Of course I am talking about the Tarpon. These unique mysterious fish are simply breathtaking. I recently had an opportunity to travel to the Florida Keys to fish for Tarpon and these are my thoughts about the experience.

Now I consider my self a pretty confident and competent fly fisherman let me rephrase that, I consider myself a pretty confident and competent trout fisherman.  However I learned quickly that saltwater fly-fishing is a totally different ballgame. Instead of throwing size 20 Midges on a 4wt I found myself using a rod unlike anything I have ever really utilized before. Comparatively 12wt fly rods are a gargantuan and the flies utilized are much the same way.

In preparation for this trip I did quite a bit of practicing to try and familiarize myself with the larger saltwater gear. I felt as I had done a fair job for preparing for this experience but alas I was gravely mistaken. Casting on top of a milk crate in a grassy field with little to no wind was beneficial but once I found myself on the front of that skiff with the boat rocking and the wind blowing directly into my face I knew I was in for a humbling trip.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the sight of a Tarpon 30ft away engulfing my scantly looking crab imitation. However I strip set the hook too early and found myself staring at the backside of a fish going the other way. Honestly that sight freaked me out and I nearly jumped off the front of the boat and that is probably why I screwed up my best shot. I was disappointed yes, but that 40 second experience has to be one of the greatest I have ever had with a fly rod in my hand. I was left standing on the front of that boat in awe of what actions has just transpired before me. The consolation was that I had an opportunity to see some eye-opening places and get a nice tan. So in all reality I am okay with that.

Overall this experience is exactly what I expected going in. Anything that you do for the first time in life is probably not going to turn out pretty and most likely is going to leave you wanting a different outcome. I know thing is for certain. I will be back to tangle with the Silver King. This experience has opened up the metaphorical Pandora’s box of fly-fishing and the best way I try to explain my thought is these fish and the waters in which they reside are new frontier and new way of challenging me as a fly angler. My hat is off to those who have put the time and practice in to become masters of this whole different venue of fly angling. Finally, next time I will be better prepared and will have practiced a lot more.  Because we all know that old motto, practice makes perfect. In this case perfection is embodied in the form of the majestic Tarpon on the end of the line.

Barlows and Bamboo

In my right pocket on most days, I am carrying a knife.  It isn’t a particularly lethal blade even though its carbon steel can be honed enough to shave the hairs from your arm clean as a babies bottom.  The craftsmanship is what you would expect from a mass produced circa 1975 hardware store pocket knife, a brown plastic handle that is slightly off center on one side, the name stamped crooked.  Imperfections abound on this treasure and I would venture to say that if you were to find it along the side of the road you would submit it to a junk drawer if you bothered to pick it up at all.  But this knife holds a great deal of significance to me.

This knife was the first thing I ever purchased with money that I had earned.  I was ten years old and was going door to door asking for people to vote for a man that was running for school superintendent in my home county.  For my half days work I think I was paid ten dollars, and part of that cash payday was used at Smith Hardware to buy myself a Barlow Pocket Knife.  My Grandfather carried a Barlow and so I assumed that it must be the best knife to have on hand.  It was many years before I realized the truth.

I still carry this blade because it means something to me.  It holds significance in that it represents a milestone, a rite of passage, and at the same time it gives me a direct link to the childhood that has long since disappeared into thin and sometimes clouded memory.  Now, I also see the potential future of this knife as I am preparing myself to hand it over someday to my son.  In some respects, he will not carry it with the same significance as I.  The memories he will have surrounding this blade will be of me and not how it came into my possession or what it represents.  Then, many years from now it may go to my Grandson; the memory will be diluted further and perhaps he will place it in some easily forgotten drawer or box, but that is for him to decide.

In much the same way and same circumstances is the esteem in which we regard our Fly Fishing Gear.  Each rod or reel has some sort of memory, some sort of story.  An old worn out hat may reek of sweat and be faded and frayed, but held within the very fabric of the brim may be epic tales of angling adventure that have engrained themselves for a lifetime. Or perhaps it was handed down from the person who introduced you to the sport.  The day that it passed from their hand to yours was a rite of passage that may be told to others, but never really shared with others.

Some of us have been blessed with the luxury of high dollar gear.  Hundreds upon hundreds of dollars laid down for the very best, while others may have old, clunky equipment bought at yard sales or at a big box retail store.  To argue the comparisons in craftsmanship would be pointless and to debate the merits of them would be a waste of breath.  Within each high dollar rod with a historic company pedigree can be found a story, yet within a rod that might be valued equally as a tomato stick or such is at least an equal story.

From this train of thought we can perhaps conclude that the fishing isn’t about the equipment and its limitless accessories.  It isn’t about brand names or price tags.  Fly fishing is about memories and experiences.  Fly  fishing is about the moment, that one shining nugget that is as burned in your mind as a trip to the hardware store just to slap down your money for a knife.  There is a life in our equipment that is dormant until we put it to use, and in the using is familiarity, memory, history.  You just can’t buy those type things.

The smaller knife blade on my Barlow has a permanent glob of model car glue along the bottom of the edge side.  I can look at that and remember, I had a Richard Petty model car that I was building and had used the blade to remove some excess glue that had seeped through the point where the Petty blue rear fender and trunk lid met.  There again, that means absolutely nothing to anyone else but me.  Same situation occurs with imperfections in our equipment.  I may look at the deep gash in the cork handle of your fly rod and not give it another thought, yet you may look at the same gash and remember how you were on a trip with some friends.  You may see a clear mental picture of how you slid down a grassy embankment and caught the handle on a piece of barbed wire…and think of the fish you caught that day.

I have a very old bamboo rod.  If the hunches are correct, it was build sometime in the mid 1930’s which makes it as old as or older than my Dad.  This rod has survived, and perhaps at times thrived through some of the greatest moments in human history, and also through personal worries and concerns.  I sometimes wonder if any of the previous rod owners are still alive, where they were, where they fished.  When I obtained the rod, it was found in the trunk of an abandoned 1950’s era Ford sedan that had spent several years rusting away behind this elderly couple’s barn.  Trust me, when I fish this rod- the weight of its history (or potential history) is very present in my mind.

The relationship we have with our gear, no matter the price or the name is internal, and it should never be expected that anyone else should ever understand its significance.  All that really matters is that we have something in the present which harkens us back to a time of which we will never return, and to a future that rests in the dimpled surface of a river where fish are rising and new memories await.




One Beautiful Day

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

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

“Hey now…just what I was hoping for…”

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

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

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

No doubt about it. It was one beautiful day.




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!

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 – 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