Tag Archives: trout

The author taking business into his own hands.

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 3 of 6

In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone.  We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the third of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.

In part two, we saw how involved and messy gill netting for the small lakers can be.  But what about the big boys?  What about the mature adult that is actively reproducing?  Obviously the whole gill netting thing will not work on a fish that size. So instead of the spider web analogy, lets switch over to the corn maze.  Easy to get into one…not so easy to get out.

What happens is this.  A huge live trap net is set in the lake.  This massive enclosure has a series of extensions on it that are like long hallways.  Hallways that are hundreds of feet long.  Big guys swim in, hang out, can’t find the exit.  And then the men on the boat go to work.

This is where the action really picks up.  We left the gill net boat feeling pretty satisfied with what we had just participated in, but we literally had no idea as to the massive undertaking necessary to get rid of the Lakers.  Yellowstone Lake is big and very deep which is perfect for Lake Trout.  They are literally in Laker Valhalla in this majestic body of water, and they do get big.

The crew starts out by retrieving the net.  I never quite figured out if the net was stationary and we were moving or vise versa, but either way, we were in for the surprise of our lives when the catch started revealing itself.

There are some fish that get caught in the net, but most are still alive when the crew started hoisting it aboard.  But the big show was the huge net enclosure that held numbers of biblical proportions.  The sheer number of big fish was astounding.  To compare what we were seeing to the 167,000 plus that had been retrieved up to that point just blows your mind.  I caught myself looking out at the lake an just trying to grasp just how many leviathans were swimming in those waters.

In the picture below you see a tub full of dead Lake Trout.  To get an idea of how large these fish were, the box they are in was about two and a half feet by twenty inches by two feet.  Just about every fish we brought to the boat would be grip and grin status.

 There were several tubs stationed at the rear of the boat.  By the time our work was done.  Every tub would be full.  It bears mentioning again that this operation is taking place, every day for at least ten hours per day.

Tracking devices are placed in some of the Lakers.  The use of these trackers is to identify movement of the fish throughout the lake.  Listening stations placed in various locations in the lake will monitor movement of the fish as they go about their day.  The hope is to positively identify spawning locations so that they can begin the arduous task of killing eggs.  There is still an ongoing discussion as to how they could best accomplish this.  Everything from UV rays to a vacuum system has been brought to the table.  The Park Service, Trout Unlimited, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation are actively pursuing their options with a hope to tackle this next battlefield soon.  The telemetry study was started in August of last year.  141 tags and 40 receivers were implemented.  As of this writing, there are 221 tags and 55 recievers on and in Yellowstone Lake.  This is not a cheap undertaking either.  Trout Unlimited purchased 153 tags at a cost of 85,000 dollars and the National Park Service purchased 68 tags at a cost of 25,000 dollars.

And yes, some of the Cutthroat are caught.  Here is the statistics as best as I can recall.  In a day when we caught probably close to 1,000 trout.  I only saw two Cutthroat dead at the gill net boat, and I think there were maybe five live Cutties on the live net boat.

The large holding net is brought to the side of the boat and there are literally hundreds of fish swimming around.  A long net is used, and you simply lean over and scoop up a net full of fish.  It is really quite amazing.  And keep in mind that you are scooping netfulls of 20″-30″ fish.  Exhilarating to say the least.  There were a couple that were to big to fit into the net.  You would scoop through the holding net, get the bruisers head in it, and that would be all that would fit.  That is when the crew stepped in and gilled them to the boat.

After the fish are caught.  They are cut, identified as male of female, and the air bladder is ruptured.  A lot were full of eggs.  Thousands of eggs.  This is the point when it all started coming together for me.  We caught and killed a multitude of these fish, but if you also take into consideration how many eggs we removed form the life cycle of the species in this lake, the numbers were staggering.  I really felt like I had done something that was good, worthwhile, and important.  Important to more than just the Cutthroat.  It was important to the total ecosystem of the park.  And that is a very good thing.

Though Lake Trout are a very good food source, and plentiful, these fish are not put into the food market.  My thought was that they could be used to feed the homeless, needy, mobile meals, but the logistics and cost of doing this are just not feasible at this time.  So much would be involved in trying to get this idea off the ground, and the amount of money it would require prohibit it.

So we left that afternoon feeling very good about what we had done.  The conversation among us was like that of a team after winning the big game.  We recounted the events, smiled, shook our heads in disbelief, and made our way north to the Lamar Valley.

 *Photos by Rebecca Garlock, Chris Hunt, Steve Zakur, and Marc Payne

Lake Trout Processing

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 2 of 6

In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone.  We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the second of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.

Okay, how many mornings have you awoke, and over breakfast said to yourself…”yep, today I think I am gonna kill a thousand trout.  That is the goal.  Not gonna eat em, not gonna sell em, just gonna kill em, cut em, and dump em in the deep water.  Then maybe call it a day.”

Lets just settle on agreeing that lake trout aren’t baby seals.  Soft fluffy white fur and big watery eyes will trump a cold slimy fish any day of the week, but still…the wholesale slaughter of a trout seems antithetical to the mantra that we catch and release types chant each time we head to the river.  We will pass someone who is leaving with a stringer full of trout and we assess them as if they are pariah; an unclean blight on the angling world.

I speak somewhat in jest, but it is honestly a very strange feeling to know that your goal is a mix of trout and death.  It just doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily…until you actually do it.

Here is the situation. At some point lake trout arrived in Yellowstone Lake.  I say “at some point” because no one is really 100% certain when it happened.  Yellowstone Lake is a Cutthroat lake, end of story.  The population of this amazing body of water has changed dramatically in recent years, and it has become quite frightening on more than a fishing level.  This issue literally effects every creature in the massive Yellowstone that has Cutts as a food source.

Try wrapping your mind around this statistic. In or around 1978, 70,000 Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout were recorded in Clear Creek.  In 2008, the number had dwindled to less than 500.  You read that right…500.  Keep in mind that we are just talking about one creek, God only knows how many feed into Yellowstone Lake.  You start running the numbers and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to determine that Yellowstone is in trouble.

Lake Trout live and spawn in Yellowstone Lake, they access no tributaries, they live in deep water, and they eat a bunch of Cutthroat which do access the tributaries to spawn.  This leaves only one viable solution.  You must get on Yellowstone Lake and kill a bunch of Lakers.  Each female Lake Trout is capable of laying thousands of eggs, and with each passing season, these hungry invasives feast on the Cutts.

HOW IT IS DONE

We were blessed with the opportunity to travel out onto Yellowstone Lake and take part in the removal of the Lakers. After a coffee and a danish at the boat dock, we gathered round and Todd Koel gave us the rundown thus far.

When you can tally up 167,703 lake trout caught thus far in 2012, and your work is no where near done…you have got a huge task in front of you.

There are two primary methods that are being used in the eradication process.  Gill netting and trap nets, and our merry band of anglers, bloggers, and industry folk embarked on what would become one whale of an adventure.

Gill netting is not pretty.  It is a messy, smelly, methodical task that takes a strong constitution and a certain degree of speed to do the job well.  So, imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the gill netting boat, and a young blonde coed climbed out and welcomed us aboard.  I envisioned a crew of bearded and somewhat scruffy fishermen using foul language, smoking filterless cigarettes and drinking coffee from an old rusty percolator.  This boat had two gentlemen who were very polite and soft spoken and a crew of nothing but girls.

With my personal stereotypes completely shattered we put our hands to work.  Gill netting was the focus of this boat, and though it wasn’t Deadliest Catch it was pretty intense at first.  The best way to describe gill netting would be to envision a massive underwater spiders web.  These nets are dropped or “soaked” for several hours and basically the fish entrap themselves within the holes of the net, struggle, tangle, and die.  Then comes the dirty work.  The net is retrieved and it is the task of the deck hands to extricate the fish from the nets.  I knew this was gonna be messy when the captain of the boat handed out blue rubber gloves.  Sometimes this involved actually pushing the internal organs of the lakers from one part of their bodies to the other just so they would go through the holes in the nets.  This procedure can also cause what the girls on the boat called “poppers”, I won’t go into details, but imagine a balloon that is squeezed just a tad to much.  Only this balloon wasn’t full of air….

For ten hours a day, six days a week these co-eds place nets, pull up nets, removed dead fish and repeat, and they actually seemed to be having fun doing it.

So where are all the big lake trout?  This particular process is used to remove the smaller fish.  On the next post we will take a look at how the big boys meet their maker.

Tetons

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 1 of 6

In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone.  We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the first of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.

 There is always a slight risk involved in dreams.  So often we paint pictures in our minds about these enchanted desires, thoughts that grow, doubling each time they wander across our mind.  Then we are somehow placed in a situation in which we can actually see this dream come to pass and it feels empty, shallow, and unfulfilled.

 Thankfully, this was not the case in my dream of Yellowstone.

 My friend Steve Zakur didn’t touch down in Jackson until late in the afternoon/ early evening which gave me time to soak in the Tetons in their glory.  When his plane landed and we shook hands, the dream which I carried for so long gained life.  Go time had arrived.

 Steve has visited the park several times.  He knew what to expect.  So that evening over drinks we made a plan that in retrospect was quite ambitious.  We were going to start at the south entrance and head northeast before meandering our way around and back to the south entrance.  I had no idea just what I was in for.

The next morning Steve and I took off from Jackson on a grand tour de force of the park.  It was a complete mind blower.  Crazy as it may sound, you literally cannot look in any direction without a photo op.  This place is a photographers Valhalla.

We had not even entered Yellowstone yet, and all I kept saying was “wow”.

Steve, being a seasoned vet of the park, graciously played tour guide for me and just let me gawk at the shear majesty of the place.  It just overwhelms everything about you.  I had thought of this place for so long and had focused so much on getting ready for this trip that it just left me numb.

In the center of the park there is a road that basically is a loop.  That was to be the focus of our day as we worked around toward our final destination which was Flagg Ranch (more about them later), and our rendezvous with the other folks that would be on tour with us for the week.

But of course, Steve and I being anglers, there came a point in which we could wait no longer and fishing became the focus.  Saying fishing became the focus in Yellowstone is almost a misnomer.  There are so many places to ply the angle as they say that you literally are overwhelmed in trying to find a spot.  We settled on the Gibbon which is a smaller river that joins the Firehole to become the Madison.

It was a warm afternoon, the water was perfect for wet wading, and the little browns that call this particular body of water home were willing to at least give Steve and me a taste of just how good it could be.  We ended the afternoon with three small browns each.  Nothing worthy of the grip and grin that is almost a mandatory validation of success (to which I strongly disagree), but we felt the drug that is the tug, and that was quite enough to settle the spirit.

We finally made our way back to Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch and met those who were to be our companions for the rest of the week. (More on that next time.)

Umpqua Magnum Midge Fly Box

Product Review: Umpqua Magnum Midge Fly Box

The Umpqua Magnum Midge Fly Box is one of my new favorite fly boxes to own. Its slim design is nice so you can stuff more boxes in your pack. This box has so many slits in the foam it’s hard to fill the box up with all your small dries. This box has 2 large magnet spots to through your old flies or really small flies that you can’t pick up out of the foam.

The pros to this box is simple. Thin, see through sides,  Zerust strips, water proof, magnets, and its fly capacity.

The cons to this box is I don’t own more of them. I haven’t found any cons to this box yet, other than if I get another one I would like to buy it in other colors to tell the two apart from just looking in my pack.

I would give this box a 5 out of 5 because for a small dry fly box, or very small nymphs, and emergers. This is the box to own.

Once you own this box look into the other great Umpqua boxes they have to offer for every combination you can think of.

Hypertension Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jump Starting Someone at Flyfishing

(Notice I didn’t say flycasting…)

My girlfriend loves the look of a trout stream and flyfishing intrigues her.  Although a talented half-marathoner, she freely admits her athletic ability does not extend to false casts and shooting line.   She is busy with 4 teenage kids and has no desire to spend a lot of time lawn casting.
Enter the roll cast – a quick and easy way to get someone started in fly fishing.  Think about it…  If someone can roll cast 10 feet of line with a 9 foot rod and a 9 foot leader,  their fishing range is 28 feet.  I know I’ve caught a lot of fish within 28 feet.

Get your budding Lefty Kreh into a shallow run with a moderate current.  Their rod should be rigged up with an indicator, split shot, and your favourite nymph.  The split shot is important because it helps turn over the leader.

Have your student strip off about 6 to 10 feet of line and show them how to roll cast it upstream.  (Make sure they forcefully push the rod tip in a horizontal line towards the target; many people rotate the rod around the elbow, moving it in a circular path.)  As soon as the fly lands, they should get their hands in the proper stripping position.  At this point, don’t worry about actively stripping line or mending.  Just get their hands positioned correctly and have them follow the fly with the rod tip.

Once that is mastered, introduce stripping to control slack.   With younger kids, it might be time to start some serious trout hunting.  Generally, I would recommend a brief lesson on how to avoid drag by mending.  Finally, teach feeding line as the fly goes downstream.  This last step lengthens the drift and helps set up for the next roll cast.  At all times, keep the length of line manageable, perhaps adding a few feet if the pupil can handle it.

Spend about 10 or 15 minutes on each step – first demonstrating and then having the student practice a few repetitions.  After 30 to 45 minutes of instruction, it is definitely time to go fishing.  Location is key.  Someone shouldn’t wade onto a bonefish flat armed with only a roll cast.  Or stalk sippers on a spring creek.  A roll-casting specialist needs the proper water!

Small, bouncy streams hold many fish within the reach of a roll cast.  But don’t overlook larger rivers.  Places like the Elk River in B.C. and the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley have a lot of fish close to their bank.

My girlfriend’s first fish on a fly rod actually came from the St. Mary’s River in B.C.  This is a large freestoner  but the cutthroats love to hang out in the boulders in thigh deep water – 10 feet from the bank at most.

After some experience with an indicator rig, the new flyfisher can start roll casting dries and streamers, too.  High-stick nymphing is another technique they can pick up quite easily.  Before you know it, your new partner might not be outcasting you, but they will certainly be outfishing you!  The cutthroat in the picture was the biggest we saw from Racehorse Creek, Alberta.  I didn’t catch it…

Deep Wading

High-Water Fishing Tips for the Wading Angler

Spring run-off in the west and heavy rain storms in the east cause rivers to rise quickly and often without warning, raising the cubic-feet-per-second by many times, on occasion resulting in water levels reaching that particular river’s flood stage, which is when a river is commonly considered “blown-out.” While many anglers consider fishing high water to be hopeless, in actuality this situation can grant you the opportunity to catch fish you might never have a crack at otherwise. Before reading the following tips, however, remember that fishing high water presents safety risks. Therefore, it’s a good idea to fish with a friend and to not only know your limits as a wader, but to understand how the high water will affect the river’s “wadeability.” For example, if you usually wade a certain spot up to your thighs in normal cfs (cubic feet per second) flows, don’t attempt to wade it in high flows, as the current there will likely be too forceful to safely stand in and cast from. The three tips below will help you turn the tables to your advantage during high water flows.

  1. Up the diameter of your leader and tippet. When the water is high and off-colored, there is no need to fish 5x or 6x fluorocarbon in most rivers. A general rule of thumb is to downsize by at least 2x. So if you usually fish 6x, try up-sizing to 4x, or even 2x fluorocarbon if the river is dingy (some anglers I know use 12 pound test and higher, which you can often get away with). When the water isn’t clear, the trout can’t see your line well, so you should take advantage and use a heavier pound test, which will help you fight a fish out of a blown out river’s stronger than normal currents.
  2. Target the banks and secondary currents. When the water is up, the main current is often too strong for the trout to lie in. As a result, they tend to push toward the banks, where the flow isn’t as strong and the water isn’t as deep. Here, they can comfortably face upstream or circulate through the current and pick off food items. Trout often seek refuge in eddies as well, which is another spot to try. In large rivers, try targeting back channels or river braids when the water is up. You’ll be amazed at how many fish will stack in what looks to be just a small riffle along the flooded bank. If the eddy is suitable, you may even see trout facing downstream in the current, waiting for the eddy current to wash food up to them from below. If this is the case, you want to get a high-stick drift in the current, so your flies will be sucked down by the eddy and circulated back upstream.
  3. Give them the Good Stuff. When the water rises, the proverbial trout buffet opens for business. All kinds of goodies are washed into the water for the trout to eat, not to mention the various hatches that a rise in water will sometimes set off. High water is a classic time to fish a big, nasty-looking streamer (such as a double bunny or sculpzilla), but it is also time to fish heavily weighted nymphs (such as stoneflies and prince nymphs), as well as San Juan worms in a wide array of colors—just think of all the worms and grubs the high water dislodges from the banks and river bottom. For nymphing, be sure to put on a lot of split shot (so much that your cast may look kind of clumsy even) and move your indicator high up on your leader to adjust for the high water. Then try to find an eddy or a smaller offshoot of the main current and fish away. When you see that indicator twitch, give a firm hook-set to the downstream side, then hold tight…big trout are notorious for eating when the water is high and off-color.

 

Brown Trout

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.)

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.”