Saturday, August 29, 2009

Top Ten Trout Town? Asheville?

This could be a good thing or a horribly disastrous thing. My neighborhood has been tagged by Forbes Magazine as being close to one of the Top Trout Towns of North America, and I am tempted to write to the editors to complain.
I live in Transylvania County near the Blue Ridge Parkway. My backyard is the Pisgah National Forest. Walk 3 miles from my front porch, and you will find a nifty 50-foot waterfall. I can walk to four different creeks and catch wild trout. Across the road, fat rainbows splash and play. About a mile down the road, big browns lurk on the bottoms.
It’s never crowded.
Until now.
We are within a 45-minute drive from the city of Asheville, which now has been dubbed No. 10 in the TTT list.
That’s sorta like wearing a bullseye on your back. They’ll all be gunning for our trout.
Like we don’t have enough tourists driving their SUVs at 5 mph through our neighborhoods already.
Usually, magazines that come up with such lists ignore western North Carolina. All the great rivers are out west or up north in Sarah Palin land … you know, within sight of Russia. Nobody ever picks Asheville, which by the way is a city and not a town. A town is something like Rosman, with one grocery store and a community swimming pool.
But I guess Asheville is a good headquarters stop for visiting fly fishers. The article touts trout, but the French Broad River flows through the city and that big ole river is also full of smallmouth bass and muskie, so there is more to fish for than just salmonids. You can wade the river in some low spots and cast from a boat in others.
Within an hour or so drive, you can hit prime trout water in just about any direction. Go east, find Wilson Creek. Go west, find the Davidson. Go north into Tennessee, find the South Holston River, a tailrace that has wild brown trout as big as German shepherds, though they are not as easily caught.
I’m surrounded by waters full of all types of fish, but mostly I concentrate on the trout. In 20 years, I have barely scratched the surface and its doubtful I will ever fish them all.
So far, for the record I’ve slayed ‘em at the South and North Forks of the French Broad River, the Davidson, Avery Creek, Courthouse Creek, Hickey Fork, Beegum Creek, the Pigeon River, Kiesee, Big Creek, Whitewater, Laurel Creek, Reems Creek, Doe Creek, the Watauga and the South Holston.
And there are a host of others I never got a name for. I couldn’t fish all these creeks and rivers in WNC in two lifetimes.
So, upon serious reflection, I will venture the guess that I will always be able to find a creek or river to cast a fly that is not crowded.
Being tagged as a Top Tenner may not be so bad after all.
Bring ‘em on.
We got room.
Just try not to drive so slooooooooooowly. There’s trout waiting.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fly fishing into the dark

Clouds piled up like foam from waves crashing on a beach. You can always expect some sort of precipitation this time of year, either spotty thunderstorms that feel like somebody emptied a big bucket of water down your neck before clearing or one of those relentless showers spinning off the newest hurricane whirling off the coast like a county fair ride.
It was a clear, hot day with little breeze to speak of, so the lawn mower got one of its shortest workouts ever. The grass was a little wet, anyway. Let it go, I thought. Trout were waiting.
With the temperature high and the water low, the fly fishing was tough, though it became easier to spot trout from high banks since those fish were not moving from the bottom, where they hugged rocks and spitefully ignored all my flies.
Being a weekday, Avery Creek’s campground was almost empty, leaving the trout water for me alone. Overhead, a few crows weaved and danced in the air, their caws sounding like glass breaking combined with a heavy metal band’s painful guitar licks. Crows, being about the only birds in the forest to make a truly unpleasant music, could not have cared less.
The songbirds are always a treat, for they sing pretty. The turkey buzzards know their place, sailing gracefully high overhead in silence, and never take center stage to perform. The hawks sound as if they are laughing from their hunting perches in the hemlock. More than once, I thought their derision was directed at me as I waved the fly rod back and forth.
My guess is that the raucous blackbirds scared all the trout. I left Avery Creek without seeing a fish.
Hoppers, ants, pheasant tail nymphs and caddis fly dries did not interest the trout. I got one rise in the Davidson next to the big parking lot, then left to try the North Fork of the French Broad, where I never get skunked. The church road bridge produced nothing, as did the water at the fire station bridge.
This was unusual. I entertained the idea of quitting.
Since it was a Monday, there should not have been a lot of campers and waterfall peepers on Courthouse Creek. But they were. The first campsite, one of my favorite hotspots, was occupied. Upstream, families visiting the falls made almost as much racket as crows.
The shadows stretched longer. It got cooler.
I passed up the chanterelle mushrooms dotting the bank with their little blaze orange hunter’s caps. They are just too labor-intensive, for one must pick a bunch of these little fellows to make frying them up worthwhile. Perhaps next time. After all, they are one of only a few wild ’shrooms I feel safe taking home. If I stopped to pick enough to eat, valuable fishing time (VFT) would be irretrievably lost.
It was beginning to get dark. Clouds turned pink with a disappearing sun dipping behind the hills.
A good-sized trout wiggled in a tiny pool near the path to the falls, and I managed to spook him with my first sloppy cast. Another, smaller version, hooked himself as I was moving upstream and, after flipping him back into the water, I saw another rise under the bridge.
This time the cast was perfect, the fly landed in the center of the rise ring and the fish smashed it with a violent splash.
That, I thought, was what it is all about.
Now encouraged, I drove back to the cabin to try the front yard pools, where I had just enough light to see where I was stepping but not enough to see the fly at the end of my line. I missed fish after fish, getting a tug here and a handshake there, but the trout had become active and the bugs filled the air.
They took their time, but the trout had stopped hugging rocks.
And I had managed to dodge those little storms all day.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fly fishing feeling low with water low and slow

Nothing seems to be in any hurry in August.
Even the grass grows slower, so the enemy of fly fishing sat idle for most of last weekend, surrounded by tall weeds and grass that remained to be cut. The mower had been rendered silent, for lack of gas.
But there is a skinny freshly-cut path from the road to the cabin, so I feel like I had accomplished something worthwhile and deserved some sort of reward. The trout beckoned.
The water was low and oddly quiet. A bright blue sky swept with little feathers of cloud reflected in the river’s surface, and here and there I saw little trout leave a dimples where they sucked in a bug.
These are often difficult times to fish. With glassy smooth water that’s way too low, the trout can spot you way before you spot them. And the wild ones spook easily. A sloppy cast will scatter every fish in the pool. A hawk passing overhead will send them under rocks. A slip on a rock will send them into the next county. A fly caught in the current can leave a trail like a motorboat pulling water skiers, which also puts trout off.
Strangely, I love fishing this type of water in this kind of weather.
Although you have to dodge rude thunderstorms in the late afternoons, the sky usually opens up again after a 20-minute pounding.
Trees sway in the wind like they were underwater. River rocks steam and hiss after the rain, leaving a smell like fresh cooked greens in the air. It’s a good time of year to fish those ant and grasshopper flies. Hoppers can be the most fun. They actually work best with sloppy, splashy casts. Larger than most of the little dry flies I carry in the flybox, hoppers can bring out the largest trout from undercut banks and rocks.
Fishing ants, especially in itty-bitty sizes with long, web thin leaders, can be productive when nothing else is happening, and you can fish them in the smooth, quiet water with those long, slow drifts. I often find myself daydreaming about something other than fish before being startled out of my dream world by the violent splash of a big trout hitting the fly.
Just before dusk, I like to flip the fly across the water and let it drift lazily downstream for 30 or 40 feet until it sails within reach of a feeding trout. After what seems to be several minutes, a trout will rise, hit the fly and either hook himself while I try to pull in all that slack line or swim away. I catch some; I lose some.
With the moon peeking through silver clouds, it just doesn’t get much better. And, just before it gets too dark to see where to climb up the bank to the road, I climb up the bank and walk back to the cabin … slowly.
The mower didn’t move.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chicken of the Woods a fine find for a fly fisher

Like the sage of the mountains says, some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you.
It’s often like that with fly fishing for wild trout in that same bear’s back yard. While I avoided being eaten by the bear last Monday, I also managed to avoid catching any trout for the bulk of the day.
The attack plan included a return assault on Avery Creek where I nailed so many little rainbows the week before, and then hit Tanasee Creek, which I have never really explored. In between, I could try to catch some Davidson River pigs before heading for the North Fork of the French Broad, my homewaters.
But the Avery Creek fish snubbed my flies. I beat the water into a froth, to little avail. With a high sun and low water, I couldn’t get those skittish fish out of hiding. They wouldn’t hit any of the flies I tossed – ants, grasshoppers, mayflies, yellow caddis. Nothing was working.
I caught one fish the size of my little finger, tossed him back into the current and left for the next stop.
The sunny sky began to change, as gray clouds spilled over the blue like paint out of a bucket. A few sprinkles of rain dotted the water. The clouds, darkening and angry, rumbled.
It wasn’t looking too good for the rest of the afternoon, but then life throws surprises our way from time to time.
I caught a glimpse of bright orange out or the corner of my eye, and I splashed over to the bank to discover some of the prettiest wild mushrooms I have ever seen growing on a fallen log.
The orange spread across the log like a bird fanning its feathers, hence the name for this type of ’shroom, "Chicken of the Woods" a name it earned as much for its flavor as for its fancy way of showing off while sitting on logs.
I do not know that much about mushrooms in the wild, but I do recognize this type of sulphur fungi.
Years ago, when I lugged shotguns through the woods of Virginia, I never got to bag a wild turkey, and I guess that was another of those little nudges life gives us. Every shotgun I ever owned was stolen, so I figured hunting just wasn’t in the cards. So, I fish. And I hunt for wild mushrooms.
I learned from Mrs. Koontz, who studied this stuff, to leave the little brown mushrooms alone, for they are rarely good and often very bad, and stick to just a few popular types like puffballs and oyster mushrooms and Chicken of the Woods.
I gathered a couple pounds, put them in a plastic bag and took off to look for some water where the trout were more cooperative.
Following a few fruitless hours hunting for big brown trout, I headed for my old standby, the Fire Station Hole, and nailed a nice rainbow. I felt better. And, the next morning I had a little "chicken" mixed in with my eggs in an awesome omelet, which turned out to be almost as good as catching trout.