Saturday, December 11, 2010

Getting cold for fly fishing

My backyard mountains have thrown off the gaudy attire of fall for the colors of faded flannel. Within a week they resembled rounded hunters in camo. Now winter's breath ices our necks and the hills look like eerie formations of emaciated Confederate soldiers, standing tall and straight still but rough around the edges. A little haggardness, I guess, sends the silent message that winter is a lilttle more than a week away.
Still, we catch trout. Not all the time, but mostly.
With just the smallest window of warm opportunity between the hours of 11 and 3, dry flies have been working well. Mostly, parachute Adams and tiny caddisflies.
Only one weekend was blown out by the icy wind. I joked at the flyshop that perhaps it was cold enough to rig up inside the Troutmobile while the heater blasted. You know, rig up, jump out, make a cast or two. Jump back in. Warm those fingertips. Jump out again.
Another day and it was wind. Then wind and rain, heavy doses of both. The North Fork of the French Broad got rowdy and danced out of her banks. One motorist was swept into a field and had to be rescued.
I keep looking for little splashes of sun. If it warms the water some, it may warm up the trout appetites for dry flies.
They were popping pretty good last week. There is a little stretch about 400 feet in front of the cabin that few fish. It's just a surpreme bother to struggle through the rose thorns, so few bother.
The little girl across the street, along with her 4-year-old daughter, tried to clean my home waters out a month ago. They bagged a bunch. Kept 'em too.
Then, little momma tells me about the 31-inch brown some good ole boy caught at the waterfall last year.
That, friends, broke my heart. It was like General Lee once again had his sword stolen by some Yankee general.
More and more the trees lining the little creek took on the somber look of Army of Northern Virginia ghosts, standing blind sentry by precious water.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

dry flies and brook trout

Tough place to cast a fly. Worth it, though.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fly fishing amid fall's brilliance

Fall in the mountain of western North Carolina is a little like driving around the inside of a brightly-lit Christmas tree, with a rainbow shower pouring through the branches drenching everything. It's one of my favorite seasons.

The perfectly blue sky was marred by only a few feathers of cloud. The sun was bright. The air was sweet and warm.

Leaves were beginning to shower to forest floor and clog the trout streams, but I caught surprisingly few of them this past weekend. I also caught surprisingly few trout, though the ones I did manage to hook and land were memorable, mainly because they were the first fish I had hooked in more than a month.

For the record, I was skunked on the East Fork of the French Broad River two weekends ago, humiliated by gently rising trout sipping God-only-knows what type of flies. They certainly were not interested in anything I had to offer, which included hoppers, midges and parachute cahills and a few streamers too.

It can be demoralizing. You're standing on the edge of a mirrow-smooth pool reflecting the flame-red and gold of maples and beech, and the water looks as if it were raining. Trout are feeding everywhere. The rise rings pop up and disappear.

So, you tie on a fly. You pick out a spot and you let loose with a perfect cast that lands feather soft on the water's surface, allowing the fly to float for a few seconds before ...

Nothing happens. The trout continue to feed on everything in the water except your fly. They splash and swirl and swallow every bug in sight ... except the one fly that's not real.

This happened on the East Fork of the FB, on the Davidson River near Looking Glass Creek and once more with feeling on the Pigeon River.

It's one thing to get skunked when there is nothing happening and quite another experience when the fish are feeding all around and the water looks like it's been peppered by birdshot.

I tied a little sparkly midge, about a size 20, and cast to a little channel next to some rock. It was late Monday and I had not caught anything but leaves. I watched the little fly bounce jauntily along before disappearing with a violent splash.

The spell was broken. The remorseless drought came to a splashy end and I had the fist trout of the day, indeed of the month, struggling at the end of my line.

That felt good.

I got another brown while floating the fly downstream, mending the fly line every few seconds so it wouldn't drag it like a wiggling snake and scare the fish. I missed two or three this way, mostly because I had so much line loose in my hands trying to get a long, quiet drift to where the fish were feeding.

Overhead, a blue heron soared.

I drove home through a tunnel rich in fall color, with gold and crimson light pouring softly through the trees like honey. Everything glittered.

Fall's one of my favorite seasons.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fly fishing is all about timing

I had slept on the ground with the stars winking above, crashed inside the car during a rainstorm and found a cabin with air conditioning during my experiments with camping out near trout water.

Best of all, I spent a couple of nights on the banks of the South Holston River with a camper to sleep in and a stack of firewood to burn. I was so close to the water I could hear trout rising to eat little yellow bugs.

On the hottest day of summer, I selected the cabin as the best option. It remains so.

The riverbank site conjures the best memories. There, I would arise with the sun, check out the water, go eat breakfast at one of the two country stores, return to the site and fish until noon, eat lunch, then fish the early afternoon sulphur hatch until the water began to rise with roiling water released from the dam.

One day TVA did not generate, so the water stayed safely wadable.

The river itself is wide and open. I fished under mostly cerulean skies, rimmed with puffy clouds that reminded me of piles of popcorn.

I caught a ton of fish.

My most recent trip to the So Ho reminded me that in fishing, as often it is also in life, timing can be everything. You grill the local fly shop operators, tie the correct flies, arm yourself with a stout flyrod and use 25 years' of trout fishing experience to get out there and rip some lips.

None of that matters if the timing is off.

There had been a heavy rain the night before I arrived. The lower end of the river, the part I usually hit first before fishing near the dam, resembled cafe au lait from you favorite coffee house. I zoomed upstream, only to find every flyfisher from three states standing knee-deep in the river slinging flies into a vicious wind.

There was even a squadron of blue heron between the anglers.

I had to hike a bit to find an unoccupied stretch. The hatch was on, trout were rising here and there and everything was perfect ... except for that damn wind.

My timing was off. I should have arrived hours earlier. There probably was plenty of gusty wind then too, but I could have had my choice of places to fish. Although I didn't know it at the time I waded out from the bank, I picked the worst spot of all. It was scary wading, with some really deep dropoff punctuated with little ankle-breakers in the rock formation that made up the river bottom.

So, I could not wade far. And the different currents dragged my fly across the water like a berserk bass boat, scaring every fish in Tennessee with its wake. When I thought I had a good cast, that pesky wind would rev up and take my fly for a wild ride to someplace else.

I got a couple hookups, a few handshakes so to speak, but no fish. I skitted the fly over the surface and got some good rises, but missed them each time.

Two hours went by. No fish. The afternoon wore on. The wind wore me out.

I was on the verge of packing it in but thought, just one more cast, and I punched the fly upstream 25 feet into the gust. The water was a little choppy with the wind, so my sloppy cast didn't scare anything.

And a trout smacked that fly.

Another few minutes and I would have been out of there and that brown trout would not have a sore lip.

Talk about timing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fly fishing in Tennessee

Found a cheap cabin to rent on the hottest Sunday of the year. Didn't catch many fish and missed the evening sulpher hatch because the TVA was generating and the water was scary high.
Thought I had the biggest trout of the year Sunday afternoon before the water came. Took about 5 minutes to horse him in. Quite a battle. For a little 12 inch rainbow. I had foul-hooked him in the tail, so he felt like a monster brown at the end of the line.
Nice trip, anyway.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Another fly fishing camping trip

The black sky outside the camper window slowly faded like a pair of old jeans to a shade of gray. The rising sun added a bit of blush. An eerie mist shrouded the beasts mulling about in the field.

It was my third weekend camping, and the newest spot was nestled under a clump of shade trees beside the South Holston River in Tennessee.Unlike the other campsites I had tried, this one was wide open as the Serengetti in Tanzania, though the beasts that surrounded this site were mere beef cattle, not wild rhinos. And I was thankful for that, despite the plethora of flies that lent their incessant buzzing to the natural melodies of summer.

It was the flies that drove me inside the camper early in the night. I usually sleep with just the star-sprnkled sky for a roof. It it rains, I can fit the sleeping bag into the back of the Troutmobile, like I was forced to do the previous weekend.

In two and a half days I got in a lot of fly fishing, managing to catch tons of brown and rainbow trout. They were hitting little sulphur flies, little yellow things the fish seemed to like floating on top of the surface or below. I fished a CDC dry up and across, then let it swing downstream until it dipped under the surface. From there, I stripped the fly back slowly until I felt that familiar jerk at the other end.

Sunday evening was awesome. After a long lazy lunch, I rigged up the new rod. From my seat at the campsite, I could see rise rings spread over he mirrow-smooth water while the feeding trout taunted me. I could not turn away from such a challenge.

During the recent hot dry spell, trout have been stressing out. Warm water can be lethal to the fish, and many fishermen avoid low-altitude, and hence warmer, creeks and rivers. Instead, they search out trout in the higher elevations. Or they find a tailrace river, where the coldest of the cold water in a lake is released from the bottom of a dam to generate electricity and make a lot of trout downstream happy in July.

It is never dry on the South Holston. The water gets a bit rough when they open all the gates, but it's always a healthy cold temperature for trout.

I was catching a few and missing a few when a fellow in a big 'ol cowboy hat hollered from the bank. Names were exchanged; dinner invitations were offered.

The fellow, who has the same name as one of my first cousins, said they would cook the steaks around 6 and return to the water at 7 for the evening hatch.

Sounded like a plan. My luck was looking up.

And after dinner we slayed 'em, mostly with little yellow spinner flies, and fished until the biggest moon of the year peeked over the treeline upstream. Sparkling trout held in the glow of a midsummer moon left one of those indelible images forever etched in my brain. Who needs a camera?

The next day, there was a late-morning frenzy of hooking, catching and losing trout, almost all bulldog-strong browns. The fish returned for an encore later in the afternoon, just before the dam gates opened and the rowdy river chased us to shore.

I slept like the proverbial log that night to the tune of Carolina Chorus frogs and the river's steady beat.

The flies stayed outside.

And as I left, I recalled the campsite owner mentioning an empty home he would let me use, which would certainly protect me from bug attacks.

But I would miss the water buffalo wading throught the early morning mist, awash in a golden sun.

What's a few bugs?

Trout like bugs.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fly fishing Fourth

She put the plate on the table and said, "I didn’t make this. She did." Then, the waitress disappeared into the kitchen where presumedly She was preparing BP lunch specials like the one in front of me.
My plate sorta resembled a Louisiana beach, with a thick layer of goo covering most of it and flanked by some boiled bacon flavored with green beans. There was a pretty good biscuit off to the side.
This fishing trip is not getting off to a good start, I thought. I had arrived late at the South Holston River. First, the water was too high to fish downstream. I slipped on the bank, twisting my knee. I forgot to line up a place to sleep and I was driving around lost while trying to remember where the best spots were and how to get to them.
Then, it was dark as a scary movie.
I had violated my No. 1 rule: Never leave fish to find fish. The prior weekend I had spent a couple of splendid afternoons at home catching rainbows and brown with little black ant flies. Though I could not see the fly, the trout could. I’d watch for the splash or the twitch in the line, then set the hook. I lost count of how many.
Fourth of July weekend was supposed to be special.
While my first day was a bust, Monday dawned full of hope. By mid-morning, I was catching trout on a dry fly and again I lost count. This was more like it. I fished mostly sulphur dries but also used a soft-hackle wet and some nymphs.
The spin fishermen downstream were reeling in lots of trout and taking heavy stringers to the house before returning for more. At the South Holston Fly Shop, I learned later that these good ole boys are infamous for flouting the state fishing regulations. They probably have a refrigerator full of freezer-burnt fish that a skinny cat wouldn’t eat.
Things began to get better, though. I found a campsite, bought a new fly rod and sampled some fine cuisine at the Hickory Tree Store where the chili dogs are prepared lovingly by the ladies running the store.
As the sun began to dip, the river sparkled with a red-purple glow. Mayflies glittered in the air. Trout began to rise all around as the water, which had been rushing from the dam all day, began to drop. I started with a yellow dry fly.
The trout kept on rising and I kept on fishing.
I did no catching.
When I looked closely at the water, there was an armada of spent-winged mayflies doing their version of the Dead-Man’s Float. These were the worn-out spinner flies, of which I had none in the fly box. Dang.
That night I slept under the stars; there was no need for a tent. Holiday fireworks and a big dog’s woofs from across the road lulled me to sleep.
The sun woke me early, so I achingly struggled out of the sleeping bag. The sky was a brilliant blue with a few horse tails for clouds. I was in the water in an hour.
I caught a bunch of fish, rested in the early afternoon at the campsite and headed back to the water for the evening hatch, for which I was fully armed with spinner flies.
And, you know what? Those spinners did not show up. Calmly sailing by on the surface were sulphur duns, with their upright wings in the air like sails, so I changed flies a couple of times. I could hear a group of fly fishers nearby, their voices rising with the mist through a heavy fog that settled over the river. One guy was into a big trout. Another guy fell in.
The sun was almost gone when I felt the tug … a hard tug. All my fly line disappeared as the brown trout took off, shaking its head like a big dog with a bone it won’t let go of.
Wow, those South Holston browns are strong. I had already broken off one huge one, so I wisely let this one run.
My reel was ringing, adding to the celebratory Fourth of July racket that never ceased that weekend. Holding the trout gently before releasing him, I marveled at the fiery colors awash with the sunset’s fading fuchsia. The water shimmered.
What a fine way to celebrate the Fourth of July, even if I had to leave fish to find fish.
The next weekend I was back on the home waters catching late-afternoon rainbows with tiny ant flies.
Ain’t it great to be alive and living in America?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Getting antsy with summer fly fishing

Summer trout fishing creeps slowly like a relentless picnic-raiding army of ants. It’s a respite from the wild dances of April and May.
I love spring fly fishing, of course, for that is when the mayflies and stoneflies fill the afternoon and evening air to entice wary trout out of their winter sluggishness to get in line for the big bug buffet.
Boy, I had some awesome days in May tossing little yellow sallies and light cahills, which often didn’t have time to get used to the cold water before one of those voracious rainbow trout abruptly ended its peaceful ride. In the late afternoon light, the mayflies sparkled and glittered like jewelry.
At the right time, the hookups were almost non-stop. I’d have to drag myself from the water.
Waiting until it was almost dark as tar can bring out some big surprises. Huge fish come out of nowhere to hit the fly with startling violence and after he breaks my line, I stand with shaking knees wondering where that one came from and where was it a couple of months ago?
I mark such places, vowing to return to finish what was only begun.
With summer I can pause to catch my breath. The water is much lower, the mayfly hatches are less frequent, and the air is thick as warm syrup. The fishing, in a word, is tougher.
But you recall those picnic raiders, the ants? Trout love these little guys. Beetles and grasshoppers also drive trout insane with the munchies on the hot summer days, and these flies will work when nothing else in the fly box will. Sometimes I cut the hackle from the bottom of these flies so they float a little lower in the water, even though that makes it almost impossible to see. Ant flies work on top, in the surface film and tossing around under the water.
My favorite home water was frustrating me last week. Nothing worked. I wasn’t certain there were even any fish left there. The water was ankle deep and threatening to go lower if rain didn’t come soon.
I kept changing flies.
I put on a beetle fly and fished it in the shallow water downstream. Like the ant flies, I could hardly see the thing on the water. I just kept a careful watch for splashes, and thern set the hook.
I switched flies when the beetle began to look well-chewed and digested. A big black ant made a fine substitute, though I still couldn’t see the thing on the water.
I fished a good portion downstream, finding a puddle pool here and there, holding the rod high while hoping I didn’t spook the trout.
The water was so low I was spotting trout by the waves they knuckled the surface with when they moved . There were a few rises, but nothing deliberate or regular.
But that little ant kept busy. I missed a bunch, hooked quite a few before losing them and landed a few nice rainbows before I just got tired a catching fish and quit.
One rainbow shot out of the water like a little silver and red rocket about three feet into the air; what a show-off, I thought.
It had been a fine day for fly fishing. Why press it? This is summer fishing, slow and easy.
Well, perhaps not easy but certainly relentless ... like ants.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fly fishing when even the sun seeks some shade

Summer slammed me in the face the past two weekends, necessitating some shifts in my fly fishing routine.
It’s no longer wise to bask in soft sunshine during the middle of the day while waving a flimsy graphite stick back and forth. The sunshine is no longer soft as a May breeze but has turned hard and mean. Gone are those pleasant days of April and May when it was always a perfect 75 degrees.
Now, I fish late in the evenings. Sometimes, it is almost dark before I drag myself off the porch with rod in hand.
The fishing in May had been almost too easy. Mayflies and caddis flies hatched in the mornings, the afternoons and evenings. About the time the sun began to dip, the air would explode with sparkling yellow and white insects hatching over a river bubbling with rising trout.
Pleasant was the word for May fly fishing. Wild violets dotted the banks, and honeysuckle sweetened the air. Even the persistent rain showers that kept me dodging clouds while moving from spot to spot were mostly refreshing. Thunderstorms were rare.
In May one could almost set his watch by the evening hatches that sent the fish into feeding frenzies at 8 o’clock. Boy, was that fun.
With a recent heat wave that has the sun itself looking for some shade, my normally frenetic fishing pace has slowed. Last Sunday I spent several hours just sitting under the hemlocks — eating lunch, washing lunch down with cold beverages, rigging the fly rod, tying on tiny flies, lacing up the wading boots, reading the NY Times, napping — and almost anything else that did not require any strenuous effort with a chance of sweat.
Now, with cumulus clouds piled all around the mountaintops like fluffy pillows, I am lulled into a false sense of goodness. Last Sunday looked like a perfect day.
Then those friendly looking white puffs darkened. The hills began to rumble. Thunder boomed like drums signaling all sorts of approaching unpleasantness. The ground shook. Time to get out of the way.
At least the intermittent sprinkles cooled the air.
When the rain stopped and the sun peeped through a crack in the clouds, a spooky mist rose over the water. Shards of light stabbed though the vapors like golden swords. An eerie silence fell like a curtain.
And with the cooler water, trout became hungrier.
This is the time of year when I mostly fish hoppers, beetles and ants during the daylight hours. Grasshopper flies are fun and are fished in an indelicate manner by splashing them on the surface to get the trout’s attention. The fly goes ka-plop, the fish looks up and sees a sub sandwich and attacks it with the vigor of a teenager.
You can’t do that with little mayfly dry flies. You just scare the fish. But hoppers are different. And trout love them.
Ants and beetles, when fished carefully with no drag in the line, will catch trout through the summer and into the fall.
I fish the ants pretty small, sized 20 or 22. You can barely see these little flies, so mostly I just watch for movement in the line and then set the hook when it jerks a little. It works.
And if it gets too hot, I can wait for the evening hatch while sitting in the shade, waiting for the sun to find its own shade behind the mountain.
Really, dusk is the time of day in June when the action begins.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial day a good time to hit the river

The merry month of May this year has fully compensated for hateful February and March, for the fly fishing has been awesome. May is now my favorite of the calendar dozen.
May even had five weekends for fly fishing. Now, that’s compensation.
Last Monday was typical, with little mayflies hatching sporadically during the day and trout lazily rising to sip them in here and there. I had some luck. For the weekend’s fishing five creeks in my neighborhood, I caught wild and hatchery rainbows, some energetic and colorful browns and a couple of little brook trout. All hit dry flies of a pale persuasion.
Brook, brown and rainbow … that’s a hat trick.
In the evening, just before dark as the sun slipped behind the Mount Hardy, my home creek exploded with mayflies sparkling in the waning sunlight like flecks of gold.
They were in a hurry, and while I was studying the water from a bridge, the little sulphur flies bounced off my face and arms. I caught a couple, looked real close at their No. 16 hook sized bodies, and attached the appropriate offering to my tippet.
Then I caught a ton of trout.
At the end of a turbulent ribbon of water splashing cheerfully over ancient rocks, a pool smooth as glass beckoned. I never catch fish there but I always try.
As the moon poured a silvery sheen on the water, I flipped a perfect cast that settled softly as a sigh and disappeared almost immediately. On the next cast, I lost sight of the fly, but when the line moved, I lifted the rod and brought in a brown.
I fish alone, mostly. Sometimes, my mind wanders, especially near Memorial Day.
Flashback 42 years and join us in the Raven bar in Virginia Beach. Our faces are lobster red and the beer ice-blue cold.
Johnny was with one of our school’s cheerleaders and I was with the beach girl I later married. Johnny was just out of Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., and I was getting ready to enter that hellhole of sweat, bugs and cussing. He was having a ball regaling me with boot camp horror stories. I began to think it may not be a bad idea to try and join Air Force.
Johnny and I had been teammates on the Maury High School wrestling team. I was the littlest and usually the most nervous, and Johnny was the biggest and calmest. He wrestled guys in the heavyweight division who were bigger since he weighed in at about 185. It’s amazing today to think at that size he was all-district in football and won a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He had a big heart.
At a high school dance about seven years before, he probably saved my life by helping me lose the pint of gin I had imbibed with way too much alacrity. I don’t recall a heck of a lot more about that dance.
Guess I’ll always remember that night at the Raven in the summer of 1967.
Within a few days, Johnny took off for Officer Candidate School at Quantico, and I got on the bus to South Carolina.
I never saw him again. Johnny died in Vietnam of gunshot wounds in combat.
I got the word first from my Dad: "Your friend Johnny got killed in Vietnam."
It felt like I had been punched. It must have been an awful mistake. I thought the same thing three decades later when I visited the traveling Vietnam Memorial. I could not find his name. Perhaps there was a mistake.
Then a kindly camo-dressed vet showed me. There were little crowds of people around, children playing and laughing, adults weeping as they traced the names of loved ones and comrades on that black marble. I almost lost it right there.
A couple of years ago I had a dream that Johnny showed up on my front porch. It was the middle of the blackest time of night. I heard a knock. I opened the door. And there was Johnny … for a few seconds before the apparition faded into a mist. Mistaken again.
What a waste. While watching a football game or a wrestling match today, I cannot help but speculate what a fine coach Johnny would have made. He’d be a granddaddy by now too, with a bunch of little guys crawling all over him.
So, the merry month of May ends on a melancholy note, as it has for me the past four decades. I can’t forget.
Today I’ll also remember Sarge and Jerry who fought the demons inside for years after Nam. I’ll remember Lewis B. Puller Jr., the son of the most decorated Marine in history who came home crippled and maimed. Demons got to Puller, too, and he finally took his life.
That war killed those boys just as certain as it did Johnny. Just slower.
What a mistake that war was. It would be a bigger mistake to forget, though sometimes, I think we have.
I’ll fish the yellow and red dry fly tonight. I really have no name for it, but I could call it a "Chesty."
You Marines know what I’m saying.
Semper fi.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Hatch - Bug buffet in May

They call it the Mother’s Day Hatch out West also. I read about the hatch in Montana that really lights up those trout on those big rivers during May when the air fills like a golden bug blizzard. It’s one of those magic moments on the water when fooling fish with a fly becomes almost too easy.
We called the yellow stonefly hatch on the Davidson River "The Mother’s Day Hatch" because we discovered the marvel on, you guessed it, Mother’s Day about 20 years ago. It began around 8 and lasted until it was too dark to see the fly. We could almost touch the madly feeding trout that splashed next to us in the rushing water.

And it’s that time again.
The flies are coming off the water on the Davidson, the French Broad and everywhere else there’s cold water and trout. Often, those hatches explode in the waning light when it’s least expected, like after you’ve been on the water all afternoon with nothing to show for it other than wet boots. One must be patient.
I spent a good portion of Sunday afternoon chasing rising trout in the Davidson, missing quick little wild rainbows in Looking Glass Creek and in general just getting a plain old-fashioned skunking everywhere else.

The water tumbled over Looking Glass Falls like a glistening crystal curtain. I paused for a second, thinking perhaps I should give that plunge pool a stab with a heavily-weighted wooly-bugger. But the crowd was too much. I wasn’t exactly looking for company.
The sun was bright and warm. Sudsy clouds fringed a perfect bluebird sky. The wind was a mere whisper tickling the laurel.
Fishing Looking Glass Creek, though, gives me the feeling of vulnerability. The water is so close to the highway I sometimes expect passersby to toss soda cans from car windows at me just for fun. It could happen. I guess I could throw fish at them in retaliation.

I tagged a couple wild rainbows with a cream-colored caddis fly, but both were too quick. Almost 6 o’clock and no fish.
Leaving Looking Glass and the Davidson behind, I hit the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had a few special creeks, places where I can get away with drive-by casting, that hold a few special trout. They are not easy to fool.
Approaching 7 p.m., there still was no hatch. I decided then that I would go to the cabin … after one more stop.

My fire station pool almost always saves the day. There are a lot of stockers in there and a few browns. On Sunday I discovered the really huge brown trout that lurks under overhanging tree limbs and I almost missed it entirely.
Light was fading like old blue jeans. I could barely make out the fly, and then the water exploded like an old tire tossed into the river.
All about my face little bugs danced aerial jigs. They looked as if they were being shot from little Polaris submarines.

And the trout acted like frisky puppies scrambling for food. There’s no line at this bug buffet.
The biggest fish took the fly, ran upstream and then turned back as if it forgot something. I stripped line like mad, then let the fish run while the reel clicked like crickets on meth.
I had caught a dozen so far, and lost one biggie, from my spot below the bridge.
The fish began to tire. I brought it close and held it with my left hand while fumbling for the camera. The brown sagged heavily in my hand, its hooked jaws moving like it was cussing me out.

Or perhaps just laughing that quiet trout laugh.
The fish snapped the line. The hatch was over. I could go home now.
I’m glad they have this much fun out West too.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

You remember the trout you lost

The river stretches before me like a shimmering, silver quilt covering secret gifts piled under a Christmas tree.
I know there are big, even giant, trout waiting for me under all that sparkling, smooth water. They are there hunkered next to a rock or thick laurel root, lazily sipping nymphs and the occasional oblivious mayfly sailing over its nose. You can see them from the bank. You imagine they are laughing at all the foolish-looking people standing waist-deep in the river waving sticks over their heads with a string with a bit of hook and feather attached.
I know they laugh at me.
Strangely, my most memorable fish at the Davidson are the ones never landed. Certainly, we all remember that huge rainbow caught and netted years ago, but for me those fish pale in comparison to the monsters that broke my tippet and my heart the past 20 years splashing around the Davidson River.
Only on the Davidson do I have such a problem.
Noted by Trout Unlimited as one of the nation’s Top 50 trout streams, the Davidson that I fish has three classifications — the Hatchery Supported section at the lower end near the intersection, the Catch and Release section upstream past the ranger station and the Wild section far upstream.
So, you have your fat food fish at the lower end, your trophy trout in the middle and the quick-as-lightning wary wild trout up the mountain toward the headwaters.
Something for everyone, so to speak, awaits the anxious angler on the Davidson. She has all sorts of ways to break a fisherman’s heart.
I hit the water late in the darkened afternoon with a heavy gray sky threatening to spit all kinds of rain and mischief. By the time I had rigged the rod and donned the waders, a soft spring rain began licking my face. My thoughts immediately turned to Blue Winged Olives, those little mayflies that love misty rain on cool days.
A passing fisherman said the rises were ‘sporadic’ but that the trout had been hitting cream-colored caddis flies all day.
I tied on a cream-colored dry fly.
The rain, unlike the bull of a storm of a few weeks ago, had a soothing sweetness and soon passed.
A piece of sky peeked through the clouds, escaping from the darkness like a frightened bluebird.
The threat of rain and spotty showers kept most people away from the river on Monday, and I all but had the water to myself. I cast upstream on the mirror-smooth water. Trout rose downstream, across stream and upstream. They ignored my fly.
There was a little breeze, what the poet called trout-colored winds, whispering through the trees, but if you waited for a pause, you could flip a fly a good ways. I used a long leader, which helped get a more natural drift.
I chased rises for awhile, even though I know that is not the proper way to fish these fish, and I missed the few hits I got. I turned my head to cast upstream again when I felt a tug from behind and almost lost the rod to a struggling brown trout who thought I wasn’t looking. Fooled you, I thought.
I laughed at that trout.
About 15 minutes later another trout hit my fly with a vengeance. A passerby shouted, "I heard THAT," and I knew I was into a pretty hefty fish. I could not tell you which was shaking the most, my rod or my legs.
When the trout rolled with the fly, I caught a glimpse of an enormous belly the size of one of my shaking legs. I had him hooked solid. All I had to do was play him awhile, give him enough time to get tired and then get him up close for the obligatory photo.
I fought that fish forever. It splashed and whirled and ran with the fly.
And then he broke my heart.
The tippet went ping.
And he was gone.
I could almost hear him laughing.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cheating anglers

Professional athletes do it with chemicals. Texas angler Robby Rose did it with a fish.
Did what? They cheated, though only Rose was trying to cheat by stuffing a 1-pound lead weight down the gullet of a fish that he had caught last October in a bass fishing tournament.
Rose, a Texas business owner and bass tournament competitor, was caught stuffing his catch in a tourney at Lake Ray Hubbard in Texas. The Dallas Morning News reported the dastardly deed, mentioning that the prize for biggest fish was a $55,000 bass boat.

This was more than just a fish story shared with buddies at the local tavern. Hey, with enough time and beer all fish grow in size, and it’s generally accepted that a trophy trout or bass will gain a couple of pounds after the weekend’s glow wears off.
But this turned out to be a felony. Rose insists he was not really cheating to win that nifty boat and he sorta apologized for it and admitted he could have handled the whole thing better. The judge handed him a $3,000 fine and 15 days in jail. He also lost his fishing license for the five years he’s on probation.

Rose was not exactly repentant. Even with the extra weight, his fish was not enough for the top prize, but if he had left it alone he had second place locked.
"Second place was mine to do with as I pleased," the newspaper quoted him.
Others disagreed.
"Cheating is cheating," the lead prosecutor said. "And neither the fishing community nor this office will tolerate it."

Rose continued his defiance by asserting he had been bullied by tournament officials in the past and had to pass numerous polygraph tests and the rumors about how he won other contests in the past were based on jealousy.
Back in another century when I did a little part-time guiding, I helped with a trout fishing contest. We had all the safeguards, we thought. Each participant would get a disposable camera to photograph the fish stretched next to a ruler, to show how big it was. Of course, the biggest fish would win a considerable amount of cash, and folks will go to all sorts of trouble to win cash.

A couple of good ‘ol boys tried to pull one over on the fishing guides and the good ‘ol boys got caught. The fish, a monster rainbow, had been a faded dead for several days. You could actually tell from the photo. Tempers flared. Threats were issued. But the good ‘ol boys did not go home with the prize.
I said from the beginning that a fly-fishing tournament offering money for the biggest trout was a dismal idea. It smelled of trouble like a fish dead too long. We never held another.
Smallmouth bass fishers have their summer-long contests where each angler chips in an entry fee. At the end of the summer, the guy who brought in the biggest "live" smallie would walk off with the bucks.

Just about everybody cheated in one way or another, though I know of nobody who stuffed a fish with lead weight. Too obvious.
The smallmouth fishermen were more imaginative.

A big fish was caught and kept in a private pond all summer. At the end of the summer, the pond was drained, the fish scooped up and the top prize was claimed.
Funny, I know.
But it was still cheating.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fishing like a kid

As a boy I began fishing with little more than a hook tied to a string with perhaps a washer or bolt attached as a sinker.
I would impale some poor sea creature, mostly shrimp, on the hook and sling it all as far as my 8-year-old arm could into the Elizabeth River in Virginia. I didn’t even have a rod; I used a short stick, and pulled in my quarry hand over hand, like Hemingway’s Santiago in "Old Man and the Sea."

But, hey, I wasn’t fishing for marlin. I caught croaker and spot. The croakers made funny noises and were a big hit with my friends.
Then I graduated to using a rod and reel. I used big ol’ lead sinkers to get the bait into the deep water. It was years before I discovered bobbers, which dance on the gentle waves until a fish strikes and pulls its red-and-white body violently underwater.
Boy, that was fun.

I fished like that for years. One time in South Carolina, I fished for bass with a fellow who used long rods and bobbers. I thought that was weird at the time. Still do.
About 20-some years ago I discovered fly fishing, bought a rod and a bagful of flies and attacked the nearest river 225 times out of 365 days. I kept a record.
I forgot about bobber fishing.
But within the past couple of years, I began to zero in on nymph fishing under the surface. At first, I just watched the fly line for twitches that indicated a strike. Then I began tying on a dry fly with a nymph or wet fly attached to about 6 to 8 inches of tippet. When a trout nudged the nymph, the dry fly got dunked like a bobber. Fish on.

But a lot of anglers today use yarn tied to their leaders as strike indicators, while others use a fluorescent colored putty on the line. And there are indicators like the Thingamabobber that’s supposed to be easy to put on and remove.
On the MidCurrent fly fishing Web site, they say strike indicators have three primary jobs: they must float well, be easy for anglers to see and small enough not to scare all the trout. Big roiling water requires a much bigger indicator than slow pools.

Last week I tried fishing a blood midge attached by a skinny 7X tippet and a No. 16 dry fly. These little nymphs, about the size of a little girl’s freckles, are usually deadly on the Davidson River, and huge trout will gobble them like corn chips all day. It was way too early for any major mayfly or caddis hatches, so I fished the little nymph.
And you know what? I caught trout … on the dry fly. They ignored the nymph, which I thought was odd.

The next day I bought some bobber indicators. They’re as bright as fire trucks’ flashing lights and may startle some wary trout in quiet pools.
But bobber fishing makes me feel like a kid.
If I catch fish, so much the better.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Always on the lookout for more feathers for flies

Anybody who ties his own trout flies is always on the lookout for new sources of material. All those piles of feathers and fur do not come to the fly tying desk easily or cheaply, even though it’s really just a bunch of dead animal parts. It is a wonderful feeling to discover a newer, less costly supplier.
Virginia Beach, Va., may be the future for feathers.

The story, as related to me the other day, goes like this. Two brothers, age 6 and 8 ½, crashed into their parents’ bedroom to demand, beg and cajole politely without too much volume for a big piece of cardboard.
What on earth for? They were asked at 6 a.m.
For a business sign, of course, the fledging entrepreneurs replied. Get up.
Patrick and Spencer decided they would go into business for themselves by taking advantage of all those wild ducks flapping through the air that visit the many ponds, lakes and waterways when they tire of dodging Navy fighter jets.
The boys were ready to sell ducks.

"Duck Co." reads the sign, which also mentions the open-air store begins each day at 7 a.m. and goes until 7 at night.
Now, most fly tiers use some ducks feathers. Others might use a lot and the messiest of us spray the room with bits of feather while actually using very little for the fly being fashioned.
I’m one of the messy ones, so I’m on the lookout for new duck feathers that haven’t been trampled by my boots.

So, naturally I thought that the Patrick and Spencer Koontz Duck Company could fill that need.
One problem. No inventory. The boys have no ducks in stock.
When informed of this shortcoming, they disappeared for a long time. Apparently, they found the Pepperidge Farm bread, ripped it out of the bag and put the crumbs inside a big bucket, all with the intention of luring unsuspecting ducks from the air. Once inside the bucket, the boys could do what they wanted — maybe pull some feathers for Papaw or sell whole ducks to the neighbors.

I’m not going to rush my first order. Fortunately for our feathered friends, the inventory remains low.
I’ve had miserable, or perhaps just ironic, luck tying flies this year. One week the trout slam the wooly bugger, so I tie a pocketful for the next weekend only to find nothing is interested in the big ugly flies when the time comes. Instead, they gobble the last of my blue winged olives, so for the next weekend I tie a bagful of BWOs. You guessed it, armed with the BWOs that were so effective just seven days ago, I get skunked. The trout were looking up for light hendricksons and blue quills.

And I still have two dozen teeny midge flies that I needed way back when on the Davidson River. Perhaps today will be the right time to fish those little guys low and slow where the big rainbows go.
I almost expect the trout to be rising to little yellow sallies, of which there is a paucity in the fly box.
Do I tie a boxful? Should I place an order with the grandsons for dyed yellow duck feathers?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spring's teasing me on the river

Like a kid pulling a prank on a neighbor, spring has enjoyed the last month by teasing me with lots of nice, flowerly days during the work week and then rain, snow and cold on my days off when the real important stuff, fly fishing, awaits.

There’s a little more green today in the hills, and Panther Mountain looks more like a handful of paintbrushes dipped in gentle pinks, greens and yellows instead of the pile of old sticks it resembled earlier. Robins dance and sing. The air softens. Fly fishermen tie flies in anticipation of glorious days on the river.

Then spring pulls another prank.
A few weeks ago, after a long week of warm sunshine, I ran into fire hydrant rain on a Sunday and then snow on the third day of spring. The snow was tolerable and the trout were vulnerable.

I caught a ton. I had a box with some tiny midge flies that never saw the light of day, but the black wooly bugger did a number on those trout they likely will not forget. That night, I tied up another dozen black wooly buggers for the next weekend.
Well, we had another wonderful work week full of bluebird skies and puffy white clouds. Spring was teasing again, I figured.

The weekend arrived and the gray sky wept all day Sunday — lousy weather and a lousy prank for the new season to pull — but Monday was not half-bad once the chill in the air subsided. And I was loaded with a box full of black wooly buggers, which figured to be the fly of choice with the water still high from the rain. I figured to tear up some trout lips.

I should have known it would be a weird fishing weekend when I noticed the deer grazing with a neighbor’s cows. What’s she doing there? I wondered. I parked the Troutmobile on the other side of the field, next to the rowdy, rain-swollen river that was clobbering the banks.

If rivers dance to their own tune, then the French Broad was stomping like a drunken clogger on the front porch. It was loud, raucous and remarkably clear. The neighbors had not begun plowing. Too wet, I guess. Perhaps that deer was hanging around until the gardens were ready.

A couple of pit bulls got into the chorus, singing along with the river and annoying me, even though I knew they were just doing their jobs as watchdogs. One came over the bridge to sniff and check me out. We both watched the wooly bugger splash and sink and get lost in the deep pool. We did not see any trout.

Then there was a rise just downstream, like the trout were teasing me too. I saw a big gray mayfly. The wooly bugger came off; the dry fly went on. It worked. As the sun winked in and out all day, teasing with its warm rays, I teased trout with a dry fly.

Fish shredded that fly to rags. The rainbow trout were acrobatic and the browns, sporting spawning color, fought like bulldogs gnawing on a bone.
It never got warm. Spring stayed just outside the door, ready to pop out the next day as I drove back to work.

This week I figure we can stop the pranks. I’m expecting a huge mayfly hatch.
Don’t tease me again.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Air was cold but fishing was hot

All week the sky was glistening brightly with bluebird color. The air was soothing after a brutal winter. The fish were moving, looking for spring insect hatches, and I had spent the previous weekend tying tiny midge flies with the idea of assaulting some quiet, deep river pool full of monster brown trout.

Anticipation heightens any sensory experience, so I waited for my chance after a week staring at a computer screen. I needed air. And trout.

I was anxious and ready, with a fly box overflowing with little midge flies.
Sunday dawned gray as an old battleship wrapped in a dismal fog. As the day progressed, the air got cooler and wetter and by the time I arrived at the mountain cabin, it was a downpour as strong as a blast from a fire hose. No time for anglers.

Monday dawned gray but dry. Fly fishermen thrive in such weather, funny as that may sound. About the time I had my second cup of coffee, the snow was falling pretty steadily, though it was in the form of little pellets that looked like packing material, not snow, but that soon changed to a relentless shower of icy flakes that threatened to slick up the mountain roads.

I stayed in the neighborhood, venturing less than a mile from home to fish some rambunctious water I had never tried, primarily because ot its proximity to riverside homes. It’s difficult to be alone when you feel somebody’s eyes looking at you through a kitchen window. I always feel like I’m sort of trespassing, though there are no warning signs.
With the water high and frisky, there was only one fly to tie on — a black wooly bugger. I’d toss it with a little split-shot, watch it go ka-plunk with a loud splash and then let it swing around downstream, at which point I stripped it back slowly.

The trout loved it. The first fish, caught almost in the country store parking lot, hit the fly like he was mad as it drifted toward the bank.
The snow kept falling, chilling my nose. Wrapped in plenty of wool and fleece, the only cold body parts were fingers and a red nose. There was no finding those fleece gloves, especially on the third official day of spring, so my fingers felt like they had been crushed in the car door.
But what’s a little pain when you’re catching more trout than you can count?

There was one spot on the new stretch where a pile of flood cobble lined one side of the bank, which dipped off into a deep pool. The landowner must have pushed all those river rocks to the side. Most were smooth as hen eggs. All were tricky on walk across.

A big rainbow hit the wooly bugger, rolled in the rapids and popped off with the fly in his mouth and almost broke my heart for he was by far the biggest fish I had hooked all year.
With frozen fingertips, I tied on another the same color and size and kept right on gettin’ on until my arm tired.

It had been a fine day. It was so good I quit before darkness sent me home, a mere four hours spent on the water.
That night I tied more flies. But I probably won’t need them today, as I expect gentler, warmer water and perhaps some trout sipping mayflies off the surface.

I still have those midge flies.
I’ve been anticipating such all week.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Daylight Fishing time arrives

Most of you know it as Daylight Saving Time, but we flyfishers look at the March time change as Daylight Fishing Time, for we get an extra hour in which to fish. The first day, though, can be a little tough. We lose sleep. For the first day of DFT we stagger a little, our bodies still clinging to the time frames of the past.

Then we get over it. By the beginning of the second DFT day, we’re ready to assault the streams and rivers way past dinner time, and now that spring has sprung and the air has softened, we can fish right into the blackness of night.
We have late dinners.

Last week it was still a little chilly, a little windy and a little less like spring, which was, after all, another week away. I spent about an hour getting skunked on the Davidson River Sunday under darkened skies.

Monday dawned bright as a camera flash. The sky was bright blue with just a few cotton-like clouds. The water levels were just right. I figured it would be a good day for fishing in one of the Delayed Harvest rivers where, from October to June, the fishing is catch-and-release. You may not catch them all the time, but you know there are trout ready to tease or please.

The East Fork of the French Broad River is just a 30-minute serpentine ride down the mountain and through some lovely farm country where old barns and farms line the road to the river. At the first bridge the catch-and-release section begins. There’s a little pulloff spot, with enough room for one vehicle, and I stopped to rig up the rod and don the waders. The water was still cold with snow melt.

There were way too many anglers. My favorite spot with the long, mirror-like pool had been claimed. I pulled over at a place I had never tried, fished a bunch of different flies for about an hour with no luck. One of the locals stopped to talk, and I learned that his son and his buddy had been catching fish with San Juan worm flies and wooly buggers.

My green inchworm fly attracted only scorn. I began to worry that I may have to face the embarrassment of getting skunked on a Delayed Harvest river full of frisky trout.

Then I tied on the black wooly bugger, a big ole nasty-looking fly that can resemble all kinds of trout food from small minnows to little crayfish.
All I know is those trout loved it. They chewed it ragged.

The first trout to hit looked as big as my leg. That slab of silver and blush red rolled in the fast current, tugged at my fly and then slipped off the hook. It was a strong, hefty rainbow that tested my little 4-weight fly rod to the limit … for a few palpitating seconds.

For the next hour, I couldn’t keep them away from my fly.
One after another they hit that fly, tugged on my fly rod like big dogs holding on a chew toy and did a few Shaun White imitations with aerial displays. I lost count of how many.

I quit early. I had a dinner date with Mrs. Koontz.
And, after dinner, there was still time to fish a little more.
I love DFT.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some days you get the bear

Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you. John Riggins used to throw that quote out while playing football for the Washington Redskins back in the day. As most of us recall, Riggins got the bear more often than the bear got him, even those bears from Chicago.
Last Monday, we got the bear.

There’s usually a lot more snow on the other side of the mountain in Haywood County than there is on the south side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, so if was not without a little trepidation that I took the Troutmobile to the Delayed Harvest section of the Pigeon River. I expected some icy spots along the twisting road and some tough-to-catch trout when I got to the church parking lot, where you don’t have to park in snow and mud.

We found the little river fringed with a lace-work of ice and snow. The roads were smooth and clean. The air was a spring-like 50-something and felt warmer when the gusty breeze quit its blustery ways.
And, lo and behold, the Ttout set out the welcome mat.
In past years my luck on this little stretch above Lake Logan has been spotty, at best. Farther downstream, I once caught a monster rainbow well over 20 inches long and in the 4- to 5-pound range. A handsome fish, to be sure. Upstream near the Blue Ridge Parkway, I managed in midsummer to catch a handful of sparkling brook trout.

But I have been as disappointed and disgusted as a spurned street beggar holding an empty tin cup or ‘dreaming of a cheeseburger’ sign.
My hopes were not exactly high.

But it hardly mattered. Snow and ice were disappearing.
The winter air was softening. Insects were hatching.
After a long two months of catching nothing but freezer air in the face and going home with little more than frozen fingertips, it didn’t matter if there were fish in that water.
But there were.

After arriving and spending way too much valuable fishing time stringing up a new leader, I headed upstream, leaving my angling partner behind to fish the closest spot.
When I looked back a while later, there was another fly fisherman splashing through the water my friend was fishing. Bad manners, I thought. Mrs. Koontz would give that fellow a tongue-lashing for his rudeness. The nerve of some.

I was still fishless but the stranger and my friend both had bent fly rods and each was releasing a wiggling trout.
I waded back to where the fish were.
They were not picky fish. We caught them on a dry Adams, nymphs, caddis flies and just about anything else in our fly boxes. I had them hit on the top, just under the surface and in the deep pockets.

All were brightly colored and put up muscular battles. In past years, hatchery trout were pale and weak.

According to the fishing stranger, the stocking truck had dumped a load there that morning.
Talk about timing.
Sometimes, you get the bear. Sometimes you get him really, really good.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Time for some dry fly fishing

Sometime in the darkest hour of the night a splash of new water on an old rock transforms into a beautiful crystalline ice flower that dances just above the creek’s surface. Hanging and nodding like a buck dancer to fiddle music, the laurel branch sparkles in the moon’s silver light, surrounded by hills smothered in the latest snowfall. The only sound is the creek softly singing.

There is a lot to be said for winter’s hard and cold beauty. The field leading to the old barn lies quiet under a heavy cushion of smooth snow. Silence reigns. Stars sprinkled like spice spread across the sky. A full moon casts ghostly shadows and the night air has that clean, metallic taste only the coldest months seem to have.

But I yearn for spring. This has not been the best of winters for fly fishing in the mountains of western North Carolina, though there were a few marvelous days when the water warmed just a tad. But storms seemed to appear out of nowhere just in time to ruin roads and vehicles and smash any chances of getting on the river.

I really yearn for spring.
Just two weeks away, the new season seems to be sneaking up on us. It’s like that sometimes. One day it will be bitter cold, and then the next day will be balmy, perhaps even in the 60s. Before one knows it, flowers are blooming, grass is greening and trout are rising to tiny mayflies. There have been years when spring exploded in the hills overnight, flooding the mountains with waves of green. Little wild violets pop up along the banks.
So far this year, I have managed to land just two trout. Both of them hit the Tellico nymph with the little rubber legs and both were hefty rainbows caught near the cabin. If one were keeping score, winter was the victor in this fishing game.

I am ready to say goodbye to this winter of angling discontent. Today, there should be a good sampling of spring weather, a time for tossing dry flies and playing with frisky wild trout while the last of the ice drips from the rocks. There may be some March browns hatching, or perhaps some blue winged oilives and red quills. I’ll probably begin today throwing a big Adams into the current, with a little nymph tied on as a trailer.

Those two dozen midge nymphs certainly will be baptized today in the holy waters of the Davidson River. Since I spent the good portion of a snowbound weekend tying those exasperatingly tiny flies, you can bet they will get used.

And those little dry caddis flies will get their usual workout the next day on one of my little creeks up the road, for I know from the most recent scouting trips where some of those wild trout are hanging out.

For the next couple of days, at least, I will have discovered a glimpse of spring.
It’s time for the ice flowers to drip from their branches to make room for the laurel soon to bloom while the air fills with mayflies.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fly box didn't have the right stuff

Snow and ice are not without some flashes of beauty. Just up the road a bit from our cabin, the ice had that frightening beasts-with-teeth appearance, with long, vicious fangs of crystal grinning maliciously at passersby and, if you could let your imagination fly, the fanged beast was being held in check by ancient icemen with flowing beards.

To either side, ice maidens with waist-length locks glistening in the late afternoon sun kept the old timers company, and perhaps held the leash keeping the fanged beasts back.
It’s been cold. And way too windy for an enjoyable day fly fishing for trout.

But then it warmed to an astonishing mid 40-degrees and out came the rod, waders, vest, boots and fly boxes to toss into the back of the rental car. The ice whiskers on the side of the mountain now looked like the remnants of last night’s candle, melting into a puddle near the ground. After a couple of early morning errands, I was knee deep in the Davidson River looking like a fool waving a stick back and forth over my head.
It felt more than wonderful to be outside again. It didn’t even matter if a trout hit the fly. It was enough to breathe air not clouded with auto exhausts and to bask in the rare warmth of a February sun.

Once again, all was well and good with the world.
I kept changing flies. Trout kept ignoring me. The little Adams dry fly should have been a hit with these fish, but they let it pass by with the rest of the river traffic.
These trout were not exactly tearing the surface up eating floating bugs. I counted one rise in two hours.
I changed to a little caddis dry, for there had been a little hatch the previous day where those hyperactive insects bounced in the sunlight like tiny helicopters, up and down, up and down. They were smaller than anything I had in the fly box, and besides, that hatch was on another river on another day.

Streamers didn’t work, wooly buggers attracted no diners and even the smallest nymph was ignored like an ugly girl at the prom.
Sometimes, when all else fails, you can learn something from the other anglers around you. First, I watched from the bridge and then moved downstream when nobody caught anything. There were a lot of puzzled fly fishers changing flies over and over, but the trout were not puzzled at all — they simply ignored all that fur-feather-steel floating by.

What was needed, I figured at last, was an itsy-bitsy midge nymph, about the size of a freckle on a kid’s face. Red or black should do it, with the fly little more than thread over hook and lacquered on top to give it some shine.
With at least several hundred flies in a half dozen fly boxes stretching the seams of the fishing vest, you would think there would be at least one little midge nymph in a size 24 or 22.
There was not anything even remotely like that in that mess of flies.

Well, I kept trying.
And the trout kept ignoring me, so I quit.

As I was pulling off the wet boots and waders, a fisherman walked by in a kinda hurrying sort of way.
Any luck? I asked. Yep, was the answer. Eighteen so far and 11 of those were over 20 inches. Just caught a 20-inch brown.

As he walked away I naturally asked what the trout were hitting.
And he replied, red midge.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Snowbound fly fisherman mislead by calendar photo

Those romantic notions of being snowbound in a mountain cabin, with snow spread thick as frosting on the roof, makes a splendid calendar photo for February. Tree limbs bend with their heavy loads of fresh snow. Branches break, sounding like rifle shots in the dark. The world slows. Trucks cease to roll by. A trout stream sings in the background near the little cabin, and you just know that water is full of trout.

It takes about three days to melt that notion like an old icicle, and then the miserable reality of winter sets in. Pipes freeze, heaters quit heating like they should and roads glaze over with scary ice. Getting out of the driveway becomes a major challenge. All the dogs are wet as dishrags and smell like zoo animals. There are wet clothes, stiff boots and mud on the floor.
And sometimes the snow grabs your car as you drive through what you thought was a clear dirt road and you cease to move. An hour and a half later, you are still stuck in the national forest, it’s black as new Bibles and there is no other vehicle on the road.

Where’s my calendar photo?
It got worse. The Troutmobile’s transmission burned up, we had to get towed out by a pickup truck with chain and then spent most of the next two weeks stuck with driving rain, sleet, more snow and a little ice here and there just to wake you up if you tried to get to the store too quickly.

February weather is never great. The month itself ought to be abolished. Burn that calendar page in the wood stove.
I was already set for some fly fishing, no matter how cold or miserable.

The mountains looked like old bear dogs sniffing the clouds with grizzled muzzles. If the wind died and the sun came out, a fellow could hook a trout or two, provided it did not get too dreadful. That was the plan, anyway.

Late Sunday while on a short hike up the waterfall road, I noticed very few signs of human presence. Past the first campground, the road was smooth as new sheets on a bed. I came across some turkey tracks, apparently left by a lone feathered wanderer earlier in the day. The tracks were fairly fresh.

A little farther there were some rabbit tracks, dotting the snow like colons on a typewritten page, two-by-two.
Even farther up the creek road, deer tracks zig-zagged in the crunchy snow.

I never saw any sign of trout, though.
For the next 10 days I saw no fish. On the two days when the wind died and the sun softened the wicked cold, I had no luck with the little yellow nymph.

It turned out to be an adventure just to get down the 10-foot bank without slipping and cracking my head on a rock, but a fellow can stay inside only so long.

I’d tied a ton of flies.
Wonder if I’ll get a chance to use them before summer?

But first, let’s get rid of that calendar photo.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Chasing the sun upstream

The sunlight through the troutmobile’s windshield was deceptively soft and warm. It was not what one would call a perfect day for fly fishing, for the air was raw as stripped wire with enough wind to hurt, but as the road slithered up the mountain the urge to get out and fish for trout became as inviting as that faux warmth inside the car.
There was a handful of newly-tied flies inside the vest begging to prove their worth. The gear was in the back. There was a chicken sandwich on the front seat next to me and I was on a mission for fishin’.
But, boy, was it cold when I drove up the dirt road to the first campsite. The boots, still wet from the previous week, and waders and fly rod were willing, as was my spirit, but the flesh can be weak, however much wool and fleece you cover it with.
The rod stayed comfortably inside its carrying case.
I got uncomfortably out. By late afternoon, there was still a little sunlight but not enough. The temperature was in the teens and dropping with the sun.
I walked beside a trout stream unarmed, just sauntering along chasing the waning sun up a snow-lined dirt road, then off to the right to follow the first trail that hugs a little feeder creek.
Even with water levels a little high, this creek was scarcely more than a trickle. I decided to follow it to its end.
So, for the second time in about two decades, I took off walking in the forest with no intention of fishing.
I never much liked hiking as such, though the old recluse Henry David Thoreau, in calling the practice by another name, makes it appear as an acceptable substitute when it’s really too late in the day and much too cold for fly fishing. He preferred to call it sauntering, or walking aimlessly with no set destination in mind. Just meandering about among the tall trees.
Well, I did have that little creek to sing along with, so I never quite got trout completely out of my mind.
There was still ice in spots, dripping from the rock where road meets mountain. It’s a pretty time of year, sparkling like diamonds in the day’s last bit of light, the banks draped in sheets of snow.
When it’s a fresh, deep snow, there is nothing but the smothered whisper of silence.
Today, I’ll deal with snow that is half-way gone, with probably just enough to make getting to the water a slipping adventure, and noisy trucks full of hunting hounds will kill all chance of quiet.
No matter. I know there is a rainbow trout in the creek by the first campground, and another just upstream. The upstream spot is one of my trusty standbys when I can find fish no where else; the other trout was a surprise, and I believe I know just how to catch him.
And if not, I’ll saunter up the road chasing the day’s last soft rays sunlight.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cold as ice fly fishing

The month of December was a roller-coaster for weather and fly fishing. Some days the water raged with all the intensity of a broken-bottle saloon fight, but then the clouds would shut tight so the river settled to the peacefulness of a church on Monday morning.
I did better with the water up and rowdy, fishing a big Tellico nymph with some nifty rubber legs that I added to the traditional mountain fly pattern. Attaching a piece of lead the size of a wad of gum, I could barely sling the yellowish fly across the creek. It would splash with the resounding gusto of Sullenberger’s plane in the Hudson, drift into the feeding lane I was aiming for and bounce along the creek bottom where large, wary rainbow trout hunkered in the cold water waiting for dinner to come to them. This time of year, the fish do not exert a lot of energy to eat.
For the month, the most memorable fish was the fat rainbow that eagerly grabbed the rubber-legged nymph when both water and sun were high. It was about time for lunch and I had many errands to run, but, you know, there’s always time for one or two casts before taking care of domestic chores. I nailed that trout on the third cast, played him to the bank as quickly as I could and attempted to get a photo. Shame that the fish was camera-shy. He shook the hook and shot back into the current like a torpedo.
December was gracious enough to send a few 50-plus degree days, which turn out usually as perfect fishing days, especially the second warm day in a row.
Today I expect something quite the opposite. Highs in the low 30s and lows into the teens at night, making the water intolerably cold to splash around in, are expected. There was a dusting of snow the other night in my neighborhood, so I anticipate good water levels, albeit too danged cold, when I hit the river with fly rod in warmly-gloved hand. Bundled up like Michelin Man, I’ll waddle down the path lined with ice and snow, not expecting to catch much but hopeful of surprising that elusive winter brown.
It happens. You sometimes stumble across one of those monsters. Fellow in northern California caught a 27-inch brown a couple weeks ago with a black wolly bugger. What a fish.
The big trout hide in the larger, quiet pools, so it takes a lot of lead to get the fly down to where they hide and more often than not the fly hangs up and snaps off. But you have to fish deep, slow water. They’re down there.
Mostly, though, I spend an inordinate about of time walking instead of fishing in the winter. The banks lined with ice raise the bar on degree of difficulty, and even with wool socks the cold water hurts my toes. I’d rather boulder-hop, bouncing from one to the other while keeping my feet warm and boots dry.
Here’s hoping the sun softens today’s hard winter air to herald in the new angling year.
And here’s hoping there’s a huge brown trout waiting just for me.