Stream Etiquette

When I first started fly fishing, it was a different time. It was before everyone had access to the Internet. There were no message boards. There was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Many fisheries didn’t receive nearly as much pressure simply because not nearly as many people knew about them. And to the fishermen who did know about them, they were closely guarded secrets shared only with a handful of trusted friends.

I realized that early on and I respected it. I learned quickly that I not only needed to learn and develop a set of skills to be able to catch fish, but I also needed to conduct myself in a certain way to earn the trust and respect of fishermen who had been doing this a lot longer than me. Part of this simply meant knowing how to keep your mouth shut when someone did share a particular fishing spot, but it also meant not behaving like an inconsiderate moron when you were on the stream.

The current trend of photographing and videoing every single fishing trip and sharing it, complete with GPS coordinates, on multiple social media outlets is probably the subject of an entirely different article. But regardless of how you feel about the trend, it has most certainly resulted in a lot more fishermen on more remote streams. And with easier access to this information, many of these “newer” fishermen have never been exposed to the idea of stream etiquette. While some folks are always going to be inconsiderate no matter what, I believe most violations of etiquette occur simply because someone doesn’t know better. Since it is just as important now as ever, if not more so, I thought this would be a good place to share a few basics.

Stream etiquette really just boils down to common courtesy and common sense. The first thing to keep in mind is that you are not entitled to any piece of water. If you have a favorite pool or stretch of water and someone is fishing it when you arrive, get over it, move on, and fish it next time – maybe get there earlier. Even if that someone is not in the pool but they are approaching it, don’t try to rush up and cut them off. Particularly in smaller mountain streams, fishermen don’t typically stay in one spot for long periods of time. Rather, they move up the stream covering stretches. The assumption should always be that the fisherman is working upstream and plenty of space should be allowed for that.

The appropriate amount of space to give another fisherman is always up for debate. On a crowded tailwater with limited walk-in access, that space might be 100 yards. On a somewhat crowded roadside river in the mountains, that space may be a quarter of a mile. On a backcountry stream where there are very few fishermen, that space may be a half mile to a mile. You kind of have to get a feel for the traffic flow and act accordingly. I always think of it like a movie theater. If it’s opening night for ‘Star Wars’ and the theater is packed, you’ll likely be sitting right next to someone else. If there are only two other people in a movie theater and you sit right next one of them, you’re being an ass.

When in doubt, communication is always the best way to ensure everyone has a positive experience. “How far up are you planning to fish?” Most fishermen appreciate this and will typically extend the same courtesy. Typically. On one occasion when guiding a couple of fishermen on Little River, we found ourselves walking up the trail alongside two other fishermen. Since we were already a couple of miles up the trail and obviously heading in the same direction, I made conversation with them and asked how far up they were planning to go. In a gruff tone, one of them replied, “Farther than you!”

If I had been by myself I might have hiked all the way to the stream’s headwaters purely out of spite! Instead, I politely explained that I just didn’t want to get in each other’s way. By being so obtuse, he was sabotaging an easy way of accomplishing what we both wanted to accomplish. Most fly fishermen, particularly in the backcountry, are nice folks and they’re in the backcountry for the same reason you are: to get off by themselves. Usually, there is plenty of water for everyone and being willing to communicate will help ensure that everyone gets what they want. Be nice!

And if you make a mistake, apologize and move on. There have been plenty of times when I inadvertently cut someone off in a stream because I didn’t see them. It happens to all of us. If you’re close enough, apologize and move on to another area. If you’re far away, wave and move on to another area. If someone inadvertently cuts you off and acknowledges it with a wave or an apology, cut them some slack. Mistakes happen. Be nice!

This is a trend that has gotten WAY out of hand

Finally, stream etiquette includes blending in with your environment. Don’t take away from someone else’s current experience by making a lot of commotion like shouting up and down the river. And don’t take away from someone’s future experience by altering the landscape. This most definitely means don’t leave any garbage behind, but it also means don’t litter the landscape with “sculptures” made of sticks and stacked stones.

Again, as mentioned earlier, this all pretty much boils down to common sense and common courtesy. Unfortunately, both seem to be in short supply these days.

Trout of the Smokies

Native Smokies Brook Trout

Over the years, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is about the trout in the Smokies. What kind are there? Where did they come from? How big do they get? Why don’t they get bigger? Why don’t they stock fish in the park? The list goes on and on. I thought I’d take this opportunity to satisfy some of the curiosity of enquiring minds.

Trout fishing in the Smokies starts with brook trout. They are the native fish of the Smoky Mountains. The terms native and wild are often confused and misused when referring to fish. To clarify, a wild trout is a trout that is not stocked but was born in the stream. However, it may have been introduced through stocking at one time. All trout in the Smokies are wild – there has been no stocking since the early 1970’s. A native trout is one that has always been there and was not introduced by humans. Brook trout have been in the Smokies since the last ice age!

Wild Smokies Rainbow

It used to be that every stream in the Smokies had brook trout and rainbows and brown trout were non-existent. The intense logging of the area, prior to its designation as a national park, sparked that change. In the early 1900’s, logging practices simply weren’t very responsible and they cut any and every tree they could get to. When trees near mountain streams were removed, critical canopy to provide shade on these waters disappeared and water temperatures climbed to levels in the warmer months that made them uninhabitable for coldwater species like brook trout. Many of the brook trout migrated to high elevations for cooler water. The ones that didn’t died.

Over time, logging operations came to a stop – in some places because there was nothing left to cut, and in others because the national park was formed and the land was protected. In the former, many streams were stocked with trout (mainly rainbow) to appease some of the emerging sporting clubs and camps. Brown trout were also introduced in a handful of rivers. Even after the formation of the park, the National Park Service continued to stock these rivers with trout.

Wild Smokies Brown

By the time the forest regrew to a level of maturity and much needed canopy returned to cool low and mid elevation streams, the rainbows and browns had established a foothold, and the native brook trout could not compete for the limited food source, forcing their relegation to the high country.

This changed again in the early 1970’s when the NPS began using electroshocking techniques to sample streams for data on fish population and size. Prior to that, they had to rely solely on creel surveys – asking fishermen how many they caught and what size. Well, as you hopefully know, just because you’re not catching fish or seeing fish doesn’t mean there are no fish! The electroshocking proved that, and they learned that they were stocking fish on top of fish. The rainbow and brown trout were all reproducing, and had been for some time.

They ceased the stocking of streams at that time and they have been thriving as wild trout fisheries ever since, boasting park-wide populations of anywhere from 2000 to 6000 fish per square mile. The only two things that seem to make that number fluctuate are flood and drought. They have determined that fishermen have absolutely no impact on the fish numbers. In fact, fisheries biologists agree that it could very well be a healthier fishery, at least when it comes to fish size, if more fishermen kept fish to keep the numbers down.

Brook trout and rainbow trout in the park only live about 4-5 years. Brook trout rarely exceed 10” in size and rainbows rarely exceed 15”. There are no regulations, like catch-and-release or slot limits, that can change this. These mountains are some of the oldest in the world and consequently are more acidic. Streams with low ph levels have less aquatic insect life, which is the primary food source for rainbow and brook trout.

Stocked Clinch River Rainbow

So we simply have too many fish for the available food source. Years with heavy flooding or intense drought often kill a generation of fish, reducing the population significantly. In the year or two following such an event, even though the fish population might be decreased by a third, fishermen still catch the same number of fish they always did, but the fish they do catch average 1-2” bigger. More food for fewer fish equals bigger fish.

Brown trout in the Smokies seem to be the exception to all of this. While they are only in a limited number of streams, they can live 15 years and reach lengths of 30”! Biologists believe one of the main reasons for this is their tendency to add bigger fare to their diet. Rainbows and brookies pretty much stay bug eaters in the park. While brown trout also eat bugs, when they reach a size of 8 or 9”, they also begin eating crayfish, mice, leeches, and smaller fish – including smaller trout!

Brown trout like low light, do a lot of their feeding at night, and are just generally reclusive. So they don’t get caught very often. You simply don’t go to the Smokies expecting to catch 20” brown trout on every trip. But in the right rivers, it’s always a possibility. In general, if you catch a trout in the Smokies bigger than 7” you’ve caught a pretty good fish. If your goal is purely to catch big trout, go to a tailwater, the Smokies isn’t for you.

Tailwaters are rivers created by water release from a dam and there are several in East Tennessee. They are stocked regularly by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Most of the trout they stock in these rivers are 7” or bigger and grow quickly thanks to the ample food supply found in these fertile waters.

When it comes to fish size, the bottom line is it’s relative to where you are fishing. A 12” native brook trout in the Smokies is a rare thing and surely qualifies as a “trophy.” A 12” stocked rainbow in the Clinch River is a dime a dozen.

Paper or Plastic – Contrasting Bamboo & Graphite Rods

Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.

– Tryon Edwards

There are few smells in this world that can tell such a story as the aroma that is consumed when opening the tube of a bamboo rod. With every flirtatious breath of varnish and cane, images too elusive for mere words or photos dance through twitching nostrils and settle softly in the mind. It’s a perfume that instantly conjures simultaneous images of classic trout water, sparsely hackled dry flies, fedoras, pipe smoke, fine Kentucky bourbon, and perfect memories of past fishing trips that are not entirely my own. Somehow, there is a connection to fish, streams, mountains, and fishermen who met long before me. Each time the final rotation is made around those metal threads and the cap is removed, it’s as if the Genie has been released from the bottle, and the very spirit of fly fishing has been summoned.

I’m hardly a purist but I do take pride in the fact that my first trout came on a dry fly with a cane rod. This did not happen by design, however, and was certainly not the result of any quest for nostalgic perfection or anti-technology-damn-your-plastic-rod doctrine. It was my granddad’s rod, a worthless old Montague production rod from the 1930’s that’s sentimental value is now priceless, but back then, its only value was that it was better than the rod I had. The rod it replaced, my first rod, was a K-Mart special that came neatly packaged with a reel, a spool of backing, and a 7-weight, level fly line. A burgundy blank finished out with a black plastic reel seat, black foam handle, and gold tipped, black wraps on the guides; it measured 8-feet in length, probably 3-pounds in weight, and had the casting action of a stiff garden hose.

Somehow, its companion reel was even less impressive. While better suited in capacity for a 4 or 5-weight line, it tightly enveloped the packaged 7-weight line and about 10 yards of 20-pound backing. And as advertised on the package, the reel did have an “adjustable” drag. If you flipped the switch on the back of the reel up, it clicked and provided minimal resistance when pulling out line. If you flipped the switch down, the reel silently exclaimed, “Oh shit!” and the spool rotated at 8700 rpm’s with the slightest tug of line. The result, of course, was a rat’s nest of fly line inside the reel with little knotted loops of plastic peeking out of each port in the spool.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of the physical differences, much less the cultural differences of bamboo and graphite, so neither played a role in my decision to “upgrade” that first rod. The fishermen in my family, including my granddad, were almost exclusively bait and spin guys, so in addition to having no real instruction as a budding fly fisherman, I had no preconceived moral perceptions regarding the material used to construct my rod. Instead, I somehow had it stuck in my head that a rod with a cork handle was better than one with a foam handle, making my granddad’s old Montague the obvious choice over the K-Mart rod. In no way was I a bamboo fundamentalist and truth be known, I went to bed nearly every night staring at the Orvis catalog and dreaming of a brand new, shiny graphite fly rod. I was a helpless lump of clay in the hands of the fly fishing marketing machine, and I wouldn’t rest until I could secure the funds for the genuine graphite Orvis Superfine fly rod of my dreams.

With an arsenal now obscenely exceeding 25 rods, a time when I hoped, dreamed, scrimped, and saved for one – just one – nice graphite rod seems like a lifetime ago. Even longer go, when I was a kid, it was shoes. If I could just get my feet in a new pair of those Zips, my speed and vertical leap would undoubtedly increase to unprecedented levels. And with an Orvis 7’ 9” 5-weight Far and Fine rod, all of my casting woes would immediately disappear and I would instantly begin catching all of the fish that had been eluding me.

To my disappointment, when I eventually got that rod, my casting and fish catching prowess remained pretty much the same. However, even as a novice, the new, high-end graphite rod’s superiority to my previous rods was undeniable. It was lighter, crisper, and more responsive. It was modern, and cool, and just plain sexy! And it would start a trend lasting more than a decade of graphite addiction. Every year something a little lighter, a little faster, and a little sexier would hit the market and I would be first in line to own one.

Bamboo rod purists would likely equate this to selling my soul to the devil. Aside from the moral and ethical legitimacy of strike indicators, there is rarely a fly fishing topic that incites more passionate debates than trying to determine the superior material for fly rods: good old-fashioned split cane versus the new space-age graphite materials. The proponents on either side possess unshakeable convictions and will argue with a ferocity not seen at even the most heated of presidential debates. And much like presidential candidates might debate the advantages of change versus experience, the pro graphite contingent will argue that their candidate is stronger and lighter and far more capable of zinging much longer lengths of line in the air, while the bamboo party will claim that graphite has no life – no soul – and has no real connection to the line or fish. They see graphite rods as lifeless, plastic sticks designed for heaving rather than casting a fly line. They think people who fish with graphite rods are communists.

I eventually broke the addiction and my preferences even started to change when I finally had the opportunity to fish with a good cane rod. My experience had only been with the cheaper production rods of the 30’s and it turns out that there were not only much better quality rods being made back then, but the cane rods being made today are nothing short of fantastic! Passing judgment on all bamboo rods based on my granddad’s Montague was the equivalent of judging all graphite rods by my first K-Mart special. But I still can’t passionately take a stand on one material being superior to another.

I’m not sure if there is a right answer. A big part of it probably has a lot to do with where you fish. For instance, suggesting that a cane rod is the better choice for tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys is a pretty tough sell. If we’re being honest, the real determining factor is more likely personal style. As a teen, I went to school with kids that jumped on every trend from leg warmers to parachute pants. Other kids went the preppy route, while others went with the thrashed denim, rocker look. All of these options served the primary purpose of clothing the kid, but as an individual style allowed the kid to tell the world who he was – or at least who he thought he was. Are we not, in some regard, doing the same thing with our choices of fly rods and gear?

In most situations, a fly rod, whether bamboo or graphite, is quite capable of executing effective casts and catching a lot of fish when in the right hands – it’s the chef, not the skillet. What it should boil down to is which rod brings you the most pleasure. I once heard legendary fly fisherman, Joe Humphreys, tell a story about a debate he had with another legend of the stream, Ed Shenk. Ed liked to fish with very short fly rods. Joe asked him why he fished with such short rods when they put him at such an obvious disadvantage. Ed told him it was because they are fun.

There was an awkward period as a teenager when I was preppy and an even more awkward phase when I wore parachute pants. Now, neither fit my style. As a fly fisherman, there have been periods of graphite obsession, and periods of bamboo obsession. Now, both fit my style. I am at peace with the realization that I don’t have to pick one side or the other because, doggone it, I like them both. Out of the far too many fly rods I own, five of them are bamboo, and for day in, day out fishing, I tend to prefer the versatility I get from good graphite rods and find them to be the most useful, practical choice. But I still fish very frequently with my bamboo rods because they’re not impractical, and well, they’re just plain fun… And there’s just something about that smell.

The Perfect Fly

“While the snow whorled, the old men would work at the desk with the glow of bemused gods, forsaking reason and good sense in their search for the great concoction, the random mating of fur and feather and colored thread that would break new ground in piscatorial seduction, speak in the language of pure appeal, fascination, enticement, allure, the perfect corruption, hooked bribe, deadly enchantment, a come-on no fish could deny, something beyond mere interest, something exotic and irresistible. No combination was too distasteful or out of bounds, no creation too shocking.”

– Harry Middleton, Rivers of Memory

Tying flies just seems to be a natural progression for any avid fly angler, though it becomes more of an obsession for some than others. Some possess a romantic ideal of catching a fish on a fly that they’ve crafted with their own hands while others simply fish so much and burn through so many flies that they see fly tying as a means of stopping the bleeding, a practical means of saving money. Many more enter the world of fly tying with delusions of grandeur, possessing an unbridled optimism and certainty that they will be able to catch more or better fish by filling a void with a creation not yet imagined by the world’s tying minds and not yet available through their local shop’s selection. That 29” brown trout under the bridge is just a bead-head-bright-green-bodied-pink-tailed-red-rubber-legged nymph away from being caught! I began with similar delusions and like most tyers, still have them. Somewhere deep in the creative recesses of my mind, I surely hold the key to the ultimate creation: The dry fly that won’t sink, the nymph that won’t hang the bottom, the streamer with just the right “waggle”…. All tied in such a unique, unprecedented way that trout will come from neighboring pools just to get a taste…. The perfect fly.

However, the budding fly tyer is quickly faced with the reality that there is an art to this fly tying thing and that an unspeakable number of very imperfect flies will be born at the vise before the perfect fly can ever emerge from the dubbing dust, especially when you begin the task as I did, with a shortage of funds and a surplus of stubbornness. Determined to teach myself rather than spend time and money taking a class, my first of many mistakes, my response to the overwhelming myriad of materials and tools confronting me was to purchase a starter kit. Fly tying kits aren’t a bad way to get started at all; especially when you have one personally assembled for you by someone at a fly shop who can get a feel for what flies you’re interested in tying. But I opted for the pre-selected, company kit that was assembled probably more as a means of ditching materials that wouldn’t sell than as something to ease my transition into the art of fly tying.

The kit regretfully came from one of the large catalog companies, cost $150, and was advertised as having everything I’d needed to start tying flies: vise, tools, hooks, materials, and a book to show me how to do it. To no real surprise, the materials were extremely low grade, with the provided colors apparently selected for patterns no longer in production. Or someone thought red and yellow were the two universal colors for everything from hackle and marabou to chenille and dubbing. The pocket sized book turned out to be equally disappointing with about twenty pages that included such detailed instructions as: Put hook in vise. Attach thread to hook. Tie feather to hook. Dub body. There were no technique pictures, no definitions, and really only about five illustrated patterns. So I tied a few mutant Wooly Buggers with massive, 10” yellow tails that included even the thick stem, red bodies that were plump at the hook bend and skinny near the head, red palmered hackles that ended about halfway up the body, and a thread head the size of a marble.

I also tried my luck with dry flies but due to limited materials, the fact that I really didn’t know what the materials were, and that I had no discernible skills, they didn’t quite turn out like the ones in the fly shop. They did look exactly like mayflies – assuming we’re talking about mayflies that have been smashed on your car windshield and spread a few times with the wiper blade. They consisted of 2” tails that pointed down because I tied them too far back on the hook. The body was a thick, lumpy mass of mangled fur because I didn’t know how to spread and twist dubbing on a thread. The hackle was big and soft since I was using broad saddle hackle from the kit. You mean there are different types of hackle? And to finish it off, the hook eye would be inaccessible, covered over in thread wraps since I never left enough room to wind a head. That actually may have been a cosmic favor – the universe suggesting that I might want to reconsider attaching this monstrosity to the end of my tippet.

I eventually put all the pieces together and twenty years later, I can say that my flies do catch fish, they look kind of pretty, and I’m finally to the point where I’m saving a little money. In fact, as a commercial tyer, I now even get to say I’m making money, but if I’m being honest, most of my profits go right back into materials to tie more flies – the circle of life. There are people that solely make a living tying flies but I’m not one of them. Other than offset some other expenses, all commercial fly tying has really done for me is significantly change my perspective on the value of a fly. It didn’t take long before I went from, “They want $2.00 for one fly?!” to “They only get $2.00 for a fly?!”

Making the jump from recreational fly tying to commercial fly tying also has a way of stifling any creative ambitions you once may have possessed as you become confined to a one person assembly line of feathers and fur, repetitively producing dozens of the exact same fly. I get hit from two sides as I try to keep many of the bins full at the local fly shop while still keeping my own boxes full for guide trips, constantly replenishing staple patterns routinely sacrificed to high tree limbs by eager fly fishing virgins. Still, that creative yearning never goes away and routinely creeps up and distracts me while I’m four dozen deep in a fly tying shift of redundancy. An hour later, I’ve aborted the task at hand and have tied six Parachute Adams with pink rubber legs, chartreuse hackle, and a spinner blade for a tail.

Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I have, for whatever reason, had some really bad ideas for fly patterns. They were all born of what, at the time, seemed to be sound theory but in retrospect are pretty difficult to justify. Despite these failures in fly tying evolution, over the years I have created some flies that turned out to be very productive, but I don’t know how original any of them really are. The patterns I create most often tend to be variations of already established patterns, posing the question of what actually constitutes an original fly pattern.

Fly tying is much like cooking in that regard. Very rarely is a brand new recipe created anymore. Rather, traditional recipes are often tweaked to create a slightly different flavor or texture. If I cook ground beef and put it on a bun, it’s a hamburger. If I add cheese it’s a cheeseburger. If I add sautéed onions, it’s a cheeseburger with sautéed onions. But if I make the same thing on different bread it becomes a Patty Melt. If I use chartreuse grizzly hackle on a Parachute Adams and add pink rubber legs, is it simply a Chartreuse, Rubber-Legged Parachute Adams, or is that enough variation to be considered an original pattern warranting a clever new name?

What is it that even motivates so many fly tyers to attempt so many new patterns when the old standards seem to work just fine? Is it an attempt at something better or merely an attempt at something different? Is it for the fish’s benefit or our own? Maybe it’s because with a new fly pattern comes new hope. Success with a particular fly, whether it is an old standard or a new concoction of your own design, really just seems to boil down to personal confidence. When you have confidence in the fly with which you’re fishing, you naturally fish it harder and fish it better. It’s funny how that works. I know that the Muddler Minnow is a fantastic fly and that it works. It’s probably one of the top five freshwater streamers ever created but while I’ve been in the company of numerous fishermen who catch several fish and big fish on it, I couldn’t catch a fish on that fly if I cast it in a trout tank at the local boat show. It has just never worked for me and I suppose that’s because, for whatever reason, I just don’t fish it with confidence.

What I’ll really never understand are the flies that go in and out of “style” – not necessarily with fishermen, but with fish. Some flies have been staples for me since the day I started trout fishing while others seem to fall in and out of vogue. I used to tie and fish a fly called a Mallard Minnow that, back in the day, would catch any kind of fish in any kind of water. I thought about it once and realized that on that fly, I’d caught rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, striped bass, bluegill, gar, carp, catfish, walleye, and salmon. It probably would have also accounted for saltwater fish if given the chance but at some point, it just quit working. It was a fly in which I once had total confidence and unmatched success and I haven’t had a fish so much as look at it since the late nineties.

Why is that? Are flies to fish what clothes are to us? Do they have fly shows every spring to feature the latest trends? Maybe that large brown trout behind the stump is rolling his eyes at my Mallard Minnow, telling his rainbow trout friend, “That is so 1995.” Are there also trout with retro tastes that are looking for fly patterns from the fifties and sixties? If so, I suppose that’s why a good old standard Wooly Bugger would top my list as the perfect fly. Like a basic pair of blue jeans, it seems to always be in style. But if it just had a propeller at the head….

Homemade Brookies

These are hardly the idealized fly fishing journeys that most anglers conjure in their minds in those last few moments before sleep takes hold. It’s not the casual, early morning stroll through a dewy meadow to the spacious pool in a lazily meandering river where 20-inch trout routinely clock in for their daily shift of methodically sipping delicate mayflies. In fact, unless you are one of a few passionate, dedicated, and perhaps slightly mentally unbalanced backcountry anglers, you might consider these journeys way too much like work.

This kind of trip involves laborious long miles up steep, narrow, rocky, root-infused trails with the necessities for the day transported on your back. The destination sometimes has a name but just as often is simply a mysterious, blue squiggly line on a map. And once the destination has been reached, the journey has really only begun. Since such small, rhododendron choked Appalachian streams may only yield a few trout per pool or pocket, to catch fish here you need to cover water. You need to keep moving up the stream. But this isn’t the large watershed two thousand feet below where a well maintained trail shadows every bend. It will be another mile and a half before the trail meets this stretch of stream again. From here, travelling the streambed is the only option, fishing as you go and being diligent with your pace to ensure you reach the takeout point before dark. With vertical banks coated in impenetrable tangles of undergrowth, exiting the stream beforehand is not a possibility.

Navigating up the bed presents its own set of challenges as the stream forces its way down a staircase of ancient boulders, persistently attempting to carve away at the earth’s multi-billion-year-old foundation. Through its course over, under, between, and around these timeless obstacles, countless small pockets, seams, and pools are formed. These are the places where water hesitates, as if taking a much needed rest from its perpetual quest to reach and become the sea. And in every hesitation of water, native brook trout exist and thrive, surviving in the stream’s periodic moments of weakness.

With full intent to exploit these weaknesses, you enter the stream and prepare to fish the first run, a little shoot that slices between two desk size boulders. Canopy is heavy above and to the right so you cast off your left shoulder, placing the fly perfectly on the upper left edge of the current. The fly casually drifts for mere seconds before vanishing in a sucking gulp, not the showy splash to which you’ve become accustomed on this type of water. This is a good fish you think to yourself as you watch the bent rod pulse with every desperate evasive maneuver attempted by the trout. Quickly tiring the fish, you raise your rod and grasp the line, now getting a close up confirmation that this is indeed a nice trout.

First wetting your hand, you reach out and gently cup the trout, admiring the vivid array of colors exploding from its body. An intense burnt orange consumes the trout’s belly and continues over its fins only to stop abruptly against vibrant white tips. Its back and sides are a deep, rich, olive, randomly dotted with spots of yellow and orange, the orange spots encircled by angelic blue halos. Temporarily mesmerized by nature’s perfection, you carefully remove the hook and place the trout back in the stream, transfixed as he instantly seems to transform to rock, moss, and water. Measuring out at 10-inches, this Southern Appalachian brook trout may be small by many anglers’ standards but is a trophy in a small, backcountry Smoky Mountain stream, where a 6-inch fish is the standard.

At one time, you didn’t have to go to quite so much effort to catch the native brook trout of this region, since most all of the streams in the Appalachian Mountains were heavily populated with “specks,” as the locals call them. But years of irresponsible logging practices in the earlier part of the 20th century destroyed much of the brook trout’s habitat. Clear cutting right down to the stream created erosion issues and removed critical canopy to keep streams cool.  Brook trout were forced to either migrate or die. Many died, but many did make the migration upstream where elevation and remnants of forest provided cool enough temperatures to survive.

As time passed and logging companies began to focus their attention elsewhere, more and more people had discovered the area, including sportsmen. The lack of fish in these otherwise perfect streams prompted the introduction of non-native trout, mostly rainbows, through stocking.  As more time passed, the forest began to return and eventually, the streams had the solidified banks and necessary canopy to once again support a natural trout population.

Through decades of stocking, rainbow trout had taken hold and were reproducing. They had completely filled in the previous voids in the lower and mid elevation sections of stream – so much so that in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they ceased all stocking of rainbows in the early 1970’s.  Great news, right?  Not if you happen to be a brook trout.

The acidic nature of Appalachian streams doesn’t allow for a tremendous amount of aquatic insect life, at least not enough to adequately support and grow the healthy population of trout that live there. With the rainbows now thriving in these lower elevations, there simply wasn’t enough food to go around and brook trout, for the most part, remained relegated to the uppermost regions of the streams.

In an attempt to preserve the native brook trout in the Smokies, the park service closed most of these streams to fishing more than 30 years ago.  But after years of research, they determined angling pressure has little to no effect on these high-country brook trout populations and consequently, most of these streams were re-opened in recent years. Since then there has also been an effort to re-extend the range of the brook trout back into select mid elevation waters.

The first step in the process is defining a natural barrier, like a tall waterfall, that will prevent upstream migrations by non-native fish. Above the waterfall, existing fish are then removed by using a chemical called antimycin. This EPA approved chemical kills all fish and most aquatic insects from a stream while posing no threat to plants, amphibians, or humans. Only small areas of the stream are treated at a time and the chemical is neutralized below the waterfalls with potassium permanganate to render it harmless. After treatment, crews augment the brook trout population with native species from other areas in the park with expectations of a full return of aquatic insects, a reestablishment of brook trout, and no more rainbows.

The entire process typically takes about 5-7 years and the stream, of course, is closed to fishing during the process.  Though controversial at first, this method has been highly effective and successful, and now serves as a model for similar projects in the Smokies and elsewhere. However, there is only so much water that meets the necessary requirements and rainbows and browns will never be fully eradicated from the entire watershed. These trout have a solid foothold on the lower elevation stretches of rivers and very likely always will. While there are now a few more brook trout streams that are easier to reach, unless a more effective method of eradication and replacement is devised, brook trout seeking anglers will continue to be relegated to long, steep hikes into remote places to find their prize.

Why do some fly fishermen go to so much effort to pursue a fish that averages about four or five inches in length? Throughout the region are relatively flat, fifty-yard-wide tailwaters where a fisherman can stroll five minutes from the car and find seemingly infinite numbers of rainbows and browns that are rarely smaller than ten inches! To a dying breed of relatively few high-country enthusiasts, size doesn’t matter. These anglers pursue trout in the Appalachian backcountry because the fish they catch are born there, not in the cramped, narrow concrete runs of a hatchery. And while many of the rainbows and browns inhabiting lower elevations in these watersheds are wild, only the brookies that swim in the high streams of these mountains are truly native.

Quite simply, native trout have a certain indefinable appeal to the self-aware angler. Perhaps it’s just that we as humans seem to be wired to yearn for a connection to something bigger. Whether through genealogy, science, religion, or fly fishing, there is an innate desire to link to the world that was here before us; if for no other reason than to better understand ourselves. For fly fishermen in the eastern United States, the opportunity to pursue, connect with, and maybe even understand the uncompromising brook trout that have existed and persisted for centuries before us provides that all too vital link.

A Fly Fisherman Looks at Forty – A Struggle With Age & Responsibility

(It should be noted that this was written several years ago. I’m now have 50 firmly in my sights!)

I’ve been guiding fly fishermen for 20 years now and through those years, most of the fishermen I guided were men who were older than I was. I was reminded of this regularly as they would all routinely sit back observing as I tied on a fly, replaced a piece of 6x tippet, or cleared a tangle and calmly remark, “Wait til you turn 40.”

More focused on the task at hand than the comment, I’d reply, “How’s that?”

“Just enjoy your eyesight while you have it. It’s all downhill after 40!” And the two gentlemen would nod and laugh in mutual understanding and satisfaction that I would one day suffer their same misfortune.

If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, and it was never 38, never 42, never 45…. “Wait til you turn 40.” In my 20’s, the prophecy went in one ear and out the other. In my 30’s, I started to give it a little more pause, but still shrugged it off with what little was left of my youthful defiance. Last year I turned 40 and I’ll be damned if a week later I wasn’t holding the fly 6” further away to thread the tippet through the eye of the hook!

Now I find myself frequently guiding fishermen my age or younger and I take great pleasure in forwarding this curse to my clients in their 20’s. I even started sharing my story with older clients, thinking I was now part of some exclusive club. But no, they just smile, shake their head, and chuckle, “Wait til you turn 50.”

When I turned 40, it didn’t bother me a bit and I didn’t have any Earth shattering changes to my psyche or my general outlook on life. There was no desire to change careers, to buy a sports car, or to date a 20 year old swimsuit model. Maybe that comes at 50. But that society defined milestone does have a way of promoting self-reflection and I can honestly say I’m very content with where my life is right now. If I have one regret, it’s how my attitude and approach toward personal fishing trips has changed.

Whether it is born of laziness or wisdom, it has changed and it often leaves me disappointed in myself. I used to fish whenever I could, wherever I could, and for as long as I could – usually longer than I should. If there was an open day or an open slot in a day, I would somehow manage to fill it with fishing. It was not uncommon for me to drive three hours to fish for half a day and turn around and drive three hours back home. Or sometimes I’d turn that same trip into a two day event where I would spend the night in the back of my Explorer. Now I find myself reluctant to drive an hour and a half to fish the South Holston, regardless of how good the fishing will be, because I can be on Little River in thirty minutes. And if I do decide to spend the night on a fishing trip these days, it involves an elaborate camp or just as often, a hotel room.

I used to regularly explore new rivers and streams all over the region and now complacently opt for the more familiar waters that I’ve already fished hundreds of times. As a younger man I wanted adventure and discovery while as an aging man I tend to be leaning more toward stability and predictability. I also find myself leaning more toward quiet and solitude. Rather than driving two hours to a popular, crowded river where I’m likely to hook 20” rainbows on bead heads, I find myself hiking two hours to a small creek with nobody on it where I might catch 8” rainbows on dry flies.

My days on the water are now chosen more carefully, too. When I lived in Lexington, my longtime fishing buddy, Cecil, and I knew when each other was free and it was just understood that we would be fishing on those days, rain or shine, come hell or high water – we fished a lot of high water. After we got a little older and I moved to Tennessee, planning a trip became slightly more complicated as we would actually have to call each other a few times to determine an open date, and then we would go fishing, rain or shine, come hell or high water. Now going fishing with Cecil involves several e-mails and phone calls, a lengthy exchange of possible open dates, and an in-depth study of the Weather Channel. When we do finally settle on a date, it is still subject to change due to an alteration in work load, unrealized plans of spouses, or the weather.

Funny how things change. About 15 years ago, I took a winter trip to the Cumberland River with Cecil and another friend when the projected high was 25 degrees. It wasn’t a surprise or poor planning. We knew the high would be 25 degrees and we went anyway. It was an open day, the water releases were good, and we were fishermen. So we went fishing.

We had a beat-up johnboat and none of us had garages at the time so it was stored outside and usually uncovered. After all, funds were limited and you could buy a lot of fly tying materials for the price of a decent tarp. A winter’s worth of rain and snow had left the boat filled with water that had frozen to a solid block of ice by the time of our fishing trip, but not allowing such a minor detail to hinder a day of fishing, we decided to go ahead anyway and we’d figure something out when we got there. I think we secretly hoped that the ice would magically melt away on the two hour drive to the river, but to no real surprise, the exposure to 20 degree temperatures while driving 55 miles per hour only seemed to make the ice icier.

Once at the boat ramp, after repeated failed attempts to break the ice, things were looking grim, but with desperate times calling for desperate measures, I finally had the controversial idea of removing the drain plug and backing the boat into the river, allowing the near 50 degree Cumberland River water to fill the bottom interior of the boat to help melt the ice. Though it took several attempts, it actually worked and we eventually cleared the ice from the boat and made our way down the river. The fishing turned out to be excellent and Cecil stuck a 28” brown trout that day. These days, even with nicer boats stored in toasty garages, we probably would have opted to just stay home, maybe get a little work done.

That’s the most discouraging transformation that has occurred in my older age – the willingness to just stay home. I now find myself frequently choosing to tackle built-up yard work on a pleasant afternoon rather than slipping into the mountains with fly rod in hand. Maybe it has something to do with age, but more specifically, it is probably more the result of a misguided sense of responsibility that comes with age. I blame my father. After all, what kind of a writer would I be if I didn’t blame my father for at least one imperfection in my life? But when I was growing up, Dad rarely took vacations, and when he wasn’t working at the office, he was usually tending to some task at home, and I somehow managed to inherit this overwhelming sense of anxiety when projects begin to pile up, regardless of their significance.

I’ve begun to realize though, that I also have a responsibility to feed and foster the things that I’m passionate about. When I put off fishing trip after fishing trip, I do nothing more than build up an eventual feeling of desperation. Though I am fortunate to have a wife that supports my fishing addiction and even enjoys going with me, she inevitably becomes the undeserving target of the frustration brought on by too little fishing. In these instances, she might innocently ask what we’re doing this weekend, to which I respond sharply that I have to go fishing. I explain with irritation that I haven’t been fishing in weeks in a way that suggests that she’s the reason.

I’ll also find myself unproductive while working. Yes, I know the common perception of fly fishing guides is that we fish for a living, but while I’m fortunate that my job allows me to be on the water almost daily, being on the water and fishing are two completely things. Besides, there’s more to guiding than guiding. There’s the booking, the marketing, the fly tying, the boat maintenance, the grocery shopping, and the lunch making. For me, there’s also fly tying for the shop and writing. So when I’m trying to meet a deadline and I haven’t been fishing in a while, my mind will be all over the place and I’ll become extremely fidgety. This usually results in an indicting e-mail to Cecil about how we’ve become soft and how he needs to get his sorry ass down here and go fishing with me.

The fact is fly fishing is not just something I do. It’s a significant part of who I am. And when I go long stretches without fishing, it negatively affects me psychologically and becomes a detriment to the way I live the rest of my life. I don’t know if this is normal or not, but surely there must be others – fishermen, musicians, artists – who experience the same thing.

So I’m trying to do something about it. I’m trying to make myself fish more. Sad, isn’t it? What’s even sadder is when I feel the need to justify it by telling myself that I’m in the fly fishing business, so I need to fish. Or I play the mental health angle described above, convincing myself that I’ll be dead at 50 if I don’t spend more time on the water. Sometimes I even envision the tombstone:

Here’s lies Rob Fightmaster. He died forty years too soon because he didn’t fish enough.

I shouldn’t have to do that though. I should be able to go fishing for no other reason than I’m a fisherman and I want to go fishing, right? It’s unfortunate that things like work so often interfere with the important things in life. Responsibility comes in many forms and we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are ultimately responsible for our own happiness and contentment. And when we are happy and content, we are able to share a better part of ourselves with the people that matter most.

So, sorry Little River Outfitters. That bin of Hellbender Stoneflies will have to stay empty a couple of days longer. I’ve blocked a day to go fishing this week! Well, as long as it doesn’t rain….

Dammed If You Do, Dammed If You Don’t – The Dichotomy of Southern Tailwaters

They ruined the best trout river in the Eastern United States. At least that’s what any trout angler old enough and fortunate enough to fish the Little Tennessee River, or “Little T” as it was known, will tell you. Ask one of the many farmers that lost their family land when the Little T met its demise and you’ll hear even greater resentment and disdain for the Tennessee Valley Authority that seems to burn every bit as hot today as it did more than thirty years ago.

Despite the protests of landowners, anglers, and endangered resident snail darters, the Little Tennessee was dammed in 1977 in the name of economic stimulus and flood control. But nothing could control the flood of controversy that rose from this action. The resulting Tellico Lake now placidly covers the once great trout river; and the surrounding land, once owned by generations of family farms, has been sub-divided, sold, and developed into exclusive communities.

As a trout fishery, the Little T boasted rainbow and brown trout routinely measuring 4 to 5 pounds with fish even larger taken on a fairly regular basis. Anglers still talk about the clouds of caddis that blanketed the river as if they were just drifting an Elk Wing there last week. Poke your head into the right huddle of fly shop dwellers, and you’ll still hear a flow of rumors about that 30-pound brown trout at “the trash pile” as if next time might be the time he falls for that newfangled streamer pattern. But even though the largest of dams and deepest of lakes don’t seem enough to drown perfect memories, there won’t be a next time…. Thanks to that dam.

The irony, however, is that the Little T never would have been “the best trout river in the Eastern United States” had it not been for a dam, as the upper part of the Little Tennessee River drainage already had multiple impoundments dating back to the 1930’s. Though unlike the normal, massive impoundments of the TVA system, these were created and operated by Tapoco, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America. The result was a series of undeveloped finger lakes that snaked and stair-cased down the drainage on the southwestern edge of what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, the first impoundment, Cheoah, predated the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority by nearly 15 years. The fabled Little Tennessee River flowed from below Chilhowee Dam, the final Tapoco created project in the system.

Stories about opposition to dams are not exactly rare in the fishing community. Issues in the Western United States with dams blocking natural migrations of native fish have been well chronicled over the last couple of decades. But these stories have unfolded time and time again for nearly a century in the South, particularly during Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Coming out of The Great Depression, national economic conditions were far worse than even today and the southern region of the U.S. was particularly battered. Years of heavy farming had taken its toll on the land and massive flooding was eroding what was left of the soil. All of the best timber had already been harvested and the very limited amount of electricity in the mostly rural region made it nearly impossible to attract or create any real industry. The formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 was intended to change all of that.

The TVA began an aggressive project of damming many of the major waterways in the Tennessee Valley. The unfortunate result was that the valley floor behind the newly created dam became a massive lake, meaning many people lost their homes, most of which were farms that had been in the family for generations. Additionally, habitat in miles of free flowing rivers was destroyed. The benefit however, was that water levels could be controlled by releasing (or not releasing) water through the dam, thus preventing future flooding that had devastated the land and its people. Another benefit was that when water was released, it would rotate a number of turbines in the process, creating hydro-electric power that could provide affordable electricity to most of the region.

They flooded homes to prevent homes from flooding. It’s the same Orwellian doublethink that, for better or worse, has shaped much of the history of this nation. And we as anglers are not immune to it. On one hand we tend to strongly oppose anything that threatens fish habitat or really anything in the natural world, yet we now frequently find ourselves trying to protect something that did just that. Think of some of the best trout fishing rivers in the Southern United States. The South Holston, Watauga, Chattahoochee, Clinch, Hiwassee, Cumberland, White, Little Red, just to name a few, are all tailwaters that were formed by damming rivers, flooding land, and destroying homes and habitat. At least half the folks in the south were passionately against the formation of these dams at the time.

It’s difficult to imagine that less than a century ago these same rivers didn’t hold a single trout. Water temperatures were simply too warm to support trout and instead, these same rivers were full of smallmouth bass and even largemouth bass at their lower reaches. The formation of a new type of fishery below these impoundments, now commonly known as a tailwater or tailrace, was not even a consideration when these projects were originally conceived. In fact, it was believed by fisheries experts that these tailwaters would be sterile, oxygen deprived deserts, unsuitable for any real fish population. It was actually in Calderwood Lake, one of the early Tapoco impoundments, where it was later realized that wild mountain trout had been migrating from feeder streams into the lake’s cold waters and were growing and thriving. This realization eventually spawned regular stocking programs on these lakes and throughout TVA’s massive tailwater system.

Over time, tailwaters didn’t just, as expected, become fisheries that would support trout for put-and-take angling. Instead, the trout grew quickly on the ample amounts of food in these waters and held over year-to-year to grow even larger. In some instances, the trout even began reproducing and all of a sudden, the formerly trout-deprived Southeastern United States found itself with multiple trout rivers that rivaled some of the best in the world. In fact, until recently, one of these man-made fisheries in Arkansas was home to the world record brown trout. It’s no wonder trout anglers are so protective of these rivers today and that trout anglers more than thirty years ago were so protective of the Little T.

But is that all we’re about? Does the end justify the means as long as, and only if, the end includes a fishery that supports big fish? Can we as anglers reasonably and logically criticize one decision to build a dam, flood land, remove homes, and destroy habitat yet support and protect other decisions that did the exact same thing?

As the title of this article implies, there just doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution that will please everyone when it comes to this issue, and there never has been. As with most large scale dilemmas that affect an entire country, or at the least, an entire region, maybe all you can hope for is a solution that will benefit the most people for the longest period of time while doing the least amount of harm to the people who are negatively impacted.

It is often decades before history can truly measure the consequences of the actions we take today. Upon reflection, most would probably agree that the multitude of TVA projects executed during the New Deal era ultimately served the greater good of the Southern United States. And as a bonus, hordes of trout-crazy anglers are still reaping the benefits of the amazing fisheries that resulted from those projects. I can’t help but wonder though, if in another 40 or 50 years we’ll look back and feel the same way about what they did to the Little T. Was the greater good served, or was the best trout river in the Eastern United States destroyed merely for the development of exclusive lake-front property?

Choosing Favorites – Thoughts About Our Favorite Fishing Places

A man should keep for himself a little back shop, all his own, quite unadulterated, in which he establishes his true freedom and chief place of seclusion and solitude.

– Michel de Montaigne

“So, what’s your favorite place to fish?” As a professional guide who gets to regularly interact with anglers of varying skill levels and backgrounds, probably the only question I hear more often is, “So, is that really your last name?” I have a few pre-recorded, witty responses to the second question, but the first question always prompts more of a production. Looking off in the distance, I pause and scratch my chin, deliberating carefully as I seem to reflect on the numerous destinations I’ve had the pleasure to fish over the years. I’m not sure if the hesitation is for their benefit or my own, since I’m usually only thinking about places I haven’t yet fished.

“Here,” I inevitably answer. The response is partly existential in that I’ve always believed that the best place you can be fishing is the place you’re fishing right now. But largely it’s because I am in love with the Smoky Mountains and it is, without a doubt, my favorite place to fish. If it wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here.

After all, it’s not as if I was born here. I’m not the guy who is stuck in a job he hates and living in a small town he could never figure out how to leave. When I finished school in Kentucky and decided that I’d rather be a fly fishing guide than make gobs of money, I had no wife, no kids, and no real obligations other than a German Shepherd who seemed ready to go anywhere. I chose this place. Or maybe it chose me.

It was more than twenty years ago at a fly shop in Lexington, KY where I received a simple bit of advice that, at the time, I had no way of knowing would ultimately set the course for the rest of my life. I’d wandered in there as usual, dressed as a fisherman and wearing my best poker face in an attempt to convince whomever might be working that they were being graced by the presence of a veteran angler. In actuality, I was as green as they come and would have been hard pressed to distinguish the difference between a Royal Coachman and a yellow popping bug.

My teeth had been cut on the smallmouth waters of Elkhorn and Stoner Creeks, but recently, I’d begun catching trout with some regularity at the Dix River tailwater, which, in my mind, was validation of my legitimacy as a fly fisherman. So on this particular visit to the shop, the conversation quickly turned to trout. If the shop guru saw through my façade of expertise, he didn’t show it, and he asked if I’d ever fished in the Smoky Mountains. Still keeping my cards close, I pretended to be very aware of that area’s fishing but admitted that I’d never had the chance to get down there. Twenty dollars later, I’d left the store with a few flies and a guide book on fishing the Smoky Mountains.

The truth is I was familiar with the Smoky Mountains. Just three hours from my childhood home in Lexington, we made several trips down there when I was a kid, but I’d only been to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the gaudy tourist driven towns on the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that provide such diverse forms of entertainment as putt-putt golf, go-karts, and water slides. Complimented by an array of pancake houses, shops with air brushed t-shirts, wax museums, and haunted mystery mansions, the once quiet mountain towns attract millions of people from the region, and they have become such popular destinations that they are synonymous with the national park for many people. And before that fateful evening at the fly shop, I was one of them.

After looking at the Smokies through a different lens, I began to realize that there was an entirely different world just beyond the bright lights and lingering aroma of funnel cakes. To be exact, it was an 800 square mile world of pure wilderness spread across eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. Tumbling within those boundaries were over seven hundred miles of fishable trout streams, and not the stocked, there-today-gone-tomorrow streams to which I’d become accustomed. These were wild trout – the big time. In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with its native brook trout and a large population of rainbows and browns that have been taking care of themselves since Nixon was in office, could be described as somewhat of a wild trout sanctuary in the put-and-take minded South. I also found that there were quiet mountain towns like Townsend where I could avoid the chaos of Gatlinburg and it wasn’t long before the Smokies guide book was overflowing with scribbled Post-its and the car frequently overflowing with fishing and camping gear, heading south.

The Smoky Mountain trout have a reputation for being tough to catch, and on the first several trips there, this Kentucky boy, more accustomed to working the long, slow runs of area tailwaters and bass streams, did nothing to refute that myth. It wasn’t that I was catching few fish or small fish; I was catching no fish and really not even getting strikes. Even as I progressed and improved significantly as an angler, and was regarded by many as a very good fly fisherman, three-day trips to the Smokies would yield little more than four or five fish. Yet there was something magical and mysterious about the place that just kept seducing me back, and when I’d daydream about fishing, which was often, my mind wasn’t picturing the big browns of the Cumberland River, but the mist enveloped forests and roar of cascading water in the Smoky Mountains.

Certainly that goes against any instinct that an avid fly fisherman should have. Most want big fish and a lot of them, and for many, the lure of large trout, ample casting room, and relatively easy access offered by the large tailwaters is too much to resist. But I ceased to be motivated by such things long ago and yearned for quiet and solitude. Even now, when catching a dozen trout constitutes a fairly slow day for me in the Smokies, I don’t find that I enjoy these mountains and streams any more or any less than when I’d have given anything for just a dozen strikes over a long weekend. Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of this place that is the real appeal.

Or maybe it’s the solitude. Even on the busiest holiday weekend in the Smoky Mountains, when traffic on park roads is cluttered to a stand-still and tourists seem to be multiplying right before your eyes, if you’re willing to walk a few miles up a trail, you can always find countless miles of trout water without a soul in sight. The backcountry is my sanctuary. Far removed from any signs of civilization, it possesses a wildness that I need, that I crave. There’s something poetic about cell phones losing signal as soon as you cross the park boundary, and whether we realize it or not, we should all probably spend more time in places like that. But wildness and remoteness isn’t exclusive to the Smoky Mountains. What about Montana or Alaska?

That’s the toughest one to explain. In fact, when deciding where to relocate those many years ago, I had it narrowed down to Missoula, Montana and Townsend, Tennessee. At the time, I justified the decision with carefully considered factors like a longer fishing season in Tennessee, but that wasn’t the reason. Though I didn’t understand it then, he Smoky Mountains had already become a part of me and I merely made a decision to go home. Just like I knew within two weeks of meeting Christi that I wanted to marry her, some things have a way of fitting or just making sense, and you don’t have to know why.

So I answer the question as I always do, “Here. Here is my favorite place to fish.”

The typical request for clarification follows, “So, you think the Smokies has the BEST fishing? Have you been out west!?”

There isn’t a scoreboard in fly fishing, at least not an official one, so, while some places claim to have it, I’m not sure how we determine the best fishing destination. Is it the place with the most fish? Is it the place with the biggest fish? Can they be stocked and fed or do they need to be wild? Is scenery a factor? What about hatches? What if it’s crowded? What if they don’t eat dry flies? What if there are a lot of huge fish and great hatches but they’re really hard to catch? What if the fish are too easy to catch?

One of the beautiful things about fly fishing is that it satisfies different needs for different people, and what draws one person to a particular destination or aspect of the sport may not appeal at all to another. Just bring up the subject of carp fishing in a room of fly fishers and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

And even if we are able to determine what the best is, why should it even matter? Months after we had to put my fifteen year old German Shepherd down, we were finally ready for another dog. We went to the shelter with only three things on our list of criteria. We wanted a female. We didn’t want a large dog, maybe more of a mid-size. And we didn’t want a Lab. That evening we came home with Shadow: a peculiar, stubborn, mischievous, 90-pound, male black Lab who, we’re convinced, used Jedi mind tricks to win us over. Shadow wasn’t even close to being the best dog at Young-Williams Animal Center. But he was our favorite.

Rather than getting caught up in what is “the best,” with fly fishing or anything in life, you have to figure out what brings you happiness and contentment. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that thing or that place finds you.

Cecil’s Salmon – The Glory and Agony of Chasing Big Fish

I didn’t know how to break it to him or more importantly, if I even should. He was about to find out anyway, and a few seconds of warning wouldn’t do anything to lessen the unbearable disappointment. From Cecil’s perspective in the front of the canoe, everything was perfect in the world and it was written all over his face. Like a child on Christmas, his eyes were widened to the brink of explosion as he nearly had the last bit of wrapping paper off what was sure to be the gift he’d begged Santa to bring. The sides of his mouth remained cautiously at half-mast but were poised to leap off his face in the anticipated coming moments of pure delight.

He’d been doing everything right, giving the fish line to run on those explosive early sprints and applying side pressure as it made powerful digs in close. Now with his left fingers placed a few feet up the rod, gently pressing the bottom for leverage, the battle was nearly over as the fish was losing steam and beginning to glide upward near the surface. I was in the back of the canoe keeping the craft steady when I got my first good look at this colossal brown, probably twenty-eight inches long and pushing ten pounds, as he made a half-hearted run toward me. Thinking Cecil had weathered the storm, I had a hand on the net and the camera out of the bag when the mighty fish approached in what I expected to be a last second settlement offer before unconditional surrender was demanded.

What I witnessed instead was a final foreshadowing taunt. I’m certain I saw a middle fin extended when a smug grin revealed a #6 Bitch Creek nymph that was no longer firmly embedded in the upper lip of this behemoth. Rather, the fly was carelessly dangling, precariously teetering and struggling for balance, like a top in those last few rotations before collapse.

“The fly’s loose!” I exclaimed as I began to raise the net. “Bring him up now!” The decision had been made. I had to tell him if we were going to have a prayer of landing this fish.

Cecil responded immediately and applied hard steady pressure, raising the fish to the surface. But almost as soon as I had opened my mouth, the fish opened his, and the rubber legs on the detached fly danced as it began its descent to the river bottom. And the brown trout gave me a little wink as his massive shape faded into water.

This wasn’t the first time Cecil had faced disappointment.  On a different day at the Cumberland but only a couple of miles downriver, Cecil and I were fishing with Chad, another regular fishing buddy of mine. We were fishing at an enormous gravel bar with a long, broad, powerful, riffled channel running beside it and a vast flat above. We’d anchored the boat above the bar and were spread out wading, Chad at the bottom of the run, Cecil at the top, and me fishing midges to risers in the flat. Despite being a twenty-five degree January day, the fishing had been pretty productive with all of us hooking a few fish in the twelve-inch range. I was in a trance on the flat, trying to keep my eyes focused on the #22 midge pattern, when I experienced déjà vu. “Hoh-lee Shit!” When I heard what is apparently Cecil’s default big fish expletive, I turned to see him once again with rod and arms extended upward, deep bend in the graphite, and reel smoking.

Being a smart ass, I shouted, “You hung up?”

Not amused and surprisingly composed, Cecil replied, “You might want to get down here. I think it’s a good one.”

It didn’t take me long to get there and when I arrived, I found Cecil in yet another epic showdown. The fish, much like his fabled Michigan salmon, had stopped in a shallow beside the riffle about fifty feet from Cecil. He wouldn’t come and he wouldn’t go. He just hunkered down, daring Cecil to make a move. “What’s he doing?” I asked rhetorically.

“He’s not doing anything and I can’t seem to move him.”

“What happens if you go to him?”

“I’m afraid he’ll head back into fast water and break me. I’m fishing 6x. Can you net him?”

“With legitimate concern, I stated matter of factly, “I don’t think he’s ready and I’m not George!”

Chuckling at my reference to a similar pickle encountered in Michigan, he replied, “I don’t know what else to do. Where’s George when you need him?”

Trying to re-focus on the present, I advised, “I’d go to him. Get him on a shorter line where you can control him. If he runs, that’ll give you a chance to tire him out.”

“If he runs, he’ll break me. Can you try to net him?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Let’s try it. Worst that could happen is he runs which is what you want me to let him do anyway.”

“Except that you won’t have him on the shorter line,” I reasoned. “You sure you’re sure?”

“Yeah. Let’s see what happens.”

About that time, Chad arrived on the scene and asked what was going on. When I explained that Cecil was tied to an uncooperative pig of a trout and that I was about to try to net him, Chad looked at the fish and asked, “You sure he’s ready?” I responded with a shrug of the shoulders and an uncertain smile that suggested that I was just following orders. When it comes right down to it, the man holding the rod, the man who made this scenario possible in the first place, has to have final say.

So I tried to make my way slowly to the fish. Managing to maintain a stealthy approach, I was nearly within netting range. This just might work! Lord knows Cecil deserves it.

Now within six feet, I had a clear view of the fish and he was every bit as big as the heartbreaker Cecil lost at the canoe. Moving with the caution and deliberate motions of a Great Blue Heron, I slowly began lowering the net as I took another step closer. The fish then began to wiggle in the current, telling me he was about to make his move. I knew it was now or never, and just as I began to make a desperate lunge with the net, I could clearly see the trout’s face. He gave me the exact same look that Michael Jordan gives a defender before blowing by him to the basket. And that’s exactly what he did. Easily side-stepping the net lunge, he proceeded with shocking speed, a crossover dribble, a spin move, and dunked right over Cecil. Line limp. Cecil dejected. Crowd silent. Bulls win.

Though disappointed, Cecil took it all with good humor and even posed with Chad for a grip-and-grin photo with arms outstretched, holding an invisible fish. The curse would continue for years to come as he would have epic battles with epic fish on every large river and tiny stream that you can imagine. It’s hard to feel too sorry for him, though. While often coming up short, Cecil has hooked and played more giant fish than many anglers could ever hope to even see. As Tennyson so eloquently put it, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Cecil is cursed. At least he was. Like the Chicago Cubs in baseball, Cecil spent many years on the water where he just couldn’t seem to catch a break. Oh, he caught plenty of fish, and some pretty nice ones at that. He’s a very good fisherman, after all. But being a cursed fisherman does not make you a bad fisherman. It was those fish-of-a-lifetime catches that haunted Cecil. If there was a big fish in a run, and I mean a really big fish, Cecil would find it, hook it, play it, and then manage to lose it in the most heartbreaking way possible. Well, except for that salmon on the Pere Marquette in Michigan. But he had some help on that one.

At that time, my lifelong friend Mike was working for Anheuser-Busch and living in Michigan. Mike really wasn’t a fly fisherman but he was anxious to try, so Cecil and I met him in Michigan for a few days of fishing and camping. Trout would be fine, but we were really hoping to catch the fall run of salmon from Lake Michigan. On our way in, we stopped at Johnson’s Lodge to get the skinny from my buddy Sean, who informed us that we had more or less missed the run on the Pere Marquette but that the salmon were running well on the Manistee. And we didn’t question this at all. Religious salmon and steelhead fisherman know. They stay on top of and in pursuit of these runs like surfers follow big waves.

Road weary and eager to fish, we opted to set up camp on the Pere Marquette, maybe do a little trout fishing, and then head to the Manistee in the next day or two. It didn’t take us long to set up camp and we still had a few hours of daylight left, so we headed down to the river in hopes of catching an evening hatch. Expecting to cast dry flies to trout, I had my Winston four-weight, Cecil took a soft, five-weight Sage Light Line series, and Mike took whatever-the-hell we had left over. The first pool we came to was right above a small island where the river split around in two narrow channels. Cecil decided to fish there while I took Mike to a long run upstream where I could help him with his casting.

Mike was getting the hang of things pretty well, and I was about to leave him alone and head upriver when we heard that all too familiar expletive fly from the pool below. “Hoh-Lee Shit!” When we looked downriver, we saw Cecil with his rod bent over double and line screaming off his reel. With no attempt to disguise the urgency of the situation, he shouted over the zinging reel, “Rob, get your ass down here!” Mike and I reeled in as quickly as we could and plowed our way down the brushy bank.

By the time we got there, his reel had gone silent and the pool was still, but his rod was still bent deep into the butt. “You hung up?” I inquired legitimately this time.

Staring intently at where his line met the water and seemingly annoyed at my question, he replied sharply, “Hell no, I’m not hung up. I think I’ve got a salmon!” I followed his line about forty feet to the water and noticed the silver reflection at the other end – not budging an inch.

“I’ll be damned, I think you’re right,” I said with excitement. “What’s he doing?”

“He’s not doing anything. He quit running and I don’t have enough rod to move him.”

Trying to help, Mike advised, “Why don’t you go to him?”

“I tried that but every time I take a step toward him, he tries to run. I’m afraid he’s going to run me into that fast water beside the island, and there’s no way I could keep him on. Rob, do you think you can go behind him and net him?”

Removing my narrow, terribly undersized, eighteen inch Brodin net from its magnetic connection on the back of my vest, I looked over at the monster of a fish, back at my net, back at the fish, then at Cecil. “I’ll try.” As I tried to make my way around the back of the pool for a sneak attack on the fish, we noticed two guys coming from the back of the island – guys that had been in the woods for a while. They looked like they might live on the island. Stopping right next to where Cecil’s fish was firmly anchored, they looked down at the fish and up at Cecil.

“Purty nice fish ya got there,” one stated in a twang that hardly suggested Michigan origin.

“Thanks,” Cecil replied politely but obviously annoyed at the distraction.

Again looking down at the fish and back at Cecil, the potentially manifesto-writing-backwoodsman flatly stated, “You ain’t got enough rod.”

“No shit,” Cecil replied with a smile. “I was fishing for trout. My buddy’s comin’ around to help me with the net.”

Now shifting his attention to me and my pitifully inadequate net, he obviously came to the same conclusion I did earlier. I just didn’t want to disappoint Cecil. “That net? Ain’t no way. You want George here to hep you land eem?”

Seeing nothing in their hands or on the bank, I inquired, “Do you all have a bigger net?”

“Nah. George don’t needa net. He does this all the time. He loves it.”

Now having flashbacks to Larry, Darryl, and Darryl on the Bob Newhart Show, I wondered if George was able to talk. But I needed to focus. We were in a crisis here.

Knowing this wasn’t my call to make, I looked to the man with the fish for guidance. “Cecil?”

“Well somebody do somethin’. I can’t move the son-of-a-bitch.”

Taking charge, I looked over at the good ol’ boys on the bank and gave the order. “Go get ‘em George!” None of us had any idea what would come of this. I guess in the back of my mind I was expecting George to be the fish whisperer. He would ease his way toward the fish, gently coo and stroke it, and then delicately lift it from the river with no protest at all from the salmon.

Instead, like Hulk Hogan from the top rope, George dove from the island on top of Cecil’s fish. Mike and I were in tears – Cecil was in shock. Not really knowing protocol for this situation, Cecil pointed his rod tip toward the water, figuring George might want some slack. Good thing too because George was really into it with the fish, the two rolling violently in the water like Tarzan wrestling a crocodile. It didn’t last long though. In a matter of seconds, George had the fish out of the water, and in one continuous motion, body-slammed him on the island. Though, if I’m being completely honest, I think it technically may have been an Atomic Drop.

George emerged wiping the fight off his hands and displaying a proud, every-other-tooth grin and I suspected he had done this before. Proud of his friend in a Dr. Frankenstein and his monster kind of way, George’s interpreter boasted, “I told you boys George’d get em.”

“He sure as hell did,” I chimed in.

Realizing the salmon would soon die anyway, from natural causes as much as George’s Atomic Drop; Cecil made the offer to the backwoods dynamic duo, asking, “You want him?”

“You sure?” replied the interpreter.

“Yeah,” Cecil said lying. “We’ve already got a mess of trout back at camp.”

“Sure, we’ll take it. ‘Preciate it. The boys down at the VFW will love it.”

“No problem,” Cecil assured him. “Can I just get my picture taken with him real quick?”

So, deep in the archives, you can find it – a grainy photo from a disposable camera, yellowed out from age. Standing on a small island in the Pere Marquette River, Cecil is holding his delicate five-weight rod, with the smile of someone floating high above ground, and George is displaying his scatter-toothed smile through a beard that hadn’t been trimmed (or cleaned) in probably fifteen years. Between them they are holding a mighty twenty pound salmon, covered in grass, mud, and scratches. And if you look at the photo closely enough, you can kind of tell where the fish has a black eye.