I am a pretty unorganized person. Just ask my wife, buddies, co-workers, etc! There are two things, however, that I can get downright obsessive about:
1. Fly Box Organization
2. Planning Fishing Trips
I live for the level of optimism that is present from the instant the idea of a trip or day of fishing brings. From tying and organizing tens of dozens of flies, to spooling too many lines of various sink rates and cast-ability, and building the “perfect” leaders. Truth be told, maybe only a handful of those flies will ever get their moment to shine. The conditions may have you fishing a standard floating line and leader the whole time. Why the hell do we let ourselves get so bogged down in nailing down every single detail? We know from past experience that planning for every possible scenario never guarantees success.
I think as fly fishers we do it because the planning, the excitement we share in text messages and email strings about “what the fish were doing the month/week/day before we get there,” prolongs the enjoyment of our time on the water. A trip can be short, maybe cut down to just a few hours on the water. But planning makes the adventure last for weeks.
As I write this, I’m currently in a fly tying binge. Caught between blobs and woolley bugger variations on one side and tan and pink shrimp and crab imitations on the other. White marabou, jungle cock feathers, and various colors of fritz are tangled on one side of my desk. The other side is a pile of sandy pseudo hair, pink rubber legs, and small lead eyes. My dad and I each have fishing trips in the works. I am anxiously looking forward to returning to the Adirondacks in search of brook trout, colored up and aggressive, preparing for their spawning season. He is headed toward white sandy beaches, bonefish, snook, oppressive heat and humidity, and big starving mosquitoes. Well, the last few are what I’m telling myself knowing I won’t be going. I will be about 1,200 miles from the nearest bonefish, but that hasn’t stopped me from looking for easily wadeable flats or dreaming of scanning the choppy, glared sea surface in search of hungry shadows.
The trips come and go. They are the shortest portion of the story, but they are the everlasting highlights. Memories of fish caught or missed, unforgettable scenery, and friendships formed with other anglers leave us rambling on for years, possibly forever, about the time spent doing what we are incurably passionate about. At least it gives us something to think about while we’re tying flies for the next opportunity.
“Damn, this looks good,” I gushed about the smallish, roiling pocketwater in front of us.
Etienne agreed, “Yeah, it’s really good. That big rapid is full of big fish, but usually if people can hook them, they take them downstream and break off.”
It was easy to see how this would happen. Big fish have a knack for doing exactly what’s required of them to be a hassle, and ultimately, escape. We sat on the bank and observed the pool. Plenty of big caddis were struggling in the current before popping off the surface. Just enough to see exactly the fish I was looking for. “Oh dude, that was a good one.”
“Do your thing.”
I peeled line off the reel and dropped the slack to the ground as I set my feet on the river’s edge. Curved-Reach Cast to the right, I thought to myself as my No. 8 olive and yellow Stimulator sailed toward the target. Mend, mend, nothing. A good drift with no response. I tried a similar shot and got a splashy rise. A nice brookie that was 8 or 10 inches, but respectively a minnow in these rivers. Back he went. Two more drifts went through with no response before he came up and grabbed another natural.
“Tough current,” I admitted and Etienne nodded with acknowledgement.
“Yep, it is.“
On the next cast, the fly drifted downstream freely, just on the other side of the main current, in front of the submerged boulder we knew the fish was sitting under. The river was deep and we knew it would take a real commitment for him to rise. The surface bulged and the white and black mouth of a rising brook trout engulfed the shaggy imitation.
“Yep!” I shouted. The fish bulled down toward the bottom, from one side of the pool to the other. And then he did what we knew he would do. He took off downstream in the heavy current. “Here we go!” Etienne laughed with subdued excitement as he grabbed the net and trotted down the trail just behind the alders.
On my way down the bank my rod doubled over, applying side pressure to coax him into the calmer water at our feet. The cagey char had wrapped himself around a big boulder and the line stopped. Etienne strode down the trail making sure I had a clear path and a net man ready. Suddenly, he realized I was no longer following him.
“Well, that was fun!” he joked while stepping back to where I had stopped with the line still taught. I tried twice to free the line from the snag, still skeptical of why the line remained under tension. On the third or fourth attempt, I threw in a little extra effort and displayed my impressively small vertical leap. Coupled with a circular overhead sweep of the rod tip and line, everything dislodged over the top of the rock, and the fish continued downstream with violent headshakes. As we followed the somehow still connected fish down the main flow Etienne chuckled, “Oh, you are so lucky!”
The luck got even more laughable. After we got around the boulder garden and downstream of the fish, he was ready to give up and slid neatly into the net. Shaking his head, Etienne muttered, “Man, you’ve got some crazy fish karma.”
Call it whatever you’d like. Luck, karma, or the result of fishing size 8 dry flies on 2X, I’ll take it. I sat on the bank and replaced my absolutely shredded leader and took a moment to soak it all in. Everything that could have gone wrong did and somehow we were still fortunate enough to capture and release a stunning trout. The only thing left to do was to set off to find the next rising trout.
“I’m not sure you should be reading that,” lamented my dad. He saw his old copy of Trout Bum by John Gierach at the top of my stack of text books as I was packing up to head back to Philadelphia after the holidays. “You’ll quit school and move out West.” Honestly, how did I not quit school and move out west?
In my days at Drexel, you were more likely to find me sucked into tales about one of Gierach’s fishing trips than one of my engineering text books. Shocker. The story that stuck with me most of all was the one about fishing dry flies for brook trout that were measured in pounds. In what kind of other galaxy was this even remotely possible? Labrador.
Labrador was always kind of a magic word to me. Where the hell was this place? A long way away, but I knew, someday, I had to go there. More recently my uncle was visiting us from Maine for a family get together and asked my dad and I, “Would you like to go to Labrador?” Um, YES.
My uncle personally knew a guide who hosted trips and one of his destinations was in the magical land of mega brook trout. Over the course of a year and a half of hoarding vacation time and extra cash, the excitement began to build. Fifteen or so years ago, I had read about this place and now somehow it was our next destination.
I’m not going to lie, expectations were very high, but having never been somewhere like this, I didn’t have any idea what was realistic. Well, expectations were met and exceeded. I have never seen better fishing in my entire life. It was an adventure from the minute we said we were in. Skeptical Canadian Border Crossing Guards, driving 120 km/hr on sketchy dirt roads through Quebec, not speaking a lick of French, missing ferries across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, float plane delay days, and learning about birds and edible plants in the boreal forest all paled in comparison to the brook trout fishery.
We were spoiled with finely prepared French cuisine, escorted to the best sections of river in wooden square stern canoes propelled by 20 horse short shaft outboards, greeted anxiously by ravenous mosquitoes and black flies wherever we went, and welcomed back to camp by Zula the wonder dog. Caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies hatched steadily every day. If fish weren’t willing to look up, they would usually react with a well presented streamer. Most often though, it was the dry flies they wanted. Who was I to argue!
It’s been a dream of mine to go to Labrador for years and it’s still sinking in that we got to experience such an incredible place. Sharing the journey with my dad and uncle made it even more unforgettable. Watching kyped beaks break the surface for emerging caddis in margins of rapid rivers, followed behind by a vermiculated dorsal and broad red tail waving like a flag will forever be burned into my brain.
A few years ago I made a trip out to Arkansas with a buddy and we saw a grand total of 4 hours of meager generation and nothing else but minimum flows for four days. With almost no discussion, we knew what it meant. Four days of fishing until 2 am, getting some quick sleep and a shower, and back on the water by 6 am. I feel like, two years later, I’m ready to admit that was hard haha. Would I do it again tomorrow? Just say go.
We knew we only had a few days and wanted to see as much as humanly possible. We fished with Alex Lafkas during the day and put some good numbers of fish in the boat. With skimpy flows we just weren’t finding the size that system is known for. Pat told me that night that the tone was set when, after Alex netted the first 18″ fish, he asked me if I wanted to get a pic. My answer should have been a little more tactful than, “mmm… No, let’s keep fishing.”
I personally learned a ton fishing and hanging out with Alex and seeing a new river. He was very helpful pointing us to spots to check out on our own and had us into fish even when he wasn’t around. No one can MAKE the fish eat, but we did our damnedest to try! We ended up getting a handful of good ones we wouldn’t have if we’d mailed in. Sometimes, you gotta just get after it.
I’m pretty lucky to fish with some die hard anglers: buddies, guides, and some assorted weirdos. They make me a better angler and a better person. They make me push the limits for “comfortable” and find out what is really possible. Surround yourself with people who are thoughtful and better anglers than yourself. People who ask you to explain why you’re doing things the way you are and expect a damn good answer.
You have to have goals in mind. It really is important to push yourself. Just don’t forget to take time to sit back, crack a beer, and appreciate the moments ingrained in trying to find fish. There is certainly a dichotomy to all this. Sometimes you have to get out there and bust it and sometimes you have to accept the bite is off or the bugs aren’t hatching. Fish hard anyway, but take time to grab some food, share some stories, and joke around with your buddies. Ask some questions and treat ‘bad’ fishing as an opportunity to learn something and test some theories. Get out there and live it. Soak it in.
At this point, I can’t remember how many times we’ve driven south to the craggy Tennessee, North Carolina border. We’ve traveled down in the spring seeking early season camping and dry fly action before things get going in Pennsylvania. We’ve extended the season by going down in the fall to fish among spectacular autumnal mosaic mountains long after our leaves have fallen in the north.
Each time we make the trek, things are the same but different; consistently unpredictable. I guess that’s what keeps us going back? Our most recent trip was a totally new experience. After years of my dad and I, or my wife and I talking up the country’s most visited National Park, we recruited a whole troop of family to get together in Southern Appalachia. The goal of this trip, instead of the usual fishing excursion, was to celebrate my sister’s birthday. But let’s be serious: of course we went fishing.
The fish in Great Smoky Mountain National Park are all wild, but only brook trout are native. The trout don’t often reach too grand of stature, but I don’t remember catching too many that didn’t boast exceptional colors. The fishing here is tough. With the gin clear water, fish rarely even raise a fin at a dragging fly. Technical, physically grueling fishing with the rewards being stubby trout? Aren’t there easier options? Sure, but easy is boring.
This trip only allowed for a couple short outings but this fishing did not disappoint. It was slower than normal, thanks to a cold front that seems to be typical everywhere this spring (if you can call it spring). Also, typical was my dad’s propensity to save up all his fishing karma and use it to catch THE fish, every time.
Another thing you can count on, is us talking about when we can make the next trip back to the Smokies before we’ve even left and which streams we’d really like to get back to.
It started like a lot of piscatorial pilgrimages do, a whisper about a hallowed river, sacred to those who’ve had the privilege to witness it. One that flows out of the side of a volcano and a mystical fish that lives in it. I read stories about how difficult the fishing could be, but how great were the potential rewards. Yep, I’m in.
I remember telling my, then girlfriend, “someday, I’m going to catch a bull trout.” “It’s basically a three foot long brook trout,” was my over simplification of how to describe what a fish like that, a cousin to our state fish in Pennsylvania that rarely exceeds diminutive size, would mean. Let’s be honest, if I’m obsessed with a six inch brook trout, I’m exponentially excited about these fish and their brethren with every additional inch they achieve.
My interest in them only grew over the next few years. It grew to the point my (now) wife said, “Just freaking do it. Why wait?” It doesn’t take long being married to know better than to argue with your spouse. Ha!
I started probing my buddies to see what their interest level was. “You want to go where? And catch what? Sounds cool man, but you’re crazy. Maybe next time,” was pretty much the response. I can live with that. So, I booked it. All by my lonesome. What better way to spend your birthday trip than alone, sleeping in the back of a rental car, hunting the fish of a lifetime? No big deal.
Well, as planning got under way, maps and details started trolling in, leave it to your longest-standing fishing buddy to not be able to miss out. My dad decided maybe, he’d better go, too. It also worked out that one of my favorite bands was releasing their newest album and playing a live show 30 miles down the road. Well, holy shit. What a turn of events. Now, it’s turning into a fishing trip!
I spent a good deal of time talking with fly shops local to the area and a local angler, who it didn’t take me long to figure out really knew his stuff. [Thanks to local PA guy for putting me in touch!] It can be a little touchy in these types of situations to be respectful of the guys who call a river home. You want to get enough info so you have a chance to be successful, but still have enough to figure out to make it a challenge.
We timed our trip with the annual run of kokanee salmon and (hopefully) big hungry bullies following their food source. On our way into town we stopped at the fly shop to license up and finally introduce myself to the shop owner I’d been pestering sporadically with e-mails for a couple years. After a long day of travel and shrinking fall daylight, we checked in to the cabin, hung out, grilled up some dinner, and cracked a few beers. A quick walk behind the cabin as the sun was setting revealed, “Oh yeah, the salmon are here.”
Ah, my old frienemies jet lag and time zone changes. We were up about two hours before the sun, no need for alarm clocks. We had plenty of time to stretch lines and string up the 8 weights. When we finally couldn’t stand it anymore, we set off into the morning fog on our way.
We fished HARD. Covered miles on foot, probing deep undercuts, seams, and pretty much anywhere we could get a fly in the water. I don’t think I’ve ever done as many steeple casts in my life. We had to. The river was up and the banks were choked with brush and pine. It was like brook trout fishing with light musky equipment. Pretty damn cool.
I have to say, I’ve been fortunate to see a lot a places. I don’t think I have ever seen a more beautiful river. It is simply incredible. We saw kokanee by the hundreds, if not thousands. Honestly, the trout could eat whenever and however many they could want. How in the hell were we going to get our flies noticed? Persistence.
Well, at the end of the first day we were beat up. One follow from a mid teens fish (that probably wasn’t a bull trout anyway) wasn’t what we’d hoped for, but we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We had another day and a half to try.
We were back after it in the wee hours the next day. New section, new water, same outcome. Where the hell are they?
Like a bolt of lightning, I was stopped in my tracks. There he was. A Bull Trout that had to be all of three feet long and as big around as my leg. Every mini salmon imitation and whitefish fly I had swam through his territory and he didn’t flinch. He had some roughly twenty inch cronies at his side that were interested enough to follow but not eat. Damn.
About 100 yards down, I found another school of them. The biggest probably nineteen inches. I made a few casts, same result. Switched flies and suddenly something changed. A baby bull had seen enough and went in for the kill.
Not going to lie, it felt GOOD to be on the board. I am the king of small fish. Rarely do we have a trip that I don’t catch the smallest. Hey, we all have our thing. I’m just glad I can be consistent.
We kept after it and we were rewarded. It’s crazy we went a day and a half without seeing a bull trout and suddenly they were ON. My dad and I each picked up another.
We fished until we were forced off the river by setting sun, daylight to dark. Grabbed a quick bite to eat and went to town to see Billy Stings, The Whiskey Shivers, and Trout Steak Revival. All, in all, a solid day.
Our final day we were running on a couple hours of sleep, but couldn’t be kept off the river. We scrambled to make every cast we could before rushing back to the cabin to meet our checkout time. When time is short, cram in as much as you can. We stopped at the fly shop on the way out to let them know we got lucky. A guy in the shop told us he’d been fishing the river for the last 20 years and had never landed a bull trout. The river lived up to its reputation. TOUGH fishing, but SO worth it.
Persistence paid off on this trip, and not just when it came to the fishing. If you find a fish species that captivates you, it may take years for it to come together. Set yourself a goal and don’t take no for an answer.