Thursday, April 17, 2014

Secret Waters

I had hoped that one of the “secrets” my friend Chris Hunt reveals in Fly Fishing Idaho's Secret Waters 
is that they are, in fact, not in Idaho at all, but surreptitiously hidden in some out-of-the-way corner of North Carolina. I was disappointed, of course. But, short of that one minor geographical issue, the book stood up to my every expectation. And I expected a lot.

But before we get started, let’s address one pressing issue. Giving away secrets, especially secret fishin’ holes, is frowned upon in many circles. We, fly fishermen, are as tight-lipped a lot as you’ll find and don’t cotton much to having our honey-holes exposed. Early on, Chris takes faces the music:

… our backcountry and backcountry trout deserve the appreciation of anglers who, without a bit of encouragement, might not venture very far from the blacktop to chase fish. The more anglers who experience the backcountry, the more allies our wild fish have when it comes time to beat back a bad idea or stand up to those who don’t share our conservation values. Anglers – and hunters – are more and more important in the conservation discussion all across America… If it gives one angler the motivation to write a letter to Congress or craft a letter to the editor of his local paper when that action is needed to protect the backcountry and our Idaho way of life, it’s worth it.

That being said, Chris doesn’t really give away the keys to the kingdom. There’s no maps with Xs where the trout are or detailed descriptions of trailheads or highlighted pathways into the backcountry. Instead, he gives the reader a starting point; or, as he describes it, a short head start on their own journey to discover backcountry treasures filled with wild fish and experiences we all thrive to uncover. At the end of each chapter (the book being divided primarily by region) Chris gets as close to “giving it away” as he will by providing a page reference in the Delorme’s Idaho Atlas & Gazetteer and an invitation to explore the small blue lines found therein. But, paired with the vivid descriptions and stories surrounding each of the Idaho gems, it’s a hell of a start for those with a true desire.

It’s appropriate that Secret Waters is published by History Press because it’s the history that the book contains that makes it so fascinating. The first two chapters put Idaho and its storied fishery in perspective. Papa Hemmingway, his son Jack, the incredible conservative contributions of Ted Trueblood, Carter H. Harrison. The stories Henry’s Fork, Salmon, Silver Creek, South Fork of the Snake. The Ranch.

But it’s the smaller waters, and smaller histories that make this book special. Each tiny creek and hidden tributary that Chris describes has its own stories to be told. And Chris tells them well. From geological origins to native American inhabitants to Louis and Clark’s explorations; Western outlaws to local politics to more recent legislative battles. Chris gives you the background. A trout is a trout, if you’ll pardon the generality, but it’s the places that sing to the seasoned fisherman. Knowing the past gives perspective - a look into the soul of a waterway that connects a man with his surroundings in a way that sticks forever.

And the history that’s the most comfortably relayed is Chris’s own, his personal memories of each blue line. The folks that he fished with, the color of the sky that particular day, the things that made each splash special to him. Family and friends brought together by a fly rod. This book is personal, not just a dry how-to; appreciated, here, for I feel the most boring part of fishing literature is usually the fishing itself.

And the book's far from boring, especially visually. It’s lovely to page through; full of colorful and inspiring photography. Grand vistas and tiny plunge pools. Wildlife and streamsides. Idaho in its glory. You can easily see the pull of the place.

Okay. A confession, I suppose, is in order. The realization that these streams are not in North Carolina was not my only disappointment upon opening these pages. There was another. After the first few pages of Fly Fishing Idaho's Secret WatersI found myself disappointed that I was unable to jump a westbound jet, right then and there, to explore some of these hidden gems for myself.

Someday, Mr. Hunt. Someday.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

When the Dogwood Blooms

The dogwood. It mocked me. Looked straight into my bedroom window and said “It’s just a little water, you pansy.

(For the record, the potted pansies on our deck are tough little buggers. They’ve withstood snow and ice and general neglect over the past few weeks and are still looking good. Their reputation of wimpiness is a bit harsh. They’d kick a begonia’s ass, that’s for sure. The dogwood should know that.)

The phone message said, “Hey Mike. It’s Troy. Want to go after some white bass in the rain? Give me a call if you get a chance.” It wasn’t raining. It was pouring! Go out in that for a few measly white bass? You’ve got to be kidding.

I stared out the window and the tree laughed.

I’ll admit right up front that white bass aren’t my favorites. But how can you not chase a few at this time of year? Pull out a fly rod stout enough to push a well-weighted small clouser and intermediate line, yet light enough to make it sport, and you can have a pretty good time nicking fish flowing out of the reservoir and up into the bigger tribs to spawn. Catch a few dozen in a couple of hours, easy. Eight to fourteen inches, occasionally bigger, with some tug. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, I suppose. Even in the rain.

And perhaps the rain was the reason to go. The run was on. The river, for the first time in weeks, had dropped to a level that made the float worth a try, but it wouldn’t be for long. The forecast suggested that there was at least an inch of rain, and probably more, on the way throughout the upper watershed, meaning another two weeks of high and dirty water. The spawn would be over. It was probably our last shot.

So I gathered the Gore-Tex and a layer or two and we went. You don’t know if you don’t go.

When the dogwoods bloom, the white bass run. The tree knew that.

I wonder if it knew what else was in store.

Note: Ten pounds of river largemouth on a 7wt, intermediate sink line, and a #4 chartreuse-and-white clouser. It don't get no better. Thanks, dogwood.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Photo Bin - March 2014

Simply put, March sucked

Sucked for the fisherman
Sucked for the gardener
Sucked for the photographer

Only the weatherman enjoyed the duration
And schoolchildren, bless their stay-at-home hearts
Just wait till those June makeup days, kids
See how much fun then

So I'm throwin' in the towel on this month's bin
Sharing only the very last click of the shutter
My way of saying good riddance, March

Don't let the screen door hit you
On your way out

What is a Photo Bin?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dew Buggers

If you've been around here for a while, you've come to know three things about me.

First, while I love to chase trout, I hate fishing nymphs. I’m an unapologetic, can’t stand still, gun and run streamer fisherman, period, and at times it’s put a serious crimp in my catch rate. That is, it used to. This recent swing in fishing fortune leads me to the second thing…

... I’m a Mt. Dew addict. While you probably wake up each morning and head for the coffee pot, I get out of bed and stumble downstairs to the basement fridge for some green lightning. It’s often what gets me from under the covers, thinking about how good that first slug will taste. It’s a sad thing to admit, but I’m hooked just as firmly as if by nicotine or hard drugs.

So how does my trout catch rate lead to Mt. Dew in a single step?

Late in the Fall of 2012 I visited my nemesis, The Smith, in southern Virginia. The river has kicked my ass again and again over the past decade, keeping a stingy hold on its numerous, but finicky, brown trout. Regardless, I keep going back. Stubborn, I guess, both the river and I.

That particular day, like most every other, I parked at the old mirror plant, dropped the tailgate, and rigged my gear. Ready to slip into my waders, I turned and hopped to a seat, clumsily knocking over the ubiquitous open soda bottle, dumping pop all over my boots and small, open Cliff Days Worth box of woolly buggers, soaking everything completely and cruelly wasting half-a-bottle of my green liquid crutch.

The boots would be fine but the flies were a mess. A quick shake was the best I could do, for that moment, so I closed the box, stuck it in a vest pocket, intending to rinse the whole shooting match once I got to the water. I forgot the cleanup, of course, once I stepped into the flow, intent only on catching that first trout. It didn’t happen right away, goddam Smith.

After an hour of frustration and a few changes of flies, I remembered the buggers. They were a sticky mess, as you can imagine, but I pried a mid-sized olive from the tacky blue foam and tied it on. First swing, the skunk was off as a nice twelve-incher came to hand. Second swing, another brown. And so on throughout the day.

The light bulb came on. A Eureka moment ensued.

To make a long story short (you’re welcome), after a lot of trial and error, Mt. Dew-soaked olive woollies have become my go-to trout candy; #8s with a lead wire underwrap and a bright red gill finish at the hook’s eye. “Untreated” olives don’t cut it. Similarly treated blacks or browns or whites don’t work. Saturated olives get attention.

I have a handful of theories as to why this works, but can prove none of them. Perhaps the brominated vegetable oil (BVO) that keeps that soda’s coloration so perfectly suspended (and causes most of the civilized world to ban this ingredient from human consumption) affects the viscosity or hydrological properties of the water around the fly in a manner that’s somehow appealing to fish. Maybe, because it only works with olive buggers, the eerie green solution generates a prismatic effect of some sort. Or it could be that, like me, the caffeine gets the trout’s motor running. I don’t know how, but it works. Consistently.

So now, before I head for the stream, I soak a handful of buggers in Mt. Dew (not diet or caffeine free – only the real stuff), then let them dry before putting them in my “sticky” Cliff box. I’ve even taken to carrying a small atomizing bottle of the soft drink to “re-energize” a fading streamer (or to take a quick, reviving sip myself). I’ve done it quietly, though. My fishing buddies don’t know what my edge has been.

Now I don’t want to get into a protracted ethical discussion about doctoring flies. The way I see it, if I’m willing to drink the stuff then it’s fair game to apply it to a streamer. It’s not like it's a scent or anything. Whatever the reason, it’s helped me tame that bloody Smith River and, as an amusing side effect, has my puzzled compatriots murmuring to themselves with great regularity.

Got a river kicking your ass? Give it a try.

But don't get hooked.

Note: Of course, the third thing that you have come to know about me by now is that I am not to be trusted on the 1st of April.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Half Full

“There’s a beast down in this pool. I thought it was a log, 'til it moved.”

Fishermen are an optimistic lot. They’re constantly willing fish – big fish - into existence by deduction, desire, and the delusive interpretation of capricious apparitions that are given life (and fins) by light’s passage through moving water. Rock and stick and shadow are no match for this power. I suppose it’s why I appreciate my fishin’ buddies so much; they’re hopelessly positive. Always anticipating the big bite. Always certain that the next cast will be the one. Always bottle half-full.

So when Marc said those words I smiled, nodded, and turned back up stream, knowing that he’d be there a while. He’d drunk the Kool-aid. Moreover, he has the makeup to stand over a run for hours, focused on drift after drift; the world reduced to an endless loop; the repetitive movement of a tiny nymph under a yarn indicator along a liquid seam, time and time and time again.

I’d go insane.


You see, I’m an unapologetic streamer addict with happy feet. If a trout hasn’t come knockin' on my minnow/muddler/marabou/whatever after a handful of swings, I’m on the move, quartering my way downstream. I suspect (hell, I know) that I drive my companions crazy. One minute I’m at the tailout below. The next minute, I’m out of sight. Way out of sight. I'm hard to keep track of.

So when Marc hunkered down to drift the “beast” into hypnotic submission, I climbed back up to the roadway, intent on walking a half-mile upstream and working my way back down again. He’d still be there. I had plenty of time.

But I didn’t get far.


This waterway’s tucked tidily into the extreme western point of the state, flowing out of the Smokies to join with a myriad of watersheds to feed North Carolina's glittering jewel, Fontana. An hour-and-a-half out of Asheville, maybe two from Knoxville, it’s part of the Delayed Harvest program; a hatchery supported stream that’s strictly catch-and-release for the majority of the year but with windows of opportunity for the legal, controlled harvesting of trout.

North Carolina DH waters are often borderline habitats; streams that might possibly attain inhospitable temperatures in our scorching southern summers. The “delayed harvest” periods tend to coincide with the onset of seasonal heat, saving a few fish from Carolina’s slow boil. That is, if you consider getting caught and eaten as being saved. I suppose being fried is better than being poached.


“Mike! Come back! I’m gonna need HELP!”

So maybe there was a good fish down there. I knew that Marc’s small stream net bag wasn’t going to be enough to scoop a really good-sized trout. (And, to be sure, this fish would be big, based on the excitement in his voice.) My deep seventeen-inch Gallatin might come in handy. I headed back.

As I scrambled back down the rock face, I scanned for the fish, expecting to see all hell breaking loose, but there was only Marc’s strike indicator hovering a foot above the pool’s surface; gliding slowly and quietly upstream. No thrashing about. No zigzags. Just steady, forward motion. Like a freight train pulling out of the depot.

It took a moment, but ahead of the indicator, crawling the bottom of the pool, I picked out the fish - five, maybe six feet down - and was stunned. My Brodin was a joke. The foot-and-a-half, deep-bagged rubber net might as well have been an aquarium dipper.


What makes this particular DH stream unique is that it runs colder year round than most and, on occasion, the state releases broodstock into it. To keep the genetic lines of brook, brown, and rainbow trout robust, NC Wildlife often replaces its egg-machine hens, retiring the old ones and letting them finish their days in a natural setting rather than the dreary concrete hatchery chutes. A nice touch.

The day before, I had coaxed a nineteen-inch, football-shaped brook trout from a tiny plunge pool just upstream. It was a fish impossibly large to have matured on the thin hatches along this stretch and its scuffed nose further gave away its origins.

Stocked or not, it had been the fish of the weekend. Until…


Marc’s face wore a rugged mask of concentration, panic, determination and disbelief; all appropriate given he was tied to a departing submarine by a spiderweb strand of 6X. Ten, maybe fifteen, pounds of salmonid on three-pounds of floro. That’s bad math.

There was no panic in the fish. It moved steadily towards the top of the forty-yard pool as Marc gently palmed the reel, his 5wt Helios absorbing and buffering the strain in impressive manner. As the beast reached the riffles it held, glided left, then right, and paused, giving everyone a moment to catch their breath. To wonder what came next. Whatever it was, it was the fish’s decision, not ours. We waited.

There was no option to follow the trout. We clung to a small outcropping in a steep rock wall, the outside edge of a bend in the stream, spooned into a roadside curve. Behind us stood a fifteen-foot climb to the asphalt; before of us, a deep pool with no transitional space. We were stuck there for the duration.

In time, the fish let the current push it back towards the heart of the pool, towards us, and Marc carefully applied pressure to direct it to our side. I clung to the rocks, prepared to reach out should it get close enough to grasp. Patiently, Marc eased it our way and, as it came close, it rose and we got our first clear look.

More steelhead than mountain trout, this rainbow was massive. My best guess is thirty-two inches. Marc suggests longer and I'd be hard pressed to argue. A hen, without kype, and a chunk taken from her upper tail, she was the biggest freshwater fish I’d ever seen; just out of reach and drifting back into the pool.

Twice more it approached and I tapped its tail, trying to wrangle it with the Brodin. Each time it sullenly declined and slipped back to the heart of the waterway.

A final time it came close, but slid further downstream, Marc's leader slipping under a submerged branch just within my reach. I stretched and tenderly rested my finger alongside the butt section and eased if from under the limb, holding my breath as if I were clipping the red wire (or should it be the blue?) from a ticking time bomb. No explosion. The tippet held.

But the hen drifted further along, adding the weight of the current to the already unbalanced equation, and Marc feared the leader had hung once again. I reached out and, just as I touched it, the 6X’s timer expired. There was a sickening ping and time stood still…

…‘til the beast slowly turned and continued downstream.


We sat by the roadside. Pulled two chairs from the back of the truck, and a bottle, and just sat. We hadn’t the heart to wet another line, despite the fact that a full afternoon lay ahead and the day was a peach. There was even a hatch in the offing.

We could have kept fishing, but to what end?

We were gutted.


After a while we left. Packed the chairs, threw the still quivering gear into the back, and drove home. Five hours of road time to think about what had transpired.

Was it my second kiss on the leader? Was it the added current? Was it the accumulated stress of a fifteen-minute fight on tender 6X? In truth, the manner by which Marc kept the fight alive for so long is more worthy of analysis than the break-off. But what actually tipped the scales, we’ll never know.

I have friends who consider a fish caught if it’s been touched, sparing them the loss if one’s been fumbled away at the end. So I suppose that Marc could say that we landed the hen once my net brushed its tail.

It doesn’t feel that way.

Perhaps we could have been more patient. Tired her further before nudging her close. Tailed her. Or I could have climbed to the road and gone thirty yards downstream to the riffles below and waited for a worn out fish to drift down. I fear we’d have killed her, though, providing an unjust end to a life of service to the fishermen of our state. We’ll be catching her offspring for years so she deserves better than that.

And besides, this way she’s still out there. Out there feeding the next fisherman’s optimism. Feeding ours. For when you can hook and fight a three-foot trout in the small tumbling waters of the Appalachians, anything’s possible. The bottle's always half-full.

Hey. Did that log just move?

Note: A belated thanks to Marc Payne, Gary, and E.L. for the kind invitation to join them on their annual weekend getaway. It was an honor to be included and a most memorable couple of days, as you can plainly see.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Times and Places

Times and places.

The smell of a good fire.
Warm toes and cool backside.
Organic music, six strings and mellow.
Sleeping bag ready, and inviting.
Trout today and more to chase tomorrow.

Times and places.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Photo Bin - February 2014

It must be stated, right up front, that the picture above violates the only two rules governing these photo bins; that the images were taken in the current month and that I took them. Instead, this shot was taken a day or two before Christmas and by one of my "other sons" from the old neighborhood. (There's a long and wonderful story here of family that exists, not by the accident of birth, but, rather, by friendship and community and dedication to others. But that's a telling for another time.)

I take the liberty of posting it here because the image began as a composition/light challenged iPhone shot of the "family's" newest addition sharing some quiet time with Grandpa's lab and I was given, this month, the opportunity to try to save it with a little Lightroom magic. The Adobe gods smiled so I add this heartwarming creation here, despite the breach of protocol.

A shot like this is worth breaking a few rules.

Moving along to some images that play more according to Hoyle...

I suppose that if you live in the south, pictures of our recent snows are obligatory, even if most of the rest of the country is damn sick and tired of seeing them. Get over it, Michigan. It's an event down here and the world slides further into the ditch for us with every inch.

Off the back porch. Out the front door. Through the bedroom window. All the views were spectacular.

And since this is a fishing blog, I feel compelled to add some appropriate content. Here's a fairly unremarkable shot of a very remarkable angler. I add it, despite it's blandness, because I chuckle at the sign and wonder how you tell him not to.

Oh, and that reminds me of a story...

Kent Edmonds (TFO rep extraordinaire, among many other things) and I carried a Mangrove out to the disappointingly narrow demonstration pool at the Winston-Salem Fly Fishing Expo to give it a try. After a couple of casts I felt a tap on my shoulder and a gentleman asked if we minded sliding over just a bit so that he could show another the peculiarities of a particular bamboo rod. I turned, sized the guy up, and bit my tongue, wanting so badly to say "Are you kidding me? Who do you think you are? F@#king Lefty Kreh?!"

It was, of course, and Kent tells me I should have. Lefty would have loved it.

What is a Photo Bin?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Skipping Away

I shuffled through the rapidly accumulating Indiana snow, head down, buried deep in my overcoat and deeper in my thoughts. Adrift. The night air hung heavy; a thick winter pall, muting all sound and shrouding all sight; a white weight descending, smothering, despite the mortuary's parking lot lights' best efforts to pierce the soft obscurity.

Forgive me, kind reader, this cruel bait and switch, for this post is not about the fish pictured above, impressive though they be. Rather, it is about the young lady in the middle, holding the trophies. Truth be told, she was not a sportswoman - at least not for the years that I knew her - though the piles of photos we've wandered through these past couple of days hold their share of sepia-toned surprises; big bass just the beginning. Who is the girl? That vibrant young thing is my wife's mother, Emmy, who, I am so sad to say, left us this past week.

No obituary, this. No recount of the things she'd accomplished in her lifetime, as if there was room for them all to be listed here. This is no long tribute. Let the papers do that.

Instead, it is a simple thanks. For her smile. For her warmth. For her generosity. And for her gracious acceptance of me, though I turned up in her daughter's life at the most awkward of times. Thank you for so many things, dear Emmaline, but especially for that.

As my wife communicated the passing and simple details to friends and family, she, at one point, texted that her mother had slipped away, only to have a misplaced finger, no doubt assisted by misty eyes, misspell and send that she had skipped away. Mary quickly rectified the error, but its recipient replied that he rather liked the image of Emmy skipping happily once again, on to her next big challenge.

And as I trudged through the parking lot to clear the windshield and warm the cold car after the family visitation, surrounded by the hush of falling snow and heavy hearts, I, too, had to smile as I imagined the lass with the bass skipping away; pirouetting into the endless swirls of white.

Godspeed, dear Emmy. Godspeed.