Airborne, my light blue heron Sharkskin disappeared into the thick, falling snow; slate grey strand invisible against the backdrop of heavy, leaden skies and white-coated tree branches. Without visual cues, the other senses are enjoined – feeling the flex of the rod, hearing the textured line whisper through iced stainless steel guides, sensing the gentle rhythms of the slow, steady tick-ticking metronome that is the cast.
It's become a happy Thanksgiving tradition to spend the holiday with friends and family at Jo and Dewey’s home on the lake. One of the particular joys of this gathering is the attendance of everyone’s four-legged friends and this year we had them in packs. The house was filled with the festive patter of a dozen folks and their eight canine companions. It was a dog’s day.
Of course I didn’t catch anything. That wasn’t the point.
The point was to take advantage of a miraculous late November mid-seventies day for one last hike to the Haw, one last wade in my home waters, one last shot at them river largemouths, before officially closing the book on my warm-water season.
I had this crazy notion that Indian summer temperatures and an approaching storm front that had barometric pressures dropping like autumn leaves would goad the bass into one last pre-winter feed. It wasn’t to be. Too many cold nights have put them down for good. I just needed to know.
I caught no fish, and that's okay. I got what I really went after.
We were awakened last night by a deep, soft whump – felt in the pit of our stomachs as much as it was heard – and we puzzled over what it could have been. This morning it was clear what had happened. Every sourwood, sweetgum, redbud, poplar, and dogwood leaf had conspired and fallen as one, a blanket upon the earth, obscuring driveway and walking paths, woodpiles and birdbaths, gravel roads and stone fences, everything. And while the fierce oaks and mighty maples still cling tenaciously to their brilliant but fast-fading foliage, today’s gentle autumn breezes have begun to pry loose even those crisp sheets, bringing them to the forest floor like slow gentle rain.
What do you do when your recent western trout trips have been, how can I say this nicely, a bit short of stellar? You simply turn the other way and head east, of course, and chase trout of a different kind.
One of the joys of living in the heart of North Carolina, the Variety Vacationland, is that by driving but a couple short hours you can find yourself on a tumbling Appalachian mountain stream or along the grassy inlets and surf of the eastern seaboard. For a fisherman, it's a delightful dilemma - which way to go? But after the battering I've taken on my recent excursions to points west, a change of scenery made perfect sense. And the deal was closed with a call from my buddy Troy who invited me down to his place on Emerald Isle to chase some speckled trout and, with luck, a redfish or two around the grass and oyster beds of those intercoastal waterways.
Dam Philpott, source of the Smith River tailwaters, Bassett, VA.
Dam(n) cold, the air hanging below the structure at sunrise, as though the previous evening's discharge had shaken off it's lake-bottom chill and left it hovering in smoky wisps beneath the towering ediface.
Dam(n) picky, the Smith River browns, who spurned everything we threw at them, and we threw a lot.
Dam(n) fine, the brilliant fall day we spent up and down the waterway, soaking in the bluebird skies and breathtaking autumnal colors.
Dam(n) lucky, Curtis and I, to have been out there.
I walked out of the front door, this rainy afternoon, and there she was - one of the twins, born this past spring, finally shaking off the spots and getting her first winter coat. You can be sure that Mom and Sis were close by, probably just over the ridge.
A brilliant day on Wilson Creek. The fishin' wasn't much to write home about but the early fall watercolors were. So don your magical polarized lenses, click each shot for a larger image, and enjoy nature's liquid artwork.
Autumn has finally gotten a foothold and this year’s long, scorching summer has begun its slide into recent memory. Good riddance. With the transition in season comes a transition in my angling focus, from chasing warm-water bass to stalking cold-water trout. The ceremonial pivot point occurred this week with the breakdown of my stout bass rod and transfer of its reel to a willowy trout whip for a day on the Smith.
One of my favorite magazines, Wildlife in North Carolina, has just dealt me a humbling blow. Annually, they hold a photography contest and invite readers to submit photos taken around our beautiful state. Winning shots in several categories - including birds, plants, wildlife behavior, wild places and outdoor recreation – have been selected and will be printed in the January edition.
I submitted a half-dozen. None will appear in January.
The big brown moved slightly as my elk hair caddis rode the swift currents towards it’s holding place. The trout lay suspended in the soft pillow of water eddying in front of a mid-stream boulder, watching for food in the faster flow on either side – ready to eat. But, as the fly approached the eddy and the brown began to rise, my leader tightened, pulling the caddis a fraction of an inch, against the flow. Startled by the movement, the fish spooked, turned into the faster water, and was gone.
As the first fingers of dawn reached into the morning sky, I had slipped quietly into the river, crossed the riffles, and settled onto a large, mid-stream boulder. I sat silently, my fly rod across my lap, and watched the sun emerge from behind the trees, the fish begin to rise, and the first daylight moments of my 57th year arrive.
I'm posting for a neighbor whose 40 lb., 18 inch long tortoise escaped from her pen about a week ago in the xxxxxx community. She could be far away by now. She looks like a miniature giant tortoise that you have all seen pictures of, from the Galapagos Islands. She is harmless to people and other animals, NOT a snapper. She is tan, brown and unfortunately, a perfect match to the leaves that are now falling. If the temperature gets below 50 degrees, she could die.
Who knows what direction she took off in, so please keep an eye out for her in xxxxxx, of course, and around Sugar Lake, Mt. Gilead Church Road, along the pathway that follows the Haw from the bridge on 64 to Bynum, and along Bynum Ridge Road to Bynum and everywhere in between or maybe beyond.
If she is spotted please e-mail or call me and I'll pick her up. (nnn)nnn-nnnn firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s a sad, sad truth, but all good things must come to an end. It had been a great fishing trip but T-Bone needed to get back home for a Saturday night gig with his blues band and I needed to return to pack for a trip to the Windy City and points west. So, at daybreak, we loaded our belongings, bid adieu to Heffe and The Rog, who were staying through the weekend, and pointed the truck east, and south, for home.
He will, of course, deny it, but there can be no other explanation. How else can you interpret our spending nine hours together in a New River drift boat with nary a long, circuitous story told, rib-poking barb at my casting skills, or slightly off-kilter joke? All we did was fish. Nose to the grindstone, eye on the bug, minds on the water, fish.
Now, admitted, it took that, and more, especially knowing that every cast might yield a beast of a smallmouth in this unbelievable Virginia fishery. Our drifts had to be absolutely dead in the tricky currents and the smallmouth takes, when they occurred, were as dainty as a butterfly’s kiss, easily missed. Even our guide was all business, in a competent and collegial manner. It was all about the fishing...
Pardon a brief interruption to the riveting Breakaway narrative, but, as much fun as it is to travel to new and exciting fisheries, there’s nothing like a good bucketmouth, or two, from your own back yard.
The current return of blistering heat and the accompanying high-pressure cell made any significant fishing success unlikely, but reasonable water levels, cooler evenings, and an early start gave me a glimmer of a chance. I’d have to find them early, though.
Close your eyes, if you will, and dream up the perfect bike trail.
It will, no doubt, have a wide, smooth, path that meanders through a dense hardwood forest, generously shaded by the tall overhanging branches, practically a green tunnel in spots. The trail would be miles and miles and miles of steady, gentle, imperceptible downhill grade allowing your bike to glide along as if by magic. And how about ice cream, halfway down? That would be nice. Finally - allow me a personal request - add a pristine trout stream tumbling alongside.
You can open your eyes. It’s no dream. It’s the Virginia Creeper Trail.
I couldn’t blame him, though. After weeks of planning and four hours in the truck, we were all itching to get on the water. We tried to act cool as we rigged up at the trailhead, but, to a man, we were ready to jump out of our skin, like children waiting at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning. We were ready to get to some serious fishin’.
Like something out of Alice’s Wonderland, my legs disappeared into a watery floor and steep banks and tall grasses climbed to my left and right - each side rising to a low, soft morning-fog ceiling into which the tip of my 9ft Winston disappeared with each cast. I was fishing in a dream tunnel, slightly too small to fully contain me - blurring the edges, crowding my perception.
It was otherworldly. It was eerily comforting. It was Wisconsin.
As Mary and I planned a trip to north Chicago to be present for our granddaughter’s 3rd birthday, we added a side excursion to Spring Green, Wisconsin to visit Tom and Charity, good friends who, like us, had recently retired and escaped to more rural settings.
Spring Green sits on the eastern edge of the Wisconsin Driftless area, so named for its narrow escape from the drift of the glaciers that had ground most of the mid-west flat during their last advance. The scouring masses of ice were held at bay in this particular place due in part to the rough limestone formations that permeate the region – the same formations that, along with the cool springs that interlace the area, now make it the mid-west’s preeminent trout fishing territory.
I learned of the Driftless area, and its unique geology, in my recent readings of articles and essays of the widely known Driftless trout angler, Len Harris. I also know Len as a regular contributor to the internet-based outdoor literary magazine Far and Away Online where I have also had the good fortune to have published an essay or two. On a whim, I dropped him a line and, to my delight, he agreed to join me on the stream for a day during my Spring Green visit.
I met Len before sunrise in the Walmart parking lot near his home in Richland Center and followed him west into Driftless farm country. We parked our trucks at either end of a two-and-a-half mile stretch of privately owned pastureland – Len had cleared our passage with the farm owners – and stepped into foggy Mill Creek. Through the dense morning fog we began moving upstream, prospecting for brown trout.
Despite an extremely rainy summer, the creek was only moderately stained and not excessively high, due, no doubt, to the fact that it, like most of the hundreds of creeks in the Driftless, was limestone spring fed and quickly cleared. We had anticipated fishing hoppers, but the darker water and lack of visible rises prompted Len to suggest drifting a black beadhead woolly bugger or leech pattern instead. I happily obliged, fishing each with an upstream presentation, a drift with an occasional twitch for movement, and began finding browns.
Len knew every hole, rock, riffle, and edge - and most of the big fish by name - in this pretty little waterway and expertly guided me along the creek, directing my casts as we quartered our way upstream. He had chosen to carry a light spinning rod rather than fly tackle so that we could stick more closely together in the tight quarters and regularly, after I had unsuccessfully worked a seam, would expertly pitch a small spinner into the spot and find a fish, just to prove that they lay where he pointed.
My guide was constantly optimistic, saying at each new run something on the order of “When you hook the big one, keep him from the ledges on the right” or “If you get the pig that lives in that hole, let him run ‘cause there’s nothing he can break you off on here.” Sadly, I never needed to use this particular advice, or cause him to use his big trout net, but the numerous ten-to-fourteen inch fish we did catch were plenty of fun.
Though the stretch was primarily brown trout territory, I also managed a nice rainbow in the final hole and later, in another small roadside run, caught a nice brook trout, completing my brown/bow/brookie trout slam. The cows, watching from above, were unimpressed.
By early afternoon, the fog had burned off, the air turned steamy, and we called it a day. By North Carolina standards it was a refreshing afternoon, but Wisconsin trout, and Wisconsin anglers, were feeling the heat. Len dropped me a short hike from one last hole before saying goodbye, and described in minute detail the hundred-yard stretch I would find – every hole, every seam, every branch. And he called exactly, and correctly, where I would find my last fish of the day.
Thanks, Len, for a fine, fine day. I look forward to coming back and putting that big net of yours to use on another foggy Wisconsin Wonderland morning.
I’ll bring the Mountain Dew.
Read more from Len Harris at his blog A Stream In Time and at Far And Away Online. You can also see his Driftless Heart article in the current July/Aug edition of American Angler Magazine.
Special and heartfelt thanks go to Tom and Chi-Chi for their marvelous hospitality during our all-to-brief stay. May you find the joy in your retirement relocation that Mary and I have found in ours. Please pass along our apologies to Bud and Sissy for the havoc created by Wilderness Dog Sammy in their feline world. And the sunsets off your back deck, overlooking the Wisconsin River, are the best.
And for anyone wondering, don’t worry, I’ll be getting back to the Virginia Breakaway shortly.
My legs were dead heavy from four days of hikin’, bikin’, and rock hoppin’. My butt - pardon the vulgarity - was mountain bike saddle sore. My shoulder, stiff from thousands of casts, needed a break. I smelled like four-day-worn wet wading socks.
The cool, rainy summer Sunday morning was heaven sent, perfect for rolling over, pulling the sheets tighter to the chin, and listening to the soft sound of showers filtering through the tree cover. So, what was I doing waiting for the sun to come up, wading waist deep, seventy-five yards out on a reservoir point, huddled in my rain shell against a chilly downpour?
It’s been fun, stepping outside of my normal fishing realms and exploring the deep blue waters, but my recent saltwater expeditions have reinforced the strong feeling that my place is on the smaller streams of my world. Don’t get me wrong; the sea is a fascinating environment and venturing far from the view of land helps a man gain some perspective on his place on our planet. My problem is, where the hell do you find the fish in the limitless, featureless blue that surrounds you?
Give me a small stream, with my feet planted, no matter how unsteadily, on the rocky bottom, and I am at home.
Captain Lee warned us that the day would be “hours of boredom with moments of chaos”. The good captain was half right.
Eight o’clock AM found Pipes, Terry, Fin, Fin Jr, and me 60 miles offshore, having motored out of Wrightsville Beach three hours earlier aboard the forty-eight foot custom sportfishing yacht, Fishin’ Days. The plan was ambitious – sailfish on fly tackle – with a little mahi action on the side
Don't ask me why, but these tiger swallowtails brought immediately to my mind the three witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth. I found the trio on the sandy beach of the pond, proboscises buried deep into the sand, quivering ecstatically, so enraptured that they didn't mind me getting within inches for this picture. They seemed to hum with an electricity as if tapped into the center of all natural energy itself, like three witches in mid-spell.
As I'm no great reader of classic Elizabethan-era English literature, the manifestation of the Shakespearean imagery is as puzzling to me as it probably is to you. John Gierach and Thomas McGuane, maybe even Dr. Suess, are more my speed. But, to follow the Macbeth theme through, from Act IV, Scene I...
It seems like it was only yesterday that I stood in these waters, chilled to the bone, shivering in my waders despite the heavy fleece liners and long underwear that I wore underneath. Yesterday, in the same spots, I was perfectly comfortable bare-legged, wading in only boots and shorts. And while it felt absolutely delightful to stand in this beautiful waterway without my teeth chattering, it just wasn’t right. Mountain streams are not supposed to be this warm.
Last evening, as Mary and I lazily floated on the neighborhood pond, watching the sun go down while comfortably suspended in twenty feet of water astride our colorful plastic foam noodles, I contemplated where I should fish the following morning. My go-to Haw was running high and muddy after heavy spring rains in the upper watershed, again, and I suspected other local waterways to be similarly challenged. I could try to squeeze in a quick trout trip, maybe the Smith, maybe Stone Mountain, but the thought of a day of driving just didn’t have much appeal. What to do?
So I floated, and I thought, floated and thought, floated and thought... until Mary finally stated the obvious. Fish here.
I'm afraid that there’s not been much fishing going on around here the past couple of weeks. Entertaining visiting family, keeping up with an oddly busy social calendar, and playing in a Masters soccer tournament (Masters is a sports euphemism for old men who should know better) have kept me plenty busy the past several days, but have also trashed my fishing time.
And today, after four games in ninety-plus-degree heat over a thirty-hour stretch this weekend, my body is trashed too. All I have in me is the energy to sit here at the desk.
The good news is that it gives me a chance to go through the pictures that have accumulated on my cameras over the past several weeks and that’s always fun. So, in lieu of fishing adventures, I thought I’d share a handful of these images.
I suspect it’s easier, and maybe downright fun, to be a saltwater fishing guide when you have bluebird skies, a gentle sea, and fish popping everywhere you look. Your clients, no matter how inept, are catching fish, hootin’ and hollarin’, slapping you on the back, and calling you the best damn fish finder on the eastern seaboard. But it’s on those other days that you have to work for a living.
One of the nice things about fishing a particular waterway regularly is that, on any given day, there’s typically no real pressure to catch anything. And without that pressure, every now and then you can take a “day off” and try something new – a new fly, a new technique, a new section of water. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter because you’ll be back soon. But if it does work, well, you’ve just expanded your fishing options.
“Well, I think we’ve figured out what’s wrong with him” said the emergency veterinarian as she snapped Wilderness Dog Sammy’s x-rays onto the lightboard. And while I’m no animal doctor myself, it seemed pretty clear to me as well. His discomfort, no doubt, had something to do with that shiny coin-shaped object, lodged mid-dog.