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 they say. Any trout angler old enough to fish the Little Tennessee River will tell you. They may fondly refer to it as the Little T, but they’ll tell you. And they’re still mad about it.

Ask one of the many farmers who lost their family land when the Little T met its demise. You’ll hear even greater resentment and disdain for the Tennessee Valley Authority. It burns nearly as hot today as it did more than thirty years ago.

It happened despite the protests of landowners, anglers, and endangered resident snail darters. The Little Tennessee was dammed in 1977. They did it 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. 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 is legendary. It boasted rainbow and brown trout routinely measuring 4 to 5 pounds. Even larger were taken on a fairly regular basis. Anglers still talk about the clouds of caddis that blanketed the river. It’s 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. You might hear about that 30-pound brown trout at the trash pile. Next time he might fall for that newfangled streamer pattern. While 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 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. 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. They 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. It was 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 for 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 terrible. The southern region of the U.S. was particularly battered. Years of heavy farming took its toll on the land. Massive flooding was eroding what was left of the soil. All of the best timber had already been harvested. And the 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. Many people lost their homes. Most 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. This prevented 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. This created 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. There’s the South Holston, Watauga, Chattahoochee, Clinch, Hiwassee, Cumberland, White, Little Red… All 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. 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. They 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 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. They held over year-to-year to grow even larger. In some instances, the trout even began reproducing. All of a sudden, the formerly trout-deprived Southeastern United States had multiple trout rivers that rivaled some of the best in the world. 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. It’s no wonder 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 it 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?

There just doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution that will please everyone when it comes to this issue. There never has been. It’s the case with most large scale dilemmas that affect an entire country, or at the least, an entire region. Sometimes 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’s often decades before history measures the consequences of 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. 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. Will we look back one day 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. The first question always prompts more of a production. I look 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. 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 wasn’t the guy stuck in a job he hated. I wasn’t living in a small town I couldn’t never figure out how to leave. When I finished school in Kentucky, I moved here to guide. 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.

I cut my teeth on the smallmouth waters of Elkhorn and Stoner Creeks, but recently, I’d begun catching trout with some regularity at the Dix River tailwater. In my mind, this 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 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. It wasn’t long before the Smokies guide book was overflowing with scribbled Post-its. The car was 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. I really wasn’t 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. It just kept seducing me back. When I’d daydream about fishing, which was often, my mind wasn’t picturing the big browns of the Cumberland River. I saw the mist enveloped forests and heard the 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. 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 multiply right before your eyes, if you 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. 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, the Smoky Mountains had already become a part of me.  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. You don’t always 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? Or what if it’s crowded? Suppose 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? How about 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. 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. 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. There were only three things on our list that we didn’t want. Neither of us wanted a male. We didn’t want a large dog, maybe more of a mid-size. And we didn’t want a Lab. That evening, Shadow came home with us. He was a peculiar, stubborn, mischievous, 90-pound, male black Lab who, seemingly used Jedi mind tricks and won us over. Shadow wasn’t even close to being the best dog at Young-Williams Animal Center. But he was our favorite.

Rather than seeking “the best,” with fly fishing or anything in life, 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 Hooking 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. 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. 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. 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 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 cursedfisherman does not make you a badfisherman. It was those fish-of-a-lifetime catches that haunted Cecil. If there was a big fish in a run, and I mean a reallybig 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. We’d 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. 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 liveon 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 were 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. In one continuous motion, he 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. 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.

Flies: Blue Wing Olive

Blue Wing Olive Mayfly Adult
Blue Wing Olive mayfly

Winter seasons are not typically known to produce large hatches of aquatic insects, particularly in our part of the country. However, if you’re going to run into a hatch worthy of bringing fish to the surface during the cold winter months, it’s likely to be a hatch of Blue Wing Olive mayflies. Blue Wing Olives, or BWO’s as they’re commonly called, are one of the most erratic hatches that I know of. While most aquatic insects hatch at fairly predictable times of the year, BWO’s are likely to come off anytime of the year, typically on the crappiest day imaginable.

Parachute Blue Wing Olive Fly Pattern
Parachute Blue Wing Olive

I can remember guiding someone in the park several years ago in early May, a time when we’re usually seeing good sulphur hatches (and about anything else yellow). We had an unusual and harsh cold front come in where highs were hitting 50-degrees at best. It was cold, windy, and raining and the fish had more or less shut down. We’d had a tough morning to say the least and while shivering through lunch, we were considering calling it in.

I suggested hitting one more nearby pool and to our surprise, it had fish rising in it… a lot of them. Without giving it much thought, I tied a sulfur on his line since that’s what had been hatching… Every. Single. Day. But when he began fishing to them, the sulfur imitation repeatedly drifted through rising trout, untouched. So I switched him to a different, smaller sulphur pattern. Same result. Then, I switched him to a sulphur emerger. Nothing.

Blue Wing Olive Comparadun Fly Pattern
Blue Wing Olive Comparadun

I was making a mistake that a lot of fishermen make. My decisions were based on what the fish had been or should be doing rather than  what they were doing. Eventually, I waded out to the channel in the very back of the pool where I wouldn’t disturb the fish and focused closely on the surface of the water. What I found was not the size #16 sulfurs that had been hatching for the last week. Instead, I saw dozens and dozens of size #20 BWO’s. Fly selection is 45% experience, 45% science, and 10% dumb luck, and I had been relying 100% on experience! We made the appropriate fly change and were into fish for a solid four hours before the hatch ended and the fish went cold again.

Olive Bead Head Pheasant Tail Fly Pattern
Beadhead Olive Pheasant Tail Nymph

There are a lot of morals to this story but the one most relevant to the topic of this article is that BWO’s can hatch anytime. And they usually like to hatch on the foulest of days. With that said, don’t rush out to the Smokies in February because Rob Fightmaster said there would be a great BWO hatch. But if you’re on the water in less that ideal conditions and fish are rising, look for BWO’s. If you don’t see anything but just want to try something on the top, try a #18 or #20 BWO. I ALWAYS have at least a few BWO’s in my fly box in these sizes. I carry different versions but prefer something with a dark olive body and medium dun hackle in a parachute or comparadun style pattern.

Again, a hatch can occur at most anytime but you’re most likely to encounter them between late fall and early spring, at least in this part of the country. And you’re just as likely to see them hatching on a tailwater as you are in the mountains.

Of course, for every fishing eating a BWO on the surface, there are probably five eating a BWO nymph. The nymphs are also usually dark olive in color and can typically be imitated with an olive Pheasant Tail or olive Pheasant Tail nymph. Both are good choices during a hatch or just blind “nymphing” in the winter months.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Flies: Blue Quills

Adult Blue Quill Mayfly
Blue Quill mayfly

Blue Quills represent one of the first good mayfly hatches of the year in the Smokies. By “good,” I mean they can come off in big enough numbers and with enough consistency for trout to really take notice. Water temperature determines when they hatch. As an early season bug, there can be as much as a three week variation from year to year.

Blue Quill Dry Fly
Blue Quill Dry Fly

They tend to start hatching in the Smokies in late March and continue through the third or fourth week of April. With a warmer than average February, they can get started a little earlier or they may get going a little later in a cold spring.

They hatch sporadically through the day with the heaviest activity occurring between noon and 4:00pm. Water is often higher and faster this time of year.  Pay close attention to soft current edges, eddies, and slow pockets for trout feeding on them. Water temperatures also tend to be chillier this time of year, which can retard emergence. An unweighted nymph fished in the surface film or just below can be very effective, particularly on cooler, damp, or overcast days.

Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph
Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph

The nymph is a reddish brown color and typically a size #16 or #18. The bugs tend to get smaller as the hatch progresses. So while we’ve mostly been seeing #16’s, expect #18’s to be more common in the coming weeks. There are specific Blue Quill nymph patterns but a standard Pheasant Tail Nymph works as well as anything.

The adults also have a reddish brown body with a light to medium dun wing and are also found in sizes #16 and #18. Again, very specific Blue Quill dry fly patterns are available but a Parachute Adams serves as a worthy imitation.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Flies: The Ants Go Marching…

Black Ant“When all else fails, try an ant.”

“Trout love ants.”

I have repeatedly heard these two statements throughout my fly fishing life, and I’d have to say, I agree with both. Ants are not only abundant in nearly every stream where trout live, they’re pretty easy pickin’s once they make their way into the water. And for Smoky Mountain trout, they’re one of the few meals available in the summer months.

From a fishing perspective, I love ants for their versatility. Whether it’s topwater in heavier current, topwater in low, slow runs, or below the surface… There’s an ant for that!

Chernobyl Ant Fly Pattern
Chernobyl Ant

Made popular in the American West, a Chernobyl Ant is an oversized ant pattern, often tied on a size #6 hook or even bigger! While they are considerably larger than most natural ants, the trout don’t seem to mind. Trout may actually take them more for a beetle or some other type of terrestrial, but who cares? They eat them. I typically find the traditional Chernobyl Ants too big for slower water, though I have had a number of nice fish eat them on slow, shady edges of summertime pools. The Chernobyl is best suited for heavier water with a little more chop and because of its buoyancy, is a great dry fly to support a dropper nymph.

Mini Chernobyl Ant Fly Pattern
Mini-Chernobyl Ant

Most of the time, however, I scale the fly size down to a #12 or #14, making it more of a “mini-Chernobyl.” At this size, it makes a great generic searching pattern from late spring through early fall. It rides a little lower in the water, sometimes making it difficult to see in choppy water or where there is excessive glare. But with a brighter piece of foam on top of the fly, you can pick it up most of the time.

Parachute Ant Fly Pattern
Parachute Ant

In late summer and early fall, or anytime when the water is low, fish are spookier and big foam flies (even the mini-Chernobyl) can send the fish running for cover. A parachute ant pattern can be more effective during these times. It lands softer and provides a little more natural silhouette. I typically fish these in smaller sizes like #16 and # 18. Tying these with a white or orange post makes them visible in most conditions.

Soft Hackle Ant Fly Pattern
Soft Hackle Ant

One of the most underutilized methods for fishing an ant is to fish it below the surface. Ants are not particularly strong swimmers and often find themselves drowning when they’re in the water. Fishing an ant between the surface and the middle of the water column can be highly productive. Hard bodied ants or, my favorite, soft hackle ants, in a size #14 or #16 are great for this. I’ll often fish one as the top fly of a two-fly nymph/wet fly rig, especially when streams are running full. When streams are low, I like to put a soft hackle ant as a dropper off a dry fly. It hangs in, or just below the surface film and will often fool the most finicky of trout.

Most of the ants I fish are black but can be effective in brown, tan, or cinnamon as well. You can fish them almost anytime of year but they will be most productive during the summer. Ants also tend to be most active through the middle of the day. So that is when trout are most likely to see them.

In any case, you should have at least one ant pattern in your fly selection, preferably two or three variations. You can find the mini-Chernobyl and the Soft Hackle Ant in the Boys of Summer fly selection on my web site.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Skills: 10 Tips for Fishing Small Streams

As many of you know, I spend nearly 200 days a year fishing and guiding on small mountain streams in the Smoky Mountains. Creel surveys indicate that approximately 90% of (unguided) fishermen never catch a fish here. Meanwhile, the 10% who do catch fish tend to catch A LOT of them. When fishing small streams, it’s a fine line between getting skunked and catching 50, and most of the time, the difference isn’t what’s in your fly box. In the Smokies and other similar small mountain streams, approach and presentation is the name of the game and to have success, you may need to adjust a few of your techniques. Listed below are 10 tips that may make your next small stream fishing trip more productive.

Dress for Success: As simple as it sounds, one of the biggest keys to being successful is not spooking the fish. There are a number of ways you can spook a trout but it all starts with what you wear. Leave the coral casting shirts at home. Instead, dress in earth tones like olive, tan, and grey. You don’t need to be a fly fishing commando with face paint and twigs in your hat but you do need to blend in.

This doesn’t matter as much on big, open rivers because you’re usually casting farther and your backdrop is the sky. On small mountain streams, you’re closer to the fish and your backdrop is usually trees, bushes, and rocks. Brighter colors stand out against that backdrop and allow the trout to more easily detect your movement.

Wade Quietly: Think Great Blue Heron and not Labrador Retriever when you’re moving through the stream. Step slowly, quietly, and try not to drag your legs through the water. Again, you’re closer to the fish in these streams and the fish are going to be sensitive to splashes and rocks scraping together. For this same reason, I don’t encourage wearing studded wading boots on these streams.

Move Upstream: Trout are going to be facing upstream watching a current for food. By moving upstream, you will be staying behind the fish making it more difficult for it to detect you.

Angler Using a Stealthy Approach
Use Things Like Boulders to Hide Behind

Stay Low: A trout has a cone of vision that allows it to see things above it. The closer and higher up you are, the more the fish will be able to visually detect your movements. As before, you don’t have to be a fly fishing commando and belly crawl from spot to spot. Just try to crouch more when approaching a run and take advantage of natural barriers. For example, if there’s a boulder in the water, stay behind it rather than standing on it.

Read the Water: Trout won’t be just anywhere in the stream. Aimlessly casting your fly around the creek is not only unproductive, you risk spooking the good spots by throwing your line across them. Most of what you’ll find in small mountain streams is pocket water, which is just faster water interspersed with large rocks. Almost everywhere a current breaks over or around a rock creates a holding area for a trout, usually on the edges of the current and directly above and below the rock.

Rob Fightmaster Spotting Fish
Look Before You Leap

Reading water becomes very instinctive with a little experience, but at first, you’ll have to think about it a little more. Look at each spot you’re approaching and consider that trout need three basic things: food, cover, and comfort. Food is typically going to be concentrated more in the currents rather than in still water. Cover is typically going to be found in deeper water and/or under things like rocks. Comfort is going to be found in places that don’t stress the fish, like slower currents rather than turbulent white water, or shade rather than sun on a bright, warm day.

Position First, Cast Second: Making a good presentation is the other biggest key to success on small streams, and one of the most challenging. Many anglers mistakenly stay too far back from their target and cast way too much line. In smaller mountain streams, you typically have a fairly large volume of water moving downhill through a narrow area. Everyplace the water breaks around a rock creates a velocity change, resulting in dozens of different current speeds. Making long casts puts line across all of these currents and creates drag on the fly. Drag on the fly means you don’t catch fish.

Attempting to overcome this exclusively by mending line is often impractical. There are too many varied currents and you simply don’t have time to do that much mending when casting to such small target areas. Your best course of action in pocket water is usually to get closer to the target where you can keep most of the line and leader off the water. This eliminates the need to mend altogether. At the very least, it will be easier to mend a short length of line on one current than a long length of line on five currents.

To get closer and keep from spooking fish, keep something between you and the fish. Stay behind a boulder or simply a fast current. If you want to drift a fly on the inside edge of a current, you’re going to approach from the lower outside of the current, using that current to conceal you from the fish on the other side. Try to get close enough to use the length of your arm and rod to reach across the current and keep line completely off of the faster water. A longer rod will be beneficial because it’s going to give you more reach, allowing you to stay back a little farther. Of course, utilizing steps 1-4 are critical to making this work.

As you move up the stream, you’re constantly repositioning yourself for the next spot. Sometimes you’re repositioning yourself within the same pocket by fishing the near current first, moving closer, then fishing the far current. Remember, it has nothing to do with how far you can cast. Rather, it’s where you need to be to control line for the best drift. In pocket water, I’d estimate that 80% of the fish I catch are with less than 4’ of fly line past the rod tip.

When you come to a bigger, slower pool, you may not be able to get as close because you don’t have the faster currents to hide you. You also don’t have the faster currents to screw up your drift. Stay back and make slightly longer casts here. Just be careful not to make long casts to the head of the pool before fishing the tail or you can spook half the fish by lining them. Everything gets broken into pieces here. Whatever you’re going to spook first, fish first.

Minimize False Casting: Or just don’t do it at all. Most of the time when fishing small streams, you’re making very short casts. In pocket water you’re often using a fixed amount of line. Repeated false casting is unnecessary and is movement above the fish. Wild mountain trout are in the middle of the food chain. They typically associate movement above them with a kingfisher or heron swooping down to eat them.

Angler in a Smoky Mountain Stream
Position Carefully and Use a Longer Rod for Reach

Use a Longer Rod: There’s a common misconception that you need to have a short rod to fish small streams to stay out of the trees. Again, the idea here is not to make the longest cast possible up the stream without hanging a tree limb. You want to move closer, make short casts, and reach to keep line off of currents. A longer rod will better allow you to do that. I like to fish as long a rod as I can get away with. In the tiniest, rhododendron-choked mountain streams, that may only be 7’. But for typical mountain streams in the Smokies, it’s 8 ½’ – 9’. And yes, even longer tenkara rods can be highly effective for fishing this type of water.

Accuracy is Everything: All of the best small stream fly fishermen I can think of have two things in common. They know exactly where to position themselves before making a cast, and they are great casters. Unfortunately, great casting is often associated with double-hauling 110’ of line, and that’s hardly what I’m talking about. These fishermen aren’t making long casts. But they can put the fly exactly where they want it the first time, the second time, and every time. In pocket water, if your first two casts are off target and/or drag a little bit, you still might catch a fish on the third cast, but you’ve probably already spooked the big fish of the hole.

If you’re not one to practice casting in the backyard, you should be. If you are, don’t just try to cast it as far as you can. Instead, practice with 20’ of line and less and try to hit a small target. Try to do it with an overhead cast off both sides of your body. Then try to do it side arm. Now try to do it with a roll or circle cast. You’ll find that the more you practice off the water, the “luckier” you’ll be on the water.

Keep Moving: In small streams, especially in pocket water, you’re going to catch more fish by covering more stream. Identify the likely spots in a pocket or run. Put a half dozen drifts in each spot and catch your fish. If you miss a couple of strikes, put a few more drifts through and move on. If you don’t get a strike, don’t spend an hour there changing flies until you do. Move on. This doesn’t mean speed fish the stream, as you still need to be methodical in your approach. But when you get good at reading water, positioning and casting accuracy, you’ll be able to cover the water quickly and efficiently.

How Stuff Works: Waders

Simms Zipper Front Waders
Zip Front Waders

October is the time of year I start wearing waders again in the mountains. For much of the year, usually from May through October, water temperatures are comfortable enough to wet wade, wearing only the wading boots and neoprene socks. But in winter, early spring, and late fall (or any time of year on tailwaters), you better have a decent set of waders if you want to stay comfortable on the stream.

Orvis Stockingfoot Chest Waders
Stockingfoot Chest Waders

In the 30 years or so that I have been fly fishing, I can’t think of any fly fishing product that has improved as much as waders. Early on, your only choices for wader materials were canvas, rubber/plastic, and neoprene. All three of these materials were pretty heavy and pretty warm. And any time you were doing anything active, like hiking or just climbing around on rocks, these things would sweat you to death. Even with less active fishing, like standing in a tailwater, these materials would roast you on a warm day.

Waders made of breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex started showing up in the mid 90’s and are now the standard. Early breathable models were not terribly durable and were prone to leaking but today’s models are not only comfortable, but when properly cared for, can withstand years of heavy use. If you’re in the market for a pair of breathable waders, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Chota Hippies
Stockingfoot Hippers

First, there are a few different styles of breathable waders. Chest high waders provide coverage all the way up to your chest. Pant waders provide coverage to your waist. And hippers provide coverage to the upper part of your thigh. When wading small mountain streams, you rarely stand in water much above the knee so hippers will handle most situations. But it seems that when wearing hippers, there is always that one deeper pool of water that you have to cross to get to the other side of the stream. It’s the same thing with tailwaters. Since you rarely wade much over the thigh in tailwaters, pant waders would be adequate most of the time but there always seems to be that one deeper spot…

I don’t like my gear to determine where I can and can’t go when fishing. For that reason, I stick with chest waders to handle all situations. Of course, if the water is too deep for my chest waders, I shouldn’t be trying to wade it anyway! And on warmer days, I can always roll the bib down on my chest high waders, essentially converting them into waist highs.

One thing to consider with breathable waders (or any loose fitting wader) is the possibility of falling in deep water. Particularly with chest high waders, this is a safety concern because the waders could fill with water and essentially drag you down. Wearing a belt around the outside of the wader will create an air pocket to prevent this from happening. Pretty much any chest wader sold today will come with a belt. Wear it!

Another big difference in waders is whether they have a boot foot or stocking foot. Boot foot waders have a boot attached to the wader. They’re convenient because you can just slip the waders on and you’re ready to go. However, this is typically just a loose fitting rubber boot. They are heavy and clumsy, and they provide very little in the way of ankle support. If you’re standing still most of the day, these will probably be adequate. But in places like the Smokies where you’re moving a lot from spot to spot, usually over very uneven terrain, you will hate these. You’ll be compromising comfort and safety.

Orvis Neoprene Stocking Feet
Neoprene Stocking Feet

I prefer stocking foot waders. These have a neoprene foot to provide a little insulation on your feet. You wear a separate pair of wading boots over this neoprene boot. Going this route allows you to wear a lighter, form fitting boot that you lace up just like a hiking boot, providing far more comfort and ankle support when walking on uneven terrain. Additionally, you can wear the boot without the wader in warmer months when you may choose to wet wade. I’ll talk more specifically about wading boots in a future article.

If you’re fishing in colder weather, it is important to remember that breathable waders are designed to keep you dry but, other than the neoprene foot, provide very little in the way of insulation. You will want to layer accordingly under the wader based on your weather conditions. Just keep in mind that breathable waders are only as breathable as the fabric beneath them, so synthetic fabrics like fleece or nylon are recommended over something like denim. Find tips on dressing for cold weather in the “Winter Fishing” article on my web site.

Finally, there is the pesky little issue of price. Breathable waders are certainly not cheap. You can get a really good pair of waders for under $200 and you can spend upwards of $600. All of them will keep you dry. More expensive waders will sometimes be more durable with extra reinforcement in high wear areas like the seat and knees. Mostly though, you’re paying for extra features like pockets or zippered fronts that may be handy but not necessarily critical.

The life of any wader can be extended or shortened by how you care for them. Other than avoiding obvious things like walking through briar patches, try not to walk around in your stocking foot waders without the boots on. Either be prepared to step right into the boot when you put your waders on or carry a mat to stand on when getting dressed. Hang them up to dry after each trip and don’t store them folded. Clean them periodically according to the care label and from time to time, consider applying a coating of DWR.

Wading Boots and the Great Felt Debate

Putting on Waders by a Smoky Mountain Trout Stream
Wadering up

When I first got into fly fishing, I didn’t have any money. At that age, you simply had to get what you could get when you could get it. That usually meant holding out until birthday or Christmas. I had a cheap rod and reel outfit and a box of flies. My fishing “vest” was my uncle’s old Marines shirt with the sleeves cut off. The bellows pockets on the front were plenty big to hold my one fly box and any other accessories. And I had a pair of fingernail clippers, Trim brand, hung around my neck on a piece of fly line. My wading gear consisted of cutoff Duckhead shorts and an old pair of Asics running shoes.

Old Pair of Asics Running Shoes
My First Pair of “Wading Boots”

I slowly started to accumulate better gear. But it wasn’t until much later that I even considered buying actual wading gear. On the smallmouth streams of central Kentucky where I cut my teeth, it just wasn’t necessary. And when I did eventually start fishing the 50-degree tailwaters for trout, I guess I was just too young and full of testosterone to notice the cold. That changed when I waded the Cumberland River tailwater one rainy November day and somehow narrowly avoided hypothermia. On the top of my list the following Christmas was a pair of neoprene waders and rubber soled wading boots. I didn’t know much about felt soles and thought the rubber soled boots would be more durable.

Fisherman Falling in the Water
A Bad Step

In the mostly cobble-bottomed tailwaters where I was fishing, the rubber soles were adequate. All was right in my fly fishing world… until I went to the Smokies. That first trip to the Smokies provided me with countless views of the sky as I spent nearly every moment on my back. I’d get up, take a step, then slip again. Seems that even the best waders don’t keep you dry when they’re full of water! It didn’t help that my first Smokies trip was to Abrams Creek. It’s possibly the slickest stream on the planet. But it definitely made me begin to question my choice in wading gear.

I soon replaced the rubber-soled boots with felt, and eventually began wearing breathable waders when they hit the market. And I quickly realized why countless fly fishermen chose felt soles and had been doing so for decades. They are vastly superior to rubber when it comes to providing traction on slick, rocky stream bottoms. As a matter of fact, at the time, major fly fishing companies like Orvis didn’t even offer a rubber sole option in their catalog.

Felt Sole Wading Boots
Felt Sole Boots

Fast forward about 30 years and look at an Orvis catalog, web site, etc. You’ll find almost all rubber sole wading boots with only one or two felt alternatives. Why the change? The spread of exotic organisms from stream to stream.

While there are a number of different ways these exotics can be spread, many scientists pointed to felt soles as a big culprit and one that could be controlled. It sparked a movement where some
Felt Soled Boots popular fly fishing destinations added boot cleaning stations at select river access points, a few states went as far as banning felt boots, and fly fishing companies began aggressively looking for alternative bottoms to their boots.

The result has been a variety of different tread designs, all created on a Vibram rubber sole or variation thereof. Some companies, like Simms, even went so far as to discontinue production of felt sole boots entirely, while most manufacturers chose to offer both. After a short time, likely due to a significant dip in sales, Simms returned a couple of felt sole options to their product line. The problem was, despite companies’ claims that these new soles were as good as felt, many fishermen didn’t agree. In fact, some fishermen in “felt ban states” even took the whole, “I’ll quit
Typical Vibram Soles wearing felt boots when they pry them from my cold, dead feet” approach!

Vibram Wading Boot Soles
Typical Vibram Sole

To be fair, all of these new rubber sole designs are quite different and way better than those rubber sole boots I had 30 years ago, and they’re light years better than an old pair of running shoes. They even offer some real traction advantages to felt when it comes to trail use and scrambling up and down banks.

But the fact is, they are nowhere near as good as felt when it comes to providing traction on a slick streambed. I suppose you could just call that an opinion but I like to think it’s based on more than just preference as I routinely field test many of these new boots. As part of my field-testing, I will spend some days on the water wearing the rubber sole on one foot and a felt sole on the other. Time and time again, the rubber sole slips in places where the felt does not.

Vibram Wading Boot Sole with Studs
Vibram Rubber with Studs

An alternative is to wear rubber soles with studs. This is probably the closest thing I’ve found to felt as far as traction on the stream bottom goes. However, these have a real tendency to slide and slip on dry rocks, posing another safety risk if you do a lot of rock hopping on smaller streams like we have in the Smokies. The other downside to studs is that they are noisy. That’s probably not a big deal on a larger, deeper, swift river, but if you’re trying to sneak up on a pool in a smaller, shallower headwater
Vibram Rubber Soles with Studs stream, you’re going to spook a lot more fish.

So, we’re kind of left with this whole responsibility vs. practicality debate. Most younger and/or newer fly fishermen are readily going with the rubber designs – some probably because they’re the current, cool thing, and others probably because they don’t know any better. They’ve never worn felt so have no basis for comparison. It’s the guys that have been around (like me) that are the problem. For us, trendy new designs aren’t nearly as important as staying upright!

Okay, maybe trendy designs aren’t that important to me, but being a responsible fisherman is, and that’s where it gets tricky. As an environmentalist, I take it very seriously. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the spread of exotic organisms, but again, I do want to stay upright. As someone who wades creeks every single day, I need to be as sure-footed as possible not only for my own safety, but sometimes for the safety of my clients. Fortunately, with a little planning and/or extra effort, you can wear felt soles responsibly.

The biggest issue with felt is that it dries slowly. So, if you pick up some weird organism in one river system and go to another totally different river system the next day, you could transport that organism with you because it can stay alive in that wet felt. As soon as the soles dry, any organism you pick up will likely die. For most fishermen who are fishing no more than once a week, those soles have plenty of time to dry. Even so, it’s a good idea to clean them to be safe.

For someone like me, who is on the water every day, my soles almost never completely dry until the end of the season. But I don’t worry too much about it because I am constantly going to the same “system” of streams. I’d be picking up something in Little River and transferring it back to Little River! When it is a concern for me is when I’m going to be in the Smokies on Tuesday, the Clinch River tailwater on Wednesday, and back to the Smokies on Thursday. Then I run the risk of transferring something from the Clinch to the Smokies.

My solution for this is multiple pairs of boots. I have one pair of studded rubber boots for tailwaters and another pair of felt soles for the mountains. But if you don’t want to purchase two pairs of boots, you want to own felt soles, and you might want to fish the Clinch one day and the Smokies the next, cleaning your boots in between trips is a must. Many experts will tell you that if you’re fishing multiple river systems in consecutive days as described above, thorough cleaning is the surest way to prevent the spread of exotics, even with rubber sole boots. So it’s just a good habit to get into.

Again, some popular areas actually have cleaning stations for this purpose. There is one at Little River Outfitters in Townsend. It’s accessible whether the store is open or not. Or if you’re going to clean them at home, thoroughly hose the boots off with water and soak them for about 10 minutes in a solution of about 5% bleach and hot water. I’d also recommend scrubbing the soles with a wire or stiff bristled brush. Then rinse one more time with the hose.

Korkers Interchangeable Wading Boot Soles
Korker Boot with Interchangeable Soles

If you’re planning a multi-day fishing trip somewhere and will be fishing numerous river systems, just throw your soak bin, brush and solution in the car and you’ll be ready to go. If you’re going to a state where felt is banned, you can certainly wear felt and take your chances with the law, but that’s a pretty big risk. Yellowstone National Park just implemented a felt ban and the
Korkers Boots with Interchangeable Soles penalty can be up to 6 months in jail and a $5000 fine. All of a sudden, the cost of a second pair of wading boots doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Again, that’s the solution that works best for me. Or you might consider one of the Korker boot models that have interchangeable soles. You can quickly change from felt soles to rubber soles on the same boot.

As with everything I write, this is just one man’s opinion with a few facts mixed in here and there. Find a legal and responsible system that works for you. If you currently wear rubber soles and like them, by all means stick with them. If you mostly fish streams with a more cobble type bottom (like many tailwaters), you’ll probably be happy with rubber. For freestone mountain streams with larger, more slippery rocks, felt is tough to beat and continues to be my preference.

However, I am keeping an open mind and continually looking for that next great felt alternative. Technology and design for felt-alternative boots is getting better every year. I hope to personally be able to make the switch soon.

How Stuff Works: Stripping Baskets

When you’re doing any type of fly fishing that involves stripping in great amounts of line after each cast, keeping that slack line under control can be a challenge. In streams and rivers, it’s usually not too big of a problem. The line will usually rest neatly in the water by your side. In a boat that is not equipped with some sort of stripping deck, it can be a little bit of a problem as your line wants to snag and tangle on absolutely everything in the boat. The biggest challenge is surf fishing because the constant rushing approach and retreat of the tide repeatedly wraps this slack line around your legs.

William Joseph Mesh Stripping Basket
Mesh Stripping Basket

Stripping baskets solve this problem. I’ve seen larger, freestanding stripping baskets used in boats. But the most common stripping baskets are smaller and you wear them around your waste. After you cast and you’re retrieving line, you simply strip and feed the line into the basket. They are basically just a bin with a series of upright posts. The posts help prevent the line from tangling inside the basket. There are also baskets made of mesh, but many note that these are often not durable.

Stripping baskets are pretty simple devices. They’ve been around for decades and they can be purchased from most fly fishing suppliers. If you don’t want to fork over $40-$90 for a plastic tub on a belt, you can also make your own. I did and it works great.

Start with a hard plastic bin like you find in the storage sections at Wal-mart, Home Depot, etc. It should be approximately 16”x 11” and about 5 or 6” deep. You’re also going to need a drill, a sander, some zip ties, wire cutters, and a bungee cord. The bungee cord secures the bin around your waist, so the length depends on your size. You want it to be tight enough to keep the bin from falling off you but not so tight that it’s digging the bin into you.

Homemade Stripping Basket - Bottom
Bottom View of Homemade Stripping Basket

Begin by drilling approximately ten 3/32” holes in the bottom of the bin near the edges. These will serve as drain holes for your stripping basket to keep water from accumulating inside. Next drill nine 3/32” holes spread equally in the middle of the bin. And drill another nine 3/32” holes right next to the ones you just drilled. These will serve as attachment points for your zip ties (the zip ties will act as the “posts” inside the box that help keep your line from tangling). Finally, drill two larger, approximately 3/16” holes (big enough to accept the hooks on your bungee) on the front of the bin, one near each top corner. This is where your bungee cord will attach. With light sand paper, smooth the front and back of each hole you drilled.

Homemade Stripping Basket - Interior
Interior View of Homemade Stripping Basket

Next, attach nine 4” zip ties through the “double holes” you created in the bottom of the bin, allowing the end of the zip tie to point upward into the interior of the bin. With your wire cutters, snip the tips off each zip tie, leaving a 2” post standing at an approximate right angle from the base of the bin. Hook one end of the bungee into one of the larger front holes. Bring the bungee around your waist and hook the other end into the second hole. I actually use two shorter bungees because I think it’s easier to attach and detach. You’re ready to go fishing!

Where you position the basket is a matter of preference. Typically, I see them positioned on the front of the body. I prefer to wear mine closer to my left hip so I can feed line into the basket with a more natural stripping motion. I always use it when surf fishing and very frequently when I’m fishing from the canoe.