The Bear Necessities

How to Deal with Bears in the Backcountry

“Do you ever see any bears when you fish?” It’s one of the most common questions I get. Probably the only question I get more often is, “Is that your real last name?” “Yes” to both. If you spend enough time in the Smokies, especially in the backcountry, you’re going to eventually run into a bear. In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is thought to have the densest population of black bears east of the Mississippi.

Likelihood of Seeing a Bear

Other than pure chance, the number of bears you’re likely to see depends on how much time you spend in the mountains and how abundant food is. When bears have plenty to eat, they don’t roam around as much. However, when food is in short supply, such as following a drought, bears need to do more looking and that tends to take them closer to trails and roads. I typically spend about 200 days a year in the mountains and I see anywhere from 3 to 40 bears in a year.

On a recent backcountry guide trip, we saw 4 bears in one day! Seeing a bear when you’re fishing or hiking is usually a good thing. They’re pretty and they’re really cool to watch. The key to enjoying bears is knowing how to behave around them.

Concern for Bears

Many people tend to be far too afraid of bears, allowing that anxiety to disrupt what should be a peaceful day in the mountains. Or worse, their fear incites panic when they encounter a bear and they make poor choices. However, on the other end of the spectrum, you have people who do not give black bears the respect they deserve. I routinely see tourists getting far too close to bears when trying to photograph them. And I’ve had more than a few “macho” guide clients chuckle when they learn that I carry bear spray in the backcountry – “They’re just black bears.”

It’s true that black bears don’t get as big as brown bears and grizzlies, but they can still get as big as 600 pounds. It’s also true that black bears are rarely aggressive toward humans. On the list of top causes of injuries in the Smokies every year, bear attacks don’t even rank, which means that, on average, there are less than four a year. As a matter of fact, in the entire history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there have only been two bear attacks that resulted in human death. One of those was just last year on Hazel Creek.

So, I don’t carry bear spray out of an abundance of fear but more as a precaution in case I run into one of those few bears who don’t know the rules. For one thing, I’m in the backcountry far more than, well, the average bear, so I have far more opportunities for an encounter. Additionally, I am responsible for the safety of paying clients and I don’t take that lightly.

In any case, whether or not you decide to carry bear spray is up to you. But I have learned over the years from talking to guide clients and passing hikers and fishermen that most people don’t have any idea what to do when they encounter a bear. Hopefully this article will help a little.  

Black Bear Facts and Statistics

As I typed that header, I couldn’t help thinking about Dwight Schrute. Fans of The Office will understand. Before we get into managing a bear encounter, let’s get a little information on black bears, at least when it comes to the Smoky Mountains.

  • There are an estimated 1500 – 2000 bears in the Smoky Mountains. This works out to roughly four bears per square mile and is thought to be the densest population of black bears east of the Mississippi River.
  • Black bears are omnivores and they are scavengers. They feed mostly on plants, nuts and berries. Black bears also feed regularly on insects (grubs, larvae, etc.) and crustaceans (like crayfish), and they eat meat but rarely kill for it. In other words, they are unlikely to kill a deer for meat but will feed on a deer carcass if they come across it, much like a buzzard.
  • Some black bears turn to scavenging in towns for food, raiding dumpsters and trash cans. This behavior should never be encouraged as it increasing endangers the bear and the humans around the town.
  • While they may appear to be slow and clumsy, black bears are quite agile and can reach speeds of 35mph. They are also exceptionally good climbers.
  • Black bears in the Smokies are usually most active during the early morning and late evening and they typically mate sometime in July.
  • Black bears do not truly hibernate in the Smokies but in winter, do enter long periods of sleep. They may leave the den for short periods if disturbed or during brief warming spells.
  • Their cubs are born during this period of deep sleep, usually in late January or early February.
  • Females with newborn cubs usually emerge from the den in late March or early April. The cubs, which are usually born in pairs, will typically stay with the mother about a year and a half.

Video of Bear Scavenging on Stream Bank

Preparation for Travel in Bear Country

Preparing for travel in bear country mostly means packing to prevent a bad encounter but also to deal with a bad encounter should one arise. Of course, by bad encounter we’re talking about the rare occurrence when a bear behaves aggressively toward you. Any bear will behave aggressively if it feels that it or its cubs are being threatened, and understandably so. If you were at the supermarket and a stranger approached your kid in an unusual manner, you’d do the same! “Problem bears” may behave aggressively if they view you as a source of food. This behavior is rare but may occur from a bear that has been fed by people at some point or that is simply a victim of starvation.

Airtight Food Containers

You can significantly reduce the chances of an encounter with the latter by packing your food properly. Always have any food (including trash after you eat) you’re carrying sealed in an airtight container. Ziplock bags, for example, will do the trick or better yet, cut down on those single use plastics and carry your food in a reusable container. If you’ve ever been on a full day guided trip with me, you may recall your lunch was packed in a sealed container.

Another suggestion many experts make to prevent a surprise encounter is to put bells on your pack when you’re hiking. The idea is that you won’t accidentally startle a bear that might be upwind of you because it will hear you coming. This approach absolutely has merit but it is not one that I personally choose to take. When I visit the backcountry, I enjoy taking in ALL of nature, including the sounds. I want to hear the wind in the trees, the sound of the stream, chirping birds, etc. and not the sound of bells. Furthermore, I don’t want to scare off wildlife.

To prepare for a bad encounter, carry bear spray and a whistle. The whistle can be used to scare off an aggressive bear and also as a signaling device if you get into any other kind of trouble. Keep the bear spray in a place where it is immediately accessible. You likely won’t need it but if you do, you’re not going to have time to rummage through your pack.

Dealing with an Encounter

When you encounter a bear, stop what you’re doing and observe. Many people have heard that you should look big and make a lot of noise when you see a black bear. There is a time and place for that but it’s not every time you see a bear. If it’s far away and minding its business, you don’t want to start harassing it by yelling and waving your arms!

Bear Minding His Own Business

You want to watch and see what it’s doing. Look around to make sure there are no cubs and if there are, that you don’t put yourself between the adult and cubs. More often than not, your course of action will be to do nothing. As long as you’re at a respectable distance, the bear will likely ignore you and go about his business. Bears are cool and fun to watch. Enjoy the show and after it moves on, go back to what you were doing.

Just always be sure to give the bear plenty of space and make sure it has a clear path. You don’t want it to feel cornered. If you encounter one a little too closely, keep watching it and slowly back away. As long as its behavior doesn’t change, it doesn’t feel threatened and you don’t need to worry.

I frequently see bears walking stream banks and turning over rocks for food. If you see this when you’re fishing and the bear is heading your direction, quit what you’re doing, get out of the stream and go to the opposite bank of the bear. Typically, it will totally ignore you and go right by you. In any situation, try not to turn your back on the bear and never run. Running can often trigger a predatory response in a bear that was otherwise minding his own business.

When Bear Encounters Go Bad

If a bear changes its behavior around you, it’s time to get serious. While it may be difficult, try to remain calm and pay attention to what the bear is doing. If it is doing things like swatting the ground or making a quick step and stop (bluff charging) toward you, it is demanding space. If you have bear spray, now is the time to get it out as you slowly back away from the bear. Keep backing away until the bear quits this behavior. As mentioned above, do not run. Black bears can run 35mph! And don’t try to throw food at it. You don’t want the bear to view you as a food source.

If a black bear continues toward you, even after you attempt to give it space, it’s time to stand your ground. Now is the time to look bigger by stretching your arms out. If you’re with someone else, stand together with your arms out. Act big and make a lot of noise. You’re trying to scare the bear at this point. Blow your whistle, bang rocks together, etc.

If, after all of this, the bear is still approaching in an aggressive manner, it’s time to fight. You don’t want to play dead as is often suggested with other types of bears. Blast it with your bear spray. If you don’t have bear spray, use whatever is nearby. For example, in a stream, you are surrounded by rocks that you can throw at it. Or use a stick. Use whatever you can. Just fight.

About Bear Spray

Bear spray is essentially high intensity pepper spray that is compressed in a container resembling a small fire extinguisher. It usually comes with a holster that you can easily attach to your belt or pack. Unlike personal defense pepper spray you might carry on a keychain to spray into the face of an attacking human at close range, bear spray containers fire a cloud of chemical about 30 feet.

While I have test fired bear spray, I’ve fortunately never had to use it for actual defense. If you do have to use it against a bear, it’s recommended that you give a few short blasts rather than emptying the container. If the bear continues approaching after those few short blasts, unload it. Needless to say, after you have stopped the bear, get the hell out of there, go home and pour yourself a stiff drink!

Vision Quest

I have been in this business for a long time now. And for many years, I was the young guide taking out all of the “old” guys. As I’d tie on their fly or untangle a wad of tippet enveloping that fly, time after time they’d say, “Wait ‘til you turn 40.” I’d laugh it off, secretly thinking it would never happen to me. Well it did happen to me and it doesn’t seem so funny now!

I didn’t experience any dramatic vision changes when I turned 40. During my early 40’s, I found myself holding the fly a little farther away to tie it on and tangles were just a little more frustrating in lower light. But when 45 rolled around, my arms were no longer long enough and that sunshine just never seemed bright enough to help! I needed a solution and for the last few years, I’ve been searching for the perfect vision “system.”

I’ve worn eyeglasses or contacts for distance my entire adult life. When I don’t have contacts in or glasses on, my close up vision is perfect. So for a year, I quit wearing contacts. I wore my eyeglasses when I fished and when I needed to see up close, I’d just look over the top of my glasses. It was perfect for managing my vision challenges, but created a problem with one of my most important pieces of fishing gear… polarized sunglasses.

Fit Over Style Glasses

I didn’t want to get prescription sunglasses because they were heavy and I couldn’t get prescription lenses in the wrap style that I preferred. Additionally, they made it difficult to see in low light conditions. So, I went with the “fit over” style sunglasses to wear over my eyeglasses. They worked great, but I found that wearing those for 8 hours a day, every day, just wasn’t very comfortable. That’s a lot of weight on your nose, particularly on a hot day when you’re sweating a little more.

I’m sure many of you in the 40+ club have similar struggles. You want the eye protection and visual benefits of polarized sunglasses but you also need to be able to see in low light. You need to be able to see detail in small things, such as threading the eye of a hook. And you likely don’t want to have three or four pairs of glasses hanging around your neck!

I ultimately went back to contact lenses and I found a pair of polarized glasses that have small magnifiers in the bottom of the lenses – kind of like a bifocal. They present a little problem when wading because of the distortion when you look down, but I’ve mostly trained myself to use more head than eyes when looking down. For lowlight situations, I keep a pair of readers handy. I use the ThinOptics brand/style because they take up so little space.

This little system has been working pretty well for me the last couple of years but you may have slightly different challenges. In my “vision quest,” I found a few different solutions and have included some of them below.

Polarized Sunglasses with Magnifiers

Polarized Sunglasses with Magnifiers

I’m sure there are others out there but if so, I didn’t see them. The only ones I could find were from Orvis. They’re good glasses and I’ve worn them for a few years now with no issues. Apparently there are also stick-on magnifiers you can add to any glasses but I haven’t tried them.

Readers

There are a number of readers you can get from high dollar to just a few bucks and they can be purchased through specialty stores or at your local grocery or Walmart. My issue with most readers is they either need to be stored in a pocket where they aren’t readily accessible or they hang around your neck. Since my preferred “pack,” the Richardson Chest Fly Box, hangs on my chest and I already have polarized sunglasses on a Croakie, I didn’t want one more thing hanging around my neck.

ThinOptics readers for cell phone
ThinOptics readers keychain

I solved the problem with ThinOptics readers. They are super thin and they “fold” into a super thin case. The original was designed to stick on the back of your cellphone. I stick mine on the front of my chest fly box. But there are numerous other clever designs now, including one intended to be a key chain, that conveniently attaches to a zipper or D-ring on a vest or pack.

Flip Focal Magnifier

Another reader/magnifier popular among fly fishers is the Flip Focal. This is a simple device that clips to the bill of your hat and folds up out of the way. When you need to tie a knot or perform a similar task, you can flip down the magnifier. I personally don’t like looking upward to do those things so this didn’t suit me. I also wear different hats and don’t like having to remember to change my Flip Focal to a different hat every day.

Threaders and Knot Tools

Many folks, instead of attempting to improve their vision to perform tasks like threading hooks and tying knots, prefer to utilize various tools and gadgets.  

Threader Fly Box
Threader Fly Box

One popular item is the threader fly box. You can preload flies onto the threaders in the box. Run your tippet through the head of the threader and pull the desired fly off onto the tippet.

Magnetic Threader

Or you may prefer to carry a separate threader attached to your pack or vest. This magnetic threader is pretty slick. You simply put the eye of the hook on the magnet which automatically lines it up with the precut channel on the tool. Run your tippet through the channel and it threads perfectly through the eye of the hook. Watch this video to see exactly how it works.

Three-in-One Knot Tool
Knot Tool

You may prefer to take it one step further and have a tool that will also assist in tying the knot. There are a bunch of different variations but this three-in-one tool will act as a threader and help tie a few different knots. Here’s a good video to show you how it works.

Hopefully one or more of these items will make your time on the water a little easier. If you have another method not mentioned here that works well for you, please share!

Understanding Stream Gauges

Little River Tennessee water level

Guides and fly shops routinely spit out numbers from stream gauges, often expecting you to react with pure delight or sheer terror when you hear them. The fact is, unless you spend a lot of time on the water as an angler, paddler or other related water bum, those numbers won’t make a lot of sense to you. Most folks would probably just like to know whether or not they can go fishing. But the better you understand these numbers, the better decision you’ll be able to make on if to go, where to go and what to expect when you get there.

Stream Gauge Basics

There are a lot of things about reading these gauges that are extremely simple while other aspects can get a bit complex. Many things regarding how water flow is going to impact a stream, you just have to see for yourself to truly understand. Then you can relate that to a gauge number and get a pretty good idea of what that water will look like before you leave the house.

Before these gauge readings were posted on the internet, you had to just make your best guess and/or drive to the river to see if it was going to be too high to fish. Even now, with these numbers so easily accessible, there will sometimes be some guesswork, but at least it’s a much more educated guess!

Accessing Stream Gauge Info

Water Flow Data for smartphone
River Data App

The USGS has stations all over the country and there are a number of different search features to locate the gauge on or nearest the fishery in which you’re interested. Many larger rivers will have multiple stations spread out on different parts of the river. You can, of course, use a search engine to locate a specific place. Or go to usgs.gov and begin your search there. There are also a number of apps that can be downloaded. They make searching for a particular location much simpler and keep that information right in your pocket. I use an app called RiverData that gives you access to any river gauge in the country.

Stream Gauge Locations

It’s important to note that not every stream has a gauge. So, you sometimes have to rely on the closest gauge to your fishery and assume that both water systems received similar weather. For example, if I’m going to fish Deep Creek in the Smokies, the nearest gauge is on the Oconaluftee. Most of the time, Deep Creek is going to get the same or similar rain events as the Oconaluftee… but not always.

And even when you have a gauge on the stream you’re specifically interested in, isolated weather systems will sometimes skew the data. For instance, Little River has a gauge located in Townsend, below the confluence of the three prongs. So, if the water rises on any of those prongs, it will ultimately impact the numbers on the gauge downstream in Townsend. Usually if the gauge numbers are reading high in Townsend, the water will be up on all three prongs as they are close enough together that they typically receive similar weather. However, there have been occasions when there was an isolated heavy rain on East Prong that only raised water levels on that branch. Of course, the downstream gauge in Townsend reflected that spike but the West Prong didn’t come up at all.

Unless you’re closely tracking every weather system, there’s just no way to account for something like that. Stream gauges are wonderful tools for determining water levels before you make the trip to the river. But without multiple stream gauges spread out on different sections of every stream in a watershed, you will often, to some extent, be making decisions based on probability rather than 100% certainty.

Understanding Stream Gauge Tools

stream gauge options smoky mountains

Not every gauge provides the same information. Some will provide a cubic feet per second (cfs) reading, some will provide a height reading (usually measured in feet), some will include a temperature reading and many have all three. A handful will get even more in the weeds and provide things like dissolved oxygen readings. For real water flow nerds, most will also allow you view charts in weekly, monthly and annual views. As long as a gauge has been in a location for forty years, I can probably look up what the flow was in that location forty years ago!

It’s also worth mentioning that different gauges may update at different intervals. Most will update at least once an hour while some may provide updates every 15 minutes. But none (that I know of) are providing data feedback in real time. Just above the selected chart will usually indicate the last time the data was updated.

CFS Reading
Smoky Mountains water flow
Stream gauge in CFS

This reading tells you what the flow of the stream is. If the reading is 125cfs, it means that the flow is 125 cubic feet per second. A lot of anglers that really know a stream rely heavily on this number. However, the more casual angler may be easily deceived by this number as the “ideal flow” can vary significantly from stream to stream. The broader and sometimes flatter a streambed is, the more water flow it can comfortably accommodate.

So, 800cfs on a steep, narrow mountain stream may be a total blowout and not fishable at all. On a wider, flatter, low elevation mountain stream, 800cfs might be perfect. On a flat, 75-yard wide tailwater like the Clinch, 800cfs might be considered as a low flow. On a side note, I use generation schedules and data provided by TVA for local tailwater information.

Gauge Height Feet
Little River stream gauge
Stream Gauge in Feet

This reading tells you how high the water is on the gauge and gives you, I think, a little more “universal” reading. At least when it comes to mountain streams, about 2’ on that gauge is nearly always going to be close to “normal flow,” regardless of how wide or steep the stream is. For instance, the Oconaluftee is at a normal, near perfect level when it is at 2’ but may be flowing at around 550cfs. Little River is also normal and near perfect at 2’ but may be flowing at around 200cfs.

Again, there are a lot of variables like stream size and gradient but typically, in most Smoky Mountain streams, 2.5’ is the high side of good. In other words it is still wadeable in most of the usual spots but more difficult. When you reach 3’ on the gauge, you might still find some wadeable spots in isolated areas of small streams but pickings will be really slim. If you don’t know the water really well, don’t mess around with this. Beyond 3’, you’re likely just looking at a blown out river!

Water Temperature
Stream Gauge Water Temperature

You won’t find this feature on every gauge, but some will have it. It’s a nice feature but you have to keep in mind that it’s reading temperature where the gauge is and water temperature will change significantly as you gain elevation on a stream. For example, the Little River gauge is located in Townsend at about 1100’ in elevation. If you’re going to fish Little River around Elkmont Campground, your elevation will be around 2300’. That coupled with more stream canopy, means your water temperature at Elkmont should be considerably cooler than the gauge reading at Townsend.

It’s not an exact science but as a general rule, you drop about 4-degrees water temperature for every 1000’ you gain in elevation. So, if the stream gauge for Little River reads 62-degrees, the water temperature at Elmont should be closer to 58-degrees. This can make an enormous difference when you’re trying to find feeding trout.

Fly Rod Cases

I have seen fly rods break more times and in more ways than I care to remember. However, in all of my years fishing and guiding, I am yet to see a fly rod break in its case! I’m sure someone out there has a story about it, but it is pretty safe to say that it’s rare. Most fly rods come with a case when you buy them. So, I’ve always wondered why so many anglers choose not to use them. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I physically cringe when a client pulls an uncased rod out of the trunk and throws it in the back of my truck.

It’s one thing if you have a rack on or in your vehicle that is designed to carry a rod while it is strung up. But I’m talking about the strung up rod that is broken down in 2-4 pieces with the leader tangled around it. The person who does this usually justifies it with something like, “I just hate having to tie the fly back on every time.”

Forgive me for the harsh judgement but this is terrible reasoning! Aside from the fact that you’re committing your fishing life to always fishing just one beat up fly tied to what is usually a leader that is way too short and thick; you’re setting yourself up for an epic tangle to start the day and you’re just begging for a broken rod tip.

Know Your Knots

If this is you… learn to tie your knots!  You really only need to know two. A perfection loop gives you a “knotless” connection between your fly line and leader. So you just need a knot for splicing tippet and a knot for tying the fly on. A double surgeons knot will take care of the former and a clinch knot will handle the latter. Both are simple to tie with a little practice. Now you can break down your rod and put it back in its tube at the end of the day. Take care of your tools and your tools will take care of you! If you don’t have a case for your rod or maybe you’re just looking for something new, here’s a breakdown of what’s available.

PVC Tube with Fabric Interior
Aluminum and PVC Cases
Aluminum Tube with Sleeve

As mentioned above, most fly rods will come with a case when you buy them. More often than not, this will either be an aluminum tube with a separate cloth sleeve for the rod, or it will be a PVC tube with fabric inside. If the latter, the fabric will have pre-sewn slots for each section of the rod. The cloth sleeves designed to slide into aluminum tubes will also have pre-sewn, individual slots for each rod section. In either design, you’ll want to put the rod in with the small ends of each section except the butt pointing up. The cork handle end of the butt section should point up. This allows the thick handle of the butt section to protect the smaller tip sections. And it offsets the size of the sections, allowing everything to fit in the tube better.

Combo Cases

Rod/Reel Combo Case

Though they rarely come standard with rods, you can also buy cases that allow you to store the rod with the reel still attached. This is simply for convenience and allows you to keep things assembled. You will still want to remove the fly and reel in the line before storage. I’ve seen folks try to store rods in these tubes with the rod still strung and fly attached, and it usually doesn’t end well. These tubes are available in single and double models.

Rooftop Cases

Car Top Rod Case

If you do prefer to keep your rod outfits fully assembled and rigged up, whether for convenience or because you hate to tie knots, there are a number of long cases available that attach to the roof of your vehicle. All of them that I’ve seen lock and can be purchased to accommodate a single rod and reel or multiples. There are several brands on the market now. I have the River Quiver “four banger” model from RiverSmith and have been very happy with it.

Whatever case you choose, please just choose a case. From giant fish to stream wipeouts to fighting off bears, there are so many better ways to break your rod than caseless in the trunk of your car!

Getting Started in Fly Fishing

Getting into fly fishing can seem overwhelming. And one of the most overwhelming aspects can be the gear. You see fly fishers on the stream who look like members of SEAL Team 6 with the arsenal of gadgets, gear and packs strapped to various places on their bodies. If you walk into a fly shop, it gets even more complicated when you see the endless displays of rods, reels, lines, tools, waders and thousands of fly patterns. Where in the world do you start?

First, it’s important to understand that there are things that you need to go fly fishing and there are other things that might just make a certain task easier but aren’t essential. And there are other things that are just fun or cool! Listed below is a list and description of necessary items to get going in fly fishing. From there you can add all of the extra bells and whistles you want.

The Essential Essentials

Fly Rod: Probably goes without saying but you’ll need a fly rod to get started. Rods vary in size and what exactly you need depends on where you plan to be fishing and what you plan to fish for. And prices are all over the place. You don’t need a $1000  fly rod to get into the sport, but buy the best rod you can afford. Learn more about fly rods.

Fly Reel: The reel will need to be an appropriate size to match the rod and line size you’ll be using. For most freshwater fly fishing, the reel is more of a line storage device than a fish fighting tool and it doesn’t require much of an investment. In saltwater fly fishing, the reel is probably the most valuable piece of equipment and you will want to invest a significant amount of your fly fishing budget. Learn more about fly reels.

Fly Line: The fly line is a critical piece of the equation as it is the weighted line that you will be casting. You don’t need a $100 fly line to start fly fishing but, like the rod, a good fly line can make a big difference and you should buy the best you can afford. Learn more about fly lines.

Terminal Tackle

Leader: The leader is the tapered, “invisible” connection between your fly line and the fly. It provides the critical transfer of energy during the cast that allows the fly to land properly on the water. The skinny tippet end of the leader allows the fly to drift properly. Leaders are relatively inexpensive and are something that you will replace regularly. Learn more about leaders.

Tippet: When you buy a leader, it has a tippet section built in. It’s the thinnest part of the tapered leader. You will want to have spools of tippet material to rebuild or alter the leader as the tippet section gets shorter through the process of changing or breaking off flies. Learn more about tippet.

Flies: Flies are what we use as lures in fly fishing and there are A LOT of choices! Sometimes specific flies that match a hatch are required but often, a few generic fly patterns are all you need to catch fish. Get started with a basic selection of generic patterns and add to them gradually. Learn more about fly selection.

Tools & Gadgetry

Nippers: I suppose you could use your teeth but I’d recommend a pair nippers for cutting your line. Nail clippers will work in a pinch but they are made of incredibly cheap metal. You’ll start seeing nicks in the blades almost immediately and it won’t take long for them to rust. For about $10 you can get a pair of stainless nippers that will last a whole lot longer and they include a nifty “needle tool” for clearing the hook eye. Learn more about nippers.

Hemostats: I use these for everything. They’re helpful for hook extraction, crimping barbs, crimping split shot… you name it! You can use the ones your buddy that works at the hospital gave you, but those are built to be disposable. They’re fine to get started but I wouldn’t wait to long before buying some durable ones made for fly fishing. Learn more about hemostats.

Fly Box: You’re going to need something to put those flies in. An Altoid box might do the trick in the beginning but it won’t take long to outgrow that. There are a lot of different sizes and styles of fly boxes to suit any organizational and storage needs. Learn more about fly boxes.

Not Essential but Pretty Darn Useful

Strike Indicators: If you’re going to do much nymphing, particularly in slower water, you’ll want some of these. Just don’t call them bobbers. They come in a variety of styles, shapes and colors. Learn more about strike indicators.

Split Shot: Again, if you plan to do much nymphing, this will be something you want. Many nymphs have their own weight built in but some don’t. And some that do need more. These are just small weights of various sizes that can be crimped on to leader to add weight. Learn more about split shot.

Polarized Sunglasses: It’s all I can do to not put these on the essential list. Polarized glasses cut glare on the water allowing you to better see the stream bottom, your fly and sometime the fish. I never fish without them. Learn more about polarized sunglasses.

Fishing Pack or Vest: While not essential, you’re going to need some way to carry all of this stuff around with you on the stream. You can probably find something to get you by in the beginning. For me, it was my uncle’s marine shirt with the two big chest pockets. But you’ll soon want something designed for the task. Learn more about packs and vests.

Waders and Wading Boots: How soon or how badly you need these items will depend on where you fish and what time of year you fish. Learn more about waders. Learn more about wading boots.

Landing and Handling Trout

Smoky Mountain Rainbow
A lovely release

It all finally came together. You made a good cast to the right spot and your fly is drifting down the current for mere seconds before a trout intercepts it. You react quickly with a smooth lift of the rod and the fish is hooked. Maintaining steady pressure, you resist against the trout’s evasive maneuvers and inch him closer to you. Now what?

For many, this is when a panic party ensues in an attempt to wrangle the trout and remove the hook from his mouth. You end up dropping your rod in the water and filling the reel with sand all while tying yourself up in a web of fly line and leader. For others, this may be when they begin a long, slow process of torturing the fish in an attempt for that perfect photo.

Catching a fish should be a fun experience and it should be quick and painless for you and the fish! Here are a few tips to show you how:

Playing the Fish

The first rule here is you want to make the fight as quick as possible. Don’t try to keep the fish on longer than necessary in order to feel it more or hope he jumps. Put solid, steady pressure on the fish with the rod and get him in as soon as you can. This is a stressful experience for a fish. Trying to extend the fight only exhausts the fish and can reduce his chance of survival.

Playing Fish with Side Pressure
Good use of side pressure

This is especially true with bigger fish. Certainly it will take longer to bring in a large fish, but it shouldn’t be an all day affair. Don’t be afraid to use that flexible lever called a fly rod to put pressure on the fish. You always want to have a bend in that rod and try to do the opposite of what the fish does. If the fish runs to the left, drop your rod to the right and put side pressure on him. If he goes to the right, drop your rod to the left. If he runs straight away, hold the rod straight up.

Try to always have a bend in the rod and never point the rod tip toward the fish. If he pulls so hard that the rod tip is being pulled forward, let him take some line while still maintaining that steady pressure. If you find yourself at a standstill with the fish where he’s not really running or coming to, try to bring his head to the surface. This will usually accomplish one of two things. He’ll either submit and slide right to you, or he’ll make another run and hopefully burn off one last bit of energy so you can land him. Remember that you want to be the one in control – as much as possible! All of this will not only help ensure that the fish will stay on the line, but it will shorten the fight, which benefits you and the fish.

Landing the Fish

I see a lot of people, beginners mostly, bring in line to where the fish is just inches from the tip of the rod. This habit probably comes from fishing with a shorter spin or bait rod. But your average fly rod is 8-9′ long and if you reel or strip your fly line and leader all the way into the rod guides you’re going to encounter three problems.

First, if it’s a large fish that decides to make one last run, the knot connection between the leader and fly line can easily get hung in the guides resulting in a break off. Second, if you pull that much line in, it leaves the fish close to your rod tip and you can’t reach him without sticking your rod in the water or trying to set it on a bank. Not only does that increase risk of damage to your rod and reel, it’s just really awkward. Third, if and when you do get hold of the fish, you don’t have any slack line, which makes it extremely difficult to remove the hook.

Landing a Trout
A nice example of landing a fish

Always try to leave at least a little bit of fly line past the tip. To land the fish, reach your rod up and behind you and grab the fish or the end of the leader with your other hand. Once you have it, bring your rod back down and forward and you’ll have slack line for easier hook removal. A landing net makes this process easier, where you just scoop the fish in the net rather than grabbing it. I don’t usually fool with a net in the mountains because your average fish isn’t very big and can be easily managed by hand. I always try to have a net in places like tailwaters where I’m more apt to catch bigger average fish.

Handling the Fish

There’s a reason we don’t see fish walking around in our yard. They can’t live out of water. And the longer we keep them out of water when landing them, the more harm we are causing them. Try to make this process as quick as possible.

I will often not remove the fish from the water at all. I land them as described above but rather than grabbing the line or fish, I will simply clamp the fly with my hemostats. With a little twist of the wrist, the hook usually comes right out and the fish swims away happy and unharmed without ever coming out of the water. You can do the same with a fish that has been netted. Just put the hemostats on the fly while the fish is in the net. This works even better (as does any hook removal) with barbless hooks. I almost always crimp the barbs on my hooks and encourage you to do the same.

The only reason I can think of that you would need to remove the fish from the water is if you’re going to take a picture of it. Actually, you can get some pretty cool pictures of the fish in the water, but if you want to be in it too, than the fish will need to come out of the water – or you’ll need to go in!

Photographing Fish

If you are going to handle trout, it is important to first wet your hands. They have skin, rather than scales, that contains a “slimy” protective coating. Dry hands can remove or damage that coating making them more susceptible to disease. Now back to the obvious statement above, fish don’t live out of the water, so try to do this as quickly as possible.

Don’t hold the fish in one hand while you fumble around to pack or vest looking for your camera. And most definitely don’t walk downstream with the fish so your buddy can take a picture. Preparation is the key here.

For starters, keep your camera in a place that’s easy to get to, not tucked away in your backpack. Try to keep the fish in the water until the camera is out, on and ready. Then grab the fish gently (with wet hands), take your picture and get him right back in the water. Remember you’re not shooting the cover of Vogue. You don’t need ten different poses from the fish. Get one or two quick shots then get him back in the water.

I can’t resist a brief rant here. You don’t need a picture of every fish you catch! I definitely understand getting a couple of photographic memories from the day. I certainly do the same. Maybe get a shot of the two or three bigger ones, or maybe that one that was just a little more colorful. But your Instagram followers don’t need to see fifteen pictures of what looks like the exact same fish. I know. It’s the world in which we live.

Tips for Better Photos

Face cropped to protect the innocent

While we’re on the subject of photographing fish, there are a few things to keep in mind that will be better on the fish and will result in a better photo. The first thing is to show the fish to the camera, not your hands. Don’t grip the fish like it’s a baseball bat. The fish won’t love it and you’ll be disappointed in your picture. Instead, gently cup the fish from behind so that you can see as much of it as possible. I recommend one hand for smaller fish and two hands for bigger fish – assuming you have someone else to take the picture.

The guitar pose

Try to avoid putting pressure on his fins and certainly try to keep your fingers away from his gills. Hold him right-side up (yes, a lot of people hold them upside down) and try to extend him away from your body a little, rather than pinning him against your body like a guitar.

While I do recommend handling the fish as little as possible, I do suggest holding the fish for a good photo, even if it’s in the net. Many anglers try to hold the line with the fish suspended. This results in a rotating fish and a “Hail Mary” for the photographer, attempting to snap the shot at just the right time in the rotation.

The million dollar question is what to do with the rod. The trendy thing for a while was for anglers to put the rod in their teeth. More recently, folks have taken to resting the rod behind their head on their shoulders. Y’all are stuck with my opinion here, but my opinion is that both of these things look stupid. If you’re near the bank, you can set the rod down. If you’re not, just stick it under your shoulder. But it’s your picture and if you want to stick your rod in your mouth like a dog with a bone, have at it!

Releasing the Fish

Smaller fish tend to be a bit more resilient. Typically, you just set them back in the water and they dart away. Bigger fish, however, tend to need a little more time. They are often tired from the fight and will sometimes want to float on you if you just toss them back in the water. This doesn’t mean that you need to do some weird version of fish CPR that I’ve seen many anglers attempt.

Releasing Trout
A nice release

Just find a little slower patch of water out of the main current and set the fish in it. Before you let him go, simply keep a hand on him underwater, gently supporting him and keeping him upright. The fish will soon begin to wiggle his tail and eventually swim away on his own power.

Reusable Water Bottles

My grandfather always thought it was absurd that people bought water in plastic bottles. That someone would go to the store and pay for something that comes out of the kitchen sink, throw it away and do it again absolutely blew his mind. Even worse he thought, were all the plastic water bottles people didn’t throw away – the ones he regularly found at the places he hunted and fished.

My grandfather fly fishing for “channel cats” mid 1930’s

No, he wasn’t an environmental activist. He was an insurance claims adjuster from a small town in the Midwest who rarely had anything at all to say about politics or activism. Instead, his perspective likely came partially from that common generational reluctance to embrace a different way of doing things. He was from the canteen generation. But his perspective was also greatly influenced by living through the Great Depression, when most folks simply couldn’t afford not to reuse everything.

My grandfather’s approach to the simple task of taking water into the woods was born purely out of necessity and common sense. Now there’s a whole lot of data that says he was right for reasons he knew at the time and for reasons he couldn’t possibly have foreseen: the overflowing landfills, the wasted oil, the wasted energy, the leaking toxins, the impact on wildlife and the mountains of plastic waste that end up in our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.

However, my intent is not to write a detailed article on the specific detrimental impacts of single use plastics. There are an overwhelming number of articles and studies on the topic already. If you are unfamiliar with the problem or don’t believe there is a problem, I recommend taking a little time to research.

When it comes to fishing trips, I have always used reusable containers to carry my water. When I was a kid, I used a canteen like my grandfather did. In more recent years, I’ve been using hydration bladders or stainless steel water bottles. The choices today are vast from simple, inexpensive containers to those heavy, high dollar Yetis that will keep ice for days. As with any other piece of fly fishing gear, you just have to find what works best for you. All are better alternatives than buying water in single use plastic bottles.

Partly because I do consider myself an environmentalist and probably more because of the influence of my grandfather, I try to reduce waste as much as possible, whether it’s water bottles or anything else. If you have ever had one of my guide trip lunches, I provide real forks and cloth napkins not to be fancy (as some have commented), but because they are reusable. Lunches are also packed in reusable containers. There are a few things in the lunches that need to be wrapped either for practicality or sanitary reasons, but I’m proud to say the only thing that gets thrown away from one of my lunches is two pieces of cling wrap!

The fact is it would be way easier to pick up a boxed lunch full of disposable containers, paper napkins and plastic utensils and just throw it away at the end of the day. One of my least favorite things to do at the end of every day is to go home and clean all the lunch containers. Yes, it is WAY more work but to me, it is worth it.

I’m not trying to preach here or act superior because I produce less waste. I’ve used my share of disposable containers and I have certainly succumbed to the convenience of a single use plastic water bottle. After all, we do live in a world of convenience and sometimes you just don’t have a choice. But sometimes with just a little more effort, you do.

For years, while carrying my personal water in reusable containers on guide trips, I provided single use water bottles for clients. Yes, those water bottles were recycled after use but there are a lot of questions about the viability of recycling single use water bottles. I have always wanted to eliminate those plastic bottles altogether from my guide trips but thought I didn’t have a choice. It turns out I do. Much like my lunches, it will require a lot more work (and a little more expense) on my end, but like the lunches, I think it’s worth it.

New guide trip water bottles

Effective immediately, I will no longer be providing plastic water bottles on guided fishing trips. Instead, I am encouraging each client to provide his or her own reusable container for water. Many of my clients do this already. For anyone who does not have their own water/container, I will provide aluminum bottles of water. These bottles will be cleaned thoroughly at the end of each trip and reused for future trips.

Sure this will cost me a little more money and it will definitely be more work, but it’s worth it. As someone once told me, “I may not be able to make this world any better, but I sure as hell don’t have to make it worse!”

Balancing a Fly Rod

Every year, it seems every fly rod company comes out with a new rod that is not only supposed to cast itself, but is substantially lighter than its predecessor. As a matter of fact, the average graphite rod today is probably about 1/3 the weight of the average graphite rod of 30 years ago. And that difference is far more substantial when you start comparing the weight of today’s graphite rods to the bamboo and fiberglass rods that your father or grandfather may have used. But none of this matters if your rod is not properly balanced by your reel.

It’s a phenomenon called “levered weight.” If you carry two 20lb. buckets of water, one in each hand, it will feel more comfortable than carrying just one 20lb. bucket of water in one hand. One side balances out the other. The same concept applies if you have the lightest fly rod on the market but have a reel on it that is too heavy. It will feel heavier in your hand than a heavier rod that is properly balanced by its reel.

Pretty well balanced rod

When it comes to trout fishing and really, most freshwater in general, your reel does not play a very significant role. Unless, you just have to have “the best,” it is not necessary to sink a lot of money into a reel. However, just because it may not be the most important piece of equipment, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some consideration into things like its size. It needs to be big enough to comfortably hold the fly line and appropriate amount of backing, and it needs to balance the rod. In most cases, a rod and reel are balanced if it will self-balance when you set it on one finger positioned near the tip of the cork grip.

In the picture above, the reel is just a little too heavy for the rod. I prefer the balance point to be just a little closer to the tip of the cork. But it’s close enough to not feel uncomfortable.

Most companies will designate specific reel sizes for specific line and rod sizes. If a reel is for 4 – 6 weight lines, it not only means it has the capacity to store those line sizes, but it should balance most 4 – 6 weight rods. Of course, things like the material from which the rod is made and the length of the rod can determine if it actually falls in the “balance range” of that particular reel. If your rod is a short, super light 4-weight, you may want to bump down to the next smaller size. On the other hand, if your rod is a 6-weight bamboo, you may want to bump up to the next larger reel size.

The design of the reel seat on the rod will also be a factor. Almost all modern graphite rods have an uplocking reel seat, which positions the reel just behind the cork grip. Some bamboo rods may have a downlocking reel seat, which puts the reel almost right at the butt of the rod. The latter can help when trying to balance a heavier rod.

As reels become lighter and lighter, it has become far more difficult to find appropriate size reels to balance bamboo rods. However, one reel manufacturer, Ursus, has designed a reel that has removable brass plates on the interior. The weight of the brass plates help to balance heavier bamboo rods. When using the reel on a lighter graphite rod, the plates can be removed. Pretty cool.

In any case, no matter what rod you fish with, keep this in mind when selecting your reel. It will greatly reduce casting fatigue and result in much more enjoyable days on the water!

Poppers

Fly Fishing Popper
Hard Body Popper

A popper, or popping bug, is a type of topwater fly commonly used for warmwater species like bass and bream. Unlike the often delicate and diminutive dry flies used in trout fishing, poppers are typically bright and robust. While topwater trout flies are commonly designed to discreetly drift down a feeding lane, popping bugs are designed to make commotion.

Deer Hair Popper
Deer Hair Popper

Poppers are most often made with a hard, cork body but more and more frequently are being constructed of foam. Softer variations are also made by spinning deer hair on a hook. The hair is tightly packed and trimmed to shape. Using different colors of deer hair allows for some pretty cool color and design variations. However, color and design variations can also be achieved on cork and foam poppers with paint and markers.

What they all have in common is a flat or cupped “face” and a body that usually tapers slightly, getting smaller toward the rear of the hook. When fishing with them, the idea is to pull your line with a short, quick motion that jerks the fly abruptly. As a result, the flat or cupped face of the fly will make a “pop” on the water.  A popper could certainly resemble some sort of insect, but most often it is designed to suggest a struggling baitfish.

Sneaky Pete Slider
Hard Body Slider

A diver or slider is frequently lumped into the popper category. However, while made with similar materials, these have more of a bullet shaped face. The body tapers in the opposite direction of a popper. You use similar fishing methods with this style of fly but when the line is pulled toward you, the bullet head causes the fly to dive or erratically slide through the water.

Fly Line Backing

Orvis Dacron Fly Line Backing
Dacron Backing

There are many fly anglers that don’t even know that they have fly line backing on their reel. Many more are aware that it’s there, but have no idea why. It’s just something the kid at the fly shop added when he strung up the reel and fly line you bought. If you’re a freshwater trout fisherman, it’s of no obvious value because you likely never see it. If you’re a saltwater fisherman, you’ve seen it plenty of times… and it made you nervous! Whether you’re accustomed to seeing your backing or not, it has value to you as a fly fisherman.

But what is it? For starters, backing is a thin, synthetic line that connects your fly line to your reel. It is most often made of Dacron, a strong synthetic material that will not dry rot and will likely never need to be replaced. So, even though you may need to replace your fly line every few years or so, you’ll likely just attach it to the same backing that was originally put on your reel. It has two primary purposes: to fill up space on the reel and to act as an “insurance policy.”

Let’s first talk about its role as insurance policy. The average fly line is 90–100 feet in length. So, if you make a 40’ cast and hook a large fish that runs 50’ or more, you’re in big trouble! But with an additional length of backing on the reel, you are able to deal with longer runs made by big fish. So, why not just use longer fly lines?

Fly lines are expensive. A 90’ fly line will commonly cost $50-$100. However, you can get 100 yards of backing for about $5-$10. Some fly shops even give you the backing for free when you buy a reel and line from them. And again, you’ll likely never have to replace it. What’s that, you say? You only fish small streams and there is little to no chance of a fish running out 100 feet of line?

As mentioned above, the other purpose of backing is to fill space on the reel. Fly line has a significant amount of “memory,” and if you wind it directly on the small spindle of a trout reel, it will create small tight coils in the fly line. It will also require more turns of the reel to pick up line. However, by filling the reel with an appropriate amount of backing, you create a larger arbor for the fly line to rest on. As a result, you’ll have larger, more manageable coils in the fly line and more efficient line retrieval.  

The average trout reel will have a capacity to hold the fly line and probably 50–100 yards of backing. Larger saltwater reels will hold significantly more – anywhere from 200–600 yards. How much backing a reel holds depends on the size of the reel, the size fly line on the reel, and the type of backing used.

Dacron backing typically comes in sizes 12–30 pound test, with the heavier strength taking up more space. Gel-spun polyethylene backing is also available. It is more expensive but has a significantly greater strength to diameter ratio. For that reason, gel-spun backing is often the choice for saltwater fishermen.

Multi-colored Fly Line Backing

Finally, backing has become a bit of a fashion statement for many fly anglers in recent years. While it has traditionally come in white, there are now multiple colors of backing available, providing brighter color schemes on the reel.