My Favorite Things

Okay, I admit it. I stole this idea from Oprah. But I am in a unique position to use and abuse a lot of fly fishing related products and over the years, I have developed some favorites and I thought I’d share them with you. I may even make this a holiday tradition. Who knows? Maybe Santa will see it and put one of these items under your tree!

In any case, it’s worth mentioning that I do not make a dime on any of these items if you buy them. These are just great products that have served me well. They are random items that range in price from about $12.95 – $400.

Richardson Chest Fly Box

Richardson Chest Fly Box

If you’ve been on a guide trip with me, you’ve seen this. It is absolutely my favorite piece of gear and I’ve been wearing it since 1999. They’ve been making these boxes quite a bit longer, though. Ronald Fye developed the first one in 1951. Rex Richardson purchased the company and the patent in 1960 and the current owner, Bob Hegedus, has been making the boxes since the mid 90’s. Each box is built by Bob in Bellefonte, PA and carries a lifetime guarantee.

I love them for the organization and the flexibility they offer. Everything is right in front of me so I’m not digging through pockets to find things, and it acts as a sort of work table, too. It can be used alone or in tandem with a backpack, vest or hip pack.

There are a several different options from which to choose and each box is custom built to your specifications. Choose from one to five trays and build them how you please: compartments, foam, storage, tippet dispenser… Continue accessorizing with floatant holders (built to fit your brand), magnifiers, flashlights and more. $85 – $400. View website.

Fishpond Burrito Wader Bag

Fishpond Burrito Wader Bag

I like keeping my wet stuff separate from my dry stuff when traveling and this bag is the perfect solution. Unlike some products on the market, it is well thought out without being over engineered. You know what I’m talking about.

Simply open the bag, grab the handles and lift and your waders and boots roll right out. The waterproof interior liner acts as a “changing station” where you can stand and protect the feet of your waders while suiting up. At the end of the day, take your wet gear off while standing on the waterproof liner and roll it all up. The video below will explain WAY better!

It’s ideal for one set of boots and waders but you can fit two if you need. $59.95. View website.

Simms Guide Guard Wading Socks

Simms Guide Guard Wading Socks

Wading socks are wading socks, right? Wrong. Wet wading season lasts a long time in the Smokies and I’m probably fishing and hiking in wading socks almost 150 days a year. I’ve worn about every brand and style out there and these are hands down the most comfortable and durable.

The biggest problem with most wading socks is that they are usually only 2 – 2.5mm neoprene. Your wading boots are sized to fit over the neoprene foot of a wader, which is usually 3.5mm. So, when you end up with boots that are either too tight when you wear waders or too loose when you wet wade. The Simms Guide Guard sock is 3.5mm which means they’re not only more durable, but you get the same fit whether wearing waders or wet wading. They’re a little more expensive than other brands but in my opinion, worth every penny! $49.95. View website.

Fishpond PioPod

Fishpond PioPod Trash Can

“Pio” stands for “pack it out.” This simple little contraption is meant to act as a small streamside trash can to dispose of monofilament, strike indicators, cigarette butts… you name it. The top has “one way” slits that allow you to push things in without them easily coming back out. The lid can easily be removed to properly dispose of trash when you get home.

It conveniently attaches to most any pack or vest with a dual attachment options. Check out the video below for more details. $12.95. View website.   

Shelta Performance Sun Hat

Shelta Performance Sun Hat

After the recent removal of a basal cell carcinoma, I decided to get more serious about protecting my skin against the sun. That included a new hat. I’ve always been a ball cap guy. I don’t like big, wide brims that seem to get in the way of everything and I don’t like floppy brims flapping around in my face.

I found my solution with Shelta. They make a variety of sun hats with different brim shapes and sizes, all with a rigid front brim that won’t flop! Even better, it’s UPF 50+ and it floats. It’s also fairly water resistant which is a big plus in a climate where there almost always at least a 30% chance of rain. Another big bonus is a chin strap that secures out of the way when you don’t need it.

It’s not a cheap hat. Then again, it’s not a CHEAP hat. This thing is extremely well made and comes with a lifetime guarantee. It’s the best purchase I made in 2021! $69.50. View website.

ThinOptics Readers

I am of a certain age. If you are also of a certain age, you know that you can’t see small , closeup things like you used to. Fly fishing requires seeing a lot of small, closeup things!

Magnifiers or readers are now a must for me when I’m on the stream. I started out using magnifiers that clip on the bill of your hat. They were fine but they require you to look up when you’re working on flies or tippet, and I prefer to look down. I also tried traditional readers but simply didn’t want one more thing hanging around my neck.

ThinOptics readers are the perfect solution for me. Originally designed to attach to a cell phone, they mount to the front of my chest box, out of the way but easily accessible. A nifty little spring design allows them to stay perched on your nose when in use.

Other designs include a model that will hang from a zipper or any latch point on a pack. There are also full size readers that can slide into a thin pocket.

Numerous magnifications and colors are available and prices start at $20.95. View website.

Kühl Pants

In the Smokies, I spend most of the season wet wading. When I wet wade, I prefer to wear long pants to protect my legs from vegetation, rocks, critters, etc. But you don’t want to wear a fabric like denim that will hold a lot of water and dry slowly. Fortunately, there are a lot synthetic fabrics out there that are lightweight and will dry incredibly fast.

Doing this every day, my problem with many of these light synthetics is that hey are not durable. They would be fine if we were standing all day in one spot in the water. But we move a lot in the mountains. We climb over boulders and move in and out of thick vegetation.

I found the perfect solution in Kühl. There are a number of similar models that I’m sure are as good, but I specifically wear the Konfidant. They dry quickly but are constructed of a far more durable fabric that will stand up to anything you throw at them. I’ve been wearing them hard for years and am yet to wear a pair out.

Additionally, they fit well, are comfortable and have a terrific pocket design. Quite simply, they’re the best pants I’ve ever owned! At just under $100, they’re not cheap. But in this fly fishing guide’s humble opinion, they are worth every penny! Visit website.

9 Items You Should Have in Your Backcountry Fishing Kit

One of my favorite things to do is fish in very remote places. I love going to places where I’m unlikely to see anyone else and even better, places that few have ever been. But traveling to these places, or anyplace in the backcountry involves a certain amount of risk.

No one ever plans to get lost or to get hurt. And certainly, nobody ever expects that a day of fishing will turn into an overnight stay in the woods. However, no matter who you are, something can always go wrong and when you’re in the backcountry of the mountains, there is a name for people who are not prepared for those unforeseen occurrences when they arise… “Statistics.”

I’ve always been accused of being over prepared and some will probably roll their eyes when they read this article. But things can go bad in a hurry in the wilderness. And if they do, you can hope that someone happens by to help, or you can be prepared to deal with it yourself. And when you travel to some of the remote places I do, the chances of someone happening by are slim. Even when I’m traveling to a location where I’m more likely to see someone, I would much rather be the person prepared to provide aid than to need it.

I always wear a daypack in the backcountry, and I define the backcountry as anyplace I can’t exit and get aid fairly immediately. So, it could be five miles up a trail or it could be a deep roadside gorge that I can’t exit until I get to the other end. In addition to my fishing supplies, I always carry the following items in my backcountry kit and suggest that you do the same.

1) Knife

Whether in the backcountry or not, I was taught as a boy that you never go to the woods without a knife. The needs and uses for a knife in the outdoors are endless.

2) First Aid Kit

From a fall to a sting to a severe cut, you just don’t know when you’re going to hurt yourself. A first aid kit is a must and I’d recommend putting together your own rather than using the pre-made kits. Think about the most likely injuries you could suffer as well as any personal issues you may have, such as bee allergies, and pack your first aid kit with items to treat those things.

3) Whistle

Even when you’re in an area where there are more people, if you should injure yourself in the stream or anywhere else out of sight of the trail, help may not be able to see or hear you. A whistle or other loud sounding device can signal others that you’re in distress. It can also be a tool to scare away aggressive wildlife.

4) Bear Spray

Speaking of aggressive wildlife, I always carry bear spray with me in the backcountry. While it can provide comfort and protection against aggressive bears and other wildlife, it can also be a useful weapon against undesirable people. Anyone remember the machete wielding killer on the Appalachian Trail a few years ago?

5) Topo Map

Certainly this can include GPS devices but a good old fashion paper map won’t run out of batteries. Learn how to read a topo map if you don’t already and keep one with you. I can’t tell you how many lost hikers I’ve encountered and set straight in the backcountry who didn’t have a map.

6) Fire Starting Tools

I always carry waterproof matches, a fire stick and a small amount of dry tinder in my pack. This is in case I, for whatever reason, unexpectedly must spend the night in the woods. Or maybe I take a spill in the water on a cool day and need to prevent hypothermia.

7) Emergency Space Blanket

Much like fire starting tools, this may be used for warmth and/or shelter in case of an unexpected overnight stay or as prevention/treatment for hypothermia.

8) Water Purification

I always carry water with me on a fishing trip or hike. But if it becomes an unexpected extended stay, I want a way to purify water. A LifeStraw is a simple, light, packable option.

9) Paracord

Much like a knife, paracord has multiple uses in the outdoors whether in the backcountry or not. It’s light, small and strong and can be used for simple “emergencies” like replacing a broken boot lace to more serious tasks like constructing a shelter for an unforeseen overnight.

Additional Thoughts

I don’t usually carry a map on guided trips or on many solo trips in the Smokies, only because I am so intimately familiar with those locations. But I take one anytime I go someplace I’ve never been or have only been to a few times. Otherwise, I never travel in the backcountry without the above-mentioned items.

Additionally, although I do it routinely, it’s not a very good idea to fish the backcountry by yourself. Take a buddy and always let someone know where you’re going to be. If you tend to go to really remote spots, you may consider carrying some sort of GPS beacon. They allow you to send an SOS if you get into trouble and some offer text messaging if you need to message a potentially worried loved one when you’re running way late. It didn’t make my list of essentials, but my wife insisted I take one on my “extreme” excursions.

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