Tying the Clinch Knot

The Clinch Knot is a common knot used throughout all types of fishing and was the first knot I ever learned to tie. It is used to attach the fly to the tippet. With a little practice, it is simple to tie and will serve you well in most trout fishing situations.

March Fishing Forecast

Upper Abrams Creek, Tennessee
The “Cove Section”

Mountains

While weather is all over the place around here and 80 degrees in February is just as likely as snow in May, I always call March the transition month. Winter is transitioning to spring and you tend to get sample of both seasons. When folks book trips for March, I always try to warn them that it’s a gamble. Not only can temperatures change on a dime and turn the fishing off, it tends to be a wetter month, so water levels can get way out of whack.

I’ve had some fantastic fishing in March, particularly toward the latter part of the month. When the stars align, we can see some of the first good hatches of the year with fish hungry after a winter of little food. It seems that every seasoned Smokies angler is on “Quill Gordon watch!” But a big cold front can delay the hatch and can lock a trout’s mouth tight as a drum.

What will this March hold? Only time will tell. We’re sure to see some really good fishing and some lousy fishing, too. When you live around here, you can pick your days. When you’re traveling here to fish, you just have to hope you’re here on one of the upswings.

In any case, most of the month will be spent fishing nymphs. Darker patterns do the best and a #12 Olive Hares Ear (or similar) is a pretty good imitation for the Quill Gordon nymphs that should be moving about. When water temperatures get into the 50’s for a significant part of the day, a few days in a row, our dry fly fishing should start to pick up. That’s probably going to be around the third week, but who knows?

Clinch

As usual, the fishery that does have good water temperatures year round and should fish well in the winter is cranking 2+ generators 24 hours a day. Last year was a tough one on the Clinch. A very wet spring resulted in very few days of low water. Unfortunately, this year is starting out the same way. Man, every year seems to be flood or drought. Is an “average” year too much to ask for?

Finding Feeding Trout

You can have the best gear and be a great caster, but it won’t mean a thing if you don’t know where to find feeding fish. We’ve covered a lot of these things separately in other articles, but here is a quick breakdown of the four things you really want to look for before you make that first cast.

Water temperature

A wild trout’s water temperature range for feeding is typically between 50 – 67 degrees. Ideal temperature is upper 50’s to low 60’s. There are plenty of exceptions that you can read about in Understanding Water Temperature, but this is a pretty good rule of thumb and should be your first consideration when trying to locate feeding trout.

Check that water temperature

If you’re not already familiar with a particular stream’s seasonal variations and trends, a stream thermometer will be your most useful tool. Submerge it for a minute in water that’s about 1-2 feet deep. If, for instance, it’s July and you get a reading of 68-degrees, you should, at the very least, seek out shadier parts of the stream. Ideally, you should try to get to a higher elevation where it’s a little cooler. If it’s March and you get a reading of 47-degrees, seek out sunnier places and, if possible, move to a lower elevation.

Part of this may require a little research on your part as well. If you’re fishing in a low elevation stream where the water temperature stays above 70-degrees for much of the year, there likely won’t be trout in there at all, even during colder months. Again, this is for wild trout. Some streams that might be too warm to support wild trout year round, could be stocked with trout during the colder months.

Depth

Once you have located an area with a suitable water temperature, you need to look for deeper water. We’re not talking about water that has to be over your head, but something at least a foot or two deep. In times when food is incredibly abundant like a heavy hatch, trout will sometimes feed in shallower water. But in general, they will choose water with a little more depth for more protection from predators.

Current

Even if you have ideal water temperature and adequate depth, trout don’t do a lot of feeding in still pools. And even when they do, they can be very difficult to locate and catch because they’re often cruising and feeding sporadically. A defined current is essentially a conveyor belt of food. Most feeding trout will be near currents, watching and waiting for food to come to them.

Abrams Creek Smoky Mountains
Currents can vary significantly in a single run

In currents with a slow to medium speed, trout will likely hold right in the middle of the current and on the edges. Hard currents with a lot of speed are a little different.  A trout won’t hold in the middle of a hard current because it requires too much energy. Instead, the trout will be on the edges of these currents or between currents in seams and pockets.

Structure

A trout often has a few places in an area where he likes to hang out. He may have a favorite spot to feed and a spot under a rock where he likes to hide when he senses danger. Sometimes, you’ll find a place that looks perfect as far as depth and current speed go, but the stream bottom may be nothing but flat bedrock. These areas usually don’t hold many fish because there are few, if any, safe places. Try to look for a bottom with a lot of rocks where fish can hide.

Significant structure like fallen trees or large boulders often attracts the bigger fish, particularly if that spot meets all of the other criteria mentioned above. If you find any of the characteristics mentioned above, you’re apt to find a few feeding trout. When you locate a spot with ALL of these characteristics, you’ll likely find the most and/or the biggest trout.

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!”

Tying the Blood Knot

A while back I shared a video on how to tie the Double Surgeons Knot. The Blood Knot is used to accomplish the same task, to splice two pieces of tippet together. However, there are a few differences between these two knots.

Day in and day out on the stream, I’m going to use the Double Surgeons. It’s quick and easy to tie and it’s a little bit stronger. It also does a better job than the Blood Knot when it comes to connecting tippet that varies significantly in diameter.

The downside to the Surgeons Knot is that it sets a little cockeyed and it’s a little bulkier knot. Neither of these things matter much when you’re working with 5X tippet. You probably won’t even notice. But when you’re splicing thicker pieces of mono together, like butt and mid sections of leader, a more uniform and less bulky knot becomes extremely important. And that’s when the Blood Knot is at it’s best.

Additionally, I’ll sometimes use the Blood Knot with smaller tippet if I’m rigging a two fly rig where I want the top fly to swing independently, rather than fixed as with the in-line system. Fishing two wet flies is a perfect example of when I might do this. I can tie a Blood Knot and leave one of the tags long to attach the top fly. The tag ends on a Blood Knot come out at a perfect right angle and foul far less than the cockeyed tags on a Double Surgeons.

February Fishing Forecast

Winter Fishing Tellico
Winter Fishing

Smoky Mountains

January has been relatively mild for the most part but very wet. So water levels have been up more than they’ve been down. And even in a mild January we’re talking about water temperatures in the 40’s at best, so not exactly stellar fishing. But a few fish have been caught and the mountains look completely different in the winter, so it’s always nice to get out.

February will likely be more of the same. You never know what you’re going to get around here but February usually stays pretty cold and things don’t consistently start warming up until about mid March. I know I sound like a broken record but I do find myself having to explain this to wannabe winter fishermen more than anything else… It’s not that I’m worried about being uncomfortable in the cold. I have great gear and don’t mind the cold one bit. It’s all about the water temperature with wild fish and if that water temperature is significantly below 50-degrees, they just don’t do much feeding.

And in the winter, it takes a lot to reach those temperatures. Even when you get a couple of nice 60-degree days, the overnight lows are still often in the 30’s and your water temperature just won’t climb much. When the days get longer and the overnight lows get warmer, you’ll start to see better water temperatures and active fish!

If you do get out this month, expect to be nymphing. Go with darker patterns and try to fish them right on the bottom, focusing on pools and slower runs. Here’s a little bit on winter fishing in the mountains.

Delayed Harvest

February is the last month for Delayed Harvest streams. These stocked fish should be quite a bit more active than their wild brothers in the Smokies. However, by February, poaching has usually taken its toll and there just aren’t a lot of fish left. Nymphing will definitely be the ticket on these streams. Standard nymph patterns are worth a try and anything bright and shiny is a good bet!

Clinch River

As usual, the fishery that does have good water temperatures year round and should fish well in the winter is cranking 2+ generators 24 hours a day. Last year was a tough one on the Clinch. A very wet spring resulted in very few days of low water. Unfortunately, this year is starting out the same way. Man, every year seems to be flood or drought. Is an “average” year too much to ask for?

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!

Understanding Rise Rings

When a trout feeds on or near the surface, it creates a ring in the water that can appear as a violent splash or a mere dimple. Recognizing certain characteristics of this rise ring can tell you a lot about where the fish is positioned, where his feeding lane is, his size and possibly what he’s feeding on.

Lengthy chapters of vast and detailed information on this topic can be found in a number of well known fly fishing books. I recommend reading them. This article will attempt to condense that information into a useful overview. As always, these are general rules to which there are always exceptions!

Rise Ring
Dimple Rise

Common or Simple Rise

A common rise is characterized by a quick view of the trout’s head, dorsal fin, and often “wagging” tail, followed by a boil of water. It indicates that the trout is positioned near the surface and feeding on insects on the surface or near the surface film. The insects are probably medium to large in size. Because of the increased exposure to predators, trout rarely position themselves near the surface unless there is a lot of food available. So, if you see this kind of rise, keep watching. Chances are you will see the same fish repeatedly feeding.

Surface Swirl

The surface swirl is similar to the common rise but without the appearance of the head, fin or tail. You only see the water boil. In this case, the fish is probably positioned within a foot or two of the surface and is feeding on insects at least two inches below the surface. You can spend hours casting dry flies to these kind of rises without a take, but an unweighted nymph or wet fly fished just below the surface can be deadly.

Poking or Dimple Rise

As the name implies, this rise form appears as just a dimple on the surface and if you look carefully, you can often see just the nose of the trout penetrate the surface. This rise form also suggests the trout is positioned near the surface but likely feeding on small insects on or just below the surface. This type of rise is most often seen in slower pools and runs, slow edges of currents and eddies.

Splashy Rise

When a rise ring is more of a splash, it can mean a few things. Usually, it just indicates that the trout is positioned deeper in the water. By traveling farther up the column for food, the trout’s momentum often results in more of a splash on the surface. If the trout is positioned deeper, this was likely an opportunistic rise from a fish not necessarily focused on the surface. You may never see him come up again.

Similarly, trout feeding on insects that emerge and get off the water quickly can display a splashier rise. Caddis flies fit this description, so many anglers assume (sometimes incorrectly) that a splashy rise means trout are feeding on caddis. And sometimes a splashy rise can simply be the result of a smaller, eager trout rising recklessly.

Gulping Rise

A gulping rise is like a greatly exaggerated common rise. The trout’s mouth is wide open and his entire backside breaks the surface, followed by an often audible “gulp.” You’re likely to see this type of rise during very heavy hatches when there are frequently multiple bugs very close together on the surface. The trout may eat as many as six bugs in one rise. If you’re seeing this, you’re at the right place at the right time. Try to match what you see on the water and don’t get your leader in a big tangle!

Jumping Rise

A jumping rise is when the trout completely clears the water, sometimes by a few feet! This could mean the fish is feeding on bugs in the air just above the surface, or possibly something large like a mouse or even baitfish. In any case, a jumping rise suggests a brief moment of opportunity and not a steadily feeding trout. I don’t recall ever standing in a pool and seeing dozens of trout routinely jumping out of the water. Most experienced anglers recognize the jumping rise as fool’s gold, shake their heads and move on.

Where is the trout?

As mentioned above, certain types of rise rings can suggest how deep the trout may be. However, there are other things to consider when determining where in the stream that trout is positioned.

Trout Rise
Trout Position vs. Rise Location – Illustration by Jason Borger

First and foremost, when a trout rises in a stream, he is going to drift back during the process, then return to his original position. So the trout is actually positioned upstream of where you saw him rise. If he is holding near the surface, his position may only be a few inches upstream of the rise. If he’s holding in deeper water, his position may be several feet upstream of the rise.

When a trout rises, you’re also going to see a “push” of water, like a little wave. That wave usually pushes upstream. But if the wave pushes to one side or another, it indicates that the trout came over to feed. So, he may be holding in one lane and feeding in another.

There’s a lot to this, I know. The best advice I can offer is when you see a trout rise, don’t immediately cast a dry fly to that spot. Think about what the rise looked like and stop and look for others. Identifying rise rings may not give you all the answers, but it will give you a great place to start!

Elk Wing Caddis

Elk Wing Caddis
Elk Wing Caddis

Caddis flies have just never been given the same attention as mayflies by fly fishermen. Pick any mayfly out there and it’s not difficult to find its Latin name and a separate common name. Likely, you’ll also find multiple fly patterns imitating every possible stage of just that one particular species.

That’s not the case with caddis. They are often just described by their size and color: green caddis, yellow caddis, dun caddis, etc. Sure there are different patterns out there like the Neversink Caddis and the Henryville Special, but they are just different variations of generic patterns, intended to represent a host of different caddis by varying the size and color. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I suppose in a sport where we often overcomplicate things, a little simplicity is refreshing. But don’t confuse simplicity with lack of importance as caddis flies can be found on most every trout stream in the United States.

The most popular and widely used fly pattern for a caddis adult is the Elk Wing Caddis, also called the Elk Hair Caddis. It was created by Pennsylvania fly fishing legend, Al Troth, in 1957. At least that seems to be when it was first written about. I’m sure he was fishing it before then. Since that time, it has become a staple in most every fly angler’s box not only as a caddis imitation, but also as an effective searching pattern when no hatch is present. It’s a great fly in the Smokies almost all year.

Seasonal Variations

In the early spring, I use smaller versions, usually with darker bodies to represent the darker caddis and stoneflies we see that time of year. As we get into late spring and early summer, the patterns get a little bigger and lighter, with tan bodies mostly. From late spring through early fall, a yellow body makes a great imitation for the prolific Little Yellow Sally stonefly. And by fall, I’m back to using tan, olive and even rust colored bodies.

The Elk Wing Caddis is a fairly simple dry fly to tie and again, allows for a lot of variation. By changing the color of the body, the hackle and/or the wing, you can imitate most any down-wing fly on the water. Below is a recipe for the Elk Wing Caddis I fish most often.

Elk Wing Caddis – Tan

Hook: Standard dry fly, size 16-12*
Thread: Brown 8/0
Hackle: Brown rooster, palmered
Body: Superfine dubbing, tan
Wing: Natural elk hair

* This is the common size range in which I tie this tan caddis. General hook size for caddis imitations can range from size 10 down to size 20 (and smaller).

December Fishing Forecast

delayed harvest rainbow tennessee
Delayed Harvest Rainbow

December is kind of the beginning of “fishing for the sake of going fishing” season. That’s not to say that fish can’t be caught, but we begin to see a lot more bad days than good ones, at least as far as activity goes. Spending the day on a quiet, snowy stream catching nothing is still a pretty good way to spend a day!

Mountains:

Right now we’re seeing water temps in the mid 40’s in low elevation mountain streams. As a broad rule, trout don’t feed very actively much below 50. You can still catch them but don’t expect a 40 fish day. You’ll need to nymph slow and deep and focus on the slower pools. Sleep in, eat a good breakfast and head to the stream a little later in the day. Your best fishing will be through the middle part of the day when water temps are at their warmest.

As suggested above, nymphs will be the ticket most of the time in December and throughout the winter. Darker patterns like Pheasant Tails, olive or black Hares Ears, and Prince Nymphs are good bets. Bigger stoneflies like Girdle Bug might produce but don’t disregard the small, dark Zebra Midges. I would use a tandem rig pairing a large stone with a smaller nymph.

On warmer, sunnier days, you may see isolated surface activity. If so, they’re likely eating BWO’s, black caddis, or small black stoneflies. So, you may want to keep a few of those in your box. Actually, some small Parachute Adams and Griffith’s Gnats should take care of most of your small fly needs.

Delayed Harvest:

The DH waters should be a little more productive through the colder months. Stocked trout just aren’t as impacted by the cold water temperatures. Unfortunately, the later into DH season we get, the fewer fish you will find. Poaching is always a problem on these streams. Any of the nymphs mentioned above should do okay along with any shiny or colorful nymphs you may have.

Clinch River:

This report always sounds like a broken record, but the Clinch should fish well anytime during the winter as long as you get favorable water releases. We’ve seen some good release schedules sporadically throughout the late fall. But at the time of this writing, they are running 2+ generators around the clock. You just have to keep checking. Oh yeah… midges.