Paper or Plastic – Contrasting Bamboo & Graphite Fly Rods

Winston Bamboo Fly Rod

Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.

– Tryon Edwards

There are few smells in this world that can tell such a story as the aroma that is consumed when opening the tube of a bamboo rod. With every flirtatious breath of varnish and cane, images too elusive for mere words or photos dance through twitching nostrils and settle softly in the mind. It’s a perfume that instantly conjures simultaneous images of classic trout water, sparsely hackled dry flies, fedoras, pipe smoke, fine Kentucky bourbon, and perfect memories of past fishing trips that are not entirely my own. Somehow, there is a connection to fish, streams, mountains, and fishermen who met long before me. Each time the final rotation is made around those metal threads and the cap is removed, it’s as if the Genie has been released from the bottle, and the very spirit of fly fishing has been summoned.

I’m hardly a purist but I do take pride in the fact that my first trout came on a dry fly with a cane rod. This did not happen by design, however, and was certainly not the result of any quest for nostalgic perfection or anti-technology-damn-your-plastic-rod doctrine. It was my granddad’s rod, a worthless old Montague production rod from the 1930’s that’s sentimental value is now priceless, but back then, its only value was that it was better than the rod I had.

The rod it replaced, my first rod, was a K-Mart special that came neatly packaged with a reel, a spool of backing, and a 7-weight, level fly line. A burgundy blank finished out with a black plastic reel seat, black foam handle, and gold tipped, black wraps on the guides; it measured 8-feet in length, probably 3-pounds in weight, and had the casting action of a stiff garden hose.

Somehow, its companion reel was even less impressive. While better suited in capacity for a 4 or 5-weight line, it tightly enveloped the packaged 7-weight line and about 10 yards of 20-pound backing. And as advertised on the package, the reel did have an “adjustable” drag. If you flipped the switch on the back of the reel up, it clicked and provided minimal resistance when pulling out line. If you flipped the switch down, the reel silently exclaimed, “Oh shit!” and the spool rotated at 8700 rpm’s with the slightest tug of line. The result, of course, was a rat’s nest of fly line inside the reel with little knotted loops of plastic peeking out of each port in the spool.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of the physical differences, much less the cultural differences of bamboo and graphite, so neither played a role in my decision to “upgrade” that first rod. The fishermen in my family, including my granddad, were almost exclusively bait and spin guys, so in addition to having no real instruction as a budding fly fisherman, I had no preconceived moral perceptions regarding the material used to construct my rod. Instead, I somehow had it stuck in my head that a rod with a cork handle was better than one with a foam handle, making my granddad’s old Montague the obvious choice over the K-Mart rod.

In no way was I a bamboo fundamentalist and truth be known, I went to bed nearly every night staring at the Orvis catalog and dreaming of a brand new, shiny graphite fly rod. I was a helpless lump of clay in the hands of the fly fishing marketing machine, and I wouldn’t rest until I could secure the funds for the genuine graphite Orvis Superfine fly rod of my dreams.

With an arsenal now obscenely exceeding 25 rods, a time when I hoped, dreamed, scrimped, and saved for one – just one – nice graphite rod seems like a lifetime ago. Even longer go, when I was a kid, it was shoes. If I could just get my feet in a new pair of those Zips, my speed and vertical leap would undoubtedly increase to unprecedented levels. And with an Orvis 7’ 9” 5-weight Far and Fine rod, all of my casting woes would immediately disappear and I would instantly begin catching all of the fish that had been eluding me.

To my disappointment, when I eventually got that rod, my casting and fish catching prowess remained pretty much the same. However, even as a novice, the new, high-end graphite rod’s superiority to my previous rods was undeniable. It was lighter, crisper, and more responsive. It was modern, and cool, and just plain sexy! And it would start a trend lasting more than a decade of graphite addiction. Every year something a little lighter, a little faster, and a little sexier would hit the market and I would be first in line to own one.

Bamboo rod purists would likely equate this to selling my soul to the devil. Aside from the moral and ethical legitimacy of strike indicators, there is rarely a fly fishing topic that incites more passionate debates than trying to determine the superior material for fly rods: good old-fashioned split cane versus the new space-age graphite materials. The proponents on either side possess unshakeable convictions and will argue with a ferocity not seen at even the most heated of presidential debates.

And much like presidential candidates might debate the advantages of change versus experience, the pro graphite contingent will argue that their candidate is stronger and lighter and far more capable of zinging much longer lengths of line in the air, while the bamboo party will claim that graphite has no life – no soul – and has no real connection to the line or fish. They see graphite rods as lifeless, plastic sticks designed for heavingrather than castinga fly line. They think people who fish with graphite rods are communists.

I eventually broke the addiction and my preferences even started to change when I finally had the opportunity to fish with a goodcane rod. My experience had only been with the cheaper production rods of the 30’s and it turns out that there were not only much better quality rods being made back then, but the cane rods being made today are nothing short of fantastic! Passing judgment on all bamboo rods based on my granddad’s Montague was the equivalent of judging all graphite rods by my first K-Mart special. But I still can’t passionately take a stand on one material being superior to another.

I’m not sure if there is a right answer. A big part of it probably has a lot to do with where you fish. For instance, suggesting that a cane rod is the better choice for tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys is a pretty tough sell. If we’re being honest, the real determining factor is more likely personal style. As a teen, I went to school with kids that jumped on every trend from leg warmers to parachute pants. Other kids went the preppy route, while others went with the thrashed denim, rocker look. All of these options served the primary purpose of clothing the kid, but as an individual style allowed the kid to tell the world who he was – or at least who he thought he was. Are we not, in some regard, doing the same thing with our choices of fly rods and gear?

In most situations, a fly rod, whether bamboo or graphite, is quite capable of executing effective casts and catching a lot of fish when in the right hands – it’s the chef, not the skillet. What it should boil down to is which rod brings you the most pleasure. I once heard legendary fly fisherman, Joe Humphreys, tell a story about a debate he had with another legend of the stream, Ed Shenk. Ed liked to fish with very short fly rods. Joe asked him why he fished with such short rods when they put him at such an obvious disadvantage. Ed told him it was because they are fun.

There was an awkward period as a teenager when I was preppy and an even more awkward phase when I wore parachute pants. Now, neither fit my style. As a fly fisherman, there have been periods of graphite obsession, and periods of bamboo obsession. Now, both fit my style. I am at peace with the realization that I don’t have to pick one side or the other because, doggone it, I like them both. Out of the far too many fly rods I own, five of them are bamboo, and for day in, day out fishing, I tend to prefer the versatility I get from good graphite rods and find them to be the most useful, practical choice. But I still fish very frequently with my bamboo rods because they’re not impractical, and well, they’re just plain fun… And there’s just something about that smell.

The Perfect Fly

“While the snow whorled, the old men would work at the desk with the glow of bemused gods, forsaking reason and good sense in their search for the great concoction, the random mating of fur and feather and colored thread that would break new ground in piscatorial seduction, speak in the language of pure appeal, fascination, enticement, allure, the perfect corruption, hooked bribe, deadly enchantment, a come-on no fish could deny, something beyond mere interest, something exotic and irresistible. No combination was too distasteful or out of bounds, no creation too shocking.”

– Harry Middleton, Rivers of Memory

Tying flies just seems to be a natural progression for any avid fly angler. Though it becomes more of an obsession for some than others. Some possess a romantic ideal of catching a fish on a fly that they’ve crafted with their own hands. Others simply fish so much and burn through so many flies that they see fly tying as a means of stopping the bleeding. It’s a practical means of saving money. Many more enter the world of fly tying with delusions of grandeur. They possess an unbridled optimism and certainty that they will be able to catch more or better fish by filling a void with a creation not yet imagined by the world’s tying minds and not yet available through their local shop’s selection.

That 29” brown trout under the bridge is just a bead-head-bright-green-bodied-pink-tailed-red-rubber-legged nymph away from being caught! I began with similar delusions. And like many tyers, I still have them. Somewhere deep in the creative recesses of my mind, I surely hold the key to the ultimate creation. I’ll make the dry fly that won’t sink or the nymph that won’t hang the bottom. I’ll create the streamer with just the right waggle. Trout will come from neighboring pools just to get a taste…. The perfect fly.

However, the budding fly tyer is quickly faced with the reality that there is an art to this fly tying thing. An unspeakable number of very imperfect flies will be born at the vise before the perfect fly can ever emerge from the dubbing dust. This is particularly true when you begin the task as I did. I had a shortage of funds and a surplus of stubbornness. Teaching myself rather than spending time and money to take a class was my first of many mistakes. And my response to the overwhelming myriad of materials and tools confronting me was to purchase a starter kit.

Fly tying kits aren’t a bad way to get started at all. But they need to be assembled for you by someone at a fly shop. They can get a feel for what flies you’re interested in tying. I opted for the pre-selected, company kit. It was assembled probably more as a means of ditching materials that wouldn’t sell than as something to ease my transition into the art of fly tying.

The kit regretfully came from one of the large catalog companies. It cost $150, and was advertised as having everything I’d needed to start tying flies. It had a vise, tools, hooks, materials, and a book to show me how to do it. To no real surprise, the materials were extremely low grade. The provided colors were apparently selected for patterns no longer in production. Or someone thought red and yellow were the two universal colors for everything from hackle and marabou to chenille and dubbing.

The pocket sized book turned out to be equally disappointing. It had about twenty pages that included such detailed instructions as: Put hook in vise. Attach thread to hook. Tie feather to hook. Dub body. There were no technique pictures, no definitions, and really only about five illustrated patterns. So I tied a few mutant Wooly Buggers with massive, 10” yellow tails that included even the thick stem. They had red bodies that were plump at the hook bend and skinny near the head. They had red palmered hackles that ended about halfway up the body, and a thread head the size of a marble.

I also tried my luck with dry flies. But due to limited materials, the fact that I really didn’t know what the materials were, and that I had no discernible skills, they didn’t quite turn out like the ones in the fly shop. They did look exactly like mayflies – assuming you mean mayflies smashed on your car windshield and spread a few times with the wiper blade. They consisted of 2” tails that pointed down because I tied them too far back on the hook. The body was a thick, lumpy mass of mangled fur because I didn’t know how to spread and twist dubbing on a thread. The hackle was big and soft since I was using broad saddle hackle from the kit. You mean there are different types of hackle?

And to finish it off, the hook eye was left inaccessible. It was completely enveloped in thread since I never left enough room to wind a head. That actually may have been a cosmic favor. The universe was suggesting that I might want to reconsider attaching this monstrosity to the end of my tippet.

I eventually put all the pieces together and decades later, I can say that my flies do catch fish. They look kind of pretty, too. And I’m finally to the point where I’m saving a little money. In fact, as a commercial tyer, I now even get to say I’m making money. But most of my profits go right back into materials to tie more flies. It’s the circle of life. There are people that solely make a living tying flies but I’m not one of them. Other than offset some other expenses, all commercial fly tying has really done for me is significantly change my perspective on the value of a fly. It didn’t take long before I went from, “They want $2.00 for one fly?!” to “They only get $2.00 for a fly?!”

Making the jump from recreational fly tying to commercial fly tying also has a way of stifling any creative ambitions you once may have possessed. You become confined to a one person assembly line of feathers and fur, repetitively producing dozens of the exact same fly. I get it from two sides.  I try to keep many of the bins full at the local fly shop while still keeping my own boxes full for guide trips. There is a constant need to replenish staple patterns sacrificed to high tree limbs by eager fly fishing virgins. Still, that creative yearning never goes away. It routinely creeps up and distracts me while I’m four dozen deep in a fly tying shift of redundancy. An hour later, I’ve aborted the task at hand and have tied six Parachute Adams with pink rubber legs, chartreuse hackle, and a spinner blade for a tail.

Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. But I have, for whatever reason, had some really bad ideas for fly patterns. They were all born of what, at the time, seemed to be sound theory. In retrospect, they are pretty difficult to justify. Despite these failures in fly tying evolution, over the years I have created some flies that turned out to be very productive. I don’t know how original any of them really are. The patterns I create are most often variations of existing patterns. This poses the question of what actually constitutes an original fly pattern.

Fly tying is much like cooking in that regard. Very rarely does someone create a brand new recipe anymore. Rather, cooks may tweak a traditional recipe to create a slightly different flavor or texture. If I cook ground beef and put it on a bun, it’s a hamburger. When I add cheese it’s a cheeseburger. If I add sautéed onions, it’s a cheeseburger with sautéed onions. But if I make the same thing on different bread it becomes a Patty Melt. If I use chartreuse grizzly hackle on a Parachute Adams and add pink rubber legs, is it simply a Chartreuse, Rubber-Legged Parachute Adams, or is that enough variation to be considered an original pattern warranting a clever new name?

What is it that even motivates so many fly tyers to attempt so many new patterns when the old standards seem to work just fine? Is it an attempt at something better? Or is it just an attempt at something different? Is it for the fish’s benefit or our own? Maybe it’s because with a new fly pattern comes new hope. Success with a particular fly, whether it is an old standard or a new concoction of your own design, really just seems to boil down to personal confidence.

When you have confidence in the fly with which you’re fishing, you naturally fish it harder and fish it better. It’s funny how that works. I know that the Muddler Minnow is a fantastic fly. I know it works. It’s probably one of the top five freshwater streamers ever created. I’ve been in the company of numerous fishermen who catch several fish and big fish on it. But I couldn’t catch a fish on that fly if I cast it in a trout tank at the local boat show. It has just never worked for me. I suppose that’s because, for whatever reason, I just don’t fish it with confidence.

What I’ll really never understand are the flies that go in and out of style.  Some flies have been staples for me since the day I started trout fishing. Others seem to fall in and out of vogue. I used to tie and fish a fly called a Mallard Minnow that, back in the day, would catch any kind of fish in any kind of water.

I thought about it once and realized that on that fly, I’d caught rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, striped bass, bluegill, gar, carp, catfish, walleye, and salmon. It probably would have also accounted for saltwater fish if given the chance. But at some point, it just quit working. It was a fly in which I once had total confidence and unmatched success.  I haven’t had a fish so much as look at it since the late nineties.

Why is that? Are flies to fish what clothes are to us? Do they have fly shows every spring to feature the latest trends? Maybe that large brown trout behind the stump is rolling his eyes at my Mallard Minnow. He’s telling his rainbow trout friend, That is so 1995. Are there also trout with retro tastes that are looking for fly patterns from the sixties? If so, I suppose that’s why a good old standard Wooly Bugger would top my list as the perfect fly. Like a basic pair of blue jeans, it seems to always be in style. But if it just had a propeller at the head….

A Fly Fisherman Looks at Forty

A Struggle with Age & Responsibility

(It should be noted that this was written several years ago. I now have 50 firmly in my sights!)

I’ve been guiding fly fishermen for 20 years now and through those years, most of the fishermen I guided were men who were older than I was. I was reminded of this regularly as they would all routinely sit back observing as I tied on a fly, replaced a piece of 6x tippet, or cleared a tangle and calmly remark, “Wait til you turn 40.”

More focused on the task at hand than the comment, I’d reply, “How’s that?”

“Just enjoy your eyesight while you have it. It’s all downhill after 40!” And the two gentlemen would nod and laugh in mutual understanding and satisfaction that I would one day suffer their same misfortune.

If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, and it was never 38, never 42, never 45…. “Wait til you turn 40.” In my 20’s, the prophecy went in one ear and out the other. In my 30’s, I started to give it a little more pause, but still shrugged it off with what little was left of my youthful defiance. Last year I turned 40 and I’ll be damned if a week later I wasn’t holding the fly 6” further away to thread the tippet through the eye of the hook!

Now I find myself frequently guiding fishermen my age or younger and I take great pleasure in forwarding this curse to my clients in their 20’s. I even started sharing my story with older clients, thinking I was now part of some exclusive club. But no, they just smile, shake their head, and chuckle, “Wait til you turn 50.”

When I turned 40, it didn’t bother me a bit and I didn’t have any Earth shattering changes to my psyche or my general outlook on life. There was no desire to change careers, to buy a sports car, or to date a 20 year old swimsuit model. Maybe that comes at 50. But that society defined milestone does have a way of promoting self-reflection and I can honestly say I’m very content with where my life is right now. If I have one regret, it’s how my attitude and approach toward personal fishing trips has changed.

Whether it is born of laziness or wisdom, it has changed and it often leaves me disappointed in myself. I used to fish whenever I could, wherever I could, and for as long as I could – usually longer than I should. If there was an open day or an open slot in a day, I would somehow manage to fill it with fishing. It was not uncommon for me to drive three hours to fish for half a day and turn around and drive three hours back home. Or sometimes I’d turn that same trip into a two day event where I would spend the night in the back of my Explorer.

Now I find myself reluctant to drive an hour and a half to fish the South Holston, regardless of how good the fishing will be, because I can be on Little River in thirty minutes. And if I do decide to spend the night on a fishing trip these days, it involves an elaborate camp or just as often, a hotel room.

I used to regularly explore new rivers and streams all over the region and now complacently opt for the more familiar waters that I’ve already fished hundreds of times. As a younger man I wanted adventure and discovery while as an aging man I tend to be leaning more toward stability and predictability. I also find myself leaning more toward quiet and solitude. Rather than driving two hours to a popular, crowded river where I’m likely to hook 20” rainbows on bead heads, I find myself hiking two hours to a small creek with nobody on it where I might catch 8” rainbows on dry flies.

My days on the water are now chosen more carefully, too. When I lived in Lexington, my longtime fishing buddy, Cecil, and I knew when each other was free and it was just understood that we would be fishing on those days, rain or shine, come hell or high water – we fished a lot of high water. After we got a little older and I moved to Tennessee, planning a trip became slightly more complicated as we would actually have to call each other a few times to determine an open date, and then we would go fishing, rain or shine, come hell or high water.

Now going fishing with Cecil involves several e-mails and phone calls, a lengthy exchange of possibleopen dates, and an in-depth study of the Weather Channel. When we do finally settle on a date, it is still subject to change due to an alteration in work load, unrealized plans of spouses, or the weather.

Funny how things change. About 15 years ago, I took a winter trip to the Cumberland River with Cecil and another friend when the projected high was 25 degrees. It wasn’t a surprise or poor planning. We knew the high would be 25 degrees and we went anyway. It was an open day, the water releases were good, and we were fishermen. So we went fishing.

We had a beat-up johnboat and none of us had garages at the time so it was stored outside and usually uncovered. After all, funds were limited and you could buy a lot of fly tying materials for the price of a decent tarp. A winter’s worth of rain and snow had left the boat filled with water that had frozen to a solid block of ice by the time of our fishing trip, but not allowing such a minor detail to hinder a day of fishing, we decided to go ahead anyway and we’d figure something out when we got there. I think we secretly hoped that the ice would magically melt away on the two hour drive to the river, but to no real surprise, the exposure to 20 degree temperatures while driving 55 miles per hour only seemed to make the ice icier.

Once at the boat ramp, after repeated failed attempts to break the ice, things were looking grim, but with desperate times calling for desperate measures, I finally had the controversial idea of removing the drain plug and backing the boat into the river, allowing the near 50 degree Cumberland River water to fill the bottom interior of the boat to help melt the ice. Though it took several attempts, it actually worked and we eventually cleared the ice from the boat and made our way down the river. The fishing turned out to be excellent and Cecil stuck a 28” brown trout that day. These days, even with nicer boats stored in toasty garages, we probably would have opted to just stay home, maybe get a little work done.

That’s the most discouraging transformation that has occurred in my older age – the willingness to just stay home. I now find myself frequently choosing to tackle built-up yard work on a pleasant afternoon rather than slipping into the mountains with fly rod in hand. Maybe it has something to do with age, but more specifically, it is probably more the result of a misguided sense of responsibility that comes with age. I blame my father. After all, what kind of a writer would I be if I didn’t blame my father for at least one imperfection in my life? But when I was growing up, Dad rarely took vacations, and when he wasn’t working at the office, he was usually tending to some task at home, and I somehow managed to inherit this overwhelming sense of anxiety when projects begin to pile up, regardless of their significance.

I’ve begun to realize though, that I also have a responsibility to feed and foster the things that I’m passionate about. When I put off fishing trip after fishing trip, I do nothing more than build up an eventual feeling of desperation. Though I am fortunate to have a wife that supports my fishing addiction and even enjoys going with me, she inevitably becomes the undeserving target of the frustration brought on by too little fishing. In these instances, she might innocently ask what we’re doing this weekend, to which I respond sharply that I haveto go fishing. I explain with irritation that I haven’t been fishing in weeks in a way that suggests that she’s the reason.

I’ll also find myself unproductive while working. Yes, I know the common perception of fly fishing guides is that we fish for a living, but while I’m fortunate that my job allows me to be on the water almost daily, being on the water and fishing are two completely things. Besides, there’s more to guiding than guiding. There’s the booking, the marketing, the fly tying, the boat maintenance, the grocery shopping, and the lunch making. For me, there’s also fly tying for the shop and writing. So when I’m trying to meet a deadline and I haven’t been fishing in a while, my mind will be all over the place and I’ll become extremely fidgety. This usually results in an indicting e-mail to Cecil about how we’ve become soft and how he needs to get his sorry ass down here and go fishing with me.

The fact is fly fishing is not just something I do. It’s a significant part of who I am. And when I go long stretches without fishing, it negatively affects me psychologically and becomes a detriment to the way I live the rest of my life. I don’t know if this is normal or not, but surely there must be others – fishermen, musicians, artists – who experience the same thing.

So I’m trying to do something about it. I’m trying to make myself fish more. Sad, isn’t it? What’s even sadder is when I feel the need to justify it by telling myself that I’m in the fly fishing business, so I need to fish. Or I play the mental health angle described above, convincing myself that I’ll be dead at 50 if I don’t spend more time on the water. Sometimes I even envision the tombstone:

Here’s lies Rob Fightmaster. He died forty years too soon because he didn’t fish enough.

I shouldn’t have to do that though. I should be able to go fishing for no other reason than I’m a fisherman and I want to go fishing, right? It’s unfortunate that things like work so often interfere with the important things in life. Responsibility comes in many forms and we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are ultimately responsible for our own happiness and contentment. And when we are happy and content, we are able to share a better part of ourselves with the people that matter most.

So, sorry Little River Outfitters. That bin of Hellbender Stoneflies will have to stay empty a couple of days longer. I’ve blocked a day to go fishing this week! Well, as long as it doesn’t rain….

Choosing Favorites

Thoughts About Our Favorite Fishing Places

A man should keep for himself a little back shop, all his own, quite unadulterated, in which he establishes his true freedom and chief place of seclusion and solitude.

– Michel de Montaigne

“So, what’s your favorite place to fish?” As a professional guide who gets to regularly interact with anglers of varying skill levels and backgrounds, probably the only question I hear more often is, “So, is that really your last name?” I have a few pre-recorded, witty responses to the second question. The first question always prompts more of a production. I look off in the distance. I pause and scratch my chin, deliberating carefully as I seem to reflect on the numerous destinations I’ve had the pleasure to fish over the years. I’m not sure if the hesitation is for their benefit or my own, since I’m usually only thinking about places I haven’t yet fished.

“Here,” I inevitably answer. The response is partly existential in that I’ve always believed that the best place you can be fishing is the place you’re fishing right now. But largely it’s because I am in love with the Smoky Mountains. It is, without a doubt, my favorite place to fish. If it wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here.

After all, it’s not as if I was born here. I wasn’t the guy stuck in a job he hated. I wasn’t living in a small town I couldn’t never figure out how to leave. When I finished school in Kentucky, I moved here to guide. I had no wife, no kids, and no real obligations other than a German Shepherd who seemed ready to go anywhere. I chose this place. Or maybe it chose me.

It was more than twenty years ago at a fly shop in Lexington, KY where I received a simple bit of advice that, at the time, I had no way of knowing would ultimately set the course for the rest of my life. I’d wandered in there as usual, dressed as a fisherman and wearing my best poker face in an attempt to convince whomever might be working that they were being graced by the presence of a veteran angler. In actuality, I was as green as they come and would have been hard pressed to distinguish the difference between a Royal Coachman and a yellow popping bug.

I cut my teeth on the smallmouth waters of Elkhorn and Stoner Creeks, but recently, I’d begun catching trout with some regularity at the Dix River tailwater. In my mind, this was validation of my legitimacy as a fly fisherman. So on this particular visit to the shop, the conversation quickly turned to trout. If the shop guru saw through my façade of expertise, he didn’t show it, and he asked if I’d ever fished in the Smoky Mountains. Still keeping my cards close, I pretended to be very aware of that area’s fishing but admitted that I’d never had the chance to get down there. Twenty dollars later, I left the store with a few flies and a guide book on fishing the Smoky Mountains.

The truth is I was familiar with the Smoky Mountains. Just three hours from my childhood home in Lexington, we made several trips down there when I was a kid, but I’d only been to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the gaudy tourist driven towns on the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that provide such diverse forms of entertainment as putt-putt golf, go-karts, and water slides. Complimented by an array of pancake houses, shops with air brushed t-shirts, wax museums, and haunted mystery mansions, the once quiet mountain towns attract millions of people from the region, and they have become such popular destinations that they are synonymous with the national park for many people. And before that fateful evening at the fly shop, I was one of them.

After looking at the Smokies through a different lens, I began to realize that there was an entirely different world just beyond the bright lights and lingering aroma of funnel cakes. To be exact, it was an 800 square mile world of pure wilderness spread across eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. Tumbling within those boundaries were over seven hundred miles of fishable trout streams, and not the stocked, there-today-gone-tomorrow streams to which I’d become accustomed. These were wild trout – the big time.

In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with its native brook trout and a large population of rainbows and browns that have been taking care of themselves since Nixon was in office, could be described as somewhat of a wild trout sanctuary in the put-and-take minded South. I also found that there were quiet mountain towns like Townsend where I could avoid the chaos of Gatlinburg. It wasn’t long before the Smokies guide book was overflowing with scribbled Post-its. The car was frequently overflowing with fishing and camping gear, heading south.

The Smoky Mountain trout have a reputation for being tough to catch, and on the first several trips there, this Kentucky boy, more accustomed to working the long, slow runs of area tailwaters and bass streams, did nothing to refute that myth. It wasn’t that I was catching few fish or small fish. I was catching no fish. I really wasn’t even getting strikes. Even as I progressed and improved significantly as an angler, and was regarded by many as a very good fly fisherman, three-day trips to the Smokies would yield little more than four or five fish.

Yet there was something magical and mysterious about the place. It just kept seducing me back. When I’d daydream about fishing, which was often, my mind wasn’t picturing the big browns of the Cumberland River. I saw the mist enveloped forests and heard the roar of cascading water in the Smoky Mountains.

Certainly that goes against any instinct that an avid fly fisherman should have. Most want big fish and a lot of them. For many, the lure of large trout, ample casting room, and relatively easy access offered by the large tailwaters is too much to resist. But I ceased to be motivated by such things long ago and yearned for quiet and solitude. Even now, when catching a dozen trout constitutes a fairly slow day for me in the Smokies, I don’t find that I enjoy these mountains and streams any more or any less than when I’d have given anything for just a dozen strikes over a long weekend. Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of this place that is the real appeal.

Or maybe it’s the solitude. Even on the busiest holiday weekend in the Smoky Mountains, when traffic on park roads is cluttered to a stand-still and tourists seem to multiply right before your eyes, if you walk a few miles up a trail, you can always find countless miles of trout water without a soul in sight. The backcountry is my sanctuary. Far removed from any signs of civilization, it possesses a wildness that I need, that I crave. There’s something poetic about cell phones losing signal as soon as you cross the park boundary. Whether we realize it or not, we should all probably spend more time in places like that. But wildness and remoteness isn’t exclusive to the Smoky Mountains. What about Montana or Alaska?

That’s the toughest one to explain. In fact, when deciding where to relocate those many years ago, I had it narrowed down to Missoula, Montana and Townsend, Tennessee. At the time, I justified the decision with carefully considered factors like a longer fishing season in Tennessee. But that wasn’t the reason. Though I didn’t understand it then, the Smoky Mountains had already become a part of me.  I merely made a decision to go home. Just like I knew within two weeks of meeting Christi that I wanted to marry her. Some things have a way of fitting or just making sense. You don’t always have to know why.

So I answer the question as I always do, “Here. Here is my favorite place to fish.”

The typical request for clarification follows, “So, you think the Smokies has the BEST fishing? Have you been out west!?”

There isn’t a scoreboard in fly fishing, at least not an official one. So, while some places claim to have it, I’m not sure how we determine the best fishing destination. Is it the place with the most fish? Is it the place with the biggest fish? Can they be stocked and fed or do they need to be wild? Is scenery a factor? What about hatches? Or what if it’s crowded? Suppose they don’t eat dry flies? What if there are a lot of huge fish and great hatches but they’re really hard to catch? How about if the fish are too easy to catch?

One of the beautiful things about fly fishing is that it satisfies different needs for different people. What draws one person to a particular destination or aspect of the sport may not appeal at all to another. Just bring up the subject of carp fishing in a room of fly fishers. You’ll quickly see what I mean.

And even if we are able to determine what the best is, why should it even matter? Months after we had to put my fifteen year old German Shepherd down, we were finally ready for another dog. There were only three things on our list that we didn’t want. Neither of us wanted a male. We didn’t want a large dog, maybe more of a mid-size. And we didn’t want a Lab. That evening, Shadow came home with us. He was a peculiar, stubborn, mischievous, 90-pound, male black Lab who, seemingly used Jedi mind tricks and won us over. Shadow wasn’t even close to being the best dog at Young-Williams Animal Center. But he was our favorite.

Rather than seeking “the best,” with fly fishing or anything in life, figure out what brings you happiness and contentment. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that thing or that place finds you.

Cecil’s Salmon

The Glory and Agony of Hooking Big Fish

I didn’t know how to break it to him or more importantly, if I even should. He was about to find out anyway, and a few seconds of warning wouldn’t do anything to lessen the unbearable disappointment. From Cecil’s perspective in the front of the canoe, everything was perfect in the world. Like a child on Christmas, his eyes were widened to the brink of explosion as he nearly had the last bit of wrapping paper off what was sure to be the gift he’d begged Santa to bring. The sides of his mouth remained cautiously at half-mast but were poised to leap off his face in the anticipated coming moments of pure delight.

He’d been doing everything right, giving the fish line to run on those explosive early sprints and applying side pressure as it made powerful digs in close. Now with his left fingers placed a few feet up the rod, gently pressing the bottom for leverage, the battle was nearly over. The fish was losing steam and beginning to glide upward near the surface. I was in the back of the canoe keeping the craft steady when I got my first good look at this colossal brown, probably twenty-eight inches long and pushing ten pounds. Thinking Cecil had weathered the storm, I had a hand on the net and the camera out of the bag when the mighty fish approached in what I expected to be a last second settlement offer before unconditional surrender was demanded.

What I witnessed instead was a final foreshadowing taunt. I’m certain I saw a middle fin extended when a smug grin revealed a #6 Bitch Creek nymph no longer firmly embedded in the upper lip of this behemoth. Rather, the fly was carelessly dangling, precariously teetering and struggling for balance, like a top in those last few rotations before collapse.

“The fly’s loose!” I exclaimed as I began to raise the net. “Bring him up now!” The decision had been made. I had to tell him if we were going to have a prayer of landing this fish.

Cecil responded immediately and applied hard steady pressure, raising the fish to the surface. But almost as soon as I had opened my mouth, the fish opened his, and the rubber legs on the detached fly danced as it began its descent to the river bottom. And the brown trout gave me a little wink as his massive shape faded into water.

This wasn’t the first time Cecil had faced disappointment.  On a different day at the Cumberland but only a couple of miles downriver, Cecil and I were fishing with Chad, another regular fishing buddy of mine. We were fishing at an enormous gravel bar with a long, broad, powerful, riffled channel running beside it and a vast flat above. We’d anchored the boat above the bar and were spread out wading, Chad at the bottom of the run, Cecil at the top, and me fishing midges to risers in the flat.

Despite being a twenty-five degree January day, the fishing had been pretty productive with all of us hooking a few fish in the twelve-inch range. I was in a trance on the flat, trying to keep my eyes focused on the #22 midge pattern, when I experienced déjà vu. “Hoh-lee Shit!” When I heard what is apparently Cecil’s default big fish expletive, I turned to see him once again with rod and arms extended upward, deep bend in the graphite, and reel smoking.

Being a smart ass, I shouted, “You hung up?”

Not amused and surprisingly composed, Cecil replied, “You might want to get down here. I think it’s a good one.”

It didn’t take me long to get there and when I arrived, I found Cecil in yet another epic showdown. The fish, much like his fabled Michigan salmon, had stopped in a shallow beside the riffle about fifty feet from Cecil. He wouldn’t come and he wouldn’t go. He just hunkered down, daring Cecil to make a move. “What’s he doing?” I asked rhetorically.

“He’s not doing anything and I can’t seem to move him.”

“What happens if you go to him?”

“I’m afraid he’ll head back into fast water and break me. I’m fishing 6x. Can you net him?”

“With legitimate concern, I stated matter of factly, “I don’t think he’s ready and I’m not George!”

Chuckling at my reference to a similar pickle encountered in Michigan, he replied, “I don’t know what else to do. Where’s George when you need him?”

Trying to re-focus on the present, I advised, “I’d go to him. Get him on a shorter line where you can control him. If he runs, that’ll give you a chance to tire him out.”

“If he runs, he’ll break me. Can you try to net him?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Let’s try it. Worst that could happen is he runs which is what you want me to let him do anyway.”

“Except that you won’t have him on the shorter line,” I reasoned. “You sure you’re sure?”

“Yeah. Let’s see what happens.”

About that time, Chad arrived on the scene and asked what was going on. When I explained that Cecil was tied to an uncooperative pig of a trout and that I was about to try to net him, Chad looked at the fish and asked, “You sure he’s ready?” I responded with a shrug of the shoulders and an uncertain smile that suggested that I was just following orders. When it comes right down to it, the man holding the rod, the man who made this scenario possible in the first place, has to have final say.

So I tried to make my way slowly to the fish. Managing to maintain a stealthy approach, I was nearly within netting range. This just might work! Lord knows Cecil deserves it.

Now within six feet, I had a clear view of the fish and he was every bit as big as the heartbreaker Cecil lost at the canoe. Moving with the caution and deliberate motions of a Great Blue Heron, I slowly began lowering the net as I took another step closer. The fish then began to wiggle in the current, telling me he was about to make his move. I knew it was now or never, and just as I began to make a desperate lunge with the net, I could clearly see the trout’s face.

He gave me the exact same look that Michael Jordan gives a defender before blowing by him to the basket. And that’s exactly what he did. Easily side-stepping the net lunge, he proceeded with shocking speed, a crossover dribble, a spin move, and dunked right over Cecil. Line limp. Cecil dejected. Crowd silent. Bulls win.

Though disappointed, Cecil took it all with good humor and even posed with Chad for a grip-and-grin photo with arms outstretched, holding an invisible fish. The curse would continue for years to come as he would have epic battles with epic fish on every large river and tiny stream that you can imagine. It’s hard to feel too sorry for him, though. While often coming up short, Cecil has hooked and played more giant fish than many anglers could ever hope to even see. As Tennyson so eloquently put it, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Cecil is cursed. At least he was. Like the Chicago Cubs in baseball, Cecil spent many years on the water where he just couldn’t seem to catch a break. Oh, he caught plenty of fish, and some pretty nice ones at that. He’s a very good fisherman, after all. But being a cursedfisherman does not make you a badfisherman. It was those fish-of-a-lifetime catches that haunted Cecil. If there was a big fish in a run, and I mean a reallybig fish, Cecil would find it, hook it, play it, and then manage to lose it in the most heartbreaking way possible. Well, except for that salmon on the Pere Marquette in Michigan. But he had some help on that one.

At that time, my lifelong friend Mike was working for Anheuser-Busch and living in Michigan. Mike really wasn’t a fly fisherman but he was anxious to try, so Cecil and I met him in Michigan for a few days of fishing and camping. Trout would be fine, but we were really hoping to catch the fall run of salmon from Lake Michigan. On our way in, we stopped at Johnson’s Lodge to get the skinny from my buddy Sean, who informed us that we had more or less missed the run on the Pere Marquette but that the salmon were running well on the Manistee. And we didn’t question this at all. Religious salmon and steelhead fisherman know. They stay on top of and in pursuit of these runs like surfers follow big waves.

Road weary and eager to fish, we opted to set up camp on the Pere Marquette. We’d do a little trout fishing, and then head to the Manistee in the next day or two. It didn’t take us long to set up camp and we still had a few hours of daylight left, so we headed down to the river in hopes of catching an evening hatch. Expecting to cast dry flies to trout, I had my Winston four-weight, Cecil took a soft, five-weight Sage Light Line series, and Mike took whatever-the-hell we had left over. The first pool we came to was right above a small island where the river split around in two narrow channels. Cecil decided to fish there. I took Mike to a long run upstream where I could help him with his casting.

Mike was getting the hang of things pretty well, and I was about to leave him alone and head upriver when we heard that all too familiar expletive fly from the pool below. “Hoh-Lee Shit!” When we looked downriver, we saw Cecil with his rod bent over double and line screaming off his reel. With no attempt to disguise the urgency of the situation, he shouted over the zinging reel, “Rob, get your ass down here!” Mike and I reeled in as quickly as we could and plowed our way down the brushy bank.

By the time we got there, his reel had gone silent and the pool was still, but his rod was still bent deep into the butt. “You hung up?” I inquired legitimately this time.

Staring intently at where his line met the water and seemingly annoyed at my question, he replied sharply, “Hell no, I’m not hung up. I think I’ve got a salmon!” I followed his line about forty feet to the water and noticed the silver reflection at the other end – not budging an inch.

“I’ll be damned, I think you’re right,” I said with excitement. “What’s he doing?”

“He’s not doing anything. He quit running and I don’t have enough rod to move him.”

Trying to help, Mike advised, “Why don’t you go to him?”

“I tried that but every time I take a step toward him, he tries to run. I’m afraid he’s going to run me into that fast water beside the island, and there’s no way I could keep him on. Rob, do you think you can go behind him and net him?”

Removing my narrow, terribly undersized, eighteen inch Brodin net from its magnetic connection on the back of my vest, I looked over at the monster of a fish, back at my net, back at the fish, then at Cecil. “I’ll try.” As I tried to make my way around the back of the pool for a sneak attack on the fish, we noticed two guys coming from the back of the island – guys that had been in the woods for a while. They looked like they might liveon the island. Stopping right next to where Cecil’s fish was firmly anchored, they looked down at the fish and up at Cecil.

“Purty nice fish ya got there,” one stated in a twang that hardly suggested Michigan origin.

“Thanks,” Cecil replied politely but obviously annoyed at the distraction.

Again looking down at the fish and back at Cecil, the potentially manifesto-writing-backwoodsman flatly stated, “You ain’t got enough rod.”

“No shit,” Cecil replied with a smile. “I was fishing for trout. My buddy’s comin’ around to help me with the net.”

Now shifting his attention to me and my pitifully inadequate net, he obviously came to the same conclusion I did earlier. I just didn’t want to disappoint Cecil. “That net? Ain’t no way. You want George here to hep you land eem?”

Seeing nothing in their hands or on the bank, I inquired, “Do you all have a bigger net?”

“Nah. George don’t needa net. He does this all the time. He loves it.”

Now having flashbacks to Larry, Darryl, and Darryl on the Bob Newhart Show, I wondered if George was able to talk. But I needed to focus. We were in a crisis here.

Knowing this wasn’t my call to make, I looked to the man with the fish for guidance. “Cecil?”

“Well somebody do somethin’. I can’t move the son-of-a-bitch.”

Taking charge, I looked over at the good ol’ boys on the bank and gave the order. “Go get ‘em George!” None of us had any idea what would come of this. I guess in the back of my mind I was expecting George to be the fish whisperer. He would ease his way toward the fish, gently coo and stroke it, and then delicately lift it from the river with no protest at all from the salmon.

Instead, like Hulk Hogan from the top rope, George dove from the island on top of Cecil’s fish. Mike and I were in tears. Cecil was in shock. Not really knowing protocol for this situation, Cecil pointed his rod tip toward the water, figuring George might want some slack. Good thing too because George was really into it with the fish. The two were rolling violently in the water like Tarzan wrestling a crocodile. It didn’t last long though. In a matter of seconds, George had the fish out of the water. In one continuous motion, he body-slammed him on the island. Though, if I’m being completely honest, I think it technically may have been an Atomic Drop.

George emerged wiping the fight off his hands and displaying a proud, every-other-tooth grin. I suspected he had done this before. Proud of his friend in a Dr. Frankenstein and his monster kind of way, George’s interpreter boasted, “I told you boys George’d get em.”

“He sure as hell did,” I chimed in.

Realizing the salmon would soon die anyway, from natural causes as much as George’s Atomic Drop; Cecil made the offer to the backwoods dynamic duo, asking, “You want him?”

“You sure?” replied the interpreter.

“Yeah,” Cecil said lying. “We’ve already got a mess of trout back at camp.”

“Sure, we’ll take it. ‘Preciate it. The boys down at the VFW will love it.”

“No problem,” Cecil assured him. “Can I just get my picture taken with him real quick?”

So, deep in the archives, you can find it – a grainy photo from a disposable camera, yellowed out from age. Standing on a small island in the Pere Marquette River, Cecil is holding his delicate five-weight rod, with the smile of someone floating high above ground. And George is displaying his scatter-toothed smile through a beard that hadn’t been trimmed (or cleaned) in probably fifteen years. Between them they are holding a mighty twenty pound salmon, covered in grass, mud, and scratches. And if you look at the photo closely enough, you can kind of tell where the fish has a black eye.