Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seeking inspiration


One of my good buddies sent me an e-mail the other day. His succinct message simply read, “The soul of your blog has turned to ash.” It made me feel bad, but it was true. It’s been too long since I’ve expressed myself via social media.

Maybe I just needed some inspiration. Creatively, one of my primary muses is fishing … and lately, in the times in which I did manage to get out on the water, the fish and/or the weather were far from cooperative. An example: several weeks ago, I joined my fishing buddies for a long-anticipated follow-up to our spring two-boat float. Billed the Great Fall Two-Boat Float (GFTBF, acronymically speaking), we did all the same things we did in March ... except catch fish. The Elk River was murky, sullen and unwilling to give up many trout, in deliberate spite of our huge efforts to make it perform otherwise. Doing our very best to ignore our crappy creel count, we had fun and finished the day in a collective exhaustive stupor (CES), gazing zombielike at several TVs screens running college football games and occasionally poking around out the fried food the restaurant provided us. Good times. But, due to the poor fishing, these were not inspiring times.

Anthony, Mark of Plateau Drifters, Barry. At least Barry hadn't given up yet.

Gary and David Perry of Southeastern Fly, looking for fish on the Elk River.

I’ve also been very busy as of late. I’ve also been traveling quite a bit … including extended stints in Las Vegas and Jacksonville. The Vegas gig was both rewarding and exhausting, but I did manage to escape The Strip to hop down to the Bass Pro Shops in Silverton. Yeah, the din of slot machines was just down the hallway and the incessant, pervasive, nicotine/air-freshener casino aroma crept into the atmosphere of the store. But despite these distractions, I was able to lose myself in BPS’ ocean of fishing stuff and for an hour or two, find normalcy among the hustle and bustle of Vegas’ gamblers, packs of drunken bachelor-and-bachelorette parties and Cirque-esque freaks. I spent $40 on fly-fishing leaders and tippet I probably didn’t need. But, it was awesome. But, far from inspiring.

My parents and Bumper the Wonder Dog (BWD) came to visit us about a month ago, providing Betsy and me with the fun challenge of entertaining our first guests in our home. We were very proud to showcase the new house, despite the fact that so much of the yard and interior d├ęcor are works-in-progress. BWD loved the open space around the house, and the cockleburs and stick-tights from our untamed field certainly loved him too. Mom and Betsy did some shopping for the house (Betsy finally found a really cool, creative solution to hang as a vanity mirror in our half-bath ............ I can’t believe I just typed that sentence), while Dad and I took off for a few hours to fish the Stones River. We caught a lot of fish, but all of them were fairly small, but when you fish with your Dad, none of that matters. It’s just good to be out sharing the experience with him. As the day began to fade and as Dad’s recent back surgery began to send him warning signs that he may need to consider resting for a bit, we ran into a bunch of feeding fish which cooperated quite nicely with a variety of techniques. It made us feel like we were great anglers, which Dad may actually be. It was fun stuff, and while we didn’t come home with a camera loaded with trophy shots, we did have a few more memories to stuff in the bag. Those memories will most likely inspire a painting or two. I bet.

Mom, Dad, Wonder Dog.

BWD.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat with friends at the end of a long pier in a quiet harbor, enjoying a post-business-meeting beer and watching the sun fade into the western side of St. Augustine. Squadrons of ibis and egret flew over us towards their evening roosting spots while an osprey cruised just feet over our heads. On the edge of the nearby reeds, a blue heron systematically picked off stragglers of a huge school of bull minnows. The black-and-white-striped lighthouse peeked over the horizon, while the old fort hid behind the trees. As night crept closer, a waitress lit a series of citronella torches planted strategically around the weatherworn gazebo where we sat. In the breeze, the flames struggled and leaned hard-right, but it reminded all of us that the mosquitoes wouldn’t be bothering us tonight. While I wished I had my fly rod or at least a spinning rod and a bucket of shrimp, I was pretty damn happy be alive. And, nearly inspired.

For Thanksgiving, Betsy and I traveled west to Arkansas to see my parents, my brother Tim, my Uncle Art … and, of course, BWD. It was an absolute smorgasbord of things to be thankful for, as we enjoyed the fantastic company of my family, the unconditional love from BWD and the incredible amount of really good food. Of course, I also spent several hours in the Little Red River, trying my best to squeeze out a couple of days of decent fishing. The rainbow trout were very cooperative, and I even managed to hook and land two-or-three nice pre-spawn browns.

Turkey.

A turkey.

Tim releases a solid fish.

The Family Sharley sits 'round the fire.

Late Friday afternoon. Other anglers had called it a day, leaving the river to Tim and me. The sun had pretty much given up too, casting a final pale glow over nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. A flock of geese flew overhead, calling our attention to a few stars escaping the cover of the scattered clouds. On the bluff above, Mom, Dad and Betsy gathered around a fire pit, exchanging stories of the day, while BWD dozed on Mom’s lap. A few trout rose to the usual early-evening midge hatch, while Tim dissected the deep pool in front of us with a spin-casted roostertail. I double-hauled a black streamer, trying to cover as much water as possible with long casts and short-stripped retrieves. The darkness slowly surrounded us. We agreed; a few more casts, then we’d head up to join the rest of the family. I flung my fly cross-current and began dancing the marabou streamer back to me when my line abruptly tightened. After a quick strip-set to my right, I felt a heavy fish roll and then shake its head. As the black water erupted on the other end of my fly-line … I suddenly found inspiration.

A nice one.

A twenty-one.

Inspiration.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Next Saturday - The Greenway Arts Festival


Next Saturday, Sept. 17, I'll participate in my final art festival of the year -- the annual Greenway Arts Festival in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This fun, laid-back and very cool event takes place at Old Fort Park in Murfreesboro, and a bevy of artists -- including yours truly -- will line the well-trafficked greenway system with an array of their arts and crafts. Music, food and events for the kids punctuate the one-day festival, which runs from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

For the fourth consecutive year, I'll have a booth in the event, and I'll bring along a wide selection of original artwork and limited-edition giclee prints. Several original works are making their debut at the festival, and I'll also feature many of my Christmas-themed paintings, prints and greeting/holiday cards. The yuletide season is just around the corner, after all.

The admission is free and the setting is open and fun. I highly recommend the event for everyone, and I do hope to see you there.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Of moving

Moving sucks.

But, that’s been my life for the past month-and-a-half. After 12 years of living in our cozy-but-crowded, L-shaped ranch, Betsy and I packed up our stuff (more on that later) and moved across town to a house we’ve been building for the past year.

I’m just not skilled enough as a writer to describe the range of emotions we’ve felt over the past 13 months as this project took shape. Along the journey, though, apprehension alternated with excitement, great joy often morphed into gloomy dread, while utter frustration casually danced with euphoria. Throughout the roller coaster, I’ve sought solace in the similar experiences of others, and haven’t had to search very far to find it. Almost everyone who moves goes through this schizophrenia. In the end, though, we’ve realized a dream too long in the making and are very happy with our new place.

It’s been a little life altering, too, but in a good way. Mid-way through the move, we realized one embarrassing thing: We’ve got way too much stuff. Not riches, mind you … just stuff. Clothes, tools, cooking utensils, fishing equipment (can’t believe I just typed that), “fine” china (do not get me started), linens, CDs, etc. We’ve unloaded a great deal of the surplus, and in many cases, given it to those in need. Weeks after meandering my way through the “mountain ranges” of stacked boxes that remain in our house, I wonder if we couldn’t have unloaded more. Again, relying on those who have experienced this same realization, one of the best things about moving is getting rid of stuff you don’t use or need. So far, the only argument I can find against that statement is one can never have too many guitars. Or fly rods.

We’re settling in, though. I’m typing this on our screened-in porch. It’s a bluebird-sky morning, the westerly breeze is trying hard to become a northerly wind, several hummingbirds are well into their daily dogfights over our strategically placed feeders, the nearby oak trees are whispering and creaking as they sway, nuthatches are politely taking turns eating sunflower seeds and a woodpecker is hammering away on a cedar tree in the woods. Betsy’s sitting in a wicker chair with her feet up on some stacked pillows, surrounded by her cats and reading a magazine. I’m on my last half of a cup of coffee and making mental lists of all the things we need to do today and for the next several weeks/months to make our new house feel more like our home. Inside, the little 13-inch TV in the kitchen is perpetually locked on scenes of torrential rain and wave-swept beaches, reminding us that things aren’t so rosy for some this morning. The pomp and circumstance of the sensationalist news coverage of the hurricane is actually keeping things in perspective for us. I sure hope the storm moves on quickly to better things.

The coffee cup is empty, signaling an end of my morning. It’s time to go unpack that box labeled “Dan’s winter clothes.”

One of our new neighbors

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Trash n' Bass Tournament Series



Don’t get me wrong … I love fishing for trout. They are beautiful fish, fun to figure out and then fight on a fly rod. They can be amazingly predictive then frustratingly fickle, seemingly all within the same afternoon. Trout typically inhabit beautiful places, whether you’re pool-hopping through rhododendron-flanked, bolder-filled streams in the East, or casting delicate loops into the broad, clear western waters bracketed by white-capped mountain ranges. Plus, if you fly-fish for trout, you get to carry all kinds of cool gear. Like floatant. And nippers. And hemostats. And flies. Lots and lots of flies.

My group of fishing buddies and I have been plying nearby trout streams and rivers – which, although devoid of mountains and mountain-flora, are still pretty cool-looking places in their own right – for the past several years. We hammer the banks in the winter, raining marabou hell in a relentless hunt for big brown trout, then switch to a summer pattern of traditional nymphing techniques, all the while hoping like hell there will be some kind of hatch – other than the traditional and un-matchable micro-midges which flit around the stream every day – to allow us to tie on a dry fly and fish like those trucker-capped, PBR-swilling boys out west.

We’ve caught a lot of fish. Even some pretty-good-sized ones. And, I’m still quite addicted to this pursuit. But, during the summer, the streams we frequent become shockingly crowded, as daily canoe-hatches, raft-launches and flotillas of fun-seeking-weekenders (many of whom have swilled way more than their share of PBR) will interrupt the tranquility we all seek during the brief opportunities to escape work, life and responsibility to go fishing.

As a result, we’ve gone back to the basics. Last summer, we hatched the idea for a non-traditional fly-fishing contest. It would run from June through the dog days of the season, but instead of targeting our traditional trout, we would instead focus on our "native" warm-water species. The Trash n’ Bass fly-fishing tournament series was born.

We initially established a few categories: smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass; striper/stripe/hybrid; carp/buffalo/drum and gar. After a couple of initial trips to the river, we also added skipjack to the list. Throughout the next four months, we began visiting the much-less-crowded streams and lakes near our homes, realizing the forgotten and near-neglected bounty that swim in these waters. We also began catching fish. A lot of them.

Instead of delicately-tied dry flies and nymphs, crudely-constructed poppers and flashy streamers overflowed our respective fly-boxes. Initially, bass were the easiest to fool, but some pretty good skipjack made it on the board too. Carp and gar proved to be much more difficult to catch than any of us imagined, although we certainly learned a lot during our attempts to catch both. In addition to the species we targeted, we caught hundreds of panfish, and the occasional “what the hell is this?” species.

Along the way, it became quite refreshing and convenient, as most of the places we were fishing were only minutes from our house. It made for four-months of tremendous fun that culminated in a very silly awards ceremony at the end of the summer. Mark had a great tourney, winning the smallmouth, striper and skipjack categories, I picked up the largemouth and spotted bass awards and Barry got the most coveted prize when he fooled a drum (while trout fishing). Everyone got ridiculously-stupid plaques for their accomplishments, which added appropriately to the peer adulation.

This summer, the Trash n’ Bass actually began in May, and thankfully coincided with the cicada hatch. With EVERYTHING eating the bugs, we finally racked up several carp, and David’s 25-inch fish currently tops the category. We even added a catfish category, after a channel cat surprised me the other day when it gobbled up a buggy-looking dropper fly. Every species has been caught and all of my buddies (even the trout-fishing guides) are making time to tie bream-killers and popping-bugs in anticipation for the oncoming dog days. We’re also branching out to find the fish in a variety of ways. Anthony recently retooled the “Perfect Drift” to become the perfect 15-foot, flat-bottomed fishing machine, while I’ve added another rod-holder on my orange kayak, allowing me to be “fully-armed” when quietly approaching my secret spots. Mark and David have employed their Hyde boats on traditionally-trout waters, but they've kept a keen eye on the Tn’B species, and always have a rod ready to cast to a cruising striper or feeding carp. The competition has been fierce (an early entry in the gar category was nixed due to the failure to secure a photo – a tournament requirement – before releasing the fish; a controversy fueled by the fact that a competitor netted, then released the fish before allowing a photo to be taken), but friendly and fun, which is how it will stay for the duration of the summer.

There’s no money involved, only eight months of bragging rights and the aforementioned corny plaques. Along the way, maybe the pursuit of these less-than-glamorous species will make us better anglers (I was proud to finally slay the carp-on-the-fly dragon back in May, but it took years of trying and a once-every-13-years-cicada-plague to do it). And, maybe it will make us better appreciate the incredible variety of fish that frequent our home waters.

In the end, though, it’s just fishing.


Monday, May 30, 2011

The Call of the Cicadas

I knew it was coming. I remembered 13 years ago when they last tried to take over our world. For weeks, they ruled the air as we scurried to safety, flailing our arms to ward off their aerial attacks and screaming when they grabbed us with their six legs. Most horrible, though, were their inhuman cries, which rose to a fiendishly-loud buzzing crescendo a few days after their arrival. Eventually, the terror relented, but we were warned they would be back. We had not seen the last of them. Far from the last of them.

And, three weeks ago … they returned.

They scratched and clawed their way from their underground lairs and crept to the surface. Most did this while we slept, cloaked within the secrecy of night. Within hours, they shed their exoskeleton, revealing a revolting-looking, many-legged, winged, albino creature with huge, curled wings. Incredibly, it got more horrible, as the white thing-from-another-world somehow “dried,” revealing their monstrous orange eyes. Their shell casings piled up in our yards as they proliferated and eventually took wing … and then the buzzing began.

I write this from the relative safety of my house. Only, my home has become a cell. Outside my prison walls, they are everywhere. At night, they scratch and claw at my windows while thousands perch in trees. Waiting. Watching. Plotting. By day, they explode forth to the air, and deafen me with their horrible, incessant cries. It grows louder through the daylight hours, reaching its peak in late afternoon. I cannot accurately describe the sound … it’s as if an enormous weed-eater hovers just above our world, waiting to be lowered and mince us to death. It never stops. Unrelenting. Punishing.

Unstoppable?

I worry the soundtrack of my life is now one of madness. Perhaps that is their plan. As best as I can tell, they do not bite. They do not sting. Their weapon is more insidious. More powerful. A psychological WMD. A relentless assault on the mind.

The talking heads on the news tell us the invasion will be turned away in mere days, but I cannot believe them. There are simply too many. When I peek out the drawn shades, the demonic orange of their lifeless eyes greets me. To meet their stare is to look deep into the heart of insanity. Perhaps, I have looked too often, gazed too long; allowed them to corrupt my soul through the windows of my own eyes. It is these thoughts that haunt me. I cannot rest.

Lately, they have started to pair up, resulting in what appears to be a super bug, twice as long as the normal ones. This cannot be good. I think they are starting to breed. They are making more. Oh, the horror. The horror.


But, hey, the fishing’s great!




Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Post Troutfest 2011


Setting up for Day One of Troutfest 2011

It’s 11 a.m. Outside, it’s unseasonably cold, there’s a persistent drizzle and the nearby mountains are completely obscured by clouds. Usually hot-natured, this morning, I’m wrapped in a fleece blanket, sitting on a couch, watching the Travel channel and typing on my computer. Betsy and I have put life on hold for at least a morning, and we’re enjoying a lazy, restful day after a very intense – but fun – weekend.

Troutfest 2011 was held this past Saturday and Sunday, and as mentioned in my previous posts, I participated as a vendor in the fly-fishing exposition for the third consecutive year. As in previous years, the event was really good – full of friends, fun, fantastic food and, of course, fly-fishing fanatics. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to see some fellow vendors who we’ve befriended in past shows; I was floored by the number of repeat customers who made time to stop by my booth and express their appreciation of my artwork (thanks Sophia, Keith, Bobby, Gail, Charity, David, Barry, Matt, Dan, Doug, Gary and Gary!); and, of course, I got a huge kick out of meeting a ton of new people.

The Sharley booth

It’s not Troutfest if it doesn’t rain, and the 2011 didn’t buck that tradition. Storms threatened throughout Saturday, but the sun made regular appearances, helping to maintain an impressive number of attendees. Sunday, however, featured cold weather and a pesky drizzle, forcing many to stay in the warm, dry comfort of their homes. Can’t say I blame them, but I certainly appreciated those who braved the elements to stop by the Townsend Visitor Center to spend some time learning a little bit more about the fly-fishing scene.

As in past Troutfest events, fly-fishing royalty was on hand, and Lefty Kreh, Joe Humphries and Bob Clouser showcased their skill and stamina by hosting an array of instructional clinics and fly-tying demonstrations. With each of these gentlemen, just a few moments of watching and listening to them can lead to a lifetime of learning. All anglers – whether you wave the long rod, or prefer more conventional tackle – owe a lot to these guys.

Lefty holds court on Day Two

But, it didn’t stop there. Little River Outfitters’ Byron Begley and the rest of the Troutfest organizers attracted an impressive roster of fly-tiers (including my frequent co-angler, David Perry from Southeastern Fly, and new friend, Eddy Whitson of the Clinch River Trout Unlimited Chapter), the Itinerant Angler Zach Matthews and the 2011 Angler of the Year, Tom Rosenbauer.

Lefty uses the Force to direct his fly line

Sunday evening, after Betsy and I finished deconstructing our booth and loading up our vehicle, we spent the remaining hours driving through the nearby mountains and even made a quick visit to Cades Cove. Despite the rain and the fog, we ended a really eventful weekend by spotting a couple of bears and at least 75 deer. They were literally everywhere.

One of a bunch from Cades Cove

Today, we’re resting up and trying to spend the next 48 hours both agenda- and (relatively) stress-free. Work, our new house construction and all the anxiety that goes with both will have to wait until Wednesday. Until then, we’re takin’ it easy.

A deer

I swear it's a bear




Tuesday, May 10, 2011

New images - Troutfest



These paintings, along with several others, will make their debut at this weekend's Troutfest in Townsend, Tenn. Come on by my booth, and see the framed versions of the newest creations.

See you there!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Head for the mountains


It’s just a couple of weeks away and I can’t wait. The annual Troutfest fly-fishing expo will take place on May 14-15 in Townsend, Tenn., and for the third consecutive year, I’ll participate in the event as an artist vendor. With the Great Smoky Mountains providing the backdrop, this two-day festival will be one of the largest venues for fly-anglers in the Southeast.

Troutfest 2011 is sponsored by the Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Proceeds from the event are donated to Great Smoky Mountains National Park Fisheries Department, Friends of the Smokies Fisheries Scholarship Fund and other youth educational conservation projects.

Troutfest presents a Mount Rushmore of fly-fishing, with angling deities Lefty Kreh, Joe Humphreys, Bob Clouser and 2011 Angler of the Year Tom Rosenbauer all appearing at the event. My good buddy and fly-fishing guide David Perry of Southeastern Fly will be one of the featured fly-tyers. Fly shops, other artists, non-profit organizations and government fish and game agencies will also participate, along with a steady stream of musical acts and a constant offering of good food.

I’ll have a booth in one of the vendor tents, and will be offering an array of artwork for sale, including several new, never-seen-in-public paintings.

The exposition will be held at the Townsend Visitors Center, and will be open to the public on Saturday, May 14 and Sunday, May 15, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Admission is free.

For more information, please visit:

Troutfest.org

The Troutfest 2011 Facebook page

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Changing seasons

After several months in hibernation, Mr. Boogerballs emerged from his home under our backyard shed and made everything right in the world with his first trip to the clover growing under the bird feeder. It was good to see the ol' whistle pig limping around the grass yet again, and he even posed for a photo.


A recent line of thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain on the midstate and the rivers are running high and brown right now. Hopefully, they'll reside soon, revealing the springtime bounty of hungry fish. I can't wait to get out there ... but in the meantime, I'm working on some new paintings. In a very good way, the studio is very messy right now.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Great Two-Boat Float


We met at Kroger at dark-thirty, sleepy-eyed and wondering why the hell we set such an early departure time. I arrived first, but only because I had to run into the store to purchase some hot-dog buns in order to round out our pre-ordained gourmet shore lunch menu. Barry drove up next, smiling through the pre-dawn gloom and looking ready for a day on the water. The perpetually happy Ohioan even grinned through the realization he had forgotten to renew his fishing license and trout stamp. Fortunately, there was a gas station that sold both down the street, and Barry drove off. He returned, license and stamp in hand, before the next angler entered the parking lot.

This fishing trip had been long-planned and even attempted on a couple of occasions, but for various reasons, it just never seemed to work. But, everything finally came together this weekend, although our river of choice was unavailable due to an unfriendly generation schedule. Undaunted, we went to Plan B. We were going fishing.

Barry and I stood outside our trucks under the glow of the parking lot lights, looking at our feet, not saying a word. My cell phone buzzed with a text message, shaking us both out of our respective stares. Mark (call sign: Skiff Boy), who was towing one of the two boats we were to use during the day (the boat is actually a skiff, hence the nickname), had left the house without the grill and had to turn around to go back and get it. He was running 15 minutes late. Dave (known as “The Guide”) and Woodski showed up just a few minutes later, with The Guide’s drifter trailing just behind them. They were in predictably good spirits. The Guide is aptly named and spends a lot of time on the water. He’s a die-hard fisherman and like Skiff Boy, a fly-fishing guide. He is perpetually haunted by waters and spends most of his waking moments dreaming of fishing. He and I get along really well.

The Guide predicted a big fish day. The biggest full moon of the year was scheduled to occur tonight, after all. Hopeful, yet not overly optimistic, I yawned and promptly slugged down a mouthful of coffee. It was too early to get too fired up.

Skiff Boy finally arrived, roaring up in his old Jeep, Hyde skiff following close behind. We loaded up our gear and left Murfreesboro behind in the predawn haze.

A few of us spend a great many weekends on the water, but Barry and Woodski have limited opportunities for vastly different reasons. Like several of the crew, Barry’s a family man, and his priorities typically align with the activities of his children. However, when he’s presented with a soccer-free weekend, he’ll do his best to find his way into one of our nearby rivers, casting a left-handed loop toward fishy-looking places. Barry’s a pretty smart guy, as evidenced by his yearly trips west to trophy trout waters. Upon return, he impresses and depresses us with photos of him holding huge trout amidst poster-worthy backdrops. The dude can fish.

Woodski is a fellow fly-tier of Polish descent, whose past year of fishing as been interrupted far too often by health issues. However, he’s bounced back from the most recent physical test and looks to be the picture of health. Woodski carries an incessant, effervescent grin beneath his graying beard, betraying his sunny outlook on life and barely, just barely, hiding his biting wit. He was glad the trip had come together, and the rest of us were excited that he was able to join us.

Sadly, our sixth man and group ringleader, Jim (who carries many nicknames, although for this blog, we’ll go with Don Julio), wasn’t on the trip. Don Julio is the founder of our little group – an unofficial and completely-deniable society of fly-fishermen who are both proud Americans and fairly-able anglers. We often tease him for his inability to row a boat (once, he actually produced a note from a doctor excusing him from this duty) but it’s just a classic example of him being one step ahead of the rest of us. After all … who wants to row when you could fish instead? Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to row or fish on this journey, as two days before our trip, he was stricken was some sort illness (he claimed allergies, we surmised he had been bitten by a tse-tse fly and was suffering from sleeping sickness … ) and was forced to stay behind, probably in some sort of giant plastic bubble and/or government-enforced quarantine.

Disappointed but undaunted, we pressed on without our fallen leader.

An hour-and-a-half after we left the Kroger parking lot, we drove up on the gravel-bar below the dam and were greeted by a dozen or more fishermen and their watercraft, readying their boats for the long-trip downstream. The proverbial conga line was forming. But, going into this, we knew we'd have company, so no one seemed deterred by the extra anglers ... and as it turned out, they were all on an apparently-more-stringent time schedule, because after they launched, we never saw the rest of the fleet again. In fact, we had the river to ourselves for most of the next 10 hours.

And, what a 10 hours it would prove to be. I fished with Skiff Boy, while the other guys piled into The Guide’s drifter. My captain is an able-bodied seaman who probably takes the most ribbing of any member of our unofficial fly-fishing society. But, that’s because he possesses a large amount of a highly-prized yet underrated competency – the ability to laugh at oneself. He’s also an excellent fly angler and guide, and a fellow musician with a shared appreciation for ‘80s hair metal. When we do occasionally stumble upon fishless stretches of water, the void is usually filled with discussions about music. And, Monty Python quotes. That was comforting, considering we had over nine miles of water ahead of us.

After launching, I took my place in the bow as Skiff Boy manned the oars of his beloved boat and piloted us downstream. I nymphed a 5 wt through the first few riffles with zero success, before finally fooling a fat stocker rainbow at the drop off of a deep pool.

For years, I was a die-hard nymph fly-fisherman. To me, there was something eternally gratifying about selecting a small, hand-tied bug and strategically drifting it through moving water, locking my sights on the indicator as it bobbed through the current, watching for just the slightest alteration in its movement, which betrayed the subtle take of a bespeckled trout below. (Note: All fly-fisherman must follow the strict code to adopt overly-descriptive and flowery prose when describing their “art;” it’s code that cannot be broken; I am forever bound to it – I think by once purchasing 7x tippet – and as such, I can never, ever dare to acknowledge that nymph fishing ain't that much different than floating a bobber and a cricket – that comparison is strictly verboten.)

But, despite the success of the tried-and-true nymphing method, I largely cast it to the side two years ago in favor of a more brutal delivery: fishing with articulated streamers. Having been jerk-stripped into this approach by listening to podcasts by Kelly Galloup, I now often leave the dainty nymph rod at home in lieu of a 7-wt, sinking line and a big ol’ box of marabou hell. My right shoulder is now twice the size of my left, I sport a callous on right ring finger from repeatedly stripping dirty fly-line through it, and my tackle bag always has a huge bottle of Ibuprofen and a lot of waterproof first-aid tape in it. But, that’s what the hunt for big fish will do to you. (Note: While I cannot disparage nymph fishing without fear of reprisal from local Trout Unlimited chapters, I have their full support in comparing the Galloup form of streamer fishing with its not too distant cousin – bass fishing with jerkbaits. My note’s note: If I’m making fly-fishermen seem like petty people, it’s only because we can be. To further perpetuate this, please know that dry fly fishermen do not like streamer- NOR nymph-fly-fishermen. In fact, I’m convinced they don’t like anyone. But for the sake of this blog, they do not have a vote here. Plus, dry-fly-fishermen will never read any of this, as they are not aware of the existence of the internet.)

I digress. Back to the stream. Channeling my inner Galloup and ignoring the reward of the first successful nymph drift, I promptly reeled up my line and stowed the 5 wt.

“Think I need the big rod,” I said to Skiff Boy, before I could quickly pull the awful-sounding words back into my mouth.

I picked up the 7-wt and double-hauled a zoo cougar into the calm water of a deep pool. Several strips later, a feisty largemouth gobbled the fly and after a short-but-angry fight, I lipped the green fish. Crap. They were right. This IS bass fishing.

But, after resuming the float, the streamer approach failed to gather much reaction from the trout, who had suddenly started rising throughout the river. Skiff Boy asked for a turn in the casting brace, and I relinquished my post in favor of the oars. He promptly caught about a dozen trout, fooling them on a scud pattern he had tied. Freakin’ guides, man.

Scud Boy

We continued to meander downstream, picking up rainbow after rainbow. Just ahead of us, The Guide, Barry and Woodski were having similar luck, as the fishing gods really blessed us with some very cooperative fish on this day.

Just before our pre-determined gravel-bar lunch spot, I drifted a nymph through what had almost always been a relatively-benign stretch of water on this stream. However, today, it was teeming with life, as trout rose in rhythmic feeding patterns, allowing me to pick off several good-sized rainbows. But, in the midst of the run, the indicator slowly sank and I laid a hookset into a solid fish – much larger than what we had caught so far. It breached, revealing the very broad side of a 20-inch-plus brown trout, then rocketed upstream, sending me scrambling to put the line on my reel. Several times the fish lunged toward nearby cover, but each time, I was able to turn it just before it reached the line-snapping tangles of downed trees. Skiff Boy expertly managed the skiff as the trout repeatedly dove under the boat, desperately looking for some way to shake free … but after a few tense minutes, Mark netted the 22-inch male brown. There was much rejoicing.

I'm the one in the blue shirt.

CPR'd.

After taking a few photos, we delicately released the trout and watched him swim off, seemingly no worse for the wear. An awkward high-five later, followed by a quick run through a small riffle, Skiff Boy and I rowed up on the gravel bar, greeted by our three fishing partners, all of them sporting trout-catchin’ grins.

It’s been quite awhile since this entire group had been on the river together, so we did our best to make the most of the float. That included a shore lunch. Skiff Boy prepared the grill and I unpacked the supplies for our gourmet meal of hot-dogs, chips and Oreos (when grown men get together and eat, they often choose a menu best served to a T-ball team). Fifteen minutes later, we munched on heavily-charred dogs, sipped on cans of beer and sat in relative silence, reflecting on what had been an absolutely outstanding morning on the river.

The second portion of the float provided some productive fishing, but not as stellar as the upper section of the river. That was both expected and accepted, as we did our very best to make the most of the trip. I took the oars for a good portion of the remaining float, getting my workout as Skiff Boy dead-drifted his way through several good stretches of water. He picked up a few more rainbows, and after switching out on the oars, I picked up a couple of trout myself. Downstream, the Guide’s boat continued to feature a heavy dosage of bent rods, as we meandered our way to the take out spot.

The Guide, The Barry and The Woodski

As the sun set and we approached our final destination, two barred owls perched mid-way up a Sycamore tree gave us the dark-eyed stare as we floated their home waters.

Heave, Skiff Boy, heave!

The lingering daylight faded as we loaded up the boats and the vehicles, and hands were shook, backs patted and photos compared. As we packed things up, the largest full moon of the year made an appearance on the horizon, and we stood and watched the huge orange globe steadily rise above the watercress fields. It was a GREAT day to be on the water, sullied only by the absence of our good friend, Don Julio. To show him how much we missed him, we texted him pictures of our catches throughout the day. Probably made him feel a lot better. Hey, it was the least we could do.

The ride home was an enjoyable one, until I realized later that my dry-bag had leaped to freedom at some point after departing the ramp, relieving me of a really nice fly-reel, my good rain-jacket and a roll of "in case of emergency" toilet paper. The loss was sadly my fault (although I desperately wanted to blame anyone else), as I absentmindedly left the bag on top of the rod shelf of the boat. Dan = Idiot.

But, despite the hit to the wallet this loss will induce, reels and rain-jackets can be replaced.

Memories like these can’t.

Good times, my friends. Good times.

The last known photo of my yellow dry bag.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Seize the diem!

My newest painting. It has nothing to do with this post.
But, it's my blog, and I'll do what I want.

This entire self-serving and self-deprecating blog post is born of my realization that I’m nearing middle-aged crazy and probably on the precipice of some sort of “phase.” The idea for the following diatribe hatched in the normal way, stemming from a conversation with my fishing buddies. Almost all of us are struggling with the same daily reminders of our increasing mortality, and realizing that we must seize what time we have left (and hopefully, for all of us, it’s quite a bit) to make the most of the lives with which we’re blessed.

It can be terribly depressing stuff, but like many things, it can also be just a matter of your perspective. As I’ve stated before, I’ve enjoyed some very good things in life and could argue that it’s been a very fulfilling existence … but I’m not satiated either, and want to make sure I take advantage of the opportunities – no matter how big or small – which surround me.

Life is good, but precariously short. In no particular order, life’s too short to …

  • Have sunburned feet.
  • Not have pancakes every once in awhile.
  • Not work hard.
  • Work hard everyday.
  • Spend your Sunday evenings worrying about Monday morning.
  • Not see a lunar eclipse.
  • Not see a double rainbow.
  • Not remember the most awe-inspiring sunset you’ve ever seen.
  • Not go a little nuts every once in awhile.
  • Pay so many taxes.
  • Eat peas.
  • And broccoli.
  • Watch Lonesome Dove and not cry when Gus dies.
  • Not fly-fish for tarpon.
  • Not stalk a school of permit and cast a crab fly to the lead fish.
  • Not go offshore.
  • Not fish with my Dad every time I get the chance.
  • Not call my Mom at least once a week and tell her thanks for something, anything, everything.
  • Not start and end my wife’s day by telling her how much I love her.
  • Not see a soldier and tell him/her thanks.
  • Not dream big.
  • Not fish a shad kill.
  • Not fish the spring stripe run.
  • Eat bad Chinese food.
  • Get a stomach virus.
  • Read a book you don’t really want to read.
  • Live vicariously through anyone.
  • Do math.
  • Not eat, drink and be merry.
  • Try to impress everyone.
  • Be rude.
  • Not learn how to make a good margarita.
  • Talk too much.
  • Not listen.
  • Not catch a big, angry amberjack.
  • Not go on an all-day float-trip with your buddies every once in awhile.
  • Worry about asteroids, aliens and global warming.
  • Not see the mountains.
  • Wear skinny jeans.
  • Have a favorite parking spot at work.
  • Not smoke a perfect rack of Memphis-style ribs on an old grill.
  • Drink cheap beer and crappy coffee.
  • Not to play my Fender Strat.
  • Not to have “Safety Dance” stuck in your head for a couple of days.
  • Not double-haul an articulated streamer, wrap it around a small overhanging tree branch that you didn’t see, only to watch the streamer yo-yo it’s way free, drop into the water and get inhaled by a big brown trout who watched the whole thing.
  • Not pay a ton of money to be flown into some remote stream to fish for big, stupid fish.
  • Dance in public.
  • Complain about the weather.
  • Not dance in the safety and privacy of your home. In front of your cats. And, maybe your wife, but only to make her laugh.
  • Eat something really fattening, then worry about it.
  • Not drive a truck.
  • Not walk on the beach at night.
  • Not sprint down the beach in order to cast to schools of little tunny feeding on glass minnows in ankle-deep water.
  • Not build a house.
  • Not have your favorite team eventually win it all.
  • Not toss a good spiral, make a 20-footer and groove a four-iron within two feet.
  • Not cry over losing a pet.
  • Not hear a baby laugh hysterically.
  • Not own an Orvis reel.
  • Not take a shot at getting Orvis to send you free stuff.
  • Not listen to Led Zeppelin.
  • To hear “Sittin’ by the Dock of the Bay” on the radio and not whistle during the Coda.
  • Not go to a NHL Playoff game.
  • Not hire a guide once in awhile.
  • Not go to Vegas. At least once.
  • Lose your keys.
  • Drop your cell phone in the river.
  • Shart. At someone else’s house.
  • Not paint what you love.

Life’s too short not to make lists.

To end this, take the sage advice from the British philosophers Monty Python …

Some things in life are bad; they can really make you mad.

Other things just make you swear and curse.

But, when your chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble. Give a whistle!

And, things will always work out for the best, and

… always look on the bright side of life.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Shad kill


As we drove across the dam, David and I craned our necks in order to get our first glimpse of the Caney Fork on this cold and miserable morning. It was 28 degrees, spitting snow and the 15-25 mph NW winds were vibrating David’s Ford truck and the drifter we towed behind it. We illegally parked on top of the dam and exited the vehicle in order to peer over the edge of the dam. Below, the Caney revealed a wonderful sight. The Corps had dialed up a couple of generators this morning, pushing an impressive flow down our favorite tailrace, and Mother Nature had cooperated by pushing schools of shad low into the lake’s water-column. The combination resulted in what’s called a “shad kill,” as large congregations of the baitfish get too close to the dam’s turbines and are “sucked” into the maelstrom of the generation. Most are killed, and those which hang on, barely do so … tending to float and twitch on the surface of the water. They’re helpless, and for the fish, birds and animals which frequent the Caney, deliciously vulnerable.

From a fly-fishing standpoint, this rare event can result in angling nirvana. It’s the southern tailwater’s answer to a western salmon-fly hatch. The river literally erupts in activity, as huge schools of predators – fowl, fur and fin – gorge themselves on protein-rich shad.

David and I got downright giddy at the sight. Dozens of seagulls circled above the fast-moving water, while several more waited on the nearby deflecting wall, perched in a Hitchcockian pose, waiting for their turn to join the fray. A few bank fishermen lobbed metal from the rip-rap, presumably targeting the large striper which can make their way all the way upstream from the Cumberland River in order to feast on shad, skipjack and trout.

If this had been spring, summer or fall, we’d be among hundreds of fishermen on the water, as the Caney has risen to impressively-high popularity in the past couple of years. Today, with heavy generation on the river chasing out any wading anglers and bone-cold wind keeping boaters from braving the elements, we were the only guys stupid enough to be out here. Dan the Shuttle Man called us idiots. That was hard to argue. We had an open spot in the boat, and I offered it to him. He said he had better things to do. Like take a nap on the couch. Eat a big lunch. Dan’s the Man.

So it was just the two of us. As we launched the drifter towards the chaos in the fast-moving water below the dam, David and I donned our life-jackets (no sense in being dead idiots) and slowly made our way to the fish. I was first up in the casting brace, and launched a white minnow fly (which also looked a heckuva lot like the shad we were seeing) near a current seam. Two strips. Fish on. A feisty skipjack crushed the fly, and then put on its usual display of tarpon leaps and head-shaking. I released it, being careful not to touch the fish, as skipjack, despite their brilliant iridescence and the spectrum of colors that reflect off their silver-scales, are slimy and smelly. Fun to catch, great to use as bait for big stripers and catfish, but it's not the fishstink you want on your hands for the rest of the day. At least not after fish No. 1.









After four more easy fish, I switched out with David and grabbed the oars while the Guide hurled a six-weight into the current. A few minutes later, we rotated again. This dance continued for the next 30 minutes, as we boated at least 30 good-sized skippies. Fun stuff, but we had trout – and maybe stripers – on our mind.

By this time, the generation had slipped by one unit, lessening the flow, but still keeping the shad kill going. As we made our way downstream, we floated shad patterns and giggled like school kids as browns and rainbows rose from the depths and smashed our offerings. The shad kill was in full force, and we had the river to ourselves, if you didn’t count the hundreds of gulls, the dozen blue herons, the murder of crows and the cats and minks prowling the shores and skies.

Fishing was excellent, and David and I kept it in glorious perspective. These types of days don’t come around too often, as shad kills are frustratingly difficult to predict. Sometimes, it just works out the way you want it to … most times, it doesn’t. Today, we were blessed, and we made the most of it, catching and releasing several trout – including a few rainbows, which were grotesquely obese as their bellies were nearly bursting with shad. I swear one 14-inch trout weighed two pounds. We joked that it was a triploid. It definitely had an eating disorder.

After the generation ceased, the shad kill did too, and our crazy fishing day was pretty much over. We still had most of the river to float, and we spent the remaining part of the day hurling obnoxiously large streamers in search of big trout and stripers. A couple-dozen browns showed up, but not many wanted to play. But, the lack of success didn’t bug us. We were as fat, dumb and happy as the chubby ‘bows we caught upstream.

As we loaded up the drifter in the increasing gloom of twilight, we didn’t say much. It was combination of exhaustion and silent satisfaction (along with frozen toes and numbed fingers). As we cruised down the interstate towards home, the truck's heater thawed our digits as we replayed the day, analyzing what went right and what went wrong. A Sam Bush CD provided the soundtrack to the discussion, which inevitably got around to “Hey, you wanna go again tomorrow?” We both knew the answer to the question, but we silently went through several scenarios which could get us out of Sunday responsibilities. In the end, responsibility reigned, and we deferred that dream to another day.

Lastly, a plug for my buddy ... If you want to get out on the Caney, the Elk or the Obey to catch middle Tennessee trout, please give David a call (Southeasternfly.com). Hire him to take you fishing. You will NOT be disappointed.