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 ( Hire him to take you fishing. You will NOT be disappointed.

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