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.