Sunday, November 30, 2014

Frenzy (Part 4)



Fred bolted down the beach into the dark, chasing an orange glowstick attached to his surf rod, which was attached to a big shark which was in mid-attempt of dragging the entire rig to Cuba. The rod had been violently yanked from its PVC spike, dragged through the sand and was now rapidly making its way through the knee-deep water of the first gut. Fred never broke stride and dove — Pete Rose-style — into the waves, which were briefly illuminated by the trippy colors of the neon orange glowstick and the fluorescent blue hue of Fred’s headlamp. 

Joe and I watched the scene from a few paces away, laughing uncontrollably. It was around 9 p.m., and we were the only souls on the beach. We had been there since just before sunset. The bulk of the day had been spent chasing black and red drum on Apalachicola Bay with Capt. Dwayne, but after arriving back at the house, we quickly hit the sand and got the surf rods out. At dark, we switched out our pompano rigs for shark leaders and big circle hooks. I cut up a ladyfish we had caught just before sundown, and we deployed chunks of fresh bait among six rods, each placed insanely close to the water’s edge (as we soon learned) and adorned with a variation of aforementioned glow-sticks Fred had purchased the day before. 

After a quick swim in the black water, Fred emerged, completely soaked and holding a doubled-over surf rod while his Daiwa reel spit salt water and angrily screamed against an angrier foe which worked hard to empty the spool of its contents. 

Fred, with his rod-stealing blacktip.

Fred’s freestyle in shark-infested waters would’ve made for a great story on its own (side-note: this was not the first time something like this has happened to Fred), but the evening proved to be epic for other reasons. In addition to retrieving his rod, Fred beached the chunky, five-foot, black-tip shark responsible for the near theft. More importantly, this event started a run of successive bites that was unprecedented in our fishing adventures. Rod after rod would hit the sand within the next hour, as seemingly dozens of sharks cruised the shallow waters in front of us. Casted baits would last only moments in the surf before being gobbled up by toothy fish, sending us scrambling to grab valuable fishing gear before it was dredged in sand and doused in saltwater. It was a strange symphony. The incoming tide provided the percussion — a steady hiss and boom with an occasional polyrhythmic crash — and amidst the wash, we soloed, trading fours under the stage-light glow of the half-moon, our reels’ drags screaming in off-beat blue notes, our runs punctuated with randomly placed whoops of reactionary joy.

Yes, the headlamp is pink. Gotta problem with it?

Our lines were stretched. Knots were tested. Each enjoyed success and endured failure. I don’t remember how many sharks we actually landed. It probably wasn’t many. Those which did make it to the beach were quickly photographed and released. We had tackle and ability to handle the four-and-five footers, but we were under-gunned for many of the fish cruising the shallow waters in front of us. The larger sharks would explode into amazing runs would nearly drain our reels of braid before leaders broke, lines snapped and hooks were bitten in two (Fred had a 7/0 circle hook snapped in half). Eventually, we ran out of bait, ending our evening as the fish were still biting, and sending us limping back to the beach house with sore shoulders, frayed lines and gigantic smiles on our faces. 

The next evening — our last night on the beach — we sat side-by-side in respective beach chairs, several yards from the water’s edge. We fished with only three rods — one per person, placed in sand spikes directly in front of us and within an easy arm’s reach of our seated positions. At least, we had learned from our mistakes. 

It's Joe ... I swear. 
The sharks showed up around the usual time, but the bite, while OK, was nothing compared to the previous night’s. Our energy was fading, too. It had been a long but good day, and we just wanted to catch one more fish before heading back to the house to clean up and prepare for the drive home the next day. A massive cold front was on its way. To the northwest, we could see it approach, as blackness devoured the stars and a storm boiled over into the Gulf. Around 10 p.m., after a long period of exhausted silence among our crew, I said, “Ten more minutes.” The moon danced in and out of the clouds, spotlighting us one minute and drenching us in blackness the next. 

As the moon peaked out, Joe spotted something in the surf. 

“What is that?!” He pointed towards where the water met the sand just a few yards in front of us. A big dorsal fin, exposed above the black water, and cruising less than 10 feet off the beach. We sprang from our chairs and turned our head lamps on the big shark — a tiger, close to 10 feet long — which menaced almost the exact location in which Fred had involuntary swam the night before. Indifferently, the shark slowly turned southward and disappeared into the ink black water. 

“Holy crap.” 
“That was almost 10 feet long.” 
“I hope you hook it, Joe.” 
“Fred, wanna go swimming again?” 

Electrified by what we had seen, we sat back down in our chairs and waited for one of our rods to go off — each of us secretly hoping it would be one of the other guy’s. Ten more minutes. No bites. Ten more minutes. Our yawns were growing more frequent and the encroaching rain clouds had us wondering if we had waited too long to pack up and head inside. Eventually, reason overcame obsession and we gathered up our gear for the last time and headed back to the house. 

Overnight, the cold front came. The winds howled out of the north and the fronds from the front yard palm tree rattled against the window above my bed. When we awoke, the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees and we wore multiple layers of clothing as we packed our respective vehicles. Fred, Joe and I shook hands in the driveway, and in the wintry wind and cold, we reflected on another excellent trip, exchanged well wishes in the months ahead, and discussed plans for tuna trips to Louisiana, trout fishing in Arkansas, and bass-fishing excursions in northern Florida. Such is tradition. 

It's good to have friends, but it’s better to have friends who fish. 

Until the next adventure ...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Be careful what you fish for; you just might catch it (Part 3)

About to be put to the test.
Wednesday. As night arrived after a full day of surf-fishing for pompano and whiting, we left out a couple of rods a piece, stuck in rod-holders right next to the water’s edge, and strewn across a 50-yard stretch of beach. They were each baited with chunk of freshly-cut bait, impaled on a 7/0 circle hook, snelled to a section of heavy mono and anchored to the bottom with a 3 oz pyramid sinker. We were hoping for bull reds. That’s not what we got. 

Bluefish arrived first, right at last light. They provided some decent sport — and excellent bait — but tended to swallow the circle hook and fray the hell out of the leader. So, we adjusted by opting for heavier mono and nylon-coated wire. Then, bigger critters arrived. 

And that's all she wrote.
I was the first to beach a shark. A healthy, fat, four-foot-plus blacktip that pulled drag and decided to head east down the beach, which was unfortunate because my rod was on the western end of our spread. In a way, you could say we all caught that first shark, and after the fish was unhooked and released, all of us participated in the untangling, cutting and retying our lines. 

Emboldened but not enlightened (figuratively and literally; my headlamp’s battery was dying), I tied up another leader — this time with 80-pound mono — and crimped on another circle hook. I placed the hook through the belly and near the tail of a live whiting, which I suspected would result in a tantalizing offering to a big red or shark. I was wrong. After just a few minutes of waiting, the rod doubled and a heavy fish steadily peeled line from my reel. Losing an alarming amount of braid, I dialed up the drag to hopefully slow the beast. It did nothing, as the fish continued its march toward Cape San Blas. I followed it down the beach, as Fred followed to provide assistance should I be able to land whatever I had hooked. Twenty minutes passed, and the battle was at a standstill. I had regained a bunch of line and continued to walk down the sand at night, my rod-tip down and pulling hard to the left, drag locked down and hoping to turn the fish around. It wasn’t fighting like a big red, nor did it offer the electric runs that blacktip sharks provide. This was different. Like I had hooked a dump truck. 

Rigging up under the dim light of a headlamp in need of a new battery.
Suddenly, the truck stopped and pulled up on the emergency brake. I knew then that I had hooked a very large stingray. The big fish hugged the bottom, used it’s wings like a suction cup, and there was little I could do to move the fish. In the dark, by myself (Fred gave up 10 minutes before in order to go back to base camp), and a half-a-mile from my buddies, I decided that I’d had enough fun, and didn’t really want to mess with beaching a ray this big. I made sure the drag was tight, reeled up any excess, pointed my rod-tip at the stationary creature, turned my back on the Gulf and walked straight back towards the beach houses behind me. The line snapped and I reeled in the resulting slack. Thankfully, the line broke at the crimped connection, which hopefully meant the circle hook was soon to fall from the fish’s mouth. I’m sure the ray swam away no worse for the wear. I suspect it never even realized it was hooked. 

As I made the slow walk back in my buddies, my shadow haphazardly danced in the sand a few feet in front of me, and the waxing crescent moon fell low to the western horizon. Well down the beach, Joe and Fred were re-baiting rods, their activity betrayed by the twinkling lights of their headlamps. 

Every fish story needs a fish picture. Here's Chalky Joe with a tasty chalky.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Big Ugly (Part 2)

“Fellas, it’s gonna be a rough day,” Capt. Dwayne said. He held his hands up on either side of his head, palms facing us, and moved them toward us on the words “rough” and “day.” It was Halloween morning. Early. Dark. The wind was zipping out of the northwest at 15 mph. We were standing on the uneven wooden dock at Allen's Bay Charters in Apalachicola, Fla. The brisk and steady breeze bent the nearby spartina grass and blew the sweet-and-briny smell of the marsh out through the creek mouth and into the unseen bay. 

“It’s gonna be rough. Winds are supposed to be 5 to 15 mph … but you can usually add those two numbers together.” 
“Well, is it worth going?”
Capt. Dwayne rubbed the back of his neck, “I know we can catch fish, but … “ 

It was 7:30 a.m. ET, the sun had not yet come up and the wind made a cool morning colder. We were layered up, in sweatshirts and pullovers. Our captain was in shorts and wore a short-sleeved fishing shirt. Fred, Joe and I stared at each other, contemplating the ominous greeting we received from our guide. 

“Would tomorrow be better?” Fred asked Capt. Dwayne. 
“Maybe. It’s up to ya’ll.” 

Yeah, I don't know.
While Fred and I have enjoyed 15 or so offshore adventures over the years, Joe’s seafaring days ended after trip No. 3, when he decided paying $600 to throw up for 30 straight hours was not money or time well spent. I've been fortunate to not be regularly afflicted by seasickness, although I do know the helpless feeling of overwhelming nausea brought on by the motion of the ocean. Before leaving on an overnight bottom-fishing trip several years ago, Fred and I and 10 other fishermen arrived at the dock in Destin Harbor one morning to be given a similar warning by our captain. He told us it would be rough, but it was our choice if we wanted to go. We opted to give it a shot. It was a regrettable decision, as the sea was angry that day, my friends, and the relentless churn of conflicting swells caused a majority of us to abandon fishing in order to grip the railing and regurgitate breakfast. The 36-hour charter ended after 12. Amongst the survivors, the experience is seldom retold; when it is rehashed, it is simply referred to as "that one trip." That one trip instantly sprang to mind when Capt. Dwayne greeted us.

“If you think tomorrow would be better, we could come back Friday. Guys, what do you think?” Fred looked at Joe.
Joe weighed options quickly, and answered as I had thought (and hoped) he would.
“We got up early and we’re here. I say we fish. I’m not getting up and doing this again tomorrow.” 
Bring it on. 

Keep your rod tip down, Dan.
We boarded a 24-foot, center-console bay boat and Capt. Dwayne fired up the outboard. We cruised a short distance to the creek mouth and throttled down into the expanse of Apalachicola Bay. In front of us, an agitated chop danced across an immense lake of gray water as darker gray skies loomed above and spit rain that bounced off our faces and caused us to grab rain jackets. After a short run, we anchored up on a nondescript spot in the middle of the bay. Capt. Dwayne baited medium-heavy spinning rods with pieces of shrimp and offered precise instruction. 

“Cast anywhere.” 

It was awesome. The simple set-up — main line to a short stretch of bite tippet to an offset octopus hook — and the very willing fish made for a great start to the day. We soon boated several white and speckled trout, along with a few hardhead and gafftopsail catfish. About 20 fish in, I felt a quick tap-tap and set the hook. The rod doubled and the reel squealed as line left the spool. 

“That ain’t no trout,” Capt. Dwayne said matter-of-factly as he dug into a small blue-and-white cooler for a fresh bait. 

Joe's black drum.
The fight was a tug-o-war, and after a few minutes (including a harrowing segment as the fish burrowed under the boat, and forced me to bury the top section of the rod in the bay and carefully navigate around the outboard), a giant black drum rolled on the surface and revealed its mottled gray flank and enormous noggin. A short time later, Capt. Dwayne scooped up the fish — which barely fit in his net — and flopped it into the bottom of the boat. Photo ops ensued, and eventually, the big ugly was safely returned to the bay. 

Fred has a delicate complexion. The black drum does not.
As the day unfolded, the rain and clouds departed and the sun drenched us in warmth, causing us to shed jackets and pullovers. The wind kept blowing, and the rough day we dreaded proved to be both manageable and incredibly fun. We caught redfish, big sail cats, black sea bass, trout, pigfish and all three of us boated oversized black drum. Capt. Dwayne was great to fish with: patient, skilled and totally focused on putting us on fish. Joe never got close to puking, all three of us really enjoyed the time on the water, and we drove back to the beach house with a cooler full of fillets and a few more fish stories to our repertoire. 

It was a great day of fishing ... but it wasn't over yet. 

I highly recommend fishing with Capt. Dwayne Allen. He's fun to fish with, easy-going, highly informative and, best of all, very patient. It's low pressure, high fun fishing. Please reach out to him via the Book Me a Charter website

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Back to the Island (Part 1)

Watchin' the tide roll away.
The last leg of the trip is always the longest. You leave Alabama and enter Florida, and it seems like an expanse of saltwater should appear within minutes. It doesn’t. 

After passing a small, unintentionally-retro gas station in Sumatra, Fla., I drove down a two-lane county road through an endless forest in fading sunlight which flickered and fluttered through the vertically-striped backdrop of thousands of pine trees. Hours later, it seemed, the road appeared to empty into nothingness. The pine trees were replaced by spanish moss and live oaks and the road ended abruptly at the edge of Apalachicola Bay. I turned right onto Highway 98 and rolled down my window, and my truck was filled with the briny aroma of low tide. It smelled of salt, seaweed and oyster liquor. In the pale peach remnants of a lazy Monday afternoon, I shared the road with no one. Only a great horned owl perched atop a dead oak made note of my approach to the St. George Island bridge. 

The drive down had been a long one. I left middle Tennessee at 8 a.m., and made great time, aside from a questionable decision to exit the interstate in Prattville, Ala. I had stopped there in order to visit a Bass Pro Shops, where I spent unnecessary money on unneeded fishing stuff before stopping at Publix to load the truck with groceries for the week ahead. The nearly two-hour, hook-line-and-lunchmeat stop obliterated my ETA, but Joe persevered in my absence by fishing by himself on the beach all day. He had caught a few whiting and bluefish, and when I finally made my way down to the sand just after dark, Joe had fresh bait waiting for me. Now, that's a friend. I put a chunk of bluefish on each rod, blind-casted into the gentle tide and dropped the rod butts into PVC sand spikes. Then, I popped open a cold one and melted into my beach chair, exhausted. 

Joe, watching for dolphins. Or thinking about work. Eh, probably watching for dolphins.
While we were able to catch up on things that evening, Joe and I didn’t catch anything, but, hell, it didn’t matter. The trip down was behind me, and I’d begin anew in the morning.
By 9 a.m., four surf-rods, baited with Fish-bites of varying colors and flavors, were secured in spikes amid a deserted fall beach, and each rod tip gently nodded with the rhythmic pulse of the incoming swells. Just offshore — and I mean just offshore — an armada of shrimp trawlers cruised the sandbars. Every 50 yards or so along the beach, foot-long jellyfish, generally round and bell-shaped, and looking like a light fixture made of frosted glass, washed up with the steadily flowing tide. Later in the week, we’d learn the trawlers were actually targeting the jellies (called “cannonballs”), as the Asian demand for the goopy critters provide the shrimpers a lucrative alternative to scoopin’ up bugs. 

Fred and a lady he met on the beach. She was pretty but had a big mouth and smelled funny.
We caught a few, mostly whiting, and Fred arrived in the mid-afternoon, providing us with additional bait-and-tackle and substantial personality. The sun set on seven rods which anxiously waited pompano or redfish but, on this day, only realized whiting, ladyfish and bluefish. As night arrived, so did a sliver of a crescent moon and an endless ocean of stars. The three of us fished until we ran out of bait, and returned to the rented beach house with a cooler of keeper whiting to clean, not knowing of the monsters that awaited us in the days ahead.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


A little girl. Six, maybe seven. Wearing a pink and blue swimsuit, she waded into some awful-looking water. Black, with foam bubbles and strands of hunter-green filamentous algae blossoming from below. Chest-deep, she submerged for a few seconds before popping up in the exact same spot, her soaked dark hair covering the entirety of her face. Ears popped out to the sides. She wiped back her hair with an algae-covered left hand and yelled for her mother, who sat cross-legged on the concrete boat ramp nearby, staring intently at her cell phone and burning a cigarette

“I’m making a masterpiece!” 
“A what?” 
“A masterpiece! I’m making a masterpiece!” 
“A what, honey?” 

This went on for a while. 

I tuned it out and refocused on the abundance of fish eerily suspended in the water around my kayak. I double-hauled the 7-weight and unfurled a long cast. The fly plopped into the water and I immediately began retrieving with short, fast strips. The nylon rope strands on the fly pulsed and danced in the water. It looked alive. Strip, strip, strip, strip, I retrieved in 4/4 time. 

No takers. Before launching another cast, I glanced to my left and saw two boys swimming my direction. I guessed they were in the 10- to 12-years-old range, and I assumed one of them was the little girl’s older brother. The lead boy was a chunkster, and self-consciously donned a white t-shirt that was plastered to his fleshy torso. Both boys were wrapped around boogie boards which allowed them to navigate the deep pool of gar-infested water. 

T-shirt boy dog-paddled his way within feet of my kayak. 

“What are you fishing for?” 
I uncorked a long cast. 
“Longnose gar.” 
“Gar? They have teeth.”
“Yep. You guys are surrounded by them right now.” 
“Yeah, they’re all over the place.” 
“Do they bite?” 
I paused a beat.
“Big time.” 

They stopped paddling. The boy in the back was the younger of the two. His concerned expression betrayed he wasn't big on the whole idea to even get in the water. He whispered something to t-shirt boy. His suggestion appeared to be ignored. The instigator kept looking at me, trying to gauge whether or not I was kidding. I kept casting. 

“They really don’t bite.” 
“Yeah, they do. Sharp teeth, too. Rows of them.”
“Naw … “ 
“Well, they probably won't bother you. Probably.” 

The boys mumbled to each other. Dissension festered. The younger boy began nudging shoreward while trying not to overtly alert the ringleader. Mutiny was imminent. 

The tip of my fly rod shook and line slowly pulled through my left thumb and index finger. After a five Mississippi count, I tightened my grip on the line and let the fish pull it taught. A huge longnose gar broke the surface like a tarpon, shaking its toothy beak and crashing the front half of its spotted body into the river. The armored monster then rocketed downstream and pulled coils of loose line from the floor of my kayak and engaged my reel. The nose of the yak swung around sharply and followed the fleeing fish. 
As quickly as it began, it was over. The fish somehow freed itself from the nylon and my line went limp and my excitement deflated. The pool calmed. Ah well. I turned to look at the two boys, but they were now standing on the boat ramp holding their boogie boards; the mutineer glaring at his chubby former captain. Oblivious to what had just occurred, the sister continued to wade in waist-deep water. Singing. 

A western mountain stream. Cold water twists, tumbles and plunges through ancient boulders before settling into a steady flow through a meadow of purple flowers and tan sage grass that wave in the gentle wind. The bright sun glitters among the subtle turmoil creating an infinite universe of twinkling stars which burn out as quickly as they shine, each one instantly replaced by dozens of others, perpetually flashing as long as the water moves and the sun stays above the aspens. Downstream, there is a long pool. Here, you have to squint to see the shadows of the cutthroat trout that hide among the multi-colored riverstone and within the broken reflection of blue-bird skies and distant snow-covered peaks. As mayflies land on your felt fedora, you reach into your vest, nudge aside your pipe tobacco and secure a small metal box. Your name and address are written in blue ink on a piece of masking tape on the lid, along with the words, “Dry Flies.” You open the box and admire its contents, so neatly and perfectly arranged within. You carefully select a small work of art, a parody made of elk hair, dubbing, thread and hackle. Using a knot you learned from the guide you met in Alaska last summer, you tie the fly to your tippet as trout rise to emerging insects in the stream below and you melt into the cover art for the next Orvis catalog.

Cross-fade to a murky and near-stagnant bend in a southeastern river. Here, ancient boulders are buried far below the sorghum flow; the original channel flooded long ago by warrior engineers. The limbs of toppled oaks reach above the surface in suspended desperation as the thorny branches of bodocks stretch from the river bank in vain attempts to save their drowned cousins. You swat at the mosquitos on your pale legs and brush away the horsefly on the bill of your sweat-stained cap. The air is massive. Heavy. To the west, the grayness of the sky darkens to a menacing indigo. You launch your kayak from a concrete boat ramp that abruptly ends short of the river's edge. A late summer drought has drained the stream of flow, causing you to wade out in order to find navigable water. You cringe as your sandaled feet shuffle through the mud-and-grit bottom, and rocks and snail-shells find their way between your foot and sole. The soft roll of distant thunder is heard and a sudden cool breeze sways the tops of the trees. Yellowed hackberry leaves, assaulted by late summer aphids, drop in the water around you. Dead leaves and the dirty ground. After hopping into the kayak, you paddle slowly to the depths of the pool, where the garfish cruise creepily through the water column. In the face of a growing wind, your first cast is still long and crisp. The fly lands softly and momentarily perches on the surface like a giant cottonwood bloom. You bring it to life with a brisk strip, followed by a practiced cadence. The fly responds and dances and darts inches below the surface. As you admire the animation, your offering is dispassionately devoured from below. 

A slight drizzle began to dimple the surface of the river and I checked my leader and fly. The business end was a four-and-a-half-inch-long bush of untangled and brushed nylon rope. I had added a few strands of silver flashabou and tied everything together with red thread. The hook was a long-shanked streamer hook that I had cut at the bend to remove the hook point. When wet, the fly slowly sank and when stripped, it darted to and fro much like a “walking the dog” jerk bait. The shredded nylon pulsed in the water, giving the presentation a very lifelike appearance. The leader and fly intact, I stripped out some line, loaded the rod with a backcast and shot a long cast into the river, which was now soaking up the needed rain. 

A few casts later, a gar attacked the fly. It was a big fish, probably five-feet nose-to-tail and an easy 10 pounds. But, instead of grabbing the offering and swimming away, it just hacked at the fly with its narrow beak. I just sat there and watched and the fly sunk like stunned prey. That was probably the wrong approach, as the fish sulked away and disappeared, leaving my rejected fly suspended in the water column. Dammit. That was a good one. 

Behind me, the conversation began anew. 

“What, honey?” 
“My masterpiece!” 
“Your what?” 
“My masterpiece!” 
“Honey, what are you talking about?” 

She emerged from the black water, her arms locked around a basketball-sized globe of dark green algae that had been painstakingly procured from the bottom of the wretched stream and bundled with care by a seven-year-old girl wearing a pink-and-blue swimsuit, which was now festooned with slimy remnants of her prized creation. With each step, more of the thing that should not be slid off, and filaments stuck to her skin like leeches. She laughed as she trudged through the water towards her mother, who squealed with delight at the hellish gift her daughter brought her. She began taking photos with her cell phone. 

A cute little baby gar
The day waned, as did the bite. A few small fish came to hand, but the big ones — which continued to stalk my fly — were only curious, or not fooled, or not hungry. I paddled the short distance back to the ramp, stinking of gar slime and bug spray, and stepped out of my kayak into ankle-deep bacterial water. The girl and her family were gone, and the masterpiece had either been returned to the abyss or taken home and kept as a pet. The skies cleared as the sun started to set, and the black river suddenly glowed orange and shimmered as a toothy beak broke the surface with a pop and swirled back to the murky depths below. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Soft hackles

“How’s the finger?”
“Ahhhh.” Sitting cross-legged in a living room chair, watching Fox News and backlit by the sepia glow of an approaching sunrise, my brother dropped the remote and raised his bandaged digit. The disgusted look on his face told me I’d be fishing alone this morning. 
“They generating?” 
He took a sip from his cup of coffee. Up since well before me, Tim was probably on pot No. 2. 
“Nah. Turned them off at 7 last night. You should be good. I’d go up and fish the riffle. There are big browns up there.” 
The river was cloaked in a dense, blue-ish fog, but just upstream, I could make out the fuzzy silhouette of a fly-fisherman casting in the pre-dawn gloom. 
“I think somebody’s already fishing it.” 
“That’s Mr. Davis. He won’t be there long. Probably just long enough to smoke a cigar.” 
I yawned and instinctively stretched. 
“I won’t bug him. I’ll stay a little downstream.” 

I threw a bottle of water and a cereal bar in my Orvis sling pack, dropped my blood pressure pill in my left shirt pocket, my cell phone in my right, and slipped on my waders. The air was heavy. The steps down to the river were slick and randomly mined with raccoon turds just hours old and laden with wild cherry pits and sunflower seeds. Dodging the droppings, I carefully slipped into the cold river where I was immediately enveloped by the fog. 

There was still a good bit of current left over from the previous day’s generation, and the push of water tried to nudge me downstream as I made my way across the river to a small island. From there, I planned to wade upstream through the fog, and stop a respectable distance down from Mr. Davis. I would fish back to the house, nymphing along the way with a streamer already selected as “option B.” The end strategy included fishy-smelling hands, a frayed tippet and some awkward fish photos on my iPhone. I'd text those to my friends back home, most of whom were currently on their way to spending their next eight hours on earth in an 8 x 8 cubicle awash in the harsh light and dull buzz of fluorescent lights, as they “multi-tasked” their way through conference calls and surfed the web for fishing reports, fly-tying recipes and weather predictions for the upcoming weekend. I would dedicate my performance to my brothers left behind, and hope my texted photos of freshly-caught browns and rainbows would only bring them joy. And pain. Sunshine. And rain. 

The trout staged upon this expansive riffle first got to see my homemade, ragged-looking sowbug pattern drifted below a leggy grasshopper fly which also served as an indicator. They hated both offerings; my hubris probably undercut by karma, and perhaps by a bit of angling incompetence. After about 20 minutes of watching the hopper bob and weave through rise rings of feeding fish, I went to option B.

I tried a streamer Dad had tied. It’s an awesome pattern that incorporates some unique material, giving it a very life-like and tantalizing appearance underwater. It pulses and waves and looks very much like something — a minnow, a crawfish, a hellgrammite, etc. — a trout would want to eat. And, eat it they do. Almost always. Except on this morning. 

As my worry began to mount, I double-hauled Dad’s wonder fly across the river. While the casts were long and felt pretty, the trout gave me the middle fin and rudely rejected the presentation. The little scaly bastards. Through the fog, I couldn’t tell exactly what the fish were feeding upon, but I guessed midges. Hell, they’re always eating midges. Tiny ones, too. The hatch I dread to match. 

I’m not a soft-hackle fan. But, when fish are rising and seemingly everywhere and your lanyard fills and becomes the land of misfit flies, you tend to get desperate. For me, soft-hackles are desperate measures. It’s very much of a “well, I might as well try these” approach. 

Using a long, fluorocarbon leader and tippet, I rigged up a tandem rig consisting of two poorly-tied red-and-black soft-hackle flies (technically, the pattern is called the “Red Ass”). Casting long steady loops slightly downstream, I let the current pull the belly of my line while I retrieved — quickly and steadily — in short strips. The flies skated just a fraction of a inch below the surface, and hopefully attracted the interest of the trout, which were very actively feeding. 

The fog had begun to dissipate, seemingly devoured by the relentless beast of the August heat and humidity. Dad plied the waters of a pocket downstream with his streamer pattern. He wasn’t having much luck. Yet. It was only a matter of time before he dialed it in. I watched him in the periphery, as my fly line steadily chugged its way down and across the stream. On the second cast, the line zipped tight and shot skyward, shedding a long spray of water which caught the emerging sunlight and scattered and fell like sparks from a blown transformer. Fish on. 

The spunky rainbow fought hard, but was ultimately brought to hand, unhooked and released. The next cast was a repeat, and the pattern continued for an amazing seven straight offerings. Rainbow, brown, brown, bow, cutt-bow, bow, brown. For the next half-hour, this continued, as seemingly every cast resulted in at least a bite, if not a fish. None of the trout were big, but all were colorful and fought hard. In the midst, I yelled downstream to Dad to let him know what I was using. He was studying his flybox, with his rod tucked under one arm and an empty tippet end pinched between his lips. He mumbled something that sounded like, “Um, ok.” In The Official Language of Fly Fishermen, that meant, “I’m going to try this caddis pupa pattern instead.” 

Suddenly, the fish stopped biting my flies. I slowly made my way downstream, one unproductive cast at a time. The trout had clearly decided to eat something else. And, Dad’s bent flyrod and tight line revealed exactly what that was.  

I reeled in my fly line and looked at what was left of my soft hackles. Two nearly-bare hooks, each only covered with a thin layer of black thread. Their hackles had been chewed away — probably several fish ago. I clipped off the flies, tossed them in my fly box and searched for a more appropriate selection. 

“Hey Dad, do you have another caddis pupa?” 

The question floated downstream, over the moss-covered rocks and the gentle riffle and through the angled sycamores and honey locusts before it was eventually drowned in the happy noise of a splashing rainbow trout and the subtle giggling of a man who had once again figured them out. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Multi-Boat Float

The river was full. An overflowing cavalcade of kayaks and canoes and jon boats and rubber rafts and church groups with slapping paddles and weekend anglers flinging Little Cleos and Trout Magnets and smoking cigarettes and drinking Bud Light and occasionally blaring gangsta rap or Marshall Tucker from a boom box perched upon a tackle box or cooler within their respective watercraft. Whether by paddle, motor or current, they migrated drunkenly downstream amidst submerged fields of grass which waved just as drunkenly in the steady current. Beneath the din, the clear and shockingly-cold river was filled with trout, which I suspected were as new to the river as many of the people who floated above them. They were active, maybe a little stupid at times and very willing to reveal exactly where they were and what they were doing. And, so were the trout.

Dumping the Dr's Note. 
Among the flotillas, we convoyed our own series of watercraft. Dave’s drifter employed Woods and Allen, while the Rev. Jim and Roberts argued over who would first take to the oars of the former’s Gheenoe. Barry floated along in a borrowed red kayak, and I squeezed out some space among an abundance of gear in my butt-numbing orange AquaLung SOT. While the first two boats allowed for a convenient float-and-fish approach, Barry and I planned to “shoal hop,” and paddle through deeper stretches, but then jump out of the yaks when wadeable water presented itself. It was a grand plan, but the icy water caused us to abandon the strategy in order to hop back in the kayaks to warm our frozen feet. It’s fun getting old. 

Cast there. And, mend.
The first three miles of the float were pretty much a conga line of fishermen and weekend paddlers. We’d wait behind groups of boats in order to fish normally productive stretches that were now much less productive as a result of the pressure (and the noise) the fish had just endured. Seemingly always in the distance behind us, we’d hear the cackle of laughter and the dull thumps of paddles hitting plastic as another armada of boats made their way downstream and into our water. We’d let ‘em play through, then resume the game. 

Just a couple of miles into the float, I managed to do something amazingly stupid. While floating and fishing a promising run, I tossed out my kayak anchor in order to slow my drift. There was a fair amount of current, but the river bottom was a snag-free section of rounded river rock. Or, so I thought. The anchor merely bounded along the substrate, allowing me to better manage my float and to nymph my way through some trouty-looking seams. Things went really well for about 50 yards until my anchor suddenly found purchase and snagged a submerged log. The anchor rope tightened, and my kayak spun sharply and hung at a sharp angle to the current. It also tilted starboard, and I began to panic. I back-paddled like a demon, but the push of the water proved to be a little more than anticipated. Making matters worse, a bevy of kayaks and canoes rounded the corner upstream, giving me an audience for my imbecility. I could not simply use the anchor rope to pull me back to the stuck anchor, as the kayak would have taken on water and possibly/probably capsized. So, I paddled. And paddled. Four attempts to get above the anchor proved fruitless, as the current continued to push me sideways. Eventually, with shoulders burning and sunscreen-infused sweat blinding my eyes, I got upstream enough on the fifth attempt in order to pull the anchor free. 

After gathering the rope, I quickly drifted to the edge of the river to rest. Conveniently, the spot I picked was also the home of a mink. It emerged from its burrow, angrily scolded me and nearly boarded my kayak. Great. That’s all I needed: a near drowning, followed by a mauling at the claws of a small brown animal best known for its ability to make comfortable stoles. I paddled back into the current and drifted to a rodent-less section of the river bank.  

The anchoring episode was a stupid maneuver, and one I knew much better to avoid. Thankfully, the river wasn’t at generation-level, or I would’ve been in trouble. Wet, at best; dead, at worst. 

Upon reflection
Regrouping, I tied a hopper-dropper combo on my 5-weight, and took a swig from a bottle of lukewarm water. Barry was performing a similar operation about 200 yards downstream from me. Just beyond both of us, a swarm of swallows swirled above a tantalizing riffle, betraying a massive midge hatch. But, both of us were patiently waiting out the passing of an equally massive hatch of plastic watercraft, as 16 boats carrying at least twice as many people merrily — and loudly — made their way past us. They were all having fun, and at least at this point of the morning, doing so in a very innocent and sober way. We waved and watched them pass. 

Resuming the float, Barry and I continued to hook up with smallish rainbow trout, as Roberts and the Reverend did the same. We guessed the other guys were having similar luck aboard David’s drifter, which had rowed ahead of our three boats. Eventually, all of us convened at a floating lunch spot, as our desired location on a nearby gravel bar had been claimed by the 16-boat fleet. Our boats anchored and tethered midstream, we bobbed in modest current, and knocked back a brew or two and ate sandwiches of similar nature procured from dissimilar coolers. A jar containing of a questionable concoction of equally questionable origin was passed around to those of us non-clergymen willing to throw caution to the southwesterly wind, which swayed the tops of the oaks, sycamores and elms that lined the nearby banks of the clear, cold river and ushered us to our eventual downstream destination. We swapped a few fish stories and compared fly offerings before we unhooked from the stream bottom and made our way through the next stretch of water. 

The Roberts, the Reverend and the Barry.

The stream was certainly alive, as we continued to hook plucky trout and observe various insect hatches. Midges were consistently emerging, but so were occasional rushes of small caddis and mayflies. Rises became more pronounced and frequent, and about three miles from the put-in, we encountered a distinct change in the species we landed. Just about every fish caught was a brown trout. And, almost all of them were the same, smallish size. We suspected a recent donation from the fish hatchery, and we silently thanked the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for their contribution to our angling excellence. 

This little tailrace presents the best and worst of a float. On the positive side, once you’ve either outrun or lagged far behind the abundance of weekenders, you pretty much have the river to yourself. You become part of the scenery, as nature — birds and fish and even small furry rodents — ignores you as you quietly float by. In the past, the middle section of this float could be a bit of a struggle, as the flow used to slow to a crawl and fish stockings didn’t quite reach the middle miles, resulting in a slow slog through largely trout-less waters. Things have changed a bit now, as trout seem to be more frequently caught in the middle miles, and the Corps of Engineers have dialed up a more float-friendly push of water. 

There are a few caveats. First off, it’s a loooooooooong float. Secondly, while large trout are certainly in there, the river is much more known for seasonal stockings of cookie-cutter rainbows, brooks and browns. Lastly, the foamy residue from the runoff of nearby watercress fields is often dumped into the river, which contributes to huge blooms of underwater grass and occasionally soaks the atmosphere with the smell of fetid breath. But, the pros outweigh the cons, and on a trip like this one, it’s often more about the fellowship than the fishing. 

Barry waits for his turn to talk to The Law.
After bouncing through a scenic riffle, we passed under an old iron and wood bridge and noticed two men in olive and forest-green garb standing in the middle of the knee-deep river. Barry and I negotiated the final section of the shoal (both of us getting stuck on a gravel bar in front of our new friends), then cruised to the shallows where we procured fishing licenses and showed off our life preservers at the requests of two responsible members of the TWRA. I was reprimanded for not having my inflatable jacket on at the time, which I quickly snapped on and wore for the remainder of the float. The officers were amiable and appreciative and admitted that they had been busy all day. They also confirmed what we thought: a few thousand brown trout had recently been introduced to the river. 

This was the first time I’d ever been checked on this river by the TWRA, but I was so glad to see them there. For a group severely tested by the lack of resources stemming from governmental indifference, they do a fantastic job and are always welcomed by me and my fellow anglers. There is a lot of good on the rivers and lakes of Tennessee, but there’s also a good amount of bad. Hats off to those trying to police the waterways which we hold so sacred. I just wish there were more of them to help. 

Captain Pale Legs with a decent fish.
We tipped our hats to the guys in green and paddled our way toward the sun, which now peeked out among the trees and conceded an apricot glow to the river. Along the way, I hooked up on my big fish of the day — a colorful, 16-inch brown trout, which felt like a 10 pounder compared to the miniature versions I had been landing all afternoon. Barry and continued to leapfrog David and the guys, but the five of us continued to catch fish until we reached the take out spot. Rev. Jim and Roberts welcomed us ashore, and we stowed kayaks and boats and gear and drove back to the dam. There, we took a few photos and congratulated each other for a very successful float. 

I was exhausted, and I smelled of watercress fields, fish, sunscreen and sweat. My butt cheeks were completely numb, their nerves smashed beyond immediate repair by the torture of sitting in a kayak for 10 hours. Barry and I loaded our kayaks into the back of my truck, and we headed home in the fading light. 

The Great Multi-Boat Float of 2014 is now burned into memory, but the clarity of what occurred will soon fade with retellings of stories from the trip. The tale of the mink encounter will morph into a brush with a rabid bobcat, the 16-inch brown will grow to 24, and the anchor incident will be retold as if I had been boarded by Somali pirates. None of that will matter, as the discussion will quickly turn to when we can get together to do this again. 

Those who survived.