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.