Jim Fishing a Small Stream


            A native son of the Smokies who grew up with a fly rod in hand, I cut my fly-fishing teeth on the high country streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  A half century has come and gone since those halcyon days of youth, but then, as now, there was a canon of “standard wisdom” that held certain tactics and techniques to be inviolable.  To go against the grain of this creed was, in effect, to be guilty of heresy.  Yet as a youngster I violated some of this wisdom, often to good effect, and in the ensuing years and countless marvelously misspent hours I have done so with ever-greater frequency. 

In my view, it is healthy in fishing, as in life, to re-examine our way of doing things from time to time.  With that in mind, what follows is a collection of thoughts or ideas, ten of them in all, I’ve chosen to style “a hatch of heresies.”  They are offered with fishing in the Smokies specifically in mind, but their application goes far beyond this area’s storied streams. 

You may not agree with them; indeed, it is possible that you will adamantly disagree.  Yet keep an open mind or, better still, give these suggestions of offbeat tactics and techniques a try.  They have served me well over almost six decades of wielding the long rod and whistling line, and perhaps some of these heresies will give you pause to ponder.

To reword an old adage a bit, I have little Greek and less Latin.  In truth, the Latin names of insects or advanced entomological studies have never interest me, although catching trout remains an endlessly unrequited passion.  Yet fly fishermen as a clan, and the literature of the sport certainly bears me out, are inordinately fond of Latin.  That holds true despite the fact that most of them likely avoided the subject like the plague in school or, if they studied Latin, detested the dead language with an abiding hatred. 

The finest fly fisherman it has been my privilege to know paid little attention to fly patterns or insect hatches except in the most general of ways.  His standard response to questions about patterns ran along the lines of “I’m using a little grey fly” or “I’ve got on a big brown fly.”  He realized that in all but the most nutrient-rich of Southern trout streams fish do not enjoy the luxury of being choosy.  They have to eat what is available.  Accordingly, when you offer a hungry trout a fly that looks reasonable, doesn’t drag, and passes before its window of vision, chances are good it will take.  That means precision with casts, much more than making sure you have the precisely colored ephemerella deliciosa tied on a size 22 hook, is what catches trout.

It is my studied belief that the greatest contribution the average angler makes to the salvation of trout is drag.  Only the dumbest, most genetically impaired, or suicidal of trout will hit a dragging fly.  Yet we all too often pay scant attention to casts that eliminate drag, to the intricacies of cross- and counter-currents and the drag they produce, and proper mending sometimes seems almost a lost art.  The streams of the Smokies abound in tumbling waters and places where currents clash and boulders break the water’s back.  Until you attain reasonable mastery of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of those drift-destroying circumstances, strikes are likely to be few and far between.

Attend the average Trout Unlimited or Federation of Fly Fishers outing or clinic, and you soon discover most of the participants energetically double-hauling in a valiant effort to cast the entire line.  Yet the inevitable corollaries of greater casting length are reduced accuracy and delicacy.  On all but the largest of streams or in special situations in this part of the world, casts of 15 to 30 feet in length will serve quite well.  On many of the streams I know and love best the very thought of 60 foot casts is laughable, unless possibly you are interested in casting to squirrels or contemplating the overarching vegetation in an up close and personal fashion.  Most casts will be no longer than 20 or 25 feet.

Standard small stream wisdom invariably suggests that the ideal rod is one of seven or at most seven and a half feet in length.  I would staunchly maintain that in tight, testing conditions where there is precious little room for backcasts, the most functional rod is one of nine, nine and a half, or even 10 feet.  Longer rods make roll casting easier, they are ideal for reach casts and situations where the sole way to avoid drag is to have nothing but the fly on the water, they facilitate mending, and they lengthen appreciably the distance you can cover with a bow and arrow cast.  Similarly, the longer the rod the greater the likelihood you can poke a fly and two or three feet of tippet into an otherwise unreachable pocket without disturbing the trout holding there.  Long may be wrong in casting, but it is often right when it comes to rod selection for small streams.

Being the epitome of sartorial splendor in piscatorial proceedings may be all well and good if you are modeling for the cover of the latest catalog from L. L. Bean, Orvis, or for that matter almost any of the big names in the sport.  Furthermore, colorful attire in hues rivaling the most striking of peacocks may work well in some types of fly fishing.  Not so for trout in high country streams.  Leave your shirts in seductive colors such as pink perfection and caps of pleasing pastels at home.  Instead, wear earth tones or even camouflage attire.  Along the same lines, florescent orange and bright yellow fly lines look lovely in photographs, but for fish-catching effectiveness, stick with dull and drab browns and greens.

Second only to the importance of proper presentation, inability to read the water—what I like to call angling illiteracy—is the most common shortcoming of Smokies trout fishermen.  Understanding of this sort is better experienced than described in print, and it is best achieved through the incomparable school of hard knocks and “being there.”  The astute angler makes a mental note of every strike and each special situation.  Over time they become his unpublished textbook and guide to the locations trout prefer and the situations that are favored lies.  Sadly, too few absorb the wisdom offered to us each time we venture into the water.  There’s always something to learn, and when you quit learning you ought to quit.

I’ll frankly and fairly admit that I have probably caught 10 trout on a dry fly for every one I’ve taken on a nymph, wet fly or streamer.  Yet common sense tells us that the most certain means of taking trout is through offering them deceitful frauds of fur and feather in the setting where they do most of their dining.  Studies suggest that roughly 80 percent of that feeding is done beneath the surface, and the logical conclusion to be drawn from that is that we should do a corresponding percentage of our fishing with something other than dry flies.  Yet if it were possible to conduct an honestly answered poll regarding wet flies, I suspect the results would show most have never used them.  Furthermore, nymphs and streamers would fall well below dry flies in terms of popularity.  At the least, consider using a two-fly rig with a nymph as a dropper.  Or, better still, give streamers a go.  They take comparatively little skill when it comes to presentation and can attract big trout.

One of the surest ways to distinguish a skilled old-timer in the Appalachian backcountry where I grew up used to be to take a peek at the knees of the overalls that likely constituted his fly fishing attire (no one wore waders and some still consider them newfangled gimmicks!).  If they were well worn, you knew that this was an individual who understood that it was often necessary to stoop in order to conquer wary trout.  The predatory angler literally stalks his prey, and whether that involves creeping, kneeling, using boulders or streamside vegetation as cover, or an array of related tactics, those who take pains to stay hidden will succeed.

Too many fly fishermen are, to use an expression my grandfather loved to utter, “sot in their ways.”  It is easy to fall into a mindless routine, and should you do so “mindless” is the operative word.  Horace Kephart, the Dean of American Campers, author of Our Southern Highlanders, and an individual who resided in the little town (Bryson City, N. C.) where I grew up, perhaps put it best:  “In the school of the outdoors, there is no graduation day.”
The studious angler should always be learning, and he likewise should experiment constantly.  The latter may involve nothing more than taking the “road less traveled” when he comes to an island in the stream or taking the more difficult and deeper route when wading a section of a creek.  Or it may be drifting a fly into an impossible place using a piece of sycamore or birch bark as a ship, feeding line downstream so that the fly is the first thing a trout sees, fishing the fly as a living insect or any of dozens of other unorthodox approaches.  If you want to run with the big dogs of trout-catching success, you can’t run in place.  Dare to be different.

“Shank’s mare” is an Appalachian idiom, probably tracing back to Elizabethan linguistic roots, which means walking to get wherever you need to be.  In many places, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to walk.  Solitude can be a delightful companion, and you will be well served by it when you exhibit a willingness to take the slow but sure transportation medium of shank’s mare to get back of beyond.  There you will find the sort of action that provides a full measure of angling pleasure, the Holy Grail we all seek.
That’s it, an angling heretic’s 10 commandments.  They do not apply to all settings, nor will most readers likely find all of them acceptable.  Yet by pausing to ponder these 10 matters, I believe you will find food for thought as you journey to the sparkling, musical example of earth’s life blood that are the mountain trout streams of our Southern highlands.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Jim Casada is a son of the Smokies and a full-time writer.  His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park:  An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion.  To learn more about this book or his other activities, or to sign up to receive his free monthly e-newsletter, visit his web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.

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