A Fish Story July 12 2017, 0 Comments

Testament to “Catch and Release” – A Fish Story

I taught myself to fly fish in college on the South Holston River – while friends would take off for Atlanta on Friday nights, I was tying away and organizing my pack. I’d wake up at 3 AM Saturday morning and make the 4 hour drive to Bristol to be there by sun-up. I could hear the river as I approached the bridge, and driving over the bridge was always my favorite part; that’s when you get the first glimpse of some still water with fish rising like crazy. That’s still my favorite part of the drive; it never gets any less exciting.
It’s not for the “Trophy Stream” private water angler, the fish are wild and uncooperative more often than not. It’s got to be one of the most challenging rivers in the U.S., especially in the winter when we usually fish it. It takes some guts to make the 12 hour trek from Florida knowing that you could get there to find that TVA switched the release schedule last minute and screwed your wading plans, or the cloud cover made the Sulphurs decide not to hatch. But the thought of big, brown noses breaking the surface to sip bugs or little rainbows launching themselves 3 feet out of the water to catch an Olive mid-air make it impossible to not try.
I had a surgical root canal last week and then closed on my first house four days later – I needed a break. We had planned to hook the boat up and head down to the Keys for the weekend, but a free rental car thanks to a minor collision and some body work on the truck made a 12 hour drive North sound pretty appealing. I only got to fish the SoHo Sulphur hatches a few times in August/September in college, because I went home to FL over the summer. Clouds of yellow mayflies sounded better than Miami traffic with a boat in tow and blowing shots at Bonefish and Permit during a tropical depression. Not to mention, mornings in the 60s, a visit to Carver’s Apple Orchard, and pan fried trout sounded pretty darn good. So, I got my stitches out, signed my life away on some mortgage documents, we picked up the rental car, and then we hit the road at 2AM.
After a long, rainy drive (of course, the tropical depression would follow us up to TN out of spite) we got to Gatlinburg and played in the rain catching Creek Chubs for a few days. We hunted mushrooms (not THAT kind of mushroom) and prayed for the rain to stop. One nice thing about the rain is that it makes for excellent ‘shrooming – I like hunting mushrooms for some of the same reasons I like fly fishing. It’s challenging, you have to study, and it takes you to beautiful places. We found several species of Chanterelles, Corals, Oysters, some Hedgehogs, Puffballs, Old Man of the Woods, and countless others that would kill you or make you wish you were dead. All mushrooms are edible, some only once. If you’re not 100% certain of identity, don’t eat it! We loaded the mushrooms in the cooler and headed up to Bristol.
It’s two hours exactly from Gatlinburg to Bristol. We didn’t check into the hotel or stop by the fly shop but went straight to the river. Our worst fear – drift boats galore; TVA was generating. When they let water out of the lake, it turns the pretty, slow-moving river into noisy, deep, white-water hell. I chucked a streamer from the bank once and landed a nice brown on high water, but that’s not what you drive 12 hours for. Disappointed, we drove up the road to the fly shop to confirm what we had hoped was not true – they had been generating non-stop for almost 3 weeks. We checked the TVA website, but for whatever reason, decided “that can’t be right”. It was right.
There’s really not much of anywhere to wade when the water is high, but above the weir grates the water is a little slower, and though we were advised not to, we went in anyway. Being from Florida, I will be damned if I’m not going to enjoy every bit of cold air/water anything when I go North. So, I threw my signature seafoam Columbia PFG and some shorts on with wading boots and walked in – carefully. It was a little hairy with the water up to my waist and moving pretty good. It was a half-step at a time and dig your boots into a hole, or you’re going swimming kind of wade. When I waded in deeper, I couldn’t breathe for a minute because the water touched my ribs and holy shit, it was cold. I told Steve it was fine, and he found out I was lying shortly after. “I can’t do it”. I was in it for the long haul – I know that once your legs go numb they almost feel warm and then you’re good to go. Steve was in and out to warm up, but I figured just staying in it and being mildly uncomfortable was better than facing the “ice-daggers” that happen when you leave the water to warm up, then get back in. I was too lazy to dig my waders out of the trunk of our rental Toyota Corolla (side note, what a miserable vehicle – what the hell is that “cruise control”/radar garbage). There were some Sulphurs coming off and a few fish rising - we picked off a few nice rainbows, then Steve landed a fat 16” brown. I was jealous and frustrated at that point. I childishly can’t take it when I have not caught the best fish, but had to swallow it. A few small and medium fish were all I was going to get that day. We stopped by the shop again on the way back to the hotel and they said we were nuts for going out there. But, there was good news – TVA had changed the release schedule again and it was looking like the next day (last day of the trip) was going to be low water. Hallelujah! We went back to the hotel expecting to relax and warm up with hot showers, but there was no hot water. Ice cold shower it was after being in a 40-something degree River for 6 hours. Thanks, Bristol Days Inn.
We got up early the next morning with plans of being on the water at sunrise, but that never happens so we got there around 9AM. Everyone was already on the river. I had forgotten how crowded it gets in the summer. When we go up in February each year, we pretty much have the place to ourselves because we are the only ones desperate enough to fish through the blizzard we always seem to come up for. I’m not talking “idiots from Florida think this is a blizzard, LOL”, I’m talking about 40 MPH wind with horizontal snow and white-out conditions where you can’t see where the road is. The kind of cold where you don’t even get one false cast in before your guides ice over and your line is frozen in place or your reel literally freezes.  We fish that, every year. Good news is that Blue Wing Olives seem to like snow and the fish do too. We stuff hand warmers everywhere they will fit and wade in. The trout are so cold it actually hurts your hands to hold them for a picture. But, this time of year isn’t like that, and everyone else is out to enjoy the weather and fish the hatches (or chuck spoons) too. It even stopped raining, after drizzling all night. The clouds cleared and the Sulphurs were flying around and drifting by everywhere. We waded out and found our spots – Steve got another nice brown. I decided after catching several small browns that I liked his spot better, so I complained until he let me move up closer to where he was fishing. I caught a bunch more smallish browns – there must have been a school of 30 fish sitting in the hole in front of me. Around 5 of them were in the 16-22” or more range. I kept switching back and forth between Sulphur dry patterns trying to get the bigger fish interested. It gets frustrating when they rise on the bug 4” before your fly – a big brown nose poking out rhythmically every few seconds. I saw the fish I wanted. He was interested, but wouldn’t commit. He would even go so far as to rise on my fly and bump it with his nose, but not take it at the last minute. Finally, he ate the Puff Daddy right as it lost its floatyness and sat lower in the water.  He put up a heck of a fight but we got him to the net quick. He was gorgeous – bright yellow belly and big, blue cheeks, but I immediately noticed that something was off. He was sporting a big, goofy grin. At some point in his life, someone or something (99% sure it was someone with a spoon ripping the lure out of his mouth with a pair of pliers when he was younger) had seriously injured his bottom jaw to the point where it was crooked and the last two inches were missing. It obviously didn’t slow him down – he was a fat 19” and beautiful. You just couldn’t help but smile when you looked at him, with his cartoon expression. I admired him, snapped a few pictures, and sat with him in the current until he was ready to go. He swam off and sat in some grass a little ways out to lay low for a while, then he took off down river after a spat with another big brown. It was so cool to just stand there and watch all of them eating (and not eating) and interacting with each other. I guess I was standing so still they didn’t even really notice me, because another large brown swam up to within 5 feet of my boots and proceeded to sip bugs right there. I picked up line to cast – then he noticed me and took off. Steve hooked up on several nice fish, one of which was a huge buck rainbow – he had a head like a big, hook-jaw brown. We each caught a bunch more fish, so many small browns I lost count and all on dry flies. It had truly been an “epic” day of fishing. We were the only ones catching fish, though there were about 15 other anglers in sight. Some even tried inching their way to where we were fishing, but the fish were rising everywhere. I saw three other fish caught the whole day. There was one generation scheduled for the day – at 5:30PM the alarm sounded and we decided to break for lunch.  We came back an hour later and booked it to the spot we had been holding earlier – miraculously, nobody had snaked it.
It was starting to get late and after watching Steve catch several large fish, I was starting to get frustrated by the “tiny brown game” (by tiny I mean 5-10” – some not AS tiny). I started seeing another big brown rise pretty far out – just the upper jaw silently breaching the surface to slurp a bug here and there. That was going to be my last fish of the trip – I started working my way a little closer. I lined it up perfectly, and…rejected. Rejected again – new fly, not interested. Same fly again – a rise and “fake out”. Tied on the tried-and-true – a cripple – NOTHING. Frogs Fanny’d it some more, a few more half-rises and even a nose bump, but no commitment. I put the Puff Daddy back on that I had caught the big brown on earlier and let it sink a little - interested, but not enough to take it. I fluffed it with Fanny and presented it again – last ditch effort. I was getting made fun of for my constant screaming “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME”. I was past frustrated at this point – this fish had gotten my hopes up so many times now only to let me down at the last minute. He was just too smart. I watched as an actual Sulphur landed just downstream of my fly on the same path – great, he’ll eat that and miss mine. I held my breath as the bug passed over him without him flinching and he rose on my fly – that big nose came out of the water and my line came tight. He exploded into the air – trout thought he was a damn tarpon. He was even bigger than my big brown from earlier! I begged for Steve to go chase him down with the net – this fish was so full of energy and kept making big runs and then leaping out of the riffles and shaking his head – I thought for sure I wasn’t getting him in on 2lb test. I finally got control and brought him toward Steve and the net, only for him to take off up river again. I was zoned in on the fight, but heard Steve yell something – “It’s the same fish!” Well, I guess this fish wasn’t bigger after all because it was the same goofy-smiled brown I had caught 5 hours before. I was in complete disbelief and didn’t know whether to laugh or not. Does this still count as 2 big browns?
We finally got him in the net – after I realized who this fish was, I was careful to get him in quick and not play him too much. After all, he had already been caught once that day. He was even more lively the second time. I had to get a few more pictures with him, then again we went and sat in the current and I held him and fanned water through his gills until he was ready to take off. I could have kept fishing, but I decided he was the perfect fish to end my trip on. What a character – you can’t look at him and not smile! I will forever be grateful for him; he made my whole trip. We all say “let them go and maybe you’ll catch them again someday”, but for me it really happened! Oh, and it totally counts as two fish. 
Above: Coral mushrooms
Above: Old Man of the Woods mushroom
Above: Cinnabar Chanterelles
Above: Smooth, Golden, Cinnabar Chanterelles
Above: Dusky Salamander
Above: What all the fuss is about - Sulphurs!
Above 2 photos: My first encounter with this guy! Look at that mug. And then pictured below is round two, a little later in the day and a backdrop that never gets old.