Thursday, July 4, 2013

Returning to the River

After going up in the mountains in search of brook trout, I finally got the chance a few days later to head to the local river for the first time this year to try for some smallmouth bass. I had planned back in the winter to try fishing down here earlier than in previous years to see if the bass were more active in the cooler weather of spring, however the wet weather conditions made me put these plans on hold. This is a fairly large river, at least for around these parts, and all the rain had it too high to safely wade. At one point in the spring, the river flooded and peaked at over 14 feet on the USGS gauge. Flood stage for this river is 12 feet, and to put that in perspective normal flows when I usually fish it are around 2 - 2.5 feet on the gauge. Even at this level, there is a good bit of water and lots of holes to watch for. There was no way that I was going to try fishing here until things had settled down and flows had stabilized.

For the past week I had been watching the USGS flow gauge like a hawk and hoping that the passing thunderstorms we had almost every evening wouldn't raise the water level or cause the river to become muddy and unfishable. With a few days of fairly clear weather, and a Sunday afternoon free after church, I decided it was time to take a chance and check things out. I gave my brother-in-law Trent a call and we made plans to head down there and give it a try. Everything looked good on the Internet, but the only way we would know for sure would be to take a ride down to the river and see for ourselves. I was a little bit anxious, not knowing how the flooding had affected the riverbed and wondering if my favorite area to fish would be unrecognizable.

Results of the Flooding
Once we arrived and hiked the trail downstream to our usual fishing area, I was relieved to see that things more or less remained unchanged. The river bottom here is fairly rocky, with large shoals and shelves of rock that must have resisted the scouring effects of the floods. I did notice that some formerly shallow spots were now deeper, but other than that there wasn't much effect from the floods. If anything, the flooding created some new bass habitat in that stretch of the river. I was shocked to find a round bale of hay sitting in the river, especially since I don't know of any farms for a couple miles upstream from where I was. This had to be another result of the recent floods. From a distance I thought that it was a beaver lodge, because we had observed some recent beaver activity in the form of felled trees on our way in. I was a little disappointed to discover that it was actually a hay bale, but it did give me greater respect for the sheer power of this river.

Redbreast Sunfish
I started out fishing one of the poppers I had recently tied, mainly to give them a test drive and see how they performed. For some reason, I haven't had too much success catching smallmouth on top in this particular river, although I have managed a few on poppers in the last few years. Streamers have been much more consistently effective for me, but I figured that it was worth experimenting for a little while with some new patterns. I did catch a few redbreast sunfish on the poppers, and missed a strike or two that could have been a bass, sunfish, or who knows what.

First Smallmouth of the Year

After fishing the popper a while, I figured it was time to get serious and switch to a favorite streamer pattern to try to get my first smallmouth of the year. My decision may or may not have been influenced by Trent telling me about having a few nice bass chase the streamer he was fishing with. Once I switched flies, I finally hooked up with my first smallmouth of the year. It was a chunky little bass, but it made up for its size with attitude. After I caught this first bass and fished a few more pools without another strike, I decided to try a popper again in the hope that the increasing cloud cover would cause the fish to be more inclined to eat a top water offering.

I had high hopes of getting a bass on one of my new poppers, and it almost happened - but not in the way I was expecting. I caught another redbreast on the popper, and then fished my way downstream to a spot that had been deepened by the recent floods. It looked like a good place for a bass to hang out, with deeper water and lots of rocky structure. About this time, the clouds had increased and it started to rain. I don't know if this had anything to do with it, but the fish suddenly turned on and starting biting. I had a few missed strikes on the popper, then hooked up with another nice redbreast sunfish. As I was playing the fish, my fly rod suddenly bowed deep, and I thought the fish had wrapped me around a log or rock. I put some pressure on, hoping to get the fish out of whatever it had wrapped up in, and to my surprise a big smallmouth came partially out of the water and spit out the redbreast along with my popper that was still in its mouth! I don't want to try to guess exactly how big this bass was, but I can say without a doubt that it was bigger than any I had caught down here before. It had completely swallowed a nice sized panfish, and seemed to do it without any trouble. After my initial shock wore off, I brought in the redbreast, which seemed none the worse for having been swallowed and regurgitated, and released it.

One to End On
I switched back to the streamer in the hopes that the big bass hadn't been spooked by the experience, although I knew it was probably a long shot. To my surprise, I didn't catch the big one but did catch two smaller bass from the same hole. One of these would be the biggest of the day, a fat 12" smallmouth that came to hand after my camera batteries had died. The other one was the last fish of the day, and a nice way to end the trip. By this time, Trent had fished down to where I was and was kind enough to snap a picture with his phone for me. I was shocked to find these smaller bass sharing a hole with one much larger, and even more surprised to catch two more fish after all the previous commotion. I'll be back to give that big one another shot, and I won't soon forget the day that a bass ate a popper and a sunfish at the same time!

Thanks for stopping by!

- Joseph

Monday, July 1, 2013

Looking For Brookies

A few days ago, I decided to go fish a stream that I hadn't been to in a couple of years. This particular stream is managed under the NC Wildlife Resources Commission's Catch and Release Artificial Lures Only regulations, and as of the last time I fished it contained almost exclusively wild brook trout. Although it had been a while since I had fished this creek, I had fished the stream that this creek is a tributary of several times since I was last here. The main stream is mainly a wild rainbow trout fishery, with an occasional wild brown trout. This tributary had always been a brook trout stream, and I was in the mood to go try to find some of North Carolina's only native trout species.
NCWRC Regulations Sign

Brook Trout From the Last Trip Here
The last time I fished this stream, I didn't catch very many trout, but I did manage to catch my largest (and most colorful) wild brook trout to date. I had high hopes of trying to repeat that performance, but to be honest my biggest reason for fishing for brook trout is the sheer beauty of these fish and the places they live. I knew that this particular stream wouldn't disappoint in that regard, and fish or no fish, I was looking forward to exploring some pretty country.

The Start of the Journey
The journey began where the Forest Service road ended, and it was a short hike up the old roadbed to a little one lane bridge where I knew there was access down to the stream. The road up the mountain parallels the creek, although at times it is fairly high on the ridge above it. This road has been closed off for as long as I have been coming up here to fish, but the old roadbed serves as a handy trail to hike back to the truck after a day's fishing. I appreciated this open road hiking even more after a day spend climbing boulders and bushwhacking through rhododendron thickets in search of trout. I don't know if Forest Service personnel use the road, but it does seem fairly well maintained. I've never been all the way to the end or fished this stream up into the headwaters, but I would like to hike and fish my way further up the mountain one day just to see what's there.

First Trout of the Day
Once I reached the old bridge and entered the stream, it was like I was in an entirely different world. There was no cell phone signal, no noise from the highway, no TVs or radios. All I could hear was the sound of the stream and the noises of the mountains. I worked upstream, fishing a Thunderhead dry fly, and missed a few trout before I hooked up with the first one of the day. Imagine my surprise when a wild rainbow trout came to hand, instead of the brook trout I was expecting. This was a little bit of a shock, because there is a fish barrier well downstream from where I was fishing that was put in place to help preserve the brook trout population in this stream. I don't know if the rain and high water we have had this past winter and spring allowed the rainbows to migrate upstream, or if someone thought it would be a good idea to do some stocking of their own. This had me a little concerned, because I began to wonder if the rainbows had replaced the brook trout in the years since I had last visited this stream.

One of the many plunge pools on this creek
After catching that first rainbow, I decided to continue on upstream to see what other surprises this little creek might hold. It has some excellent looking trout habitat, with plunge pools that were surprising in their depth on a creek this size. It took some careful wading, and many times climbing out on the bank, to navigate my way upstream without getting in too deep. It was a little disappointing to fish so many good looking pools without seeing a fish, but I was fishing a dry fly the majority of the time. I wondered briefly if a dry and dropper or nymph pattern would have served me better in these deeper holes, but I decided to stick with the dry fly.

Wild Rainbow

After fishing several pools without a strike, and spooking one or two trout along the way, I hooked up with another wild rainbow trout in a large pool. This trout ate a Rio Grande Trude, another one of my favorite summer dry fly patterns for these small creeks. I had made the switch to this fly after donating the Thunderhead to the rhododendron. At this point, I was starting to wonder if my search for brook trout was becoming like looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I was having a great time, and enjoying the challenge of fishing this small stream, but in the back of my mind I kept wondering what had happened to the brook trout that I remembered catching here. Had the rainbows displaced or out competed them? Were there any left in the creek at all? I knew the only way to answer these questions was to keep fishing.

Wild Brook Trout
Finally, after donating the Rio Grande to the rhododendron and switching back to another Thunderhead, I hooked what I had been searching for in the last pool of the day. It was a young brook trout, but I took it as a good sign for the future of these fish in this particular stream. I figured that where there are small trout, there must be bigger ones somewhere. I do think that at least a couple of the trout I missed were brook trout, because I thought I caught a flash of orange belly when the trout took a swipe at my fly. I can't say for certain that's what they were, but I'd like to think that there is still a thriving population in this creek.

One of the many millipedes
The hike back out was a lot easier than the trip upstream had been, once I found a place to climb back up onto the old road. I did see signs of some insect life along the creek, with a few Yellow Sallies and small mayflies flying around. I didn't see any rising fish, so I'm thinking that these must have been the remnants of an earlier hatch or the hatch was very sparse. Another thing that surprised me was the number of millipedes that I saw hiking into and out of the creek. There seemed to be a thriving population of them in the area along the creek.

I do know that this little creek holds some bigger secrets than the ones I was lucky enough to discover on this trip, due to some hints that the creek gave up from missed strikes. Now whether these secrets are brooks, browns, or rainbows, I'm not going to try to guess. I do know that I will be back to do some more exploring on this creek, and to enjoy the solitude that comes with small streams and wild fish. This little creek is a challenge, but one that is a lot of fun to try to figure out.

Thanks for stopping by!

- Joseph