Sunday, September 29, 2013

South Holston River Float

South Holston River
I got a call on Thursday morning from my friend John, and when I finally listened to the message early Thursday afternoon, it was an invitation to stay at the Watauga River Lodge Thursday night and float the river the next day.  For free.  Check your voice mail folks, you never know what you might be missing.  Low and behold, the stars aligned, and my calendar allowed me to skip a meeting on Friday and make it work. After helping feed the kids, rubber meet asphalt and I was headed east towards Johnson City, Tennessee (insert Old Crow Medicine Show tune here) with visions of drift boats and brood browns in my head.

Upon arrival at the lodge I moseyed over to the fire ring, got a jolly greeting from John Barker (a.k.a Smokey and the Bandit), met some new folks, and enjoyed the fall chill in the air with a Sweetwater Pale and sea salt and pepper kettle chips. After swapping some stories, we hit the hay at the lodge. Good pillows and good toilet paper.  I think that covers the bases to let you know Brownie Liles of the Watauga River Lodge isn't trying to cut corners. Great, great place.

We hit up a down-home-greasy-spoon-dive-of-an-East-Tennessee-diner for breakfast, then met our guides for the day, Ollie Smith and Evan Dowdy, around 8 am. Both Ollie and Evan own their own guide services, but are contracted out by Brownie when they are available and Brownie has more clients than his full time staff can handle. Ollie actually taught me to tie flies back in 1998 while I was at Appalachian State University, and I have kept up with him a bit through story and legend since, so it was great to see him.  As the guides met their four fisherman for the day, they suggested we hit the S. Holston instead of the Watauga. I grew even giddier at this suggestion! The S. Holston is the "dream stream" of TN.  6,000 fish per mile. My new acquaintance Dave and I hopped in Evan's ride, and John and Mark hopped in Ollie's rig and we were off to the put-in at the weir damn.

Put in on North side of the river. One on South bank too.
 I had never fished out of a drift boat, and I was itching to get on the freakin' water. #Stoked. When we arrived at the put in, it was a bit of a circus.  I don't know, I guess about A MILLION boats and trailers were there. Seriously, I would assume 15-20 drifts boats launched from the weir dam that morning. Rivers that are congested are usually congested for a reason.

Evan rigged us up in the parking lot, dropped his Hyde drift boat in the gin clear cold waters, and we were dead drifting 3 nymphs under an indicator before you could say tungsten bead head.  A bunch of boats were anchored up near the put-in, presumably trying to put clients on the less savvy stocked rainbows, but we drifted quickly below the barrage of boats because we were floating the entire 7 miles of tailwater and were more interested in the wild browns than crowds. 15 minutes in, Dave was hooked into a 18" rainbow that spit the hook after a decent fight. 20 minutes in, I boated our first fish, a feisty 10 inch stocker bow.

another drift boat in the passing lane

The fishing was never hot. We picked up a fish every 20 or 30 minutes on average. After 7 hours on the water we boated about 20 fish between Dave and I.  Dave, the engineer out fished me.  Freakin' engineer brains gave him the edge. I bet I landed 7 or 8 of our 20ish fish. Evan worked hard on the oars, changing flies, eyeing indicators with us, and untangling my embarrassing triple nymph bird's nests. My pride would like to blame my tangles on longer cast than usual with a bigger indicator than usual.  Casting 3 flies at a time is always a little tricky, but I looked like a rookie at times.  Evan was patient and servant hearted all day long though.

typical 12" wild brown from the bowels of the SoHo
I didn't take many fish pics. I kept waiting for that picture worthy fish. My biggest was a 14 inch brown.  You could tell that everyone out was really having to work for their fish and the it was a tough bite that day. We saw a random sulpher or two, got into some Blue Winged Olive spinners a few times, and a few BWO duns near the end of the day.  I saw some big ol' browns in that crystal clear 45 degree water. We mostly blind casted towards grass lines, seams, and other feeding lanes, dead drifting our nymph riggs. The underwater grass was vibrant green and beautiful. We picked up the majority of our fish on scud imitations. Evan commented that they were taking the flies with reservation instead of nailing them, and often fish would come unbuttoned in the water or as soon as they were in the net.  A steady eye and quick hook set were the fisherman's friend. Evan's watchful eye helped me hook into a number of strikes I would have missed otherwise.

Valet parking at our lunch spot

Maybe the biggest surprise of the day was lunch. It was top shelf stuff. Evan and Ollie set up tables on an island and broke out fried chicken, pimento cheese, crisp apples, home made "Bossy Sauce" fruit dip, pickled okra, assorted cheeses, pepperoni, summer sausage, chips, and water.  Ollie had also closely protected some thin, crispy-chewy, caramelized oatmeal raisin cookies that tasted double good with bossy sauce. I've been promised a "great lunch" stream-side before, but this was truly great.  After a slow morning of fishing, the good eats and soft chair literally put fuel in my tank and lifted my spirits.  If you ever need a guide for East Tennessee, I highly recommend Evan, Ollie, or booking through Watauge River Lodge. We got Grade A performance and professionalism during a day when the bite was never really on.

The day ended much like it started.  When you only get a bite every 10 or fifteen minutes and your blind casting, it gets easy to get sloppy, loose focus, and miss strikes during conditions where strikes are too precious to screw up.  Close to the take out I had a heavy strike, solid hook set, and a bend deep in my rod.  Seconds later a fat 16-18 inch female brown exploded a foot above the water's surface, head shaking, and successfully spitting the hook. I was grateful to at least feel one of the browns the SoHo is known for, even if only for a moment.  Then much like the circus at the put in, we watched a hilarious, yet painfully long process, of a pontoon boat trying to trailer at the take out. After chuckling and repeatedly looking at our watches for 15 minutes, the bottom of the drift boat touched the concrete of the boat ramp, and the return to North Carolina began. To steal a Clooney quote from Oh Brother Where Art Thou, I feel like one float on the SoHo will only "arouse my appetite without fully bedding it back down again."

Big shout-out to John Barker for always caring for me, and making this day happen. You da man. 10-4, over-and-out good buddy.

My boy Mills celebrated his first birthday the following day. This is his brown trout cake I decorated, in honor of one of my favorite streams and his name's sake, the Mills River.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

North Carolina's State Game Fish - Red Fish

redfish left to rot in a NC gill net

Redfish, puppy drum, red drum, and spot tails are all the same creature. The Red Drum is the state game fish of NC, and dang are they fun to catch on the fly.  Gill netting in still practiced in NC, and some people are fighting to get it stopped.  Read this article on Captain Gordan's Blog, Redfish Rendezvous to get a better idea of the implications of gill netting.