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.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


A thick carpet of mottled green moss and algae seals the surface of the water at the back of the creek. The 30-yard-wide area sports a max depth of four feet, but the deepest spots were hidden beneath the blanket of vegetation. Further upstream, natural springs pump cool water into the creek, which, when intermixed with the warmer lake water, presumably boosts the growth of the green barrier which floats in front of me. I get a quick whiff of the musky, mildewy odor of the moss before it moves along with a very slight breeze from the west. Amidst the muck, turtles poke up their heads, painted in bright reds and yellows and randomly speckled with neon-green polka dots. Massive-sounding bullfrogs croak loudly from dark, hidden places within the tall, overhanging grass at the water’s edge. Birds call from the canopy above and two blue-jays screech harsh alarm cries to their feathered friends as my kayak slowly slides into the scene. 

Topwater. Whether it be a popper chugging across the surface of a cobalt blue ocean or a hopper plopping down at the edge of a grass-adorned undercut bank, topwater fishing has tremendous allure to us fishermen. It’s visual, which is most of the fun, but it also carries with it a horror-movie set of emotions, as each cast is accompanied by the anxiety that the offering could get clobbered at any moment. A grasshopper pattern drifting along a fishy-looking seam can elicit the same feeling as watching the clueless coed walk down into the dark basement by herself to check out the noise she heard. You are prepared for something to happen, but when the violence occurs, it’s almost never when expected. Just as the masked guy with the ax is not in the closet, but standing right behind her, the brown trout doesn't strike when the hopper drifts over the root tangle, but it clobbers the hopper in the innocuous, fishless-looking seam. 

Fell for da Hopper.
Regardless of age, experience or personality, all fisherman giggle and grin when their topwater fly or lure is crushed from below. It may elicit a whoop or two, most often from a co-angler, but it’s pure adrenaline and easily the best cure for whatever ails ya. You’ll forget how seasick, how hungover or how aggrieved of allergies you are when your scum frog disappears instantly in a swirl of black water and lily pads. 

The best topwater strike I ever experienced was while fishing with guide-buddy David Perry of Southeastern Fly one morning on a local tailrace. It was one of those perfect situations in which a month full of constant generation from the big dam attracted an endless supply of skipjack and shad, and following closely behind, hungry striper. Rain drizzled from the windless gray skies and a sheen of mist lay over the river. An array of fly-rods rested in rod holders inside the gunnels of the boat, but a heavy casting rod armed with a seven-inch redfin slept beside the rowing bench. 

As we drifted down from the put-in spot, I pounded the banks with an articulated streamer, hoping for a big brown trout or maybe an even bigger striper. No luck. But, as David backstroked the drifter through some very fishy-looking water, I put down the long-stick and picked up the casting rod. With my thumb lightly resting above the spool, I heaved the giant hunk of plastic at the banks and slowly brought the Redfin back to the drift boat, leaving behind it a steady “v-shaped” wake. A fish boiled behind the lure a time or two, but no strikes for the first few hundred yards of the drift. We then came upon a small creek which dumps into the main river. I’d fished this spot so many times before, but almost always at low water. I knew the creek mouth abruptly met the main river channel, and when it did, the depth of the water went from a few inches to several feet. I figured striper would likely congregate here, so I called my shot and plopped the Redfin down about 30 feet up the creek. After letting the ripples clear, I slowly cranked the bait toward the river channel, maintaining a steady but methodical pace as the lure drunkenly wobbled in the surface film. As soon as it cleared the creek mouth and hovered over deeper water, it happened. 

I remember the sound the most. Deep, resonant, violent. An immense explosion, instantly followed by the slap-swoosh! of the fish’s tail as it swirled and inhaled the hunk of plastic. It was as if a Volkswagen dropped from the skies and crashed down in front of us. Mouths agape in shocked smiles, David and I watched my line go tight, and I instinctively reared back and set the hooks into a river monster. 

Sadly, the fish story ends there. After a few minutes of tug o’ war, I lost the big striper. The Redfin came back to me with my only tangible takeaway from the experience: a large scale skewered on the point of one of the trebles. But, I’ll never forget the epic topwater take.

It’s now mid-summer, and on the trout streams, it’s terrestrial time. Fishing hopper patterns on breezy days is a favorite pastime, and while the strikes are no where near as visceral as a striper taking a Redfin, they are just as exciting and, to a certain extent, more unexpected. Most appreciated, however, is the fact that more often than not, the trout zoning in on the rubber-legged grasshopper imitation is a pretty good-sized fish. Big brown trout, in particular, will abandon cautiousness and strike in the middle of a sunny day if a protein-rich meal like a juicy grasshopper presents itself in just the right way. 

Rock bass (left) and cicada fly (right)
The same pretty much goes in warm water. In the local lakes and rivers, a simple popper pattern will get strikes all day long. While I love to hunt for big fish, pounding banks with a six-weight fly-rod armed with a rubber-legged popper and a bream killer dropper is one of my favorite summertime activities. It’s easy fishing that typically attracts all kinds of sunfish. But, the approach is also prone to the occasional surprise, as a bass inevitably shows up and clobbers the popper, and a catfish or carp may gobble the bream killer. 

Big ol' goldfish caught on a topwater terrestrial.

My Dad recently tied some bass poppers for me. Like all of his flies, they’re expertly tied and they catch fish. On this particular pattern, he added an epoxy-coated spoon, then, hand-painted the entire concoction. The result is a jewelry-like presentation that almost looks too good to cast. We used them a couple of weeks ago while fishing a private pond in west Tennessee. The pond is loaded with largemouth bass, and they were as big of fans of the poppers as we were.  

A largemouth bass on one of my hand-tied poppers.

There’s no good way to exit a kayak. Tipping or falling out is, of course, less than graceful, but it’s actually a close cousin to flopping out purposefully. On this unbearably hot June afternoon, my feet feel like they’re melting into the polyetheylene, so I paddle to a shallow, rocky area, and slide my right leg off the starboard side and my left leg to port, and attempt to stand up in the semi-cool water. This maneuver morphs into a full squat, which ordinarily wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but after sitting in a yak for two hours, the connection between brain synapses and leg muscles is, well … estranged. 

The boat violently tips side-to-side, my paddle flips and smacks into the water, the half-full Gatorade bottle falls over and spills, and a fly box careens into the murky wash nearby. With a frantic two-arm wave, my body abandons the squat and I collapse back into my kayak seat, soaking my rear end in Cool Blue sports drink. 

Scummy, yummy water. 
Despite my unathleticism and the tsunami caused by the wobbling kayak, the moss-covered pocket of backwater remains undisturbed. The turtles, who had ducked their heads at the sound of the ruckus, begin to pop up again through the muck. The bluejay flew away, but it’s abrasive call is replaced by the pleasant tones of an unseen cardinal. I wait until everything settles, regain my balance and successfully slide off one side of the yak, my feet landing in the warmer-than-expected, knee-deep water. I carefully creep into position, armed with a spinning rod tipped with a plastic scum-frog. I flip the bail, load the rod and catapult the frog deep into the pocket, where it lands with a “splat!” and perches atop the pea-green moss at the water’s edge. I begin a random retrieve, shaking my rod tip and slowly reeling, causing the frog to slide-skip-and-pause across the surface. The bait slips into a one-foot wide open area of water — a pothole, of sorts, among the vegetation. Two twitches later, the frog disappears in a savage swirl, as if it had been flushed down a giant drain. I wait for an interminable two-count, allowing the bass to position the frog in its giant mouth, and then I rear back in my best B.A.S.S. hook set, causing the rod to double over with the weight of a big largemouth and a pound or two of moss. The fight is short, but spirited. The bass cannot jump due to the ceiling of vegetation, but it bulldogs its way to-and-fro until I’m able to convince it to join me in open water, where I bring the fish to hand and grab its bottom lip through its cloak of olive-colored moss and algae. 

There's nothing wrong with streamers, crank baits, spinnerbaits and even live presentations ... but man, in my eyes, topwater is the most fun way to fish. 

Backwater bass.