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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More photos from the mountains..


Not so much a fishing report as the notes scribbled in a notebook during a tour of the streams of western North Carolina/eastern Tennessee...

 Stepping carefully, aware that it might be quite some time before another human ventures near, I pick my way down the last few precipitous feet to the stream. Shrugging off the pack, I find a huge flat rock and sit, sinking back against another equally huge stone. In front of me the view has contracted to that of a small room. A room walled in by steep hillside, rhododendron, hemlock and the ancient rock of the smoky mountains. An immense dead tree burnished by the water and as bleached as old bone lies in front. And thru all this runs the stream. The river is broken by rocks ranging in size from that of an easy chair to the size of a moving van.  The stream drowns out all sound other than it's own.

  I sit back and close my eyes. The sound of the river washes over me. I take a deep breath and exhale, letting at all go. Work, bills, disillusionment, uncertainly, compulsion, all slowly drain out and wash  downstream. After a while, ( ten minutes, two hours, who knows) I open my eyes and watch the river. At first it is all of a piece, a huge rush down the mountain. But then it begins to separate, a vortex here, a small calm there, joining separating, recombinant spaces and flow. And slowly the river separates into possibility, places that might hold a fish. And so it begins...

All winter I tie thread and hackle and wrap dreams and wishes on tiny hooks. Each my version of a Tibetan prayer flag, an offering to the fish gods. Clothed as much in hope and expectancy as grizzly hackle and peacock herl. A winter's prefiguration of the possibility of trout. As a middle aged man fast approaching old age I sometimes feel a bit put out by the current "fad" of fly fishing. Nowadays, with enough money, a person can stop at any of the small towns surrounding the national park and emerge outfitted in a couple thousand dollars worth of tackle an hour later. I don't begrudge these people their fine tackle and fashionable outdoor wear. It just seems their fishing has an empty space at the core.  I'm not sure everything can be bought out of a catalog or taught on the grass out back of the fly shop. Or perhaps that's just the rantings of that middle aged man fast approaching old age. Like a leaf in an eddy grumbling at the river rushing by.

 The winters rust has now been finally broken out of my cast. The small four weight comes forward and the line unfurls in a smooth loop without shock waves. It straightens out in midair and I shake the rod side to side putting slack in the line as it lands gently on the water. I take a breath and hold it as the fly floats downstream without drag. The white post of the parachute adams a bright dot against the obsidian darkness of evening water. And then a trout takes. I lift the rod and am tight to the fish. Throbbing like life itself, then airborne, then finally in hand as I carefully work the fly out with forceps. A swift stroke of the tail and the fish is gone. The river, the woods, myself, they all seem less empty than before.

  A filmy red covers the western sky as evening comes creeping thru the bare trees. Here in the space between winter and spring, nights are cold. A cool breeze begins to bite as I pull on a fleece and begin the process of building the fire. Tiny twigs, then slighter bigger, then bigger still, with a homemade firestarter made of cotton ball and Vaseline tucked underneath it all. Water is set to boil over the fire as evening becomes night. I lean back against a log, looking up thru bare branches. Here, far from city lights, the broad band of the milky way stretches across the dome of night. The beautiful starlight has taken years to reach me. Years passing thru the coldness of space to light up this night woods, this perfect place. It seems a good place to reflect, as good as any.  It's been a fine day on the stream.

  Nowadays after sitting too long stream side my ankles struggle to work again. It takes a bit of hobbling before all the glitches are worked thru. The price of a lifetime spent wading icy waters my friends tell me. When I'm old, too old for this, I want to remember. I find myself slowing down, looking, trying to burn detail and experience into my being. The sound of the wind moaning thru the treetops up on the ridge, the dark mystery contained in a trout's eye, the mottled color of lichen on ancient rock. All of it down to the most minute detail. I don't want to lose it. Though I will return eventually. Not far away, high on a mountaintop overlooking these streams I love so much will be my rest. I've given instructions for my ashes to be scattered to the wind there. No service, just my granddaughter hiking in, taking me back, maybe remembering me for a moment, shrugging and hiking back down to her car. But for me finally a return to these mountains I love so much to stay.

  As a younger man, whenever events would conspire against me, I nurtured this fantasy, this reverie of just walking away into these mountains. Of becoming a hermit, alone and untroubled by the mendacity of man, with only these trout for company. Long detailed daydreams of just what drainage I could stay in. What wild foods I could gather and store to hold me thru the barren winters. What shelters I would need in each season. Even now staring into the campfire with the sound of the stream floating thru the still night woods I find myself at home here. I fit here. Here I am whole, complete. Thank the gods for Einstein and his getting rid of the silly notion of time as absolute. For a week here in these mountains has more weight, more meaning, more life in it, than months back in the other world. Spend time here and you will feel the truth in that. And you do not need a physicist to show you the energy this place possesses. You can feel it in the stream against your legs, see it in a storm raging against a mountaintop, feel it in the sun on your skin. Life here has an edge, honed sharp against these ancient stones.

I was at least an hour or so from camp A mile upstream then a hard climb up a side trail to this tiny stream. I took this stream personally. I'd checked on this stream at roughly six or seven year intervals for three decades to see if they were still here. Wild brook trout. Native trout. Pushed as far back as you can go and hanging on by a thread. That thread in this case being tiny streams like this one, tucked in the back of the beyond. This one no wider than my fly rod is long. Tiny stair stepping pools and mini waterfalls. I tied on a little beadhead nymph and began to fish. Bow and arrow casts, dapping, sloppy slinging half cats with half of these ending up in the bushes. I fished three or four tiny pools without a strike and I found myself holding my breath. Were they finally gone? Pushed too far. Then a strike and a lovely six inch brook trout, in perfect scale with the bathtub sized pool. A light rain began to fall. It wasn't supposed to but things have a way of doing that in the mountains.

Two decades ago I hooked a brook trout impossibly large, somewhere between ten inches and a foot long. I had it on long enough to see it clearly before it came unbuttoned. And every trip gave up a trout at least inches long. Big for this tiny rivulet. Always beautiful, today with the gloomy rain and bare wet woods they seem even more vivid, painted jewels as perfect as anything I've ever seen.
Slowly I fished in the rain. But not slowly enough to avoid committing the ultimate sin of being alone in such a place. I fell. Not the usual slip while wading and wet your ass, no this was going to be hard. Luckily one of the hundreds of dead trees that made getting around so hard was stretched from bank to bank and I caught myself in time before things got out of control.
Later climbing around a jumble of logs that made passage up the stream bed impossible, I saw below a big pool. The size and shape of a pickup truck bed. Between a wall of three or four logs. I crept up behind and swung the nymph out. The little four weight bent deep and a big arc of orange thrashed on the end of my line. I struggled over and around the logs knowing the fish was coming off. But it didn't. I beached it in pouring rain  on a tiny rock bar at the pools tail. The fish was at least ten or eleven inches long. My grail fish. I worked the hook loose without lifting the fish from the water. I bit off the fly and reeled in the line and began the long journey back to camp not noticing the rain.

This river was big. Big enough that even though you could see someone clearly on the other side you might not be able to recognize them. It was supposed to be full of big stripers. Just one problem, the water was forty three degrees. In other words a big case of you should be here next week.  On the other hand it was a situation I recognized. Here in front of me was a dam and gin clear cold water. I did what I did in these cases back home. I went back at night and fished for things with an "eye" in their name. Late winter, early spring, saugers, saugeye, and walleye move up below dams in prespawn. I tied on a big curly shad on a heavy jighead and began to fish. Sure enough a half hour later the rod bent under the weight of a big fish. Before daylight five more would hit the jig. All around the same size, heavy big fish anytime, they seemed even bigger after the last few days catching little trout in the mountains. It seemed surreal, yesterdays brookies would make fine bait for these days. The sense of the surreal was heightened by the obscene indecency of Gatlinburg I'd driven thru to get here. Half the world supply of neon hawking, hillbilly golf, eleven different kinds of fudge, elvis wax museums and go carts. It's duck dynasty on acid. It felt awfully good to be back on the river and away from people again.

A long nap in the truck and back on the river. The river was a cold empty place in daylight. Finally a strike. It was a nice sized drum, maybe four or five pounds. A couple hours later it's twin hit.  A bit later a small walleye. Then another hour till a strike. Thump and the rod bent deep. Way too deep for a walleye or another four pound drum. No long sizzling run just heavy weight boring off then doggedly coming in only to repeat. In the gin clear water I had a wicked tuna moment. I'm looking down into it and I thought, "I see color". I could have used a harpoon like on the show too. I guided the big fish into a notch between two big rocks and tried to wrestle it ashore. Right then the eight pound test popped. I pinned the fish and rolled it ashore getting very cold and wet in the process. Thirty inches long it was the biggest drum I'd ever seen. Cold, wet, happy, and smelling like bait gone bad, I thought it might be home to head home.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Three of my favorite things

Three reasons to be excited about spring getting closer and one of the perks of having a brother in the lure business.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Smallmouth senses

Let's talk a bit about a bass's senses and how they view the world. All of a bass's senses are radically different from our own. For example take a bass's ability to see motion. It may be that motion may be the biggest driver of a bass's predatory instincts. The average motion picture plays at 24 frames per second. To us this fuses together into one continuous moving picture. But a bass can see motion so well that to a bass a movie would still be a series of one successive image after another even if the movie was playing twice as fast! Learning this has caused me to rethink things like the idea of painted spinner blades on lures. I've always thought, boy those are pretty but they are spinning so who cares. Well now I'm wondering about just how a bass sees a blade with an ultra realistic baitfish painted on it. I'm guessing the bass sees a flash of the fish, then off, then back again. I'll be picking up some painted blades and experimenting with them this year for sure.   A bass is the ultimate motion detector, to a bass something has to move to be alive. And this amazing ability works even in extremely low light levels. A bass it is thought can detect motion at a hundredth of the light level needed for a human to do so and can find food using even faint starlight.
In contrast most small prey fish are wired more like humans, that is with lots of cones for seeing lots of  color. Which means in the middle of the day minnows have an advantage and probably see the bass better than the bass see them. But come low light the pendulum swings to the bass's advantage. A bass has an eye loaded with rods for low light acuity. Which is why bass become more active and feed early and late in the day. It's thought that bass see reds and greens very well but not so much things in the blue end of the spectrum. In experiments bass often confused blues and purples with various shades of grey and intense blues with black. It could be that a grey plastic worm might be just as effective as a purple one! In other experiments it seems bigger older bass actually see better than younger bass. That bass can recognize smaller objects and see them farther away as they age. A bass has large round eyes set on the sides of it's head and can see everywhere but directly behind and below it. The ability to see prey or potential danger from almost any direction is a tremendous advantage But to really focus on something it must turn and face the object so the two eyes can work together in binocular vision.

The sense of a bass that most amazes me, that I find almost magical is the use of the incredible lateral line. Water is full of waves, not just on the surface where we see them, but everywhere, these waves are caused by anything that moves in the water.  The lateral line system is the fish's way of detecting these waves. Lateral lines are what enable schools of fish to move together so effortlessly. Lateral lines also enable fish to sense and not run into things they cannot even see such as the glass in an aquarium. And in the case of predators like bass they help the bass detect prey. The lateral line seems very adept at detecting the subtle movements of small prey fish located some distance away. Every description of how a lateral line works I've read gets really complicated and hard to understand. It seems that hairlike bundles rooted in liquid filled follicles sense minute changes in water pressure. Plus more of these hairs are located in the liquid filled canal of the lateral line itself.  The bass feels out distant objects by interpreting how they disrupt the intervening water then uses it's vision to decide whether or not to strike in most cases. A bass can even tell how big something is by how much water it displaces! And in one of what is probably it's most important functions, the lateral line can sense the flow of current. The longer the lateral line the more sensitive it is. In essence, a longer line helps the fish receive signals spread out over a bigger area and thus triangulate or pinpoint the direction better the signal is coming from. Time and time again you will find in this article references to the advantage bigger bass have over smaller fish. Many primitive fishes like sharks and rays use a special addition to their lateral line called the ampullae of lorenzini. The ampullae of lorenzini allows them to actually sense the electrical impulses of the muscles firing in prey animals. The only freshwater fish that posses similar powers are sturgeon and paddlefish. All fish possess these ampullae of lorenzini but it's thought they are remnants of having the same ancient ancestors as sharks and rays and they have lost the power of electroreception. Some sources claim that all fish are sensitive to weak electrical charges and even market gadgets to "clean" the current flowing thru your boats electronics. But it hasn't been proven that most fish are sensitive to weak electrical currents.

 And in concert with the lateral line a bass also has an inner ear which it uses along with it's swim bladder to hear sound. Sound travels extremely well under water, something like five times the rate it does in air. So not only can a fish feel a crankbait coming in muddy water it can also hear it. Bass are also able to sort out complex sounds by pitch, tone, and pattern. Much like a person's ability to recognize the notes and rhythms played by a musical instrument, and to recognize the individual instruments even if they are playing the same note and rhythm. In other words pick one minnow out of the school or the sounds of one crawdad crawling on the rocks in a noisy riffle.  Bass combine signals from the inner ear, the swim bladder and the lateral line to form an overall summary of a object in the water. Though a bass relies most on its vision, even blind bass are able to forage and feed because of the almost magical powers of their lateral line and hearing working together.

A smallmouth bass has two pair of nostrils called nares on each side of it's head.  Some researchers believe that a bass’s sense of smell is a thousand times stronger than a dog’s! While the smell of injured prey does induce an instinctual response to feed, the smallmouth’s  sense of smell often serves more important functions outside of catching dinner.  It's thought a bass's sense of smell  is the primary way that this fish avoids conditions in the environment that may be harmful. Things like high or low pH, low dissolved oxygen content, or even the gasoline from the boat motor you got on your plastic worm handling when it.  Some theories suggest that intra-species communication, or the way by which smallmouth “talk” to each other, takes place by each individual giving off distinct odors called pheremones.  In other words, bass know each other by smell rather than name, and communicate with each other by these smells. Male and female smallmouth probably use smell to cue each other to make whoopee at spawning time. Like it's eye sight a smallmouths sense of smell gets better with age also. A membrane called the olfactory epithelium, consists of complex folds that line the nostrils. It's thought bigger fish smell better than smaller fish.  A 6 inch bass have 5 or 6 folds in it's olfactory passages. A 12 inch bass may have 10 folds. While that trophy 20 inch smallie may have as many as 20 folds.   I think there is no doubt that scent could at times makes a big difference in your catch rate. Hand in hand with this, a bass has a good sense of taste and that "scent" you put on your bait may have a taste that makes a bass hold on to your lure just a bit longer.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

hair jig surprise

Today I was poking around a deep hole hoping for a smallie. Six pound test, an ultralight, and a tiny hair jig. Bloop and the little rod bent all the way into the cork handle. No big runs just a steady boring away then doggedly coming in, then another slow heavy run, then slowly coming back, over and over. Pretty cool, any fish is a cool fish this time of year in my book...

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ewing Bottoms, Indiana

Sandhill cranes from Ewing bottoms and Muscatatuck in southern Indiana. With wingspans of six to eight feet and standing close to five feet tall when they gather in flocks of thousands in the flooded fields in winter it's an awe inspiring sight. Their loud calls can be heard for miles. One of the reasons for this remarkably loud and penetrating call is an unusual windpipe. In most birds the trachea passes directly from the throat to the lungs, but in Sandhills it is elongated by forming a single loop which fills a cavity in the sternum. With their wierd calls and odd appearance it's easier to believe that birds are the descendants of the dinosaurs, Sandhills are omnivorous. Sandhill Cranes are generalists and feed on a wide variety of plant tubers, grains, small vertebrates such as mice and snakes, and invertebrates such as insects or worms. Cranes do a great deal of digging with their bills, often penetrating several inches below the surface in search of a morsel. Animals such as snails, crayfish, worms, mice, birds, frogs, snakes, and many kinds of insects are consumed. They also devour acorns, roots, various seeds and fruits, and browse vegetation. Most of the cranes I saw spend the summer in Canada and will leave next month for the north.Sandhill Cranes mate for life and pairs return to the same nesting locations year after year.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

River Camping

The last couple years it seems the thing I write about that interests people the most is when I post about my camping trips along the river. Now that it's the heart of winter it seems like a good time to start a conversation about how everybody does it. Here's how I do it.

 I sat down once and tried to account for all the nights I'd spent camping in the outdoors. I tried to think of all the vacations spent for twenty+ years backpacking in the Appalachians. All the week long fishing trips as a kid spent camping on the Ohio river. The twenty five or thirty years we camped for at least a week a year in the woods bow hunting. The month spent backpacking the continental divide. And the countless nights spent one or two at a time along the river. The best estimate I could come up with is that I've spent a couple years out of my life camping.

The last few years I've taken three or four long weekend type fishing trips along either the Little or Great Miami each summer out of my kayak. Kayak camping is a lot like the backpacking I used to do so much of along trout streams in the mountains. In both there is a limit to just how much you can carry, either on your back or in the yak.

Probably the handiest gadget you can bring along to save weight is a water filter. I've had a bunch of these over the years and I've learned a few things. The best in the long run are the ones that have the ceramic filters. It might be cheaper initially to buy one with a paper filter but then you have to buy the filters and find them. Like fishing reels, water filter models seem to change every couple years and after a while finding the right filter was always a pain. And trust me you need to filter the water. Years ago my wife and I spent some time backpacking Rocky Mountain National Park which is overrun with elk. And even with a filter we both ended up catching giardia or some other protozoan parasite and spent half the summer cramping and going potty five times a day. Like I said filter the water.

I'm a huge fan of the little isobutane backpacking stoves to cook with. They boil water very fast and you can adjust them down to a low simmer. One of the little canisters is all I need for a three or four day trip. I do though cook on the campfire also which saves fuel. You can tell a difference in their performance in really cold weather but they do still work. I know because we started out one morning in fifty degree weather along a trout stream in the smokies when it started to rain lightly. By the time we got to our backcountry camping spot that night up on the mountaintop there was a near blizzard going on. But the little stove cooked supper and breakfast as well as thawed out the half inch of ice covering the rope used to hoist our food up a tree. It was a little too wild lying in the tent that night hearing trees fall all around us because of the ice.

I like to eat a meal or two of fish while camped along the stream. I carry some heavy duty aluminum foil and a zip lock baggie of seasoning.  Then I  usually bake the fish wrapped in foil on a flat rock nestled in a bed of the hottest coals I can rake around it with a stick. But you can't eat fish all the time. The handiest, lightest way to eat well is dehydrated food. Lots of dehydrated food is sold in places like Bass Pro in the camping section. But there is a way to eat better and  way cheaper at the same time. What you do is repackage the little "add boiling water" cups you can buy in the grocery store. I'm not talking ramen noodles here.

If you go to Jungle Jims they have scattered throughout the store a wide variety of these dehydrated foods. Potato soup, chili, black bean soup, I'm guessing at least a dozen different kinds. And some of it is very good, as good as canned chili and soups. Kroger has a few of these but not nearly what Jungle Jims has. If your going on a longer trip the best thing to do is to repackage it all into ziplock bags. No bulky packaging and it's rainproof also. I usually take instant oatmeal for breakfast. Like the dehydrated food, it's light, filling, and fast to prepare. I carry a decent sized pocket knife and one of those spork things made out of unbreakable plastic.

I make my own firestarters. Buy cotton balls and Vaseline. Get a handful of cotton balls and smear Vaseline all over them. Then begin pulling them apart, shredding the cotton balls and mixing the  Vaseline in. By the time you have it pulled apart into one big fluffy clump the Vaseline will be mixed all through the cotton ball. Stuff this along with two lighters into a ziplock bag. Pull out a little at a time, the equivalent of what was once two or three cotton balls will start a fire. Just start with small stuff and add slightly bigger sticks of wood till you have a fire. If you use small matchstick sized stuff at first you can even start a fire in the rain with cotton balls and Vaseline. And it weighs nearly nothing and squishes down to nearly nothing too. Just rip it apart and fluff it up again if its too compacted.

If I'm in the yak or hiking back in I only bring one pot. A small aluminum one with a sturdy wire bail. Like I said earlier I'm cooking things that only require boiling water so I don't need any thing fancier which would be heavier. Don't get me wrong, I love cooking with the Dutch oven and we make everything from roasts to cake in them. But that's campground or deer camp cooking. If I'm going to be in the same spot for more than a day I enjoy making all kinds of things to cook with. I'll cut forked sticks and a cross bar. Then find just the right half inch thru little tree that I can cut to maybe ten inches long and trim down the little side branches down to a couple inches each so that it hangs off the cross bar and the pot hangs off one of the stubs carved from the branches.

After all these years we have accumulated four or five tents. Everything from a great big one  larger than my living room down to a little solo one that fits nicely into my kayak. The little solo one can be a bit claustrophobic though. If your going to take a tent I'd suggest the smallest two person backpacking tent you can find. But if it's summer I'm more likely to take a tarp and some nylon rope. With a good spool of nylon rope, along with the bungee cords I use to lash things onto the yak, I can rig up a pretty cool shelter. Everything from lean-to shapes to tent like shapes, with a bit of imagination you can rig one up pretty much anywhere. And have a lot more room to get in out of the rain than you would in a tent.

I stole that drawing from survivalistboards. com btw, It's a pretty interesting site if your into ultralight camping like this. Or just preparing for the end of the world I guess. So with all the above and a dry box for wallet and camera and a knapsack full of fishing gear I'm pretty comfy spending the weekend along the river in summer. I try to keep a small tube of sunscreen in my fishing pack plus a small flashlight AND a headlamp and a water bottle.

Oh one more thing. Those zip off legs, quick dry backpacking pants are the best thing ever made for wading, camping and kayaking along a river. They dry in minutes by the fire so you can get them soaked wading and still sleep dry and cozy. Don't wear shorts unless they are these pants with the legs zipped off. Just wearing shorts guarantees you will get in the middle of an endless patch of stinging nettles, have to take a dump in the middle of ten acres of poison ivy or that the mosquitos will be bad. Get the pants, you will never go wading without them again.

So there you have it, that's how I go about it. How do you go about camping along the river?