I came across a fly fishing blog the other day called Taunted by Waters (which featured a nice article on fishing and writing – I will now joyfully proceed to break many of the rules he proposed). That’s a pretty nifty title, which I promptly stole and adapted to my purposes. Yes, my well-documented troubles on the tailwaters continue. Truly, it is an epic saga on par with the greatest Shakespearean tragedies. The latest chapter is provided courtesy of central Tennessee’s Elk River. I traveled there on Saturday morning with hapless TVangler contributor Jason. Little did Jason understand what he’d gotten himself into. He tossed out hopeful phrases like candy. “Let’s go to the Elk, man. I’ve caught fish every time I’ve been there. Really had some good fishing.” Well, not this time, buddy. Say hello to the curse of the hawgdaddy.
We arrived early to what looked like great conditions. Mist rose from the river, the fall colors were still gorgeous, and we spotted a few rises. We hit the likely spots and couldn’t buy a strike. I tried nymphs, wets, and unweighted wets (fished both on top and down below). Jason went with the standard woolly bugger. The fish stopped rising. No one else appeared to be catching anything. So we hiked downriver about a half mile. Finally we managed a fish apiece, but that was all for a couple hours. After a short coffee break back at the truck, Jason landed the day’s trophy, pictured somewhere down below. He claims it was by far his toughest day on the river. No need to convince me. My very presence has ruined many a day, not only for myself, but for any fishing companion unlucky enough to be with me on a tailwater.
I just can’t figure it out. I do an adequate job on supposedly tough “natural” trout streams. Wild fish in real streams eating honest-to-goodness natural food. I mean, I’m not Lefty Kreh here, but I do well enough to feel good about myself. Sometimes it seems too easy. I brush my hand through the grass at the river’s edge, a swarm of size 16 pale yellow caddis take flight, and I commence to catching fish like I actually know what I’m doing. Maybe you recognize it? That self-satisfied, “I’m the man” feeling all fly fishers experience on occasion. It’s called vanity. It’s what we get into fly fishing for.
But on tailwaters, nothing works like it’s supposed to. On arriving you see a few mayflies fluttering around. You spot a few rise rings. You tie on something to match them. Nothing. You try the matching nymph and emerger. Nothing. You see an occasional caddis and think, “Aha! They’re keying on the caddis!” Nope. Nothing. You study the rises. They’re very delicate. You can’t even see what they’re taking. You think, “Aha! Midges!” You clumsily try several of your rarely-used midge patterns. Nada. You feel stupid. You wonder, “Can they even see these things? I sure as *&^% can’t. Is my tippet too big?” Some guy walks up with a spinning rod and a rooster tail connected by 20 lb test. He prompty catches a couple of nice rainbows before moving on. You think, “Aha! I’ve been thinking too hard. They’ll hit any old woolly bugger or flashy something I tie on. These are stupid stockers. How could I have been so blind?” Nope. Still nothing. Things begin to look desperate. Maybe you pick up a trout at some point during all this. Finally. You think you’ve figured it out. Then, not another nibble. You begin to suspect you might suck. Then some guy with a cane pole walks up, tosses out a bubble gum-colored floating plastic worm, jiggles it on top of the water nine foot in front of him, and the fish just maul it like a pack of hungry piranhas. Then you know you suck.
Well, okay, you got me there. Using the second-person “you” throughout that entire paragraph was a feeble and inexcusable attempt at manipulation. I wanted, nay craved, that warm feeling of commonality, of brotherhood, to feel like I wasn’t alone. The truth is, it’s me that sucks. Sorry to drag you into it. Oh yeah, I might as well apologize for the vanity thing, too. I don’t think any of us actually get into fly fishing for the vanity. It’s a later development. I don’t know if it’s inevitable or just overwhelmingly probable. Come to think of it, the whole hubris thing fits in pretty well with that epic tragedy crap I tossed in at the beginning…
Just so you know, I have visited a therapist about this problem. The tailwater problem, not the vanity thing. He said, “&*^% man, I wear them out on bright orange woolly buggers fished dry every time I fish there. What’s the problem?” Okay, I just flat-out lied about that, but I wouldn’t doubt it happening.
I’ll be honest here. I’m beginning to fear tailwaters. Or maybe I’m beginning to hate tailwaters. Or maybe fear and hate are actually the same thing in a different package. Either way, it’s becoming painfully obvious that I simply suck when it comes to fly fishing tailwaters. The way I see it, there are two ways I can handle this. I can buy a copy of Ed Engle’s Fly Fishing the Tailwaters, study it like I’m back in college (wait, did I study in college?), hit the tailwaters like a mad man and figure this thing out. Or I could resign myself to my fate, surrender like a yellow-bellied coward, throw away all my streamers and midges and heavy nymph rigs, and pack for a trip to the mountains. I think you know which path I’m taking. The gear is already stowed for a late season trip to a mountain creek next week.
In all fairness though, it was a great day on the river. I couldn’t have asked for better weather, prettier colors or a better fishing partner. Here’s to crisp autumn mornings, strong coffee, a good friend and a pretty – if stingy- trout stream.