Monday, June 12, 2017

Trout and good times abound on the Oconaluftee River

The Oconaluftee River is not only beautiful, but also filled with rainbow and brown trout.
For a Floridian, few things are better than driving north and getting the opportunity to fly fish for cold-water-trout.

The author and a nice rainbow trout.
When my wife informed me that we were going to spend a week in Gatlinburg, Tenn., with family, I was thrilled. Not only would I spend quality time with family, but also (hopefully) get a chance to wet a line.

I was correct on both counts.

There are numerous streams around the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area of Tennessee. But they might as well be scarce when you're a warm-water angler and unaccustomed to fly fishing for trout. There's a learning curve there.

I succeeded, but not without help.

I spent a day on the Little River which was just a short drive from our mountain-top cabin. Though the stream is picturesque, it's also heavily fished. Access points are plentiful along the road that parallels the river. Because the accesses are plentiful and easy, the stream gets fished quite a lot. So, you can bet trout in the Little River have seen every fly and every tactic.

Guide Travis Williams
Still, I caught and released three small rainbows -- quite a feat for this humble Floridian. But I knew to really figure things out, I needed the expertise of a local guide. I found that guide at The Smoky Mountain Angler (, a quaint little fly shop in Gatlinburg. There, I connected with Travis Williams, a Gatlinburg native who also is a Gatlinburg Police officer.

When not patrolling the city's streets, you can find Williams on one of the many streams around the area.

The morning of our scheduled outing, I met Williams at the shop where I put on a set of waders and a pair of felt-soled boots. We then jumped in his GMC Yukon for the 45-minute drive to the Oconaluftee River in North Carolina, just a stone's throw from Cherokee, N.C.

We began catching fish almost immediately on tandem-rigged pheasant-tail nymphs under a strike indicator.

Most of the rainbow trout were small, ranging from six to 12 inches in length. However, we also managed to land a few of 15 inches or more. And we had a couple of fish from 17 to 20 inches before the hook pulled or they broke the 5X tippet.

We also caught a pair of small brown trout.
Another beautiful rainbow trout.

The bigger trout that we encountered were "dumb stockers," according to Williams, who explained they were stocked into Cherokee Reservation waters and made the short swim upstream.

At mid-afternoon, we opted to spent the rest of the outing targeting native brook trout, a species that is usually small and found high in the mountains. We drove to a stream that cascaded down a mountainside at about 6,000 feet. The stream was maybe 10 feet wide in places with pools located along the way. Targeted each pool with a dry fly-and-nymph combo. We hooked a couple of the colorful and wild brookies, but didn't land one. We were able to land a couple of small rainbows that also are fairly plentiful in the diminutive streams.

We didn't get out Slam -- a rainbow, brown and brook trout in one day.

There's always next time.

Successful trout fishing is knowing not only what flies to use, but also being able to identify where trout likely are hiding. It was easy with Williams there to assist. By mid-morning, I was able to figure out where the trout likely were.

For most of the morning, we used a 10-foot, 2-weight fly rod.

"We use the 10-footers because they make it easier to keep line off the water," Williams explained.

Most of the time, we had little more than a foot of fly line outside the rod tip. That allowed us to fish the small holes correctly and with the right drift.

I was amazed that we could be so close to the spots and catch fish.

Most of our fish seemed to home in on the nymphs. Although we tried a dry fly, we only caught a fish or two on the surface.

I told Williams a couple of times during our outing that I can see how trout fishing in those beautiful waters could be addicting.

Don't know when I'll get back. I hope it's not long.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Despite the drought, freshwater fishing still produces

John Weimer of Sarasota admires a colorful oscar he caught on a Myakka Minnow. (Photo by Steve Gibson)
Wind and heat were the culprits of May as far as fishing is concerned along Southwest Florida.

With that in mind, most of our attention was focused on freshwater fishing throughout the region.

We visited a variety of spots, including Alligator Alley, The Everglades, Webb Lake, Tenoroc  Fish Management Area and Lake Manatee. We also spent some time fly fishing the surf for snook.

Let's cover the freshwater efforts.

Webb Lake is a long body of water located in the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area just east of Punta Gorda in Charlotte County. John Weimer of Sarasota accompanied me for a fly-fishing endeavor. I've fished Webb Lake on a number of occasions over the years, but this was the first trip of 2017.

We were greeted by extreme low water, something that's quite common through this state that has been in a severe drought. Still, we were able to catch a few fish. We totaled seven largemouth bass, 21 mostly hand-sized bluegill, a shellcracker and a gar.

We ventured to Miami-Dade County along the Tamiami Trail and had a blast. We launched the NuCanoe Kayaks amid a flurry of mosquitoes (bring your bug spray!) and began catching fish immediately. We started out casting popping bugs and caught Mayan cichlid, largemouth bass and oscar. When the topwater bite ended, we switched to Myakka Minnows and continued our assault on the same species. At mid-day, I grabbed a 6-weight rod and cast a No. 6 Clouser for peacock bass. I broke off one peacock and caught a bunch of Mayan cichlid, oscar and largemouth bass.

I'll definitely hit this spot again!

Jim Snyder of Naples joined me for an outing along Alligator Alley. Fishing was slow compared to previous trips, but we still managed 50 Mayan cichlid, 30 oscar, 10 largemouth bass, five bluegill and a bunch of stumpknocker and warmouth perch. All fish were caught on Myakka Minnows.

I donated the trip to the Naples Backcountry Fly Fishers. Snyder bought the outing at the club's annual banquet.

John Weimer and I visited the Tenoroc Fish Management Area near Lakeland. We fished Lake No. 2 and experienced slow action. We combined to catch two largemouth bass on No. 4 popping bugs and a bluegill on a Gibby's Snymph under a strike indicator. Water was extremely low.

Despite slow action, we'll definitely return to Tenoroc in the fall.

Late in the month, Weimer and I decided to do something different.

"Why don't we fish Lake Manatee, but launch at the state park?" he said.

Launching at Lake Manatee State Park would give us access to water that normally out of range. The park is a couple of miles west of our normal launch.

I have an annual state park pass, so I'm able to get into the park after hours. State Parks don't open until 8 a.m., but we entered the park at 6:15 a.m. and were on the water by 6:30.

It was like fishing a new spot. We had no idea where to go and the water was extremely low. We paddled directly across the lake from the boat ramp to the north shore. We pulled into a small cover and were greeted by breaking fish over a wide area.

I cast a No. 8 popping bug and missed a fish. I hooked and landed a hand-sized bluegill on my second cast. I then caught a decent sunshine bass and a 1 1/2-pound largemouth bass. Weimer caught the first sunshine bass of his fly-fishing career.

When that action slowed, we noticed several tails piercing the water's surface. Closer inspection revealed they were from channel catfish grubbing along the bottom. We caught a half dozen on popping bugs. Later, we beached out kayaks and walked along the shoreline, casting to tailing fish.

We ended up with 17 channel cats to six pounds. We caught a majority them on bead-head Squirmy Worms on No. 12 scud hooks.

We also did a number of beach snook outings during May. For some reason, numbers were down from the previous month. We saw an average of 15 snook per trip. We hooked a couple and landed one.

JUNE FORECAST: Look for increased numbers of snook in the surf along area beaches. I you like to sight-fish with a fly rod, this is for you. Bay fishing should result in decent numbers of spotted seatrout, snook, ladyfish and jack crevalle. Redfish numbers have been down, and I don't anticipate any change. Night fishing around lighted docks should produce good numbers of snook. In fresh water, Lake Manatee is the best bet for bluegill, largemouth bass and channel catfish.

Gibby's Tip of the Month:  In order to have success when sight-fishing, you must be able to see the fish. To see the fish, you must have a pair of quality sunglasses. Most fly anglers will spend several hundred dollars on a fly rod. But without a good pair of sunglasses, the most expensive fly rod won't help you if you can't see the fish. A good pair of sunglasses is just a piece of equipment that will help you do the job. The money spent is up front. You'll enjoy the benefits of your sunglasses for years. Don't cheap out. You'll regret it.

I'm heading up to Tennessee for a week where I'll cast a few flies for rainbow and brown trout. When I return, my battery should be recharged and ready to go. I expect beach snook to be in the spotlight.

Steve Gibson
Southern Drawl Kayak Fishing