Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Elkhorn Cleanup 2009

This is one of my favorite annual TU activities as it is time spent with friends and, oh by the way, we do a little work too.

The plan was to leave work and be at the campground before dark. With temperatures in the mid to upper 80's, I didn't make a full day of work. I cut the day short by a couple of hours and stopped at a brookie stream I had not fished in a couple of years.

I had seen reports last year during the drought of long stretches of stream with no water at all. I didn't know what to expect, but I thought I would check it out.

I started with a personal favorite setup of a small caddis dry and a small pheasant-tail dropper. I moved a couple of fish, but no takers - a good sign considering the drought reports. After a short while (all I had was less than two hours to fish), I switched to my reliable olive woolybugger.

I pulled this guy out of the first hole with the small, olive bugger:
With very little time to fish, I pressed on. I was moving fish in nearly every hole! Apparently the drought didn't affect the adult fish. I caught this nice specimen, shortly after the first.

During the short time on the stream, I saw something I rarely see on a brookie stream - fish rising. I could not determine what they were rising to and I could not entice them with the woolybugger so I pressed on.

With little time remaining before I had to turn and head for camp, I fished one more hole. This guy was the result:
Overall, it was a very nice outing for the short period of time I had to spend on the stream. I did, however, have time to play with the circular polarizer lens on my camera. Too often I settle for the signature watch shots and forget about the beautiful "piece of grass" I chase these beauties with.

I was very pleased how these shots turned out!

I believe early spring may be my favorite time of year to hit the stream. The green is beginning to return and the wildflowers are popping everywhere. On the way back to the vehicle, I ran across these. They were growing among the violets and wild geraniums - they are dwarf larkspur.

It took me a little longer than I had planned to find the campground, but I found it. What a site it was, there must have been 50+ TU volunteers gathered in preparation for the clean-up the following day.

After a late night of great stories and laughter, it was up early for breakfast before heading to the stream.

I have taken part in this clean-up in three of the last four years, only business travel last year prevented my attendance. I must say, we ARE making a difference. My first couple of years we gathered much more "large" items....tires, appliances, etc. This year it was mostly plastic bottles and paper/styrofoam plates. Other than a Girls Gone Wild DVD, my favorite find was "His Airness".

We were done in three short hours and then it was a gathering for pictures and lunch. I didn't get an exact count but my guess would be close to 100 volunteers. There were three chapters represented and many local citizens. We had volunteers from North Carolina, Cleveland, and Indianapolis!

It was also a very nice location for this lunch gathering, the restored Ashland coal camp company store. The history in that place, and that area is amazing.

After a quick lunch we had time to hit the stream. I fished with a new friend in a section of stream we did not have enough volunteers to clean. Notice the "structure" in the pool he is targeting? This is the type of structure I was accustomed to removing from the streams during this event.

On a personal note, I have not caught a brown trout since I attended this clean-up two years ago. This also includes three trips to the Rockies and several outings in West Virginia. I spend all of my time exploring native waters, but I can make an exception for this great event. Here is my token brown trout.

It was tough fishing, the clear skies and the upper-80 temperatures made thing quite difficult.

After a long, hot day of cleaning and fishing it was back to camp for another great evening of fellowship. Great people! Great food! Great friends!

I made plans to hit a stream in Virginia early the next morning with an old friend I had not fished with since our Northern Rockies Roadtrip in 2007. I also wanted to see a new "fish friendly" culvert Virginia and the USFS had installed last year.

I am not getting any younger and with early morning plans, I made it an early night.

The next day started before daylight with a wake-up call from our host that day. Our destination was a stream just across the border in Virginia. I had fished it two years ago, just long enough to peak my interest.

These were my on stream partners for the day.

As normal procedure, I started with an EHC and a small BHPT dropper. I was given the privilege of the first pool and it paid off. I landed three small brookies in the first pool!

The fishing was slow, but consistent for the better part of the time we were on the stream. The weather conditions from the previous two days were repeated again this day with clear, blue skies and rising temperatures.

I did manage to land one nice fish, as most fish caught were in the 4-6 inch class. With the clear skies, they seemed to like the dropper.

I took time to pose him with the Vandalia bamboo.

As we moved up stream, it got much tighter with the overhanging rhododendron. Mixed in this jungle we found this nice streamside camp. It was hidden very well and would make a nice spot for a potential future visit.

Somewhere in this tight cover I missed a trophy brook trout. He came to the surface from a pocket I cold not see the bottom. I hooked him briefly and then he was gone, my guess would be a 12-inch fish. The big ones always get away!

With three plus hours of driving in front of me and one more stop, I called it another quick day. The only thing remaining was to fight our way out of this rhododendron jungle. Somewhere in the process of finding our way back to the vehicle we got separated. While standing streamside waiting on the other pair, I tied on old reliable woolybugger and picked up one more brookie for good measure.

On the way home, I made a quick stop to see this new culvert. It was installed last year in order to reconnect brook trout populations in these tiny headwater streams. I have been told they are quite expensive to install, but if the USFS and Virginia can find the funds we should be able to as well.

It was a great weekend with great friends and I am already looking forward to the 2010 Elkhorn clean-up.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Shutout in the Smokies

…..Well, not really.

My son had done such an admirable job on our first outing this year, I decided to take him along on longer trip. I made the 4-day Easter weekend trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park with a friend and my 8-year-old son. I had not been to the Smokies since 2005 and we were really looking forward to this trip.

Heavy rains passed through the area on Good Friday that caused the streams to raise (not off-color) and the flows were absolutely brutal. Our first step was to set up camp, what an adventure that was! My friend’s new tent had never been slept in and had only been assemble once.

After setting up camp it was off to Little River Outfitters, probably THE best fly shop I have been in anywhere in the United States. I let my son pick out his own flies, of those flies he selected a purple parachute Adams and a size 2 gray ghost. Who knows, under the right conditions they may have worked. The employees of the shop were great as usual and treated my son like he was king of the world.

The first stop I had planned was the Middle Prong of the Little River above Tremont, but after a brief conversation in LRO I was informed that section was closed to habitat enhancement. They did suggest, however, Sam’s Creek above the Middle Prong trailhead – so off we went.

I knew they had received some rainfall earlier in the day and I knew they were still experiencing runoff from the 8-10” of snowfall on Tuesday, but I did not expect water levels/flows that were present when we got to the trailhead. My last trip to this watershed was Memorial Day weekend in 2005 and I wet waded the Middle Prong that weekend. This trip, where I had previously wet waded, the first view of the stream was kayakers – it was absolutely raging! Regardless, we crossed the bridge on the Middle Prong and headed toward Sam’s Creek.

We ran into this guy where the Middle Prong and Sam’s Creek trails split. He was sunning himself on a fallen tree and he was pretty lethargic – April is still early for the reptiles.

With the skies darkening, we didn’t hike long before we decided try are luck in the raging waters. We didn’t fish long before we realized we should head back toward the vehicle. I did not catch a fish, but I did miss a fierce strike on the nymph dropper at the first bridge abutment.

With the rain beginning, I decided to take Ross to the Tremont visitor’s center – just missed them. While Ross picked flies from one of my boxes to stock up his new fly box, my friend decided to try his luck right behind the visitor’s center. He picked up a small rainbow against the bank while fishing downstream with a weighted woolybugger.

With the rain coming down even harder (even threats of tornadoes) we decided to stay in the car and take a tour of the Cade’s Cove area. This was a great decision as my son was able to see several gobblers and jakes spread throughout the fields. At one point they gobbled every time it thundered.

So with day one closing, I had yet to catch a fish but still a successful day for my son: new flies, new fly box, rat snake, and gobbling turkeys.

Day two started with lower than forecasted temperatures and a slight drizzle that was not in the forecast. Our decision was to go high toward Newfound Gap, in hopes of avoiding the raging waters we found in lower elevations the day prior.

We made a quick stop along Little River when we spotted this on the route toward Gatlinburg.

This tactic works in West Virginia but apparently not so well in Tennessee. After a hike of about a mile straight up, what we found up high were the same conditions. The conditions were much more treacherous due to the car size boulders we would have been fishing on and around, not to mention the fact that at 11:00 AM the visibility was still about 50 yards.

They call them the Smoky Mountains for a reason.

We fished for an hour or so, before making the decision to move back down in search of lower gradient water and hopefully easier traversing.

Our next stop was a roadside stream just west of the Sugarlands visitor center. The water in this small stream was in much better condition, but in our brief stay on this stream we moved only one small fish – I saw nothing.

The trout were elusive but the spring wild flowers were beginning to peak. These yellow trillium were everywhere.

After looking over the park map, we chose to explore larger water, so we made a short jump back into the Little River watershed and my first visit to Elkmont. We could not find a parking space at the Little River trailhead above Elkmont campground, so we made our way to the old logging community of Elkmont. We gave another attempt on the new waters of Jake’s Creek.

The water looked great, but the rhododendron-choked stream was impossible to fish from the bank and the current made it impossible to fish from the stream….another swing and a miss!

The little cabins of Elkmont were in fairly good condition but are closed to visitors, leaving only your imagination to wonder what the community would have been like during the peak of the logging industry.

Running late in the day, we chose to head back in the direction of camp. We decided to give the Middle Prong of the Little River another try, this time below Tremont in the lower gradient area. The stream was still too swift to wade but my friend was still able to pick up a couple of small bows – with the assistance of three splitshot.

On the route to Tremont, again along Little River, I found these columbine in bloom.

Ross and I decided to try our luck along one of the rock retaining walls. We did not move a fish, but we did bring one of the locals to hand. What we found was a black-lipped red salamander sunning himself on the water’s edge of the retaining wall.

After our day one encounter with the black rat snake, Ross picked up a Smoky Mountain guide to reptiles and amphibians. It came in handy, as I would have guessed Midland Mud salamander but Ross pointed out that it did have a black chin. I think Ross enjoyed seeing the local fauna more than he did the fishing – probably due to the lack of “catching”.

With time for one more stop for the day we chose another new stream, the West Prong of the Little River above Cade’s Cove Road. The water again looked very good, but again the fish did not cooperate.

And so day two ended without a fish to hand, but again it was a success for Ross. He was able to test his hiking abilities on the Chimney top trail and he discovered another “critter” in the beautiful little salamander.

Day three started early in the morning when I had to cover Ross with another blanket. The weather forecast was for lows in the mid-40’s, but what we awoke to was a chilling 31 degrees. In a tent and a zero-degree sleeping bag, Ross still got chilled.

With the chilly temperatures, we decided to do a little sight seeing while waiting on the temps to warm up. The sky was nearly crystal clear, so we decided it was a perfect time to hit Clingman’s Dome (the second highest peak east of the Mississippi) and it was early enough to beat the crowds.

The views from the parking lot were amazing! Looking down on the low elevation clouds on the North Carolina side of the park was incredible.

The Forney Creek watershed also looked very inviting…some other time!

When we got to the top, you could actually see the overlook. The first time I made this short trek, I could barely see the overlook from 50 yards away!

You could actually see Mt. LeConte and in the very distance you could make out Mt. Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi).

Mt. LeConte

Ross also took his first steps on the Appalachian Trail. Is it a sign of things to come in his future?

We also got an indication why the fishing was slow, in addition to the high water there was still residual snow from the 8-10" they received five days earlier.

With the trail getting crowded and daylight burning, we decided it had warmed enough to hit the water. We were headed back down off the mountain, through Gatlinburg, and to the Greenbrier entrance.

The plan was to hike into the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon on the Ramsay Cascade trail. Once we made it to the trailhead, our plans changed again as the water was raging as it had been everywhere else. This section of the stream is boulder hopping at its finest and with the water ripping I didn't think it was safe for Ross. We fished briefly from the top of a car-sized boulder before calling it quits at this locale.

On the way back to the vehicle, I spotted bloodroot. It was flowering yet, but the unique feature of this plant is the root.

We then decided to head to a little smaller, lower gradient stream in the area - Porter's Creek. This stream was very difficult for Ross to maneuver around due to the rhododendron choking the water. After fighting the brush, I decided to try something a little different.

Ross and I walked back to the car with a purpose, I wanted to see if he could manage to wear my waders and wading boots. Obviously they were quite large on him, but he wanted in that water past his rubber boots!

Now we have a means to get Ross off the bank, but the fish were not cooperating again, the water was still brutally cold.

We decided to try one last location on the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon. On the way in we had spotted a section of slower moving water, it was bigger water but it was out last resort.

Once on the water, I could notice a significant increase in the water temperature and there were sporadic risers...good news!

I helped Ross wade across the stream and we fished for a short while before he decided he wanted to give it a try.

Ross gave it a go for a while and then turned the rod back to me. I missed several short strikes on a trio of different patterns: EHC, BWO, and a small ant. Ross and I then decided to call it a day and thus ended our Smokies fishing trip. We did stop and walk around Gatlinburg and dined catfish, gator, and frog legs at Huck Finns restaurant in Pigeon Forge.

Day three ended without trout again, but again I would still call the day a success. Ross made it to the top of the second highest peak east of the Mississippi, wore waders & waded for the first time, and he ate alligator for the first time.

With temps dropping again we packed up camp that night and rented a hotel room before heading for home the next morning.

We traveled home through Kentucky with hopes of adding another state to my brook trout list, but that disaster does not even merit a write-up.

Ross and I will make it back to the Smokies again, and there will be trout involved next time....but no trout does not equal failure!