Tying Flies for East Tennessee’s Tailwaters

There is the eternal debate: which is most important, presentation or fly?  Certainly, fish will take a fly that looks like nothing in nature when it’s presented well.  There is no doubt, though, that trout are sometimes very selective.  It’s my take that, just as improved casting can’t hurt fishing, improved presentation and improved imitation can’t hurt.  This post is about tying imitative flies for our tailwaters.

Olive Zebra Midge

I’ve seen the contents of several stomach pumps of South Holston River trout and Watauga River trout. Every time, I saw the same thing: small, dark, and skinny.  Skinny is important.  As Devin Olsen (competitive fisherman, fly shop owner, and Utah guide) says “Thin  to win,”

I’ve been working on tying thin, and a Zebra Midge, like the olive one pictured, is a good fly to think about.  I start out with the thinnest thread I can find, normally 16/0 Veevus these days.  I use the thinnest wire I can find, such as Ultra x-small.  The key, though, is minimizing layers of thread, and two seems to be the lower limit.

I tie in at the bead and work back.  I add the wire as soon as possible.  Then, I ad the tag, a detail I learned from friend and Ace Guide Patrick Fulkrod, the 2014 Orvis Guide of the year.

I always make sure to have a couple of wraps behind the wire.  I don’t think the trout care, but it looks more natural to me.  I’m pretty sure that we fly fishers are pickier about our flies than are the trout.

I tie the thread forward with touching wraps.  Then, I bring up the wire tie it off and whip finish.  The fly is ready to fish, but I like to coat it with a UV finish.  Who knows, maybe that extra touch of flash helps?  It does make the fly more durable.




California Bull

I was walking this morning, listening to the wild birds, the roosters, and the semi-wild dogs that spend their lives outdoors.  I came around a turn, and there I was, fifty feet from a big black bull.  Not the one pictured.  That’s a California bull.  This one had no horns, but he had the complete set of bull plumbing.

I see lots of things on my walks, birds critters, people, but I’ve never seen a bull on the road.  We’ve had cows on the road and cows on the lawn, but no bull.

Cow on the Lawn

Since he was on the road, he may not have been be as territorial as if he were in his pasture.  At least that’s the way it would go with dogs.  But, I wasn’t about to find out.  I decided I’d walked far enough.  I slowly backed up a ways.  Then, I turned around, looking back to make sure he wasn’t following.  I walked home.

It was a good, if short, walk.  It was a good morning.

What is it About Fishing? Part 1 Mystery

I’ve been thinking for quite a while about a question my friend Chuck asked, “What is it about fishing?”

I’m pretty sure he asked because he has friends who fish, but he doesn’t, and he doesn’t know why anyone would.  Of course, I could ask the same question about spectator sports.  I have several good friends who watch baseball, basket ball, or football.

I have no idea why anyone watches spectator sports.  Several years ago, we were in the Eastern Sierra and a friend wanted to watch a late-season USC football game.  We went to the Bishop bowling alley.  I could only sit through half of the game.

I could go on a rant here, but I won’t.  We’ll just see what we can do about Chuck’s question.

Early Season High Country Trout

I have a pretty simple model of trout.  They are perfect little economic agents.  They are insatiable., and they maximize protein intake while minimizing energy expenditure.  It’s not economic, but they are also phototropic, and that’s important.

So, They should be eating all the time if it’s not too bright and food is available.  Except, they don’t.

There’s the mystery.

A couple of examples might help here.

Last Friday, two friends and I fished my favorite piece of the Watauga River.  When we arrived, just before 9:00 AM, there were a few fish rising to a small hatch of Blue Winged Olive Mayflies (BWOs).  The hatch was small, but the flies were large for BWO’s, size 16.

Fishing was good, until about 10:30 when it just stopped, like someone flipped a switch.  Nothing.  Between us, we tried just about every method and fly we know.  We caught nothing.

The BWO hatched stopped.  That’s for sure, but this river always has midges available, and even the largest trout eat lots of midges.  I’ve seen the results of a few stomach samples of big trout from this river, and they always have lots of midges in their stomach.

Maybe it was the rising sun?  I tried the shadows.  No cooperation there.

It’s a mystery.

Yesterday a couple of different friends and I fished the same spot.  We arrived at about the same time as last Friday.  There were a few Caddis coming off.  We saw a couple of rising fish.

I expected something of a replay of Friday.  Was I wrong.

We didn’t see any BWOs, and we couldn’t buy a fish.  I went through my fly box.  None of my confidence flies worked.  Everybody was trying different methods and flies.  Nothing.

One thing didn’t change, though, 10:30 brought big changes.  We started catching a few fish, not many, but a few was a big improvement.  All of mine came to Egan’s Tailwater Sow Bug.

What happened?  Who knows?  We didn’t see anything change, except the fish became more cooperative.

Another mystery.

Trout may be simple critters, but they live in a very complicated environment.  I think that environment is the source  of the mystery.  This would also explain why fly fishers spend so much time learning about the rivers and the life in them.

So, we try to learn as much as we can, but thankfully, we can’t learn enough to remove the mystery.  That’s good.  I have to quit fishing if I had it all figured out.


Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival

The Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival is held every year in late September.  Even though we’ve lived here for three previous Septembers, we’ve never been, because of work travel or steelhead.  We got to go for one day this year, though, and it was excellent.

We would have like to go more days, but the kids aren’t really into any music Mom and Dad like.  So, that would have meant leaving them home alone more than we like to.  We went on Sunday afternoon.

The festival is a big deal.  They close several blocks of downtown Bristol and have stages everywhere, 20 of them.  It goes from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening.  I counted 142 acts this year, many of them very big names.  If you can’t find something you like, there may be no hope for you.

Here’s the 2018 Festival Guide.  Hope it isn’t taken off the web too soon.

Dale Watson performing at the 2018 Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival.

The two Sunday acts we wanted to see were Dale Watson and Asleep at the Wheel.  Dale Watson put on a great show… until a woman was brought out to share the stage with him.  They may have a romantic relationship.  I don’t know, but they write songs together and stand close to each other.

She’s quite proud of her body, and I have to admit she has a fine one.  But we came to watch Dale do his stuff, not the babe.  We left after they did two songs together.

We had some time before Asleep at the Wheel.  So, we checked out other acts.  Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams put on a great show.  He’s one very good guitar player.  They do what I would call Americana.

Kelsey Rae also put on a great classic country show.  She’s a local favorite because since she’s originally from the area.  She stands on her own, though.  She does a great job.

Asleep at the Wheel entertaining a large crowd at the 2018 Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival

Asleep at the Wheel put on a great show.  I was told that they’ve been at it since 1970.  True or not,  they’ve been around a long time, for good reason.

When I first became aware of the band, Cindy Cashdollar played steel guitar for the band.  I believe she was better than the current steel player.  Still, no complaints.  It was a great show.

So, plan a trip to Bristol for the festival.  You’ll have a great time.




High Sierra Hiking

I love High Sierra hiking, and except for friends, it’s thing I miss most about California.  This was as good as it gets.  I was hiking with two great friends and the Number One Daughter, Mandy.

George and I met at a Sierra Club Mountaineers training course, in either late 1983 or late 1984.  Neither of us can remember exactly , but it doesn’t matter.  We’ve been hiking, climbing, road trips, and drinking beer for a very long time.

Doug was one of my grad school advisers.  One of the best things to come out of grad school was the great friendships with Doug, Jack, Steve,and Dan.  Each of these guys is unique and nothing like the others.  Each is a great person.  I’m always a bit amazed that friends like these guys.

Mandy is the Number One Daughter because she’s the oldest.  I started hiking with her when she was maybe five.  I gave her a whistle, taught her to hug a tree if lost, and took her hiking.  She took to it like a duck to water, and she’s still hiking.  In fact, she’s teaching kids three and four to hike in the East Tennessee mountains.

The Number One Son, Bill, wasn’t with us, but he too still hikes and takes the grand kids hiking in the Adirondacks.

Day 1

We started hiking at an East Sierra lake at an elevation of about 9,000 feet.  On the first day, we hiked to a lake around 10,000 feet and set up camp.

We met a large group of New Zealanders on the trail.  They were spread out over a mile, and we talked to many of them.  Seemed like nice people.  They were in the U.S. to see the Sierra, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon.

The last section of the trail to our lake can be brutal.  It’s a series of steep switchbacks in a rocky gully.  In a full sun, the heat reflects off of the granite walls and cooks you.  We lucked out.  It was cloudy and remarkably comfortable.

We found our lake and a great campsite.  The views were excellent.

High Sierra View
Nice Light on a High Peak

Hanging around camp, Doug got a rare picture of me.

Hanging in the High Sierra

There were several parties around the lake.  That would not have been a problem, but one party was really loud.  Obnoxiously loud.  I’m used to loud when car camping, but not in the back country.

Day 2

We hiked to some of my favorite high meadows on day two.  On the way we ran into lots of fishermen, each of whom reported catching lots of small fish.  One, though, had a picture of a 14 inch trout he’d caught.  That’s a very large fish in these waters.

Being a Friday, there were lots more hikers than the previous day, and many of them had dogs with them.  In fact, I’ve seen so many dogs in the back country as we saw on this trip.  I estimate that at least half of the groups had dogs with them.

We set up camp in an expansive alpine meadow complex around 11,000 feet.


Doug by an Alpine Waterfall
Doug Relaxing by a Creek
George at the Waterfall
The Meadows
Mandy, George, and Dog Fetching Water

We had one group camping about 200 yards from us that night.  After dark, we were amazed to see them with strings of lights around their camp.  That’s something we’d never seen before.

The next morning we asked them about it.  Turns out is was USB LED sting lights being run off of a battery typically used to recharge phones.  The system was cheap and light.  Technology is changing everything.

Day 3

The plan for day three was to do a day hike and then hike down to the first night’s lake for our final camp.  So, we did a day hike to a lake not too far above us.

One of the Sierra’s Most Photographed Peaks

On the way down to our intended campsite, I tweaked my knee.  The group decided that it was better to make a slow descent to the trail head on day three than a fast forced march on day four.  Day four was always going to be a rush.  Mandy and I needed to get to Las Vegas by 8 PM.

So, we slowly hiked out.  That evening was great, though.  We had rooms in a nice hotel and dinner at one of my favorite east-side restaurants.

The next morning we had breakfast at one of the less-famous Eastern Sierra bakeries.  Then, Mandy and I started the long trip home.  I had mixed feelings.  I hated to leave the Sierra, but I missed Joyce and East Tennessee.

The Trip to the High Sierra

I haven’t posted for a while because I was on a trip to California’s High Sierra.  The trip was for a hike with long-term friends.  When I lived in California, we hiked and climbed a lot.  Now that I’m out of state, we try to meet once a year for a hike or road trip.

Getting There

Daughter Mandy and I took an Allegiant Air flight from Knoxville to Las Vegas.  It’s a cheap flight I heard about from one of Joyce’s sisters.  The flight is essentially a bus that flies.  Every seat is the same, plastic with a little padding.  None recline.  There is no first class or business class.

The ticket price only includes the flight.  You want to take baggage?  You pay.  Carry-on?  You pay.  Talk to the ticket agent?  Pay.  Water?  Pay.

I’m good with it.  They are serving a market, and it allows people to travel who otherwise might not get to travel.

It’s OK for a four-hour flight, but I wouldn’t want to take a flight much longer than that.

We spent the night in a cheap room at Circus Circus.  I really don’t enjoy Vegas,  and I was very happy to get out of town first thing in the morning.  We took Highway 95 north to Westgard Pass, which puts you right on Highway 395, my favorite road.

Highway 95 is not so enjoyable.

We saw some Joshua trees.

Joshua Tree on Highway 95

There was a big fireworks store.

Fireworks Store on Highway 95

And grocery-gas stores.

Mostly, we saw sagebrush as far as we could see.

At Westgard Pass’s summit we took a detour to visit the Bristlecone Pine forest and take a little hike.

Bristlecone Pines


The Most Photographed Bristlecone Pine

At 11,000 feet, we were huffing and puffing, but the Bristlecone Forest is a special place.  It’s worth the work.

The descent from Westgard Pass is steep and only one lane in one place.  As you near the Owens Valley, you get a great view of the Sierra.

View of the High Sierra. Mount Sill is the prominent 14,000 peak in the background.

We spent a couple of days car-camping at 7,000 feet and day-hiking higher to prepare for the hike.

Car Camping Pictures

Mount Morrison at Sunset

The Rabbit Bush was in Full Bloom

Buck Picture 1
Buck Picture 2
Little Buck Still in Velvet
Mountain Lake 1
Mountain Lake 2
High Meadow
Another Great Sunset on the High Sierra

Then, we went hiking, but hat’s another post.

After the hike, we retraced our steps home.

How to Keep Minnows Off the Line

East Tennessee Mountain Stream

The tailwaters have been high for weeks and we’ve been fishing mountain streams.  One of our mountain streams has an incredible number of fish species in it, and it seems like all of them take flies.  There have been days on this stream when I estimated that half my fish were not trout.  That’s fine, except most of them are two inches long.  So, how to keep minnows off the line?

I started to get a clue last week.  I was testing the Thread Frenchie.   That means, it was a dropper and the Blow Torch was the anchor.  If the new fly catches fish, it’s worth keeping in the fly box.

Prior to this, I had another fly in the dropper position.  It caught zero fish.

Things got interesting after the fly change.  Only trout took the Frenchie.  A few took the Blow Torch, but almost all of them took the Frenchie.  The minnows only took the Blow Torch.

This week I continued to experiment.  I put a Pliva Perdigon in the anchor position and a smaller Blow Torch in the dropper position.  That was better.  I caught far fewer minnows, and all on the Blow Torch.  I caught plenty of trout, mostly on the Perdigon.

Next time I’ll drop the Blow Torch completely and see if I can eliminate the minnows while still catching trout.


Monsoon Thai

Monsoon Thai

One of the fun things about East Tennessee is that you can find little gems in the most unexpected places.  Monsoon Thai is, pictured above, one such place.  It’s a great little Thai restaurant that’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

The restaurant occupies a small metal building on the highway road between Butler Tennessee and Mountain City Tennessee.  That is, it’s in the Tennessee mountains very close to North Carolina and Virginia.

Inside are four or so tables and bar that seats maybe five people.  Like I said, it’s small.  There’s a shrine to John Wayne.  It occupies one wall and more.

Monsoons is run by a Thai woman and her daughter.  Once, I asked the mother about how the restaurant came to be where it is.  As I recall, the story involved a G.I., a marriage, a move, and a husband leaving.  Makes sense.

The food is great.  Yesterday I had Coconut Soup.  It was to die for.  Fantastic.  This is the more hearty meal that my fishing buddy ate:


Service is great too.  Both of the women are very friendly.  They are happy to talk, and hey’ll answer any questions you have.  Their Facebook page, with pictures of family and food, reflects the family-run nature of the restaurant.

Monsoon Thai is open from 11:00 to 8:00 every day except Sunday and Wednesday.  Be prepared, though, they only take cash.

The drive up there is scenic, whether you are coming from Virginia, North Carolina, or other parts of Tennessee.  It makes for a nice day to drive up there and have lunch.

Trout Videos

New Zealand Harbor, Late 19th Century

Call me a crank, but I don’t usually like trout videos.  The music tends to be obnoxious.  The same scenes are constantly repeated.

There’s the sleepy hero waking up in the dark.  He loads the truck.  He picks up his buddy, who’s often still asleep.  They drive.  There’s the obligatory drone scene.  But, mostly it’s one big fish after another, sometimes taking the fly, sometimes the fish fighting, but always the hero shot.

Don’t guys who make movies ever catch a dink?  Give me something different.  Please.

Somebody has!  The image above is a screenshot from this video.  That picture is not something you see in most trout videos.  The video is pretty interesting.  It’s about how trout were introduced to New Zealand.

Sure, it has some fish fighting and hero shots, but not near as many as most trout videos, and the music is not even obnoxious.  Take a look.  You might like it.

Learning to Fly Fish

Nice Brown Trout

Learning  fly fishing is a challenge.  If you are going to catch fish with any regularity, you need to know a little about bugs, a little about hydrology, a little about fish, how to make a cast, how to get a good drift, how to set a hook, and how to fight and land a fish.

If you are lucky, you might have a relative or friend who can help you learn how to fly fish.  But, what do you do if you don’t know such a person?

You could go fishing with a guide, but this is an expensive and poor way to learn.  Two examples will demonstrate the problem:

While fishing the Watauga, we ran into a guy who was not catching fish.  He told us that he had caught a lot of fish a few days before with a guide, but he couldn’t catch any on his own.  I gave him my number and told him that I would go out with him a few times.  Unfortunately, he never called.

The other example is from a guide on California’s Sacramento River.  He introduced himself by saying “If you can put the fly three feet from the boat, I can put you into fish.”  I didn’t learn much that day.  As far as I’m concerned, the guide caught all that day’s fish.

You can learn from guides, and I have learned a lot from guides.  But, most people, including me, don’t have the financial resources to fund a systematic program of learning from guides.  It’s a random thing.  I might get to fish with a guide once or twice a year at most.

Guides think, with reason, that they are evaluated exclusively on fish numbers and the quality of lunch.  There are things you can do to increase what you learn from a guide, but that’s another post.

Fly-fishing schools are another option.  Some are as long as a week. Maybe some are longer.  These run Thousands of dollars, that’s thousand with an s, out of the range for most of us.

Then, there are clinics.  These one-day, two-day, or even three-day events are put on by fly shops, guides, manufacturers, fishing clubs, Trout Unlimited, and the like.  They provide a good introduction to fly fishing, but they don’t get you to the point where you regularly catch fish.

Mentoring programs may be the best way for newcomer to learn to fly fish.  Some clubs have formal programs.  I would think that most clubs would be happy to oblige anyone who asked for a mentor, even if the club doesn’t have a mentor program.  I’d also like to see any organization that provided a clinic follow up the clinic with a mentor program.

I didn’t mention books and videos for a reason.  These are important for a fisher’s advancement, but they are most useful after the basics are mastered.  There are some great books on casting, for example, but few will learn how to cast from a book.  Most beginners need the feedback that only another person can provide.

So, if you are a beginner and want to improve, contact the nearest club.  I’m pretty sure they will be happy to help.