By H. Eddie Fields
My journey into fly fishing was a new lesson in frustration. Keep in mind, more than forty years ago there was no such thing as the internet or YouTube, or even video recorders, so I went to the only source available, the local library, and checked out three books on flyfishing. Well, that turned out to be yet another disaster, because books with instructions on how to fly fish were typically written about western rivers or natural eastern streams and are useless for fishing tailwater streams.
But in my ignorance, I happily went to the local K Mart and bought my first fly rod combo. I remember it was an 8 weight rod with a Shakespeare reel. Following the instructions from the books I got from the library, I rigged up, tying the leader and tippet the best I could. To this day, I still don’t understand how that first guy came up with the blood knot! I am convinced a man needs three hands to properly tie this knot, because mine never turned out like the pictures. I also had picked out and bought a half-dozen flies from a selection on the K Mart rack, selecting a couple of Royal Coachmen (they were the biggest and prettiest), two Dave’s Hoppers, and some Micky Finns. Now armed and dangerous, I hit the Watauga with great expectations.
Those expectations soon turned to disappointment and frustration, as I fished the latter part of May and almost the whole month of June and did not catch a single fish – not one. A smarter man would have given up, but I was determined to break the code and learn how catch a fish on a fly rod. Of course, it didn’t help my frustration when I watched other fly-fishermen, above and below me, consistently and effortlessly catch fish after fish. I eventually concluded that fly fishermen must be a secret society because they were guarding their knowledge like State secrets. Every time I moved closer to one of them for a hint, they moved farther away without so much as a hello.
One morning, frustrated, but not defeated, I was fishing the Watauga at Sycamore Shoals, right below Sycamore Shoals State Park and Fort Watauga, where once again I was flinging that curtain rod (calling it a fly rod is being too nice) with everything I had and still being rewarded with the same result – a big zero! I looked up and watched a guy step out from the trail to the edge of the water right below me. He didn’t even acknowledge I was there as he just stood there and stared at the water for what seemed like minutes to me.
The guy looked like he just stepped off the pages of a Cabela’s catalogue. He had on more gear and “stuff” than I had ever seen, so I quickly surmised that he was too dandy to be a real fisherman. I just curiously continued to watch as he walked around at the edge of the water and, for reasons I couldn’t understand, picked up several rocks from under the water, closely examined them and placed them gently back in the water. I continued watching as he pulled out his fly box and after staring at what seemed like every fly in the box, he spent several more minutes just tying the fly to his tippet.
Finally, he took about three or four steps into the water, extended about six feet of fly line from the end of his rod, made a couple of false casts, and placed his fly in a rift about a foot below a rock. He made a couple of strips on his line, picked up his rod tip and line, and cast again right to the edge of the same rift. Immediately, he raised his rod tip, setting the hook on a nice brown trout. He netted and released the fish (still not even looking my way), examined and fiddled with the fly, checked his tippet and after another false cast, placed the fly on the other side of the rift and caught ANOTHER brown, bigger than the first.
The fisherman had my total attention now, as I watched him over the next few minutes catch four more fish in the same run below the rocks. I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I was determined to find out how he was performing this incredible miracle! I eased over to the bank and walked down the edge until I came to the path where he had entered and positioned myself between the path and him, effectively blocking his exit. Realizing I was right behind him, he turned and gave me a curt, “How you doing”?
I said, “Hey Pal, if it isn’t too much trouble, I was hoping you could you give a guy a few pointers?”
I was glad to see his demeanor soften, as he turned and looked at me and sort of smiled and asked, “How long have you been flyfishing”? I quickly confessed that I had been fishing hard over the last couple of months, at least over a dozen trips, and had not caught a single fish.
I continued by saying, “Obviously, you know exactly what you are doing. I don’t know anyone who flyfishes and can’t get anyone to help me, so all I know is what I have learned from books, and that strategy sure isn’t working. I really could use some help!”
I was thrilled when he reeled in and walked out of the water, up to where I was standing and said, “Sure, I’ll tell you what little I know.”
The next few minutes were amazing as he began to share his knowledge with me. He first asked to see my rod and rather than making fun of my curtain rod, he graciously began to relate that fishing tailwaters required much lighter equipment and explained why a 4 weight rod is a better choice because presentation of the fly is so important.
He went on to explain that the water is so clear and cold , the trout see everything, so tippet and flies are much smaller than typical fly fishing books describe. He pulled out his fly box as he asked me what flies I was using and what I understood about fly selection. I was really embarrassed, and I showed him my Royal Coachman as he began to show me a selection of size 18 and 20’s, explaining that the year-round cold temperatures of the water from the bottom of the lakes, combined with the climate in East Tennessee, resulted in the size of the bugs and hatches being much smaller than flies found in natural streams and rivers.
He walked to the edge of the river and motioned for me to follow, as he once again picked up a rock and pointed out two nymphs crawling, and a caddis shell attached to the bottom of the rock. He squeezed the Caddis shell oozing out the familiar Caddis green color. Then he showed me the flies in his box, and I realized his tied files matched the color and form of the living nymphs.
I joked that I didn’t know you had to be an entomologist to be a fly fisherman. He chuckled but then seriously replied, “You absolutely have to have a basic understanding of entomology to be a successful fly fisherman, because you have to understand the life cycle from larvae, to nymph, to dry fly in order to understand what the fish are eating at any given time.” He went on to say, “Fortunately, here in the tailwaters there are only about six or seven hatches during the year, and once you learn those and the cycle stages, matching the hatch becomes much simpler”.
We stepped back out of the water, and he said, “Let me watch you cast.” So I picked up my rod and cast my line a couple of times in the water in front of us. He said, “You really have a pretty good cast, so that isn’t going to be a problem, but later on you probably will want to look at a good 4 or 5 weight rod.” Then he asked, “Do you mind if I rig you up?”
“Please do,” I replied.
H. Eddie Fields is a fly shop owner, author and life-long fisherman.