Hey pal, could you help a guy with a few pointers??

By H. Eddie Fields

Those words and that question in the title began my lifelong love and interest in fly fishing. As the years have gone by, I have often thought about that auspicious beginning of my fly-fishing journey forty-two years ago. It all started when I approached a total stranger on the banks of the Watauga River, and humbly asked him if he could help a novice with some pointers. I use the word “humbly” because that was the first of many times I have been humbled with a fly rod in my hands, but I have learned to embrace those times too, because it is good for the soul to listen, pay attention, and learn some patience. I am blessed to have spent many days standing in the soothing embrace of crystal-clear water flowing all around me, casting in the natural rhythm and whirl of the fly line, while soaking in the beauty of God’s grace all around me. The fellow I approached that day probably doesn’t even remember that day or me, because as guys often do, we didn’t even catch each other’s names! But I will always remember him, and I want to go on record and thank him.

I am originally from Southwest Virginia and grew up fishing the creeks and streams where we lived. I typically fished from the bank using live bait and the occasional spinner for smallmouth. After college I got a job in Kingsport, Tennessee and quickly found out that fishing in upper East Tennessee was quite different from my experiences of fishing the creeks and streams where I grew up. After quizzing my co-workers, it appeared I had two choices, I could either buy a boat and fish the local lakes or learn how to trout fish in those “tailwaters” everyone at work was talking about. I certainly didn’t have the money or know anything about buying a boat, so fishing the tailwaters of the South Holston and Watauga rivers was the best choice for me.

I asked my co-workers all the questions I could think of and set out with my spinning rod, brand new waders, some Panther Martins and hit the Watauga River with great expectations. It didn’t take long to figure out that I had fallen woefully short in both my research and questions! First of all, no one bothered to mentioned that the rocks would be that slimy and slick, so I took two baths in the first hour, freezing me to the bone. I was shocked and amazed that the water could be so cold! The big learning, however, was on my very next outing, when I experienced first-hand, the hidden hazard of fishing TVA Dam controlled tailwaters.

Of course, several of the guys at work had mentioned the TVA Dam generating schedule and told me I needed to be careful, but I had no conception of what they were trying to describe. I found out however, after about an hour, when the water and flow increased (in less than 15 minutes} to ten times the flow rate than when I first stepped in the water! I think trying to describe tailwater generating schedules and flows to someone is kind of like trying to describe a hangover, you can’t explain it, you just have to experience one to fully understand. Thank God I was close enough to reach shore and get back to the dry bank before my waders completely filled and washed me downstream.

That one experience was a lifetime lesson and enough for me to make sure that it only happened once. I never stepped into the water again without calling the TVA Lake info number for the generating schedules for Wilbur or South Holston. I was not deterred however, because if I am nothing else, I am stubborn and I was determined to persevere and figure this puzzle out. I asked more questions, and I took the time to get the generating schedules and actually timed the flows with my watch until I figured out that it took about two hours after the generators started, for the flows to peak at the section of the river I was fishing.

After several trips, I began to adapt to the new experience and started to be successful in catching fish. In fact, at times the fishing was amazing, especially on the Watauga in those days, long before the NARC fish kill. I have always practiced catch and release and I experienced days when I caught several dozen fish. There were times when using spinners and plugs resulted in not only large numbers of fish, I also routinely caught trout in the three-to-four-pound range. I was in the groove now, and for a couple of years, I really enjoyed fishing my spinning tackle and plugs, BUT, I also began to notice something that really intrigued me…just as there were successful days, I also experienced days when NOTHING happened, no matter what spinner or bait or plug I threw, I had trouble catching fish. But yet, fish were active and consistently feeding all around me, splashing water and jumping within a few feet of where I was standing.

On those days, it seemed no matter what I tried, I could only catch the occasional fish. Apparently, the fish had to be feeding on some type of fly hatch, because I observed surrounding fly fisherman catch fish after fish. I was amazed at the proficiency in which they caught fish and was even more impressed with the rhythm and beauty of the method. I was so intrigued, I promised myself then that I was going to learn how to fly-fish.

(To be continued next month in Part II)

H. Eddie Fields is a fly shop owner, author and life-long fisherman.