I woke yesterday hours before dawn. The bed was warm, the house was quiet, and in my drowsiness, I started the internal dialogue to argue for another thirty minutes of sleep. Want of sleep was soon overwhelmed by the riverís call and found me struggling into thermal underwear and an assortment of woolens. The Cumberland River is 140 miles south of my home, so itís not just a quick run I can make after work. Where I fish is downstream from one of the TVAís major hydroelectric dams, so generating schedules play a role in my fishing, as well. Back when I owned a single fly rod and before the internet, I suffered greatly as a result of these varying flow rates. After finding a small stream nearby as a supplement and adopting the Spey rod, I can fish everything from a rushing brook I can almost jump across in places to swinging streamers on the big river when itís flowing 22,000+ cfs, all in the same day!
I had a cup of coffee and checked the weather and generating schedules for my destination. Flows have been wildly fluctuating for the past month and it appeared the prior twelve hours were no different. It seemed the riverís elevation was dropping and would end up falling almost fifteen feet by the time I made my last cast.
The drive was mind-numbing. Itís not much to look at during the day and in the pre-dawn hours, the boredom is only occasionally shattered by deer bounding across the road. My luck held and I managed to safely avoid the two near-misses I had. I arrived on the river when the sky was still completely dark. By the time Iíd checked the water level, changed into my waders, and got my gear sorted and ready to go, the horizon was going gray. Heavy cloud cover made the sunrise seem more a suggestion of daylight than an actual breaking of day. Heading toward the river, I encountered this young lady and managed to get off one bumbling, blurred shot before she remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere and hurried along her way:
The river was still about ten feet above what I consider optimal, but the 13í Echo Spey rod gave me all the option I needed to deal with the heavy water. I tied on a #4 black Matuka that has brought many fish from this particular area and waded in. The banks are steep here with the water at this level, so I found myself mid-thigh deep only five feet from the shore. Thatís about as deep as I like to wade in the surging waters immediately below the dam, especially in semi-darkness. The currents here do funny things and Iíve found it best to employ a healthy portion of discretion when wading here.
My casting was especially poor this day. My timing was off and it seemed my anchor was either far too weak or collapsed altogether. Iím sure most of you guys know where that led. With the weak anchor, the leader would crack like a whip and there would be zero line shot when I released it. With the collapsed anchor, my line would try looping but the fly would stick in the surface film. Some days are like that for me. I took breaks and visualized the casts I was trying to make. I thought about what I was seeing and what I wanted to see. I slowed down but focused on smoothing out my movements and loading the rod throughout the cast and suddenly I felt that ďpopĒ as all the stripped line shot out and banged into the reel! I would fight to achieve that feeling for the remainder of the day.
After about thirty minutes of casting practice, my fly was coming to the end of its swing when I felt a tap. I gave the line one short strip and released it. As it tightened in the current, I felt a slap run through the rod and into my hands. Lifting the rod tip, it bent nicely as a 14Ē rainbow expressed its displeasure at being hooked. It used the current to its advantage and provided far more fight than its size would suggest possible. I thought of digging out my camera and bringing the fish to shore for a photo, but the mental image of the fish flopping in the grass, gasping as I fumbled around with a camera, sickened me a bit. I reached into the cold water and taking hold of the fly, popped it free without lifting the fish clear of the water. After only a momentís rest it swam unhurriedly back into the depths, leaving me to wonder how big it would be the next time we meet.
A tree branch was swimming its way toward me in the slower water next to shore, actually leaving a wake as it approached. Yes, I found this a bit odd, too. Then the beaverís head came into view behind the leading end of the branch. For this, I did fumble with the camera.
It was cloudy enough to trigger the flash on my camera, which was apparently not something the beaver typically encountered during its daily routine. The branch was dropped and the beaver froze in the shallow water, staring intently at me. It turned toward deep water and began moving away from the shore and in the second picture you can see itís heading directly toward my line.
Beavers do not react well to contact with a Skagit head. While I canít speak to their response to Scandi setups or any other lines, I can attest to an absolutely explosive reaction to the Skagit. Not unlike setting off a small grenade under the creature, I found myself thinking after the excitement had passed. Fortunately, the beaver didnít get fouled in the line and leave me to sort out what to do next.
Boat traffic on the river was rapidly increasing so I moved to another area downstream. This is an area I fished with my friend Travis many years ago during a snowstorm, which set me straight about the joys of winter fishing. This area can become so completely silent during winter as to suggest the silence of outer space. Itís as if all sound has been thoroughly cleansed from the air and there is nothing left. Not one speck or even the memory of a sound wave passing here.
The river is deep here, so I tied on a weighted Clouser in colors to mimic a young brown trout. The waterís apparent stillness conceals the speed and power of its current here, and my line drifted quickly by as the Clouser sank. As the swing unfolded several casts later, my rod mimicked the feeling one gets from firing a small-caliber pistol. Lost in the scenery, the jolt was startling and snatched me immediately back to reality as the fish surged out into the main channel. Hearing the Sageís drag hiss as the fish took line, I ran through the mental checklist of the rodís bow versus tippet weight and made a minor adjustment. The fish gave an incredible fight and after what seemed like five minutes of surges and acrobatics, finally came to hand. I laid my rod butt in the water alongside the beautiful brown trout and measured nineteen inches. Again, I removed the fly underwater and then held the gasping fish upright in the current. Soon revived, it gave a few gentle twists of its powerful body and swam unhurriedly back toward the current seam where Iíd found it.
As noon came and went, I put the Spey gear away and broke out the light gear for a visit to the nearby brook I mentioned earlierÖ