About Me

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Saint Louis, Missouri, United States
I am an attorney in my early thirties with a serious fly fishing problem. I work at a large corporate law firm where things move pretty fast. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of corporate America, I try as often as possible to get away and enjoy a quiet stream. My blog attempts to detail the adventures I have both on and off the water in "My World on the Fly."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Where the Hell is Henry? (Current River Report 3-2-08)

Well the weather was beautiful this past Sunday, reaching almost 80 degrees in Missouri, so I had to get out on the water. I figured luck was on my side. Not only was I still flying high from landing Walter, but I managed to convince Sara to marry me on Friday. (If you're interested in the story behind the proposal, and there is a little fishing twist to it, you can find a detailed narrative on Sara's marathon training blog HERE.

The only potential downside to fishing this past Sunday was that it was "opening weekend." Now those living outside the state may not be familiar with this concept, so it deserves a brief explanation. Missouri has a trout season during which angler's are permitted to keep fish. The season opens on March 1st and ends October 31st. What this really means, is that every year on March 1st, people start plucking trout out of the river and inevitably many of the big fish are taken on bait and treble hooks. It's really my favorite time of year. I hope you sense the sarcasm.

Each year on opening weekend, the trout parks are filled with meat fisherman bumping elbows and crossing lines in search of a "lunker," as they call them. In between casts, folks bark at each other for being too close, re-bait their hooks with power bait, corn, or night crawlers, and chuck their bobbers out on the water while "stocker" rainbows awaiting their demise flip around on the metal stringers hanging off the angler's belt.

Now I don't want to offend anyone, but this is not my cup of tea. I fish to get away from crowds. To find a peaceful setting where my surroundings are filled with the sounds of running water, birds in the trees, and the occasional slurp of a good fish taking an emerger or some other bug off the surface. I don't like to watch cigarette butts and fish guts drift past me as I fish and I definitely don't like anyone within at least 50 yards of me while fishing. I think this should be a rule. There is plenty of water out there for everyone to fish. Don't crowd me!

It also breaks my heart to watch people kill wild fish and long time resident fish (i.e. big browns). Please don't misunderstand my thoughts here. There is certainly nothing wrong with catching and keeping trout. I have kept trout in the past and will probably do so again in the future if I feel the need, but I would never keep a wild fish or a brown. I believe anglers should be limited to keeping "stockers." The meat is no different on a stocker and if someone is worried about their trophy, take a picture. Very accurate mounts can be made from photos and measurements of the fish. There is no need to kill it.

One problem, I understand, is differentiating between wild and stocked fish. This can be extremely difficult even to the trained eye. I have a proposed solution: clip the fins of stocked trout so "stockers" are easily distinguishable from wild fish. Having done some trout population studies in college, I know clipping fins is a common way to mark fish. If anglers were only allowed to keep fish with clipped fins, wild fish would proliferate. Is it possible for the MDC to pull this off?

Also, what would happen if the MDC changed the regs in the blue ribbon section so that you could only keep one fish with a clipped fin UNDER 14 inches? Presumably, this would take pressure off the wild trout and offer relief to the long term resident fish that have grown beyond 14 inches. If the goal is to increase the number of large fish in the stream, isn't it better to allow anglers to take one small fish instead of one big fish? Would this be better or worse for the river?

I would love to hear your comments on these questions because I may be way off base. The point is, I have no problem with removing "stockers" from the river, but let's set something up whereby wild fish and trophy-sized long term resident fish may not be removed at all. Aren't these the fish worth protecting?

Anyway, sorry for my little rant. Let me get back to the fishing report.

So despite the onset of opening weekend, I decided to head out Sunday to fish. The plan was to meet up with a friend, Henry, who was partaking in the opening weekend festivities. I assure you Henry was only keeping "stockers."

I was supposed to meet him at the lodge at 8 am. I left STL around 5:30. When I pulled in, I had to park on the grass because the place was packed. I did not see Henry's car. I went inside to say hello to a few folks I know who work at the lodge, showed-off a few pictures of Walter I have on my phone, and went back outside to meet Henry. He still wasn't there. I proceeded to put my waders on and rig up my rods. Where the hell was Henry?

Just as I got rigged up, he rolled in. He was with Ryan, a buddy of his, and the three of us headed to our fishing spot. Real quick, please be advised that I will NEVER reveal the specific places I fish and I will only generally talk about the patterns I use. If you are reading this report for said information, I apologize but I will not risk disclosing my secrets to the demise of the trout on the Current River.

So Henry, Ryan and I got in our trucks and drove to our spot somewhere within the first seven miles of river down from the park. We took two cars because Ryan had to meet up with his ride home at 10:30 at the lodge. The plans was for Henry to drop Ryan off at 10:30 and come back to find me and fish for the afternoon.

The first thing I noticed when we got to our spot, was that the water was running a little high and the clarity was off. In my opinion, on the Current River this is a good thing. The river has been running very low lately which makes the fish extra spooky. With another 8 inches of water or so, an abundance of new pockets open up where fish will hold. The clarity issue works both ways. It helps because the fish can't see you as easily but, at the same time, you can't see the fish as well either. This can be good if you know where they're supposed to be, but if your new to the river it can be frustrating. I like the water a little merky. The fish are less weary, have more room to move around and feed, and the big boys often come out to play.

We started our day with streamers. Ryan moved upstream and Henry and I moved down. Henry, an amazing duck hunter and caller, went out of his way this past waterfowl season to give me some pointers in the duck blind. I had never seen Henry fish before, but I was more than ready to try to return the favor on the river, if necessary.

Right off the bat, Henry was on the board. I think he put four rainbows in hand within the first 30 minutes. I was getting embarrassed. I missed one streamer hit and had nothing to show for myself after throwing some pretty decent casts into a deep cut out bank. I switched flies, I switched techniques. I couldn't buy a trout. Not even a "stocker." I was fishing water where I know big fish held. I had caught them there before. Something was off. Perhaps my luck had run out after Walter and the proposal.

Henry and I kept moving down stream. He continued to find success, I continued to get skunked. Not soon after we arrived at a patch of water that I really wanted to fish, it was time for Henry to take Ryan back to the lodge. I told Henry where I was headed and he hiked back upriver hoping to be back in a hour or so. Pressure was off. I wanted to show off some skills but I basically sucked. Oh well, he would be back soon.

As Henry disappeared upstream, I approached a particular island I like to fish. There are two sides to this island. One side is real skinny water where the stream is narrow and fast flowing. Branches cover about 60% of the fishable water and it's usually quite difficult to avoid snags when trying to get your fly in the kitchen. The higher water exposed a little more fishable area today. The other side of the island is where most people fish and do quite well. The river is significantly wider, deeper, and easier to fish. Just minutes earlier I watched Henry fish the fat side and stick a few bows. I wanted to try the skinny water.

This is typical on the Current and honestly, it's probably a good thing. Most fisherman walk through or overlook some of the best water in the river. I did the same for many years until "Yoda," my buddy who really taught me how to fish this river well, told me to take the road less traveled. "Patience, you must have my young paduan. Appear, the fish will."

Yoda proved right again. I took a knee on the back side of the island poised to hit the skinny water. Even with the water clarity off, with the sun out and shining like it was, I was in perfect view for any fish in this stretch. I sat there for a moment and tied up a new rig. No fish in sight. I threw a little bow and arrow cast for my first drift. My flies moved through the hole quickly and skirted across the shallower tail out at the end of the riffle. As they broke the water, I saw a good brown spook, darting up in to the depths of the hole under the branches. I knew there were fish in there!

I threw a full cast this time toward where the fish moved. My toss was long and snagged a branch on the opposite bank. Damn! I didn't want to lose these flies. I was low on these particular patterns. I also didn't want to walk through the hole because I knew that brown was in there. I laid my rod on the bank, and walked way down river to cross the stream. I climbed up the rocks on the opposite side, wrecked my forearm on some thorns, but was able to release my fly. I actually picked up a nice little caddis emerger that someone else had lost to the same branch in the process. Gotta love adding to your fly box when on the water.

On the way back, I crossed a little closer to the hole. I didn't realize that brown had snuck back into the tail out again. As I stepped into the water, I saw the shadow dart back up into the fast water. Arrrgg! That was stupid. I should have made the hike down again. That could have ruined my chances.

As I took my position on the island again, grabbing a knee, another angler worked his way downstream toward me fishing the fat side of the island. He snickered a little when he saw me on my knees. As I casted, I told him of the brown I had spooked twice. As the words were coming out of my mouth, the fish ate. Boom! Good fish in the net. Where the hell was Henry?

Thank you to the unknown fisherman for taking this picture.

After the release, I reeled up and gave the photographer lead water below the island. My parents taught me to share. I also wanted to see where he was going because I knew exactly where I wanted to go next. I made a little small talk with my new friend while watching him fish. He stuck a pretty good rainbow and I offered to take his picture and email it to him. He politely declined, stating "If I hook a good brown, I'll take you up on that offer."

A few minutes passed. It was almost 11:15. Where the hell was Henry? I was hungry so I decided to hike back up toward the car and hopefully intercept him as he was headed down stream. Worst case scenario, if I got all the way to my truck, I could grab a quick bite to eat out of my cooler. Henry was my excuse to head toward lunch.

When I got to my car, I didn't see Henry's truck. I found out later that he was forced to leave due to a miscommunication. Apparently, Ryan's ride had either ditched him or did not realize he was supposed to pick him up at the lodge at 10:30. Henry had to take Ryan back to the cabin where they were staying, clean the place, and by the time he was free to get back to the river, it was pretty late in the afternoon. Henry knew I had to leave the river around 3 due to dinner plans related to the engagement so, unfortunately, we did not meet up again the rest of the afternoon.

I was definitely upset but in the back of my mind I knew this was pretty good for fishing. Except for my day with Walter, I have always caught my best and biggest fish when I am "fishing with Han," i.e. fishing solo or fishing by myself. (Sorry for all the Star Wars references.) I think this is because I don't have to share any water, there are less distractions, and honestly, because no one is there to take pictures. That's just the way it seems to work.

So I wolfed down my cold pizza lunch and high-tailed it way down stream away from the growing crowd of fisherman gathering on the river. When I arrived at the spot, I was delighted to see no one within my line of sight. I began to fish. I started a little higher in the pocket than normal because the water was up and a large submerged rock was creating a nice little eddy in the riffle. I was nymphing now. I threw a drift just above the rock. My line drifted over the top and my indicators darted under water. I figured I was hooked on the rock so I executed a half-assed hook set expecting a snag. As I lifted my line, I saw a very large tail swirl. Woah! This was big fish. Too bad I was way late on the hook set. I stuck him and seconds later the fish was gone. That fish was a pig!

I stuck a few "stockers" out of the same riffle, perhaps one little wild rainbow, and moved down further to the water I was used to fishing. As I settled in and stuck a little brown, I heard an engine way off in the distance. What was that? I didn't think they allowed motor boats on the river. How could they? This river is way too small.

I continued to fish dismissing the sound as a power saw or ATV way off in the distance. The noise grew louder and steadier however. I reeled in and walked down stream to see what this was. When I reached the very tail end of the fishable water in my hole, I saw it. A green john boat with gigging lights on the front and a huge outboard jet engine on the back. There were two passengers sitting in swivel fishing chairs like you find in a bass boat. I thought they had to be a rangers. I had nothing to worry about. I had my license and was not breaking any rules. But I have never, in ten years, seen this kind of boat on the river.

The boat got closer, speeding up river leaving an obnoxious wake behind it. It was ruining holes where I knew big fish were sitting. No way I was fishing further down stream anymore. Those fish were down for the rest of the day, if not the week.

I continuted to cast when, about 100 yards down stream from me, I heard a crash followed by a high pitched rev of the motor's RPMs. I looked down as the motor shot out of the water. They had absolutely nailed a submerged rock. This is exactly why these boats should not be here. I now knew this wasn't a ranger. I was absolutely stunned.

The two passengers got out of the craft and dragged the boat across the riffle where they hopefully ruined their engine. I was not so lucky. Shortly after getting through the shallow water, they got back in and fired up the motor again. This time they shot up river until beaching the boat on a little gravel bar barely a 100 feet downstream from me.

That had better be where they stop, I thought to myself. Should I say something? Hell yeah! But, there were two of them, I was solo, and we were in the middle of nowhere. Could I take two of them? These guys were older, probably mid to late 40s or 50s. Where the hell was Henry? We could have handled them together no problem. I decided it was best to keep my mouth shut and I continued to fish. At the very least, perhaps I could catch a few fish in front of them to establish dominance.

As I casted, the two yahoos started shuffling around in their boat. The first guy, who was actually dressed like he knew something about fishing, stood on the stern and took a leak. Real nice. The second guy, wearing neoprene waders and a gray sweatshirt, followed shortly thereafter giggling. Obviously these guys were boozing fairly hard. I have no problem with enjoying a little sauce on the river, but once you start disturbing others, it becomes an issue.

After emptying his tank, the second guy got out of the boat and started rigging his rod. He had a huge yarn indicator, and I later found out, a big stone fly nymph followed by a royal coachman streamer. He started casting probably as far as he could. He ran a drift and got nothing. He took a few steps upriver toward me. I tried not to pay attention. He chucked another long cast--nothing. He stepped up further. He was now about 30 feet from me. He reared back, and threw another shot as my line was finishing a modest 15 foot drift. His toss connected directly with my indicators. That son of a b*tch hooked my line! I couldn't believe it. Not only were these guys absolutely disturbing the peace by running a f*cking jet boat on a spring creek, but now the guy had gotten so close to me that he hooked my line. Unbelievable!

The guy started stripping in line. "NO!" I shouted, "I'll get it." I did not want this guy creating a bird's nest in my rig and I also didn't want him seeing what flies I was using. I walked down and took care of the mess he had created. That's when I noticed his stone fly and royal coachman. I threw his flies back in the water. In hindsight, I should have clipped them off and dropped them. He would have probably caught the same number of fish using just his leader.

Anyway, I proceeded to hike back up stream praying that a ranger would show up and bust them. No such luck. About twenty minutes later, after catching zero fish, frick and frack fired up the motor again and cruised back down stream. I'm glad they decided to ruin miles of good water to come all the way up stream, hook my line, and take off. If either of these two gentleman end up reading this blog, which I doubt will ever happen, I'm sorry for making fun of you but learn some stream etiquette. SERIOUSLY!

Back upstream at the honey hole, I took a breather asking myself if that really just happened. I took off my backpack, sat on a log, and decided I needed a new rig. I hadn't had a fish in while now. Maybe it was because of the S.S. Hillbilly, but I was changing the fly combo up anyway.

I turned over a few rocks to see what was going on with the bugs and I found this huge scud (CLICK ON THE PICTURE TO ENLARGE):

That's definitely one of the largest scuds I had ever seen. Maybe I should try some larger nymphs, I thought. I abided by my instinct and tied on a big nymph that will remain nameless. I put on some extra split shot to make sure my rig would get to the bottom on high water and started casting. I connected immediately. I think it was the first or second cast. When I set the hook, I knew it was a good fish.

First, I could tell the fish was heavy. The littler guys usually lift right off the bottom and you can quickly get a visual. It took several minutes before I saw this fish roll. When he did, I knew immediately that it was 20 inches or better. My heart rate quickened. I got the fish on the reel, and moved down stream. He rolled again and wrapped the lead fly around is caudal fin. Damn! It was now or never. I had to pull him into shallow water where he could be netted. I had no leverage with the lead fly hooked up like that. I managed to coax the fish into calmer water, unfastened my net, and swiped. Got him! A real good Current River male brown. I looked both up and downstream to see if anyone was within ear shot who could take some pictures for me. Nothing. Where the hell was Henry? I took a few shots of the fish in my net.

The bucket of my net measures 17 inches. That fish's nose is approximately one inch out of the front of the bucket, and his tail, 3 to 4 inches out of the back. I had him at roughly 21 inches.

He had a nice fat belly as well.

With the fish in the net, I even tried setting the timer and placing the camera on a log:

Not great, but it proves I caught him. Where the hell was Henry?

After the release of this fish, I literally connected on the next cast with the same big nymph. After a short struggle, I got a visual. Again, 20 inches or better. This one, unfortunately, took advantage of a weak point between my lead fly and the dropper. The tippet must have been damaged during my fight with the first fish. I should have been more careful.

Oh well. I was pumped I got the first one. At this point it was about 2:30 and I needed to head for my truck to make it to dinner. Great day. I ended up putting 10 or so fish in the net. I hooked the two good browns I have pictures of and lost two other real good-sized fish. I'll be back again soon.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Home Waters

Walter, from the story below, is an Arkansas resident and does not hale from Missouri waters. And while this blog will definitely detail my out-of-state fishing experiences, it will primarily focus on my home waters here in Missouri. I realize that when most people think of Missouri, they don’t envision exceptional trout fishing. Rather, they most likely think of bass fishing and deer, duck, and turkey hunting. On the contrary, I would argue Missouri offers top notch trout fishing as well. Having fished for trout in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Arkansas (to name a few), I am moderately well-traveled in the angling world. While the ability to catch solely wild fish in any given day is fantastic, I believe Missouri offers quality fisheries that rival many streams I have experienced outside the state.

My Missouri river of choice is the Current River, and because many of the reports I post on this blog will detail days on this beautiful Ozark riverway, I would like to take this opportunity to briefly describe the Current and the amazing fish that inhabit it.

The section of the Current that I fish is about a two and a half hour drive from St. Louis. I probably fish it two or three times a month. To give you an idea of my obsession with this river, my truck is 4 years old and already has almost 90,000 miles on it. It’s borderline psychotic.

The Current is a spring creek that boasts 20+ miles of trout water. I almost exclusively fish the first seven miles of the river below its cold spring origin in Montauk State Park. My future posts will refer to "fishing in the Park," which means the section of river within Montauk's boundaries, and "fishing in the river," which means the first seven miles below the Park. This section has been designated as “Blue Ribbon” trophy trout water by the Missouri Department of Conservation (“MDC”). “Blue Ribbon” waters are the most highly regulated trout waters in the State. The MDC website states:

“Blue Ribbon Trout Areas will be waters with the best habitat quality or self-sustaining populations of trout. Fishing regulations will include an 18-inch minimum length limit on all trout, and a daily limit of one trout. Fishing will be restricted to flies and artificial lures only. Gigging of non-game fish will not be permitted. These restrictive regulations are designed to sustain the maximum density of adult trout and offer the chance to harvest a trophy-sized trout. Larger Blue Ribbon streams will be stocked. Smaller ones will be managed for wild, naturally-reproducing rainbow trout.”

The Current is considered a “Larger Blue Ribbon Stream” and supports both wild trout (i.e. born in the stream) and stocked fish populations. (Note, local biologists will argue that rainbows are the only species able to reproduce effectively in the Current. In my unprofessional opinion, I disagree for I have caught several fingerling browns that are way too small to be stocked fish.)

The average Current river trout is what I call a “stocker.” It’s typically an 8-12 inch rainbow or brown that is dull in color, more easily fooled by anglers, and doesn’t put up much of a fight. Here is your average "stocker" rainbow:

The trophies, or at least what keeps me coming back, are the wild rainbows and large browns that were either born in the stream or were stocked years earlier and have since developed wild tendencies (“long term residents”).

For obvious reasons, wild fish are preferred over “stockers.” Wild fish fight harder, are often more elaborately colored, and, by nature, are more difficult to catch because they eat only what is naturally found in the stream. After all, they have never experienced anything else. This is a brand new wild Current River rainbow:

Compare any other animal raised in captivity versus the wild version. The wild animal is faster, stronger, smarter, and more efficient because it had to avoid predation and hunt for its food in order to survive and mature. Animals raised in captivity do not have predators and they don’t have to hunt. Once released into the wild, it takes years for these animals to develop the ability to compete with their wild counterparts. Those that do reach maturity are likely very lucky to have survived.

It’s the same way with trout. When a stocked fish is put in the river and no longer gets its daily regiment of protein pellets, instinct forces it to develop a natural diet. The longer that fish lives in the stream, the more fluent it becomes with its surroundings. It is forced to become familiar with the predator and prey relationship in the river, otherwise it will perish. The fish must develop into an organism that can avoid predation and compete for food with the other fish in the river. You'll realize this when you hook a 20 inch brown that has been living in the stream for years. It’s just as good as hooking the real deal in Montana or Colorado or any other wild trout stream.

The primary predator of trout on the Current, aside from larger fish, birds, and otters, is unfortunately the angler and this makes the wild fish and long time resident fish extremely difficult to catch. Fishing pressure, coupled with the depth and size of the river, make for inherently “spooky” fish. Many fish are found in 1 to 2 feet of water in stretches where the river is no wider than a single street lane. While it’s a gas site fishing to large browns with dry flies in a foot of water, unless you’re very sneaky, most fish will see you before you see them. Once you’ve been spotted, there is little chance the fish will still eat.

Successful anglers really have to stalk fish on the Current. I would like to go into to a little dissertation on how to catch and where to find the big browns and wild rainbows on the Current but I fear this information may fall into the wrong hands (i.e. people fishing with stringers). Those looking to master this skill, and I am not suggesting that I am even close to such mastery, need to get out on the water and fish—A LOT! I have been fly fishing for 15 years and have been regularly fishing the Current for the past 10 years and everytime I get out, I see something different or learn something new.

Heavy fishing pressure on the Current also makes the wild fish and long term residents very picky about what they eat. A good friend of mine, and a truly phenomenal fly fisherman who taught me basically everything I know about the sport, coined the phrase “the Current River lean.” This basically describes the typical dry fly refusal exhibited by many fish on the Current.

Imagine throwing a near perfect presentation using 7x tippet to a good male brown who is tucked into the bank in slow water waiting for a terrestrial to fall within reach. Your fly drifts toward the fish and he rises from his position in the water column to eat. As he moves towards the surface, he lets the current push him down stream to match the speed of your drifting fly. While moving down stream, his tail drops, his nose rises and the fish almost leans backward to get a better look at your fly. Your fly continues to drift. The fish continues down stream further lowering his tail as if he is almost going to tip over backwards. He is basically vertical in the water column by now, perpendicular to the bottom. He has moved so far down stream that you are running out of line on your drift. Like the fish, you start to lean down stream as well thinking a little extra reach will extend your drift enough to give the fish the time he needs to make up his mind. With arms extended, standing on your tippy toes, the fish still does not commit. You try to throw a slack mend to add distance to the drift. The fly twitches on the water ever so slightly and the fish takes off at the first sign of the unnatural movement. This is “the Current River lean.”

While this unfortunate scenario is not uncommon on the Current, patient anglers will ultimately be rewarded by slowing down, letting fish move into water where they are comfortable, and by executing very delicate presentations. Ultimately, I believe the persistence required to overcome “the Current River lean” has bettered my ability to catch fish anywhere in the world.

The Current River offers excellent fishing year round. There is an abundance of insect activity which allows for just about every type of trout techniques around. High water offers great streamer fishing. Crayfish and sculpins are abundant. The following picture is a Current River sculpin that surprisingly ate a sculpin pattern:

The many riffles on the river are good for nymphing. Among other nymphs on the current, scuds are very effective:

The long slow stretches boil with risers when there’s a hatch. The following picture was taken during a January midge hatch:

The river is truly spectacular. The scenery is breath taking, anglers are surrounded by wildlife, and there is nothing better than catching big fish out of skinny water. I am truly blessed to call this my home water.

Stay posted for some actual fishing reports.

A Career Day

These are the stories from our guided trip on the White River with guides John Wilson and Jimmy Traylor on February 16, 2008. Johnston Hager (“Stone”), Stuart Noel (“Stu”), Billy Reisner, and I all had a blast and I can safely say this was one of the best days of fishing we will ever encounter.

I don’t want this to be your typical fish story and I know when you start saying things like “best day ever” you run that risk. Thus, to enhance the veracity of the tale that follows, I have inserted pictures in an attempt to document the events of the day. I have taken the liberty of adding some detail for the sake of the spicing up the narrative a bit, but all in all, I have not embellished a great deal of what follows.

I also apologize in advance for my long-windedness but this day really inspired me. In fact, for the past 15 years that I have been fly fishing, I have never once felt the need to memorialize the events of one day on paper. I hope you can enjoy a fraction of what I felt by reading along.

The day began with a headache and a Budweiser to wash away the night. Stone, Stu, Billy, and I had a long night fishing on the Norfork where we caught a few average browns and a ton of rainbows. Keeping warm with nips of Jim Beam, we called it quits around 4 AM to nap before the 8 AM wake-up call.

Wilson and Jimmy T met us at Gene's on the Norfork, per our request a day earlier, so we wouldn’t have to worry about driving home after a few brews on the river. As you might imagine, our trips to Arkansas primarily consist of drinking with a little fishing on the side. Or at least that’s what we claim for those years when we don’t have fish stories to tell.

Stu, Billy, and I reside in STL and we have been coming down to fish the Norfork and White every year for the past 5 or 6 years now. Our fourth man is typically “Big John” but unfortunately Big John's wife was under the weather and he could not join us this year. We all wish her the best. Big John is usually the anchor of our group. He is a motivator, a great fisherman, and keeps the candle burning at both ends to say the least. He was shattered that he couldn’t make it on the trip and we all certainly missed him a ton. In hindsight, his absence may have been a blessing in disguise because now we will most likely be coming down a second time this year.

Filling Big John’s spot was not easy. We had a few candidates in mind but there were strict requirements. Obviously, the guy had to be somewhat proficient with a fly rod and we did not want someone who would spend his days on the phone dealing with a nagging spouse or an overly demanding occupation. The guy also needed to be up for late nights, early mornings, and gluttonous amounts of fishing. Ultimately, all of us came to the same conclusion. Enter Stone, Big John's brother-in-law. Stone is relatively new to the fly fishing gig, but is an excellent spin fisherman and grew up sticking bass the size of your thigh. Needless to say, Stone figured out the long stick pretty quickly and had Wilson saying "that Stone is just fishy" by the end of the day. Here is a shot of the crew:
From left to right: Stu, Billy, me, Stone.

Well, as I was saying, at 8 AM Jimmy T and Wilson let themselves into our cabin at Gene’s to rustle us out of bed. The first big news of the day, to everyones’ surprise, was that they were not running any water on the White. This meant “fish eyes” were in play and our odds of hooking a hog went up slightly. We loaded our gear and coolers into the car, stopped for more beer on the ride to the White, and discussed our plan of attack.

There is always something interesting about walking in to the quick shop at eight in the morning with a beer in hand and placing more beer on the counter. You certainly get some interesting looks from the cashier. This morning, however, was slightly different. The cashier had a mullet down to the center of his back. He wore cut off sweat pant shorts and a wife beater to hide is 350 lb girlish figure. Without even batting an eye, he rung us up, flashed a toothless smile, and most likely cracked a beer himself shortly after we left.

On the ride over to the White, Stone learned his first lesson in fly fishing: “the wader fart.” He must have laid one down just as he was getting into the ride at the quick shop and when the smell didn’t hit immediately, he thought he got away with one. To his surprise, and per the usual wader marinade process, the stank hit about 15 minutes later when he repositioned himself on the seat. The windows dropped in flash and Wilson nearly had to pull the car over as his eyes were watering from the stench. After the Suburban finally aired out, we were at the river. Thanks for a pleasant ride Stone.

Pulling in to our parking spot and gazing out over the water, we were pleased to see we had a little room to fish. There were probably 5 or 6 other fisherman on the shoal, but it was not too crowded. The 35 degree rainy day was doing a great job keeping people off the water. A real quick side note, where I come from we usually don’t disclose the location of where we catch fish, especially big fish, because when word gets out, local yocals like our friend in the quick shop go bait casting and start sticking trophy browns in their freezers. I don’t know what the policy is on this forum, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Back to the story.

So we gear up and head to the river. I am lucky enough to be fishing one of two 10 foot Sage Z-axis rods so graciously loaned to Wilson by Cary Marcus. I had the 5wt and Stone had the 4wt. Thanks again Cary. Those rods are sweet! I am definitely in the market now for a 10 footer to add to my collection.

As we hit the river bed, I was very anxious to get started and to get on the board with a brown. I gulped down my remaining Bud, disposed of the can and quickly grabbed the first spot in the tail out of the shoal. Stone set up just above me in the faster water, Stu directly below me, and Billy was the furthest down stream. Jimmy T and Wilson were circulating between the four of us pointing out productive water and spotting fish.

Fishing sow bug patterns, I hooked into my first brown within about 10 minutes. As Wilson netted him, I reached for my camera. The damn thing was out of batteries. We quickly did some shuffling and Stone snapped this shot with the camera he was holding.
The first fish of the day. Hopefully there would be more to come. By the way, the guy in the background (over Wilson’s left shoulder) is not a member of our party.

Now in the past, it has been my experience that I always have the best days when I am either fishing solo or when I forget my camera. Although we had two functional cameras on the water that day other than mine, I felt my dead batteries might be a sign or at least bring some good karma. After a quick kiss and release, I was casting again.

The second fish came within the next 15 or 20 minutes. BAM! Another beautiful brown pushing 20 inches:

I was starting to have fun. I could see fish moving all around the pockets in front of me. Visibility was decent, we found a hot pattern, and the fish were eating. I was also starting to get a little cocky as nobody else in the group had a brown in the net yet.

I yelled down to Stu: “You wanna get a little action for the biggest fish of the day?”

Stu quickly responded: “nice call after landing your first two.” The bet for the day was appropriately set at 50 cents for the biggest fish.

Stu struck next with Jimmy T at his side. I heard the stick come from just below me: “THSIK!” There is nothing like that sound. The sound when your line lifts off the water and comes tight to a fish. You lift, often questioning whether you’ve stuck the bottom or a trout, then you see the fish roll or flash and you know you’re in business. What a feeling. Stu’s fish ran and performed an aerial throwing the hook. Stu let out a high-pitched “F###! That was a good one.” I snickered and we continued casting.

As Billy was putting bow after bow in hand down stream, a larger brown moved in the pocket no more than 15 feet in front of me. Wilson snuck in at my side offering “that fish is easily 30 inches.” My heart rate picked up. It was on. This is what we came down here for. This is White River fishing. I still had the sow bug on that was cleaning up. I figured one good presentation and I would see his mouth open. To my surprise, cast after cast was met with refusals. The fish moved around the pocket. He settled on the far side, then the near side again. He moved further across the river, down stream, then upstream. He was not comfortable and was not eating. Finally, after about 15 minutes of heart pounding disappointment, he made a significant move up stream about 15 yards. I could still see him at this point, but any cast I threw that far up river would have been poaching. This was now Stone’s fish.

Wilson shifted positions to Stone’s side. I continued to cast for smaller fish in front of me, but I was really listening to the coaching coming from up river. As I was pulling in a small bow, I heard that sound: “THSIK!” This time it was followed by “you gott’em Stone. Stay calm.” I immediately backed out of the river. I saw the huge brown silhouette dart down stream as Stone got him on the reel. “This is a twenty pound fish,” Wilson stated in the same breath telling Stone to stay calm. How do you do that, I wondered. 20 lbs and staying calm cannot be used in the same sentence when it comes to fly fishing. Stone played the fish well and started following him down stream. The hog was heading for a log jam. Wilson yelled “back up, back up don’t let him….” Just then the taught line sprang out of the water back to its origin and draped over Stone’s shoulder. He was gone. Stone was dumbfounded. It took about 2 minutes and it was over. “Nice job Stoney,” I exclaimed, “at least you got him to eat.” Needless to say, this did not satisfy Stone’s disappointment. He backed out of the water for a beer and the day continued on.

With the Stoneman taking a breather, I slid up in to the faster water where he was fishing and began plucking a few bows. Stu and Jimmy T shifted up into the water I was fishing, and Billy followed suit taking over Stu’s old spot. Shortly after our shift, Stu laid into a good brown. After a short play, he had this sucker in the net and was on the board with a qualifier. This was the largest fish of the day so far:

“I bet your wishing it was $20 per man now,” I exclaimed. After the release of Stu’s trophy and a few photo ops together, I managed to stick two more great browns out of Stone’s former spot.

I was ready for a “sodey” and a breather. We were now shooting to get everyone on the board with a 20 inch fish. Stone quickly housed his brew, and was ready for his turn. It did not take long. With me and Wilson spectating, Stone threw a nasty 30 foot haul to an old spawning bed on the far bank. He executed Jimmy T’s patented reach mend and put the fly in the kitchen. The lead indicator turned slightly up stream right when the fly was in the wheel house. Stone lifted his rod tip abruptly and sure enough, fish on! With a few strips and a spin of the reel, Stone landed the first twenty inch fish of his life on a fly rod.

Congrats Johnston!

That’s all it took to inspire me again and I think Wilson noticed it. I saw him slide his long landing net in his wading belt and I knew what was up. He was going on a recon mission for a pig. I followed quickly behind graciously offering to give Billy my spot. What a guy I am!

It did not take long to find a pod of really nice fish. Wilson set me up on the low end of the hole and Stu on the high end. Stu put a second hog in the net almost immediately.
I followed shortly thereafter.
I then slid slightly further down stream. Wilson joined me as Stu was pumped to have this honey hole all to himself. That’s when we got our first visual of “Walter.” Glued to the bottom about 20 feet out and just down stream of me was what appeared to be a log with fins. This was Walter. The name comes from a long standing joke, or fish fantasy, I have running with my Dad. We have both been in search of this mythical fish for years. If you’ve seen the movie “On Golden Pond” you’ll understand the reference. “Do you see that Ryan,” Wislon inquired, “do you see the heron scar on that fish’s back?”

Well John, I think I see a fish but I don’t see any scar.” I threw a cast upstream of what I saw and drifted my fly right over the finned log. “You see him,” Wilson remarked, “that’s a big fish. You work him and if he eats give me a yell.”

“Johnny,” I responded, “if I hook that fish, getting your attention won’t be a problem.” My heart raced again as I casted. I heard Stu nail another good brown. “Eat you bastard,” I said to myself with each drift. Something wasn’t right. “Wilson,” I yelled, “I think I need more split shot. This fly isn’t getting down to him.” Little did Stu or Wilson realize, this was simply a ploy to get Wilson's fly box back near me. Wilson snuck back down to Walter and I and pulled out a #10 off-white egg with a florescent orange hot spot. “This is a big fish fly, Ryan,” he remarked, “a lot of big fish have been taken on this pattern.”

I was psyched. We tied up and started casting again. No additional split shot. A few drifts….nothing. Wilson then had me mend to put a little action on the egg. When my cast would hit the water, I threw an initial mend upstream of the hole to align my drift and set up the appropriate presentation. He then had me throw a second smaller mend right as the fly was entering the hole. This, he said, would cause the egg to lift off the bottom and drop into the hole instead of dragging along the bottom into Walter’s lair.

It took me a minute to get this technique down, but I got it. “Good drift Ryan,” Wilson praised, “one more time, just a little shorter.” My fly was drifting just outside Walter’s range. I lifted the line off the water hauling in my back cast, then adding the forward haul and laying the line on the water. I executed my first mend lining up the drift and followed shortly thereafter with the second, smaller mend, dropping the egg into the hole. My indicators drifted past Walter. I knew the egg was following closely behind. I tried to focus on the indicators and not the fish. The lead indicator ducked into the water. I set the hook and there was a pause. One one thousand, two one thousand…was I on the bottom? Just then, Walter moved, my line pulled tight and the rod bent. Holy Sh*t he ate! “Stay calm,” Wilson barked, “get him on the reel.” I fumbled getting my fly line untangled from the hemostats hanging off my rain jacket. Wilson actually stepped in to do this for me as Walter picked up speed and headed up river. I was freaking out!

“He’s on the reel,” I responded to Wilson, “Stu, get out of the way.” Stu didn’t move. He threw another cast. “Stu get the f*ck out of the way!” This time I yelled. Stu realized something was going on now. He quickly reeled up.

Wilson began coaching, “alright Ryan, back up, back up and reel.” I followed his instruction and Walter suddenly changed directions and started a down stream run. I reversed the angle of my rod tip and reeled hard to keep the line taught. I moved down river with the fish as he ran. By now, Wilson had net in hand and was moving below Walter to corral him into shallower water. “Keep backing up Ryan and reel,” Wilson commanded. I abided. The line then suddenly shot out of the water like it was spring loaded. The end of my line was lifeless. Walter had bowed his head toward me and immediately pulled back throwing the fly. I fell to my knees and put my head in my hands. He was gone. I blew it.

As I sulked shouting obscenities, Wilson slowly followed the fish down stream with his net. I thought he was trying to net the fish so we could still claim we got him. “Damn it,” I yelled, “what did I do wrong?”

Wilson retorted, “get off your knees and stop pouting. This fish isn’t done yet. Move down to me quietly and we can get another cast in.”

"That fish will eat again?” No way, I thought.

"Ryan, you’re gonna have to move a little faster than that!” Wilson shouted. I got it in gear and caught up to him. The fish was still backing up slowly into the end of the tail out. The water was getting shallower and shallower. Walter was about 10 feet out and slightly down stream of us. “Alright Ryan,” Wilson instructed calmly with his hybrid Texas/Arkansas drawl, “make a cast.” The fish was so close I couldn’t get enough line out to properly load the rod. I missed the first toss. I missed the second toss and then the third. “Ryan, MAKE A CAST!” Wilson was fired up. I was fired up. I threw again and the drift was right on. Walter did not eat. He backed up again. We followed as I casted. “Don’t cast at him when he’s moving,” Wilson barked, “wait till he’s comfortable. This fish is still calm and he’ll eat again.” Walter backed up even more. By now, he was in such shallow water that his back was breaking the surface and leaving a wake behind him. He had no more room to move. I had to get it done now or he would spook upstream and I would lose him.

I threw my next cast and the fly went right in his face. He didn’t eat. “Throw that mend in Ryan. Move the egg.” The next cast hit the water, I executed the mend, this was the shot. The fly drifted right to the fish’s face. I finally noticed the heron scar on Walter’s back and I took my eyes off my indicators and looked at the fish. His mouth opened. I didn’t know if he was breathing or eating. I guessed and delivered a hook set. “THSIK!” Walter paused as if he were saying “I have something stuck between my teeth. I’d better move now.” He casually began to cruise up stream. My rod flexed and the fly line followed. He was on again.

A second burst of adrenalin ripped through me. I am not losing this fish a second time. Wilson was immediately back on point barking orders: “Get him on the reel. Let him run Ryan, move with him.” I minded every word. Walter took us back up to where the rest of the group was. I applied downstream pressure as the fish continued up stream. He was not budging. I had never felt a fish this strong. Jimmy T yelled “has he got a 30 on John?”

Wilson responded “this fish is spookin’ thirties.” I continued to apply downstream pressure and couldn’t move this fish at all. He was in control. My reel was singing.

After 5 minutes or so of pulling against him trying to control the spin of my reel, I saw a submerged log in Walter’s path. “John, is that a log,” I shouted. By now, Wilson was standing in the middle of the channel in line with the fish with his net in hand. I was on the bank just down stream of the fish trying to coax him away from the log and toward Wilson.

"Yeah,” John responded, “you gotta put the wood to him now Ryan. Back up and lay it on him. LAY IT ON HIM!” I moved quickly backward reeling as I went. Thankfully, Walter decided not to push back too hard. He moved closer and closer to Wilson. Everything was going in slow motion. At any minute I expected the line to come springing out of the water. My wrist was on fire. I was using my left hand to help support the rod when I wasn’t reeling. I kept backing up. I saw Wilson lunge with the net. There was a flash of gold, a tail….we got him!

“Holy #@*$!” I was freaking out. Wilson brought him over to me and I saw the size of this thing. My heart was pounding. My hands were shaking. I met Walter face to face, the heron scar clearly noticeable on his back:
Caught on a 10 ft 5wt Sage Z-axis with Sharkskin line and 5x Rio fluorocarbon tippet. While there were no official measurements taken, Wilson's educated guess was 34 inches long with a 22 inch girth—24.2 lbs. I know this will be debated, but at this point I really don't care. In my mind Walter was a beast.
The group took movies, they took pictures. Everyone on the shoal came down to check out this fish. I was on cloud nine.

I gave the fish of my life a kiss on his forehead, gently laid him back in the water, and Walter swam off to grow a little bigger and to be caught another day.

In the aftermath, we took some group shots, shared a few beers, and I made a call to Sara, my girlfriend of almost 5 years who puts up with all my fishing antics and actually supports my addiction by buying me rods and trips to go tarpon fishing (don’t worry, I plan to make an honest woman out of her soon). I called my Dad to tell him I caught Walter. I called Cary to thank him for letting me use the rods. I called Big John and let him know we missed him and wished he was there with us. The smile never left my face. I was done fishing for the day and as it turned out, pretty much the rest of the weekend. What a day! Stu had two twenties, Stone had one, I had Walter, and we hadn’t even had lunch yet.

The second half of the day slowed a bit as the rain picked up, but the fish continued to feed. The day closed with Billy getting on the board with the first twenty inch trout of his fishing career. He had hooked several large fish throughout the day but couldn’t manage to get any in the net. Finally, with the light fading and the game on the line, he brought this beautiful brown in to close out the day.
The entire experience was surreal. Every person in our group caught the biggest fish of his life (except for maybe Stu, but this was definitely the first time he had landed two 20 inchers in the same day). We headed back to Gene’s in a state of nirvana, sharing tales of each fish and wondering if it could get any better. It was a career day for all of us.