Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fly Fishing The Davidson (No, Seriously, I Really Did)

One would have thought a serious outdoorsman like myself (he writes with tongue planted firmly in cheek) would have been chomping at the bit to take advantage of the fishing opportunities in my new surroundings. When I moved to these Blue Ridge Mountains a little over a year ago, I left the piscatorial bounty of the marshes, sounds and blackwater rivers, not to mention the nearby surf and Gulf Stream waters, of the Coastal Plain for the clear, cold trout streams of western NC.

Truth be told, I was a little intimidated by the prospect of jumping headlong into the fly fishing scene here. I am little more than a dabbler in the beautiful art of roll casts and nymphing, more comfortable with a spinning rod or a tuna stick really. The thought of laying out the cash for a new fly rod, line, leaders, tippets and tackle was daunting, not to mention I know very little etiquette when it comes to the gentleman's sport.

When my friend Sean called to invite me on a guided fishing expedition to the famed Davidson River, I jumped. Here was my chance to fish under the tutelage of a local expert and use gear suited to the task. The trip was a birthday gift to Sean from his wife and allowed me to join in for a nominal fee.

After a 45-minute drive from Black Mountain, Sean and I met our guide. Starr Nolan. Starr guides for Brookside Guides of Asheville and immediately set to work preparing us for the numerous, but heavily pressured fish near the state hatchery stretch in Pisgah National Forest just outside Brevard.
What 'er we fishin' for Starr?
After a quick casting lesson, with special emphasis on the roll casts suited for the Davidson's tight quarters, we headed to the river to find an open pool to fish. Going in, Starr warned us the river would be crowded and the fish would be wary, but there are enough trout to make it worthwhile for everyone, including novices like Sean and me.

She wasn't kidding. The popularity of the hatchery stretch, on a beautiful Saturday morning in April no less, is a little intimidating. In some pools it looked like shoulder-to-shoulder angling. Add that to the fact we were going to be nymph fishing and I was pretty skeptical of our prospects for success. It didn't help much that a gigantic brown trout was holding in the current at the exact spot we stepped in. When I pointed to the 20-inch-plus monster excitedly, Starr simply acknowledged its presence with a shrug and went in anyway. "Oh boy," I thought, "This is going to be brutal."

With a little more experience with a buggy whip than Sean, I was instructed to head up to the next run and start fishing on my own while the other two stayed back to fish together. Starr tied a large, garish looking nymph with a red bead in the middle of a length of greenish swizzle stick and said, "Try this first. You never know what this fish will do when they see something completely different." I looked at the crazy fly with a bit more trepidation, but hey, she was the guide and you always do what the guide tells you.

It took a little while to get used to the drift and finding the fly as it tumbled across the rocky bottom, but I got the hang of it and eventually saw a trout chase it a short distance as it drifted through the run. With a little more work and who knows how many unseen strikes, I saw and missed my first bite.

Dude, that was a biggun'!
Meanwhile, Sean and Starr continued to work out the kinks on their stretch of water and I watched Sean set the hook on a big fish. The fight didn't last long. Sean only just started fighting the brute on the reel when it broke off. "How big?" "18-inch rainbow," they said. Holy crap!

After several minutes without any action, Starr waded over to me and changed my rig to a tandem nymph and strike indicator. The bit of yarn that served as a bobber (don't tell Starr I called it that) put me back on a steep learning curve as I tried to figure out how to get the drift to match up with the flies tumbling along below. Then it happened. Just as I was about to pick up my cast, I felt a weigh against the line, fish on! I played the little brown against the current and eventually brought it to hand - a beautiful 9-incher hooked in the corner of the mouth. I announced my catch with a prideful "Ahem!" to Sean and Starr downstream and quickly released it, as the area we were fishing is catch-and-release only.

Buoyed by success and new confidence, I finally started fishing. My senses and body tuned in to the river and its immediate surroundings. There! Is that a caddis fly? Look! Another one. There's a small fish rising every few minutes on the other side of the pool. I bet that sluggish spot behind that boulder would be good.

I started to feel like I was hunting rather than fishing. This fly fishing thing was pretty alright.

The sluggish spot behind the boulder did hold a fish and I struck home when the indicator zigged when it should have zagged. The trout raced back out to the heavy current and I let it go downstream. I followed while Starr moved up into position with her landing net. After a short give and take, she netted the foot-long brown for me and offered sincere congratulations. It wasn't the biggest fish in the river by any stretch ofthe imagination, but I couldn't have been happier. I had come to the Davidson and caught a fish as it was meant to be caught. We snapped a few pictures and let it go.
A trophy to me.
At this point, you might be getting the impression I am a fly fishing idiot savant. I am not. Think more idiot, less savant. As the morning wore on, Sean and I kept Starr busy untangling our tippets, retrieving our flies from the rhododendrons and ringing her hands over shamelessly missed strikes. She worked her tail off,  but had her revenge.

With just a few minutes remaining in our session and me already given up and lounging on the bank, Starr asked Sean for his rod so that she might show him what a perfect drift looked like. She cast the rig expertly into a riffle Sean had been flogging for the last 10 minutes and, with a flick of the wrist, the rod bent over. "Oh, you're going to kill me," she said in horror as a 15-inch rainbow skyrocketed out of the water. There was some back-and-forth I couldn't hear, but eventually Sean took the rod from Starr as she unclipped her net and made toward the fish. The leader was touched, but the fish made a final surge for freedom and snapped the tippet. Ahhh well, the Davidson rarely gives up its treasures easily.

On the ride home, Sean and I talked fishing and mountain streams and the beauty of the Blue Ridge. As for fly fishing, I'm off the fence. I'm all in.


  1. Well, first let me say " Welcome to the South." Now go home.

    Ok, I'm kidding.

    Here's the thing about this flyfishing thing and maybe it's only here in the South, but I suspect it's not just here but everywhere. There are two schools of thought (among dozens of others) that stand out and are generally taken up by an angler getting into the game.

    The first school of thought is the Gentleman's School. It's comprised of people who look down on everyone else because they don't fish dries. Or they fish with flies made of foam. Or they use 3X tippet. Or they didn't pay enough for their wading boots. You get the idea.

    The second school of thought is what I like to call the "Reasonable School." It's comprised of anglers that enjoy fishing and don't care how you do it as long as you're doing it legally. Rooster Tail spinners? Why not? Powerbait and big 'ole split-shot? If you like. Attractor drys? Sure. Who cares?

    From this article, I think I see you slipping into that "Gentlemen's School" there buddy....but don't worry. I've saved more than one new angler from worrying whether or not he was using the right rod or reel brand. ( Or whether or not he wanted to fish elbow to elbow with everyone else for over-sized stockers.)

    I know why guides take people there and I think it's the easy way out. A bunch of huge, people-friendly-non-spooky fish that will sit there and let you make cast after cast to them? It's not easy, and it can be alot of fun - but it sure makes it easy on the guide and it's a bit of a freakshow. No offense to the guides who do this, but being taken on a trip like this can skew your view of the Blue Ridge trout angling experience. But we can fix that. When you're ready for a real Appalachian trout stream, just "holler." The fish aren't as big, but the challenge is greater as are the rewards.

  2. Glad to hear you're hooked. I think Owl is pretty much om target. There are definitely the elitists and then there's the down to earth fly fishers. I don't see that you're slipping into any sort of elitism yet, but I agree with Owl that you can be reasonable about gear and approaches to fly fishing.

  3. That wife sounds pretty amazing

  4. Glad you found the "buggy whip" bug. Had one fly experience, but no success...prolly due to nerves about damaging a $1000 rod.

    First mountain trout catching experience was opening day near Luray, VA. Two friends and I went out at dawn. I had a 10-foot surf rod. Got my 2 as did they. We went down the county access road with 6 fish on a stick. Found out the season didn't open until noon. At $500 per, we potentially had $3000 worth of fines for fins. Didn't get busted for that, but got nailed by Ranger for controlled substance...karma?

  5. Another river on my list to fish...Next year!!

  6. Owl - I'm ready to redneck some trout, any time, any place. I know what you're saying and you have little to fear. Hell, I wanted to put my fish in a creel and take them home.
    Jay - I think I might have seen some of both groups on the river. I definitely fall into the reasonable category.
    Kid - Classic!
    RD - It was pretty darn cool, even with all of the aforementioned crowds and fat, lazy trout.