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Conservation

We just recently got back from a family vacation to North Georgia. I was able to get a little fishing in on the creek behind the cabin while up there and I even snuck away to a blueline one morning to fish for some brook trout. The southernmost native range for the brook trout is found in North Georgia. Don’t mistake that for being fringe habitat, Georgia is a great place to target little wild brookies.

The water was low and clear the entire week we were up there, making fishing on the creek at the cabin a little more technical and a bit tough. I figured I’d be in dry fly heaven on a blueline trip, but waited all week to go and overnight a bunch of rain dumped in this little watershed that’s a tributary to the Toccoa River. I really didn’t know what to expect heading out to fish, but figured at worst I’d have a nice walk in the woods, so I was heading out to fish regardless.

Upon walking up to the creek, it was obvious the water was high and stained, but I could still see bottom in areas so I wasn’t completely disappointed. I just had to change up my dry fly expectations and focus on something subsurface. I tied on a jig bugger and went to work.

I’ve never fished this creek before so this was also a bit of a scouting trip. I knew it had brook trout based on research, but I really wasn’t sure how far up I had to go before I found them. I planned out my access from a topo map and would fish up to a road crossing from there.

The creek was a bit of a mess early on. Lots of downed timber and tight casting windows through rhododendron tunnels. Lots of bow and arrow casts were made. Water that would be perfect for a dry fly had the conditions been there for it. There were spots where it opened up a bit and eventually, maybe an hour into my trip, I even missed a strike. That was the glimmer of hope I was looking for!

A few holes later and I actually had my first fish on. When I got it into the net I could tell it was a brook trout and had validation that this indeed was a good place to access the creek.

It was a little guy, but a native brook trout nonetheless, mission accomplished. Pressure was off now, but I wasn’t done fishing. I kept climbing up the holes and the further I got upstream the better the water started to look. It could have been time since the last rain, passing up a big feeder creek, or a combo of both, but eventually I felt like I may be able to now catch them on a dry-dropper rig, so I re-rigged.

The re-rig wasn’t a failure as soon after I landed another brook trout, this one a little bigger than the last. He ate the dropper nymph, which was a little BHRLHE (beadhead rubber-legged Hare’s Ear). It was a good fight on my 3/4wt TFO Finesse glass rod.

Things were going pretty good, I was continuing to work my way upstream, and I felt like the fishing was picking up. It was about this time that God decided I needed a little excitement in my life. As I moved around a live tree that was downed in the water I went to cast to the next hole and got buzzed by a big fly. Next thing I know this sucker lands on me and I feel a big punch on my eyebrow. It was a big ass hornet! He wasn’t alone either. I threw down my rod, started swatting around my face with my hat, dropping my sunglasses in the process, got stung two more times on my left hand, and tore off upstream a short distance until there was a logjam I’d have to navigate over or around. I was hopeful this was far enough away that they were done chasing and thankfully it was. I swiftly and calmly recollected my things and nursed my wounds as I traversed the logjam now keenly aware of my surroundings. As far as I knew I wasn’t allergic to hornets and when I didn’t see any significant swelling on my hands I figured I could press on.

I was glad I didn’t panic and kept fishing because things were heating up. I caught two in a row shortly thereafter and then my biggest fish of the day. It happened while I was fishing a tight run under some overhanging rhodos. It was a good fish, longer than my hand, which was saying something for a North Georgia native. The sky darkened up on me just as I was landing the fish so the pics don’t really do it justice – it was so dark out that my phone was in night mode taking pics.

It was only a matter of time before the skies would open up, but for some reason that wasn’t much of a concern to mean until they did. I failed to pack a rain jacket or even an extra pair of clothes so it was sure to be a wet ride home. I managed one more little guy before I got to a massive barrier falls. I didn’t even know it was here as it wasn’t labeled on the topo map. It was impressive though. It was here that the rain started falling and it fell hard.

It was raining, it was lunch time, I had reached a surprise waterfall, caught a few brookies and survived a run in with some hornets. It seemed like as good a time as any to head out. It was cool catching brookies below this barrier falls, perhaps there was another one downstream. I know there are plenty of rainbows in the mainstream of this watershed so something has to be preventing them from getting up this far. I’ll have to re-visit this blueline next time I’m in town and see if I can find that point further downstream.

Note: I wrote this piece late last year and held onto it, foolishly thinking someone else may want to publish it. I don’t think that’s happening so now is a great time to let it loose.

I really enjoy the time that I spend fishing upland streams, far from my home, where the water is clean, clear, and filled with life. I often seek out creeks that are off the beaten path, sometimes deep in the woods; places that give you a feeling that perhaps you’re the first person to fish here, maybe not ever, but in a very long time. Those are special places to me.

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The places I have locally are not those types of places. Sure, there are creeks that are an hour or more away that may fit the bill and illicit those same feelings, but the ones I’m referring to as local, those within a few miles or minutes of my house, are a far cry from what I would consider the ideal stream for an immersive fly fishing experience.

These are drainage ditches. Brownlines to me because that’s often what they look like. The quality of the water is probably closer to that of a sewer line than an upland stream. They are not places you would want to step in if you had an open wound and you certainly don’t want to wet your line with your mouth when tying on a new fly. Sure they are little blue lines on a map, but these streams and bayous have been altered by man, with no thought given to what lives in and around the water. Their design is one of purpose and function and not one of form. They carry water away from metropolitan areas and take it somewhere out of sight and out of mind for the majority of the population. They make the news when the rain falls too hard for too long and suddenly these streams end up in your backyard and people remember they are there. When they are tame they are forgotten places. The trash that lines their banks tells that story. These are places very few people care about and for the longest time I was one of those people.

I ignored fishing these places because frankly there wasn’t much of an appeal. I had time to travel a little further and fish somewhere more “worthy of my presence”. Life has a funny way of changing things though and as my family has grown, time has gotten tighter, and over the past few years I’ve been forced to fish closer to home. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the brownlines. There is beauty in them if you’re willing to overlook the ugly on the surface. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there for people too.

I’ve discovered a handful of places around town over the past few years that have become some of my go-to spots now, mainly in the interest of time, but also because they’ve proven themselves to be productive little fisheries. These are ditches where you can walk the banks, not feel like you’re right in someone’s yard, and not sink in soupy mud. Creeks where the water actually has a decent amount of visibility to it. There aren’t many places around here like that and I continue to search for ones that stand out.

Back in August I finally made time one Friday afternoon for a ditch that I drive over and always take an extra long look as I pass.

I’m glad I made the time too because it ended up being loaded with some of my favorite sunfish, longear, and they were in full spawning regalia.

I was able to fool a couple largemouth hanging around, but passed on the chance to fight a big spotted gar on light tackle.

It was a good enough time that I made it back out there the next Friday to walk the banks in the other direction. The little largemouth were still very active, but I ran into some other usual ditch denizens as well.

Green sunfish

With four bridges on this ditch in less than a creek mile there’s no mistaking this for one of those upland streams I love to fish. The constant hum of traffic and the trash lined banks made that very clear. With the pictures though I do hope to convey that despite their surface appearance these ditches do have life in them and the greenspace they provide to wildlife is important in our urban/suburban environment. Someone needs to show love for these places and the fish that call them home.

Redspotted sunfish

I ended the day with a nice little mixed bag and a new appreciation for a ditch around the corner from my house.

While walking the bank back to the truck I thought about how nice it would be if my fellow Baton Rouge residents actually cared about their waterways and the floodplains they run through. If parks were developed with sidewalks and paths that ran along the stream to provide access and recreational opportunity. It would be a resource for the public. It would also make them suddenly visible for all to see. Then maybe the litter problem would be forced into their consciousness when they realize they don’t want their greenspaces to look like a landfill, which is often the experience when you spend time on the drainage ditches that run through our city. I see the potential to turn these ditches from brownlines into bluelines, I just wish others did as well.

The next day I decided to drive a little further east and check out the only watershed in Florida that held shoal bass – the Chipola River. I scouted a few launch sites and debated my plan before settling on one. I was under the assumption that I had to have shoals to target shoal bass and from what I could tell at each launch site that I stopped at(and from what I saw in imagery online) that was going to be difficult. The water level must have been a tad higher than normal and there were no visible shoals at places where I thought there would be so I was flying blind on this one.

I put the boat in and started paddling up anyway. I drove all the way out here, I may as well fish. The clarity was pretty good and the weather was gorgeous – I took that as a sign that there was a good chance I’d catch something.

I paddled up until I reached a spring run tributary and was amazed at how clear the water was dumping out of this creek. I paddled/walked up the creek a little ways and spooked a ton of small fish – pickerel, bass, sunfish, shiner – there was lots of life here. There was no way for me to effectively fish the creek so I hoped back in the boat and started my downstream float and fish.

Shoal bass, like most bass, are ambush predators so my idea was to just strip streamers around any place I thought looked like a good ambush point – pretty standard bass fishing stuff, I know, it’s not rocket science though. If that area had discernible current around it I assumed that was prime territory.

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I flogged a good stretch of water, beating the banks and working areas around submerged timber, before I had a strike, which came from the timber pictured above. The eat happened on the bank side of the big limb as the current swiftly carried my boat around on the other side of the laydown. Things were precarious for a bit as I paddled myself back up to remedy the situation. At some point I figured I lost the fish when my fly line was caught on the limb, but as I worked to free the line with my hand I could see him still hooked and fighting. Luckily for me I had a solid hookset and I was able to bring the 12″ shoal bass to the boat.

I was pretty stoked for this fish! I did not have a lot of confidence in catching a shoal bass here. Like I said, not a shoal in sight, so I felt a bit out of place. It fell for a beat-up crawfish pattern that Blake had tied up a while ago. This fly has landed bass all over the place, from spotted bass in Louisiana to smallmouth in West Virginia and Arkansas to redeyes in Alabama and Georgia, and now a shoal bass in Florida. I’ll see if I can get him to do a step-by-step for it. It’s been a while since we’ve done one of those here. My favorite flies, and those that tend to be the most durable, are the flies that Blake ties. No matter the pattern, he just does a really great job.

With renewed confidence I kept on swimming that crawfish pattern around anything and everything I floated by and eventually caught the spotted sunfish above. It was a good sized stumpknocker that looked like he’d seen better days. I was happy to have caught something else because despite my confidence the fishing was terribly slow. The river was beautiful though with the cypress trees giving it a little Fall color. Part of me feeling out of place was the river was a little bigger than I like to fish. I’m a small water guy. I dig the creeks. So medium or large rivers always intimidate me.

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There were low limestone bluffs every so often that were super pitted, like the one above. Some of the most unique geologic formations I’ve seen along a river. I ended up catching my second shoal bass along one of these walls. It makes total sense too as bass love a bluff wall. They are scoured out far underneath what is visible and make excellent ambush spots. That made it two shoal bass on the day! I was pumped and paddled the rest of my way back to the launch looking to get back to the campsite before dark.

On the drive back I made the realization that I just caught two shoal bass below I-10. That seemed so crazy to me; the fish known as the “fish of the waterfall”, Micropterus cataractae, were still hanging on down here in Florida, well below the fall line.

I stopped at a local grocery and bought a steak and whatever beer they had that was local to celebrate accomplishing a goal that was probably meaningless to 99% of the general population. Combine that with a campfire and it made for a much better night than the rainy one I had the night before.