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Conservation

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.

The campground host notified us of bear and mountain lion activity in the area across the river the year prior as we were setting up camp last night. Not to be deterred we actually got the best night’s sleep we’d had all trip, which is usually how it works sleeping in a hammock. It takes me three days to get used to it and by the time I get a normal night of sleep it’s back to real life.

Our last fishing day in Arizona had arrived. Our goal for the morning was wild rainbow trout, we’d each need to catch one to complete the Arizona wild trout challenge, but from what I had read about the river we planned to fish we would have the opportunity at some better-than-average wild brown trout too. That same literature pointed to this river as being the finest wild trout water in Arizona; couple that with the success we had the night before, and the anticipation of getting out on the water, at least for me, was very high.

The hike in

As in other places we’d come across in the White Mountains it was hard to escape the damage caused by previous fires. Hiking through hillsides that have been entirely burned up is an eerie experience and one that is new to me on this trip. Coming from an area of the country that is covered in water, the persistent extreme drought and fire danger of the desert Southwest is a shock to the system.

The closer you got to the river though the fire damage faded away and our focus turned to the trout and the beautiful place they call home. We hiked a little ways and began to work the water with our dry-dropper rigs heading back upstream. After about half an hour Blake struck first with a trout on top. We weren’t quite sure what it was, but it kind of looked Apache-ish, not out of the realm of possibility here. I wasn’t sure it’d pass for a wild rainbow. Maybe another half an hour passed before I brought my first fish to hand.

With parr marks still visible and fins intact I figured this rainbow trout wasn’t stocked and if it was it was at least naturalized enough that it looked wild. Just as we thought we were figuring them out a passing thunderstorm forced us off the water.

We ate lunch in the rain and I had a break to reflect on my food of choice on the trip. I had never had biltong, which is not all that different from jerky, prior to this trip, but after picking some up at the store to snack on for the week I am now a fan. It wasn’t as chewy as jerky and tasted more like a good steak than just seasoned meat.

The lightning didn’t stick around too long and we were able to get back on the water shortly after lunch. Soon enough Blake got his rainbow to complete the Arizona wild trout challenge. I know the rainstorm had him a little nervous, but with the monkey off his back he could relax and fish better. It’s funny how that works.

The strikes began to increase for us from that point on, but I didn’t manage as many fish to hand as on previous days; my average was way down. I expect that when fishing barbless flies, but I was also slinging a 6wt here instead of the 3wt glass rod I had been throwing, which may have had something to do with it. Any of the larger fish I hooked on the day I never got a picture of. I’m certain we caught a few browns mixed in with the rainbows, they were just camera shy. Par for the course.

The river had a few huge sections of still water that we didn’t effectively fish. We had no idea what to do with the slack water other than strip streamers through it, which I tried to do unsuccessfully, albeit it not thoroughly. If we had more time to really focus on that style of fishing it may have been productive, but at this point I was a little antsy.

I knew I still needed a brook trout to finish off my wild trout challenge and that wasn’t going to happen here. We decided to hike out and make the long drive to the Rim and over to the only other stream I knew they lived based on prior research. It was at least back in the direction of the airport and a hotel so it made sense to give it a shot.