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Adapting to Changing Conditions

Big rainbow release

After turning the page on my office calendar to August, I paused to reflect on where the time had gone. Notes on the last few pages confirm each month was a whirlwind of activity, mostly of the non-fishing variety. Not that there wasn’t some time to fish, but much of my spring and early summer seasons were filled with other time-consuming activities; more on that later. Furthermore, favored places to fish were limited this year. Another hot, dry spring reduced flow on local rivers so much that productive fishing for smallmouth bass was affected and repairs at a local dam transformed some of my favorite spring fishing waters so completely I was forced to search for new ones. Nonetheless, the search for good fishing led to the discovery of new opportunities and limited choices encouraged me to invest more time in spring patterns still available. The extra time spent pursing two of my favorite game fish, rainbow and brown trout, produced an exceptional season of spring and early-summer trout fishing.

I learned to fish for trout long ago, limited then to fishing small mountain streams and stock ponds for freshly stocked fish. Many years later after moving to Tennessee, my focus changed to catching holdover tail-water trout; those that had lived for years on a diet of abundant natural prey in cool, swift water. This spring has been a testament to what I’ve learned about fishing for larger tail-water trout. We caught many rainbows and browns above eighteen inches but some special fish and one exceptional encounter come to mind. My most memorable tail-water trout adventure so far in 2015 included my best fishing buddy Andy and his 12-year old son, Harrison. Harrison had already proved he could catch trout by trolling for them. On his best outing he was credited with catching twenty-eight rainbows, though Andy and I reeled in a few of them because we had several doubles hookups. However, this trip was Harrison’s first to cast for them so when we arrived on good water, casting practice began. Andy helped with the casting part but each time the lure hit the water, Harrison took control of the rod and the retrieve. Soon we were coaching him on ways he could vary his presentation by changing speed, pausing or adding subtle twitches.

Sixteen inch tailwater brook trout 1Not long into our second drift, Harrison’s rod bowed deeply and a big trout thrashed the surface. With a firm grip on his rod, he fought the big fish well while Andy coached and I controlled the boat in swift water. When Andy slipped the net under the struggling fish, shouts of victory filled the air. It wasn’t just a big trout; it was a huge brook trout. For those of you not familiar with brook trout, let me put the size of this fish in perspective. In the State of Tennessee, if you catch a brookie ten-inches or longer, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will award you with a colorful Trophy Fish Award, suitable for framing. The brook trout Harrison landed was sixteen-inches long. Before the day was over, he also landed a rainbow and brown trout above eighteen-inches. So on his first trip casting for them, Harrison landed the Eastern equivalent of the trout trifecta and did so with some remarkably nice fish.

My most exciting fishing experience this season came on a day when time to fish was limited. With but a few hours free and no fishing partner, I loaded my boat and headed for the closest tail-water. Local weather and water generation schedules were favorable for trout fishing, though it was midday under a sunny, blue sky. After making the first drift through prime water without so much as a follow, I changed to a larger lure, returned to my starting point and began again. A few casts into the second drift a big fish smashed my plug hard and began stripping line. The fish moved so fast and with such power, I was sure it was a big hybrid and quickly realized my hands were full.

I was adrift in fast water and approaching a shoal so shallow that hitting rocks with the trolling motor prop was a probability, but didn’t want to raise the motor and let the boat spin during the fight. With one hand on the trolling motor and the other controlling the surging fish, it became a very busy time. If I had a third hand, I’m sure it would have been equally busy. Suddenly, the fish charged the boat and did its best to tangle my line in the outboard. After a few tense seconds, it came free from the lower unit as the river bottom came up along the upstream face of the shoal. Then, out the corner of my eye I saw the big fish jump clear of the water. Even in my adrenalin-filled state I realized that hybrids don’t jump so my eyes Twenty nine inch eleven six tailwater brown edit 1strained for a clear view of my adversary as it approached the boat, then in less than two-feet of water. As we drifted over the shoal, the big fish swam closer and was soon swimming parallel to the boat in water so shallow it could clearly be seen. The light-brown color and big spots along the fish’s back confirmed it was a huge brown trout. After drifting into deeper water, it became a battle of patience and the big fish was in trouble. Finally, I led her into the net and lifted my largest brown trout ever into the boat; a beautifully marked twenty-nine-inch female. There was little time to set up and take pictures because my greatest concern was for the fish’s health. But after a few quick shots and gentle handling beside the boat, she recovered, surged from my grip and disappearing into the rushing water. I collapsed in my seat, took several deep breaths and talked to myself until my heart-rate slowed. Drained after the battle, I set out trolling rods and trolled back to the ramp. Several smaller fish up to sixteen inches came to the net on the relaxing cruise back that sunny afternoon. It was a brief though memorable outing and invigorating dose of outdoor therapy; one to remember for a very long time.

Though my time on the water this season has been limited, a few trips for other fish were also rewarding. During early spring, a couple night-fishing trips for river-run walleyes produced good results. In spring, walleyes in most southern reservoirs migrate into primary feeder-rivers to spawn. This concentrates them in sections where water depth and flow are favorable and prey species are present. Find walleyes and what they’re willing to strike and it can produce good catches of one of the best-tasting fish in fresh water. My preferred method of catching spring river-run walleyes is trolling at night so I scheduled a couple evenings free to go after them. Our priority on the first night was finding places on the river that held fish and we soon caught enough for a meal of fresh fillets. In just a few hours on the follow-up trip, under a star-studded sky, we stayed busy catching and culling fish. Repeated trolling passes along a sixty-yard stretch of water produced more than two-dozen walleyes including a few double hookups with a smallmouth bass and catfish or two mixed in. Trolling at night on a river may sound like a recipe for trouble but it’s an effective method of fishing if you follow a few simple safety rules and employ the correct lures and methods of presentation. To learn more about trolling for walleyes and other fish at night on rivers, refer to the chapter on “Winter Fishing” in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing.

Several outings for bass produced nice catches, including both river and reservoir trips. We fished at night for reservoir largemouths when fishing pressure was lowest and smallmouths during the day on a river where only kayaks disturbed the Five four Boone Lake largemouth bass on an R&S jigserenity. Our first bass-fishing trip of the season to search for largemouths was interesting; a rough start that bloomed into a rewarding finish. We arrived late at the ramp and had to wait in line until almost dark before launching. Then, as we prepared to take off down lake I noticed some nasty looking clouds coming our way. By the time we reached a nearby bridge for shelter, it was raining steadily. An hour later we started down the lake, one we’d not seen before, to find a place to fish in total darkness. Radar on a phone app, a depth finder and some blind luck led us to a shallow point with a distinct offshore break-line that merged with a shoreline filled with alternating layers of rock, red-clay and gravel. I was confident the diverse mixture of bottom types would attract some fish. In the next few hours we landed sixteen bass along a hundred-yard stretch, mostly smallmouths, with a five-pound, five-ounce largemouth taking top honors. Small finesse jigs with plastic pork-chunk trailers caught all our fish though we tried several soft-plastics. Regrettably, I haven’t had time to go back and fish that spot again.

A few half-day trips for river smallmouths produced good fish though larger bass were less than plentiful in the low, clear conditions. The realistic action of swimbaits and soft-plastic stickbaits caught the majority of our fish with Keitech Easy Shiners and Zoom Super Flukes catching the most. Various rigging methods worked well with the Flukes when matched to water flow and natural colors were consistently good choices. However, at times four-inch swimbaits caught more fish so we had to find the best lure and method of presentation on each trip. And I often mix in some variety when fishing so we did raise a few bass on other lures. One encounter that comes to mind didn’t end with a big smallmouth photo-op, but left a vivid memory. It was a day when water generation at an upstream dam was brisk. The water level was high and moving with scattered clumps of grass drifting on the surface. However, water clarity was good and the temperature was an inviting seventy-two degrees; ideal for active river smallmouth bass. In warm moving water, fast retrieves often work well when patterning river smallies so I grabbed a spinning combo rigged with a Pop-R and began quickly covering water. No more than a dozen casts later, a bruiser smallmouth crushed the lure. I set the hook and began reeling quickly, but then my line went slack. Before I could describe what had happened and add a closing expletive, my line suddenly started streaking up river. Panicked reeling soon pulled a bow in my rod and the battle was on. However, after a hard head-shake and short burst downstream the big fish spit the lure back toward me. I thought the bass had thrown the plug because of the poor hook-set but found it had violently removed the rear treble hook, split ring and all. It was a fast and memorable tail-whipping by a big, powerful river smallmouth bass. I hesitate to estimate the fish’s size but the boil it made on the strike must have weighed four-pounds.

Bass Pro Shop Bristol TNSo my spring and early summer excursions, though limited, included some exciting and memorable fishing. Furthermore, a recent development that kept me off the water during much of the season produced many opportunities to meet other anglers and learn more about catching fish. On April 1st, I accepted a Sales Associate position in the Fishing Department at the new Bass Pro Shop store at Exit 74 in Bristol, Tennessee. I’m working there part-time, including many weekends, and enjoying the interaction with other anglers immensely. So if your travels include a trip along the I-81 corridor through Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, take a few minutes to stop and ask for me there. I’d enjoy meeting you, swapping some fishing stories and helping you choose some lures and equipment for your next fishing adventure. Come by soon and let’s talk fishing! Hope to see you there.

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Good-bye Winter, Hello Spring!

Header - Goodbye winter, Hello spring

I didn’t think spring would ever get here. I enjoy good fishing year round but must admit that opportunities during the cold-water period can be limited, especially so when temperatures run below average, snowfall is much more frequent and winter storms continually pass through like an invading army. Global warming? Global freezing seemed a more accurate description this year. Despite the weather, I’ve kept busy enjoying some good late-winter, early-spring fishing since the Holidays with a few book-signings sprinkled in. Weather during the East Tennessee Fishing Show in Knoxville in mid-January was surprisingly good. The show was packed all four days and I met many new angling friends who were eager for the spring fishing season to arrive; not so at the West Virginia Outdoor Sports Show in Morgantown the first weekend in March. Show officials there called me the second morning of the two-day event and advised me to “Run…go South, quickly, before the approaching storm arrives.” A quick check of local radar confirmed they weren’t just trying to get rid of me. Winter Storm Titan spanked me down the Interstate with sleet and ice for most of an hour before I managed to escape, minus some of the equipment I hastily abandoned. It was a white-knuckled driving experience to start but I found sunshine and 60-degree temperatures when I arrived at home. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. I don’t remember seeing free-flowing rivers in northeast Tennessee freeze during winter as they did this year.

Another red-eyed beauty smallmouth bassOn better weather days, I found productive fishing for smallmouth bass and trout this winter by monitoring the forecast, water temperatures and conditions. In the last few weeks the weather has improved, temperatures have climbed and many spring spawners have started moving into the shallows. Trout provide exceptional fishing when the spring warm-up begins but one of my favorite early spring trips is for prespawn smallmouth bass in rivers. When smallies begin moving shallow in spring they become aggressive in the warming water. As temperatures rise, they begin moving to and cruising potential spawning areas where they soon develop an attitude. A combination of increasing metabolism and the drive to defend spawning sites makes them aggressive and susceptible to fast-moving presentations. Then it’s time to set aside slow-moving plastics that are so effective in cold water and pick up some hard baits. Steadily retrieved crankbaits in crawfish and baitfish colors are good choices for finding and catching fish. But my go-to choice in lures for prespawn smallmouth bass is shallow-running minnow lures. Minnows in the three- to four-inch range presented with fast, erratic retrieves eliminate water quickly and attract savage strikes from shallow-cruising river smallmouths. Minnow lures in natural baitfish colors work best in clear water under sunnier skies; brighter, flashier colors work best in stained water or under overcast skies. But these are not strict rules; test lure size and color until smallmouths confirm you’ve made the right choice and remain willing to change if light penetration or water clarity changes. A fast stop-and-go, darting retrieve mixed with short bursts of straight-line speed will draw many strikes after you find areas that hold fish. Find the right combination of size and color and it’s not unusual for smallmouths to be deeply hooked so bring along needle-nose pliers and handle the fish carefully to support healthy release.

When rivers rise, stain and become unfishable for smallmouths, you can find plenty of good spring fishing by changing locations and species. Clear water in tail-waters below dams often produces good fishing for trout, walleyes, striped bass and others, including some exceptional trophies. However, reservoirs offer a variety of excellent spring fishing if you avoid the heavy bass-angling crowd during daylight hours. Many Watauga Lake walleyesreservoirs across the south contain alewives as a primary food source and they spawn much earlier than shad, at night, and attract a variety of game fish into the shallows in early spring. So when the alewives come up, night fishing becomes a top choice for finding large predators in shallow water. The best shallow-water walleye action of the year begins on many southern reservoirs when alewives begin spawning along rocky shorelines at night and fishing pressure on walleyes is often light. Shallow- and deep-diving minnow or shad-shaped lures, swimbaits, spinners, spoons and jigs will all take fish. Walleyes can be finicky about lure choice, color and presentation but figure out what they want and the rewards can be impressive. Walleyes rank among the best in fresh water as table fare and their average size in better southern waters would shock many northern anglers. Learn much more about finding and catching spring walleyes in southern reservoirs and rivers in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing.

My most exciting adventure of the spring season so far was my first night-fishing trip to a local reservoir to check on hybrids. I’d found plenty of alewives splashing along shore one night on another lake while walleye fishing and assumed they’d be up at my favorite hybrid fishing spot. So I spooled fresh line on several rod-and-reel combos, packed my hybrid toolbox, and my favorite fishing buddy, and headed for hybrid heaven one evening as the sun set. Though I was well prepared, I had not tied on lures because I wanted to check water clarity and condition before deciding which to try first. Soon after we eased onto a place I was confident should hold hybrids, the water around us began exploding Six and a quarter hybridwith feeding fish. I had just started loading an A-Rig with soft plastics but quickly decided that was going to take too long so I grabbed a spinning combo and in seconds had a large popping lure tied on. In the next hour, I lost count of the number of surface strikes we had. The frustrating part was that most were hits and misses though we caught and released several nice fish. I tried a variety of topwater lures in an attempt to increase my strike-to-catch ratio but saw little improvement. It seemed the hybrids would boil on most surface lures but were very selective about what they were willing to eat. I once tied on a seven-inch Cordell Red Fin to see if the fish preferred a larger-profile surface lure and caught a nice hybrid the first cast. But follow-up casts produced only boils. We were limited on time this trip and regrettably had to leave that impressive concentration of feeding fish. Trips like that will make you stare wide-eyed into the darkness when trying to sleep.

A week later, my friend and I loaded our gear and headed back for a rematch with the hybrids. This trip I packed a bag of ice with a goal of catching our limit of four nice hybrids for the table. Weather patterns had been warm and stable but other conditions at our honey-hole had changed dramatically. Because the lake was still filling, with an undesirable wind direction, our target fishing area was now covered with floating leaves, sticks and other debris so our hopes for another round of incredible topwater fishing were crushed. And for some reason, warmer weather no doubt a factor, there were boats everywhere including several pleasure boaters who were there to practice doing doughnuts. To say we were disappointed is an understatement as we sat in what was previously hybrid heaven, bobbing like a cork in an avalanche of boat wakes. Though again limited on time, we were determined to stick it out to see if conditions improved and the hybrids Spring hybrid fishingshowed. After an hour or so of casting subsurface lures, primarily Rat-L-Traps and A-rigs, we accepted the fact the hybrids weren’t yet there. And even more disturbing, there were very few alewives present to attract predators. We had agreed on a latest stopping time and were approaching the last hour when suddenly, it became windy and the other boats began leaving. Soon, the wind had blown all the surface debris by us and out into the main lake. Then, as if by divine intervention, the wind calmed and alewives began bubbling along the now clean, calm surface. Minutes later we heard the first hybrid boil and the excitement began. With less than five minutes of fishing time left, I netted our fourth fish, a beautiful five-pound hybrid. After a few quick pictures and high-fives, we headed for the ramp right on schedule.

I’m looking forward to more exciting night-fishing for hybrids and walleyes in coming weeks because there’s plenty of good spring action ahead. Trout fishing will continue to improve in streams, rivers and tail-waters for numbers as well as trophy fish so I’ll be sure to include them on my schedule. Soon, bluegills will start making beds in warm, sun-baked areas and another of my favorite spring adventures will begin. It’s a wonderful time of year for recreational anglers to get out and enjoy good fishing because there are so many fish, and species, accessible in shallow water. It’s a great time to stock up on fresh fillets, catch that trophy of your dreams or introduce friends and family members to our favorite sport. If you’ve been saving back vacation time, it’s time to burn some because good spring fishing is now underway. And if you’re a die-hard reservoir bass angler, there’s no Big spring bluegillbetter time to get out and catch your share. Plan your time on the water under favorable weather, around major moon phases and where pressure is lowest and you too can enjoy some memorable spring fishing adventures. If you need help getting started, click on the picture of my book to order a paperback or kindle version or click the “Buy Books Locally” tab at the top of the page to find a place close by where you can pick up a copy. I hope to meet some of you on the water somewhere soon. Best of Luck!

The Bounty of Spring Fishing

Boone Lake hybrid striped bassI’m not the type of person who complains much. I strive to keep a positive outlook and focus on the good things in life though occasionally I voice some dissatisfaction with politicians or personal hardships, but rarely in a public forum. That being said I’d like to go on record as saying this has been neither a good nor normal spring. Not that I’m complaining mind you, but May and October are my two favorite months of the year and the May I just lived through was anything but normal or favored. June was an evil twin sister. Excessively frequent and heavy rain, late cold-snaps and an endless procession of nasty thunderstorms trampled much of my normal spring activities and created more than a few personal hardships. The electrocution of a box full of bluebirds in the yard by lighting, the loss of my “Man Cave” surround sound system to same and the announcement by my mechanic that it was time to call in hospice for my pickup truck topped my list of unfortunate occurrences during  Spring 2013. However, with all the rain and cool weather my lawn grew beautiful, lush and green. If only my mower hadn’t been in the shop for a month, waiting for back-ordered parts. C’est la vie.

Rainy evening on South Holston LakeI wouldn’t say fishing has been more difficult than normal this spring but I will say it’s been a challenge to find good fishing at times. Local highland reservoirs along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains received so much rain and runoff they quickly rose to full pool and soon exceeded record levels. In response, TVA opened dam flood gates and downstream rivers became almost continually heavy flows, some roaring floods, of often discolored water. Most free-flowing rivers and streams also ran high and stained much of the time. With many reservoir water levels well into surrounding woodlands and rivers running well above normal, places to enjoy traditional spring fishing were limited. The threat of lightning, high winds and yo-yoing barometric pressure caused by a steady stream of weather changes further complicated planning fishing time. If you’d like to try some challenging fishing that will test your patience and skill, try casting minnow lures into a flooded forest at night for walleyes with the wind blowing 20 mph. At one point, I considered taking up bowling.

Despite the extremes in weather, the fish were still out there doing what they always do during spring. Fish move, feed, spawn and otherwise go about their normal routines based on time of year and water temperature. However, fish move or change their activity during adverse conditions and knowledgeable anglers who want to continue to catch fish change with them. I use two approaches to find good fishing during periods of high, stained water; targeting species that are unaffected by or predictably active in stained conditions or searching for water clarity that is closer to normal. Spring spawners like crappie, bream, large and smallmouth bass are drawn to shallow shorelines when water temperatures approach spawning temps despite water clarity. Anglers who remain confident and make the necessary adjustments in location, lure selection and presentation can continue to enjoy good fishing for these species. Also, catfish, carp and a few others remain active and thrive in high stained conditions. However, my preference is to find places to fish where water levels, flow and clarity are closer to normal. In reservoirs, that means fishing the dam end where conditions are most stable and least affected by heavy runoff. In rivers, it means fishing tail-waters close to a dam where water runs clearest.

 Trout fishing in local tail-waters has been an on-again, off-again challenge this spring. Much of the time, generation rates were so high and water so swift that tail-waters were unfishable. However, my friends and I caught some nice rainbows, browns, brookies and a few lake trout by moving further downstream and fishing channel bends, islands and shoreline structures that held eddies Rainbow, brown and lake trout collageor spots with slower current. On those infrequent occasions when generation slowed or stopped, trout became so cooperative it seemed that they’d missed us as much as we’d missed them. Fishing for river smallmouth bass has been much the same. Further down rivers, feeder streams and other sources injected heavy runoff, creating poor and sometimes hazardous conditions. But during those infrequent periods when the water dropped and cleared, smallmouths were active and offered great fishing. So I’ve spent the last two months camped on weather reports and water generation schedules while making frequent scouting trips to local fishing holes to check water condition. When conditions developed that offered good tail-water or river fishing, we did our best to get there and reap the bounty.

Because tail-waters and rivers weren’t often fishable, reservoirs have been my most frequent fishing destination this spring. The lower one-third of most lakes in this area remained clear to moderately clear most of the time although excessive surface debris caused by above-full-pool water levels created hazardous expanses of surface litter in some sections. However, with an ever-watchful eye on wind direction we avoided the worst-affected areas. Where water clarity was acceptable and surface debris light the greatest hindrance to finding good fishing most days was fishing pressure because an army of anxious anglers were pushed into the same limited “fishable” water. So we made one more adjustment and changed our focus to reservoir night fishing. As I said before, it’s been a challenge at times to find good fishing this spring.

Several trips to local highland reservoirs produced limited success for walleyes. If you’ve read my book, you know I’m a big fan of nighttime walleye fishing in spring and early summer. But water levels in highland reservoirs in this region remained above full Six and a half pound hybridpool so the waterline along which walleyes cruise for spawning baitfish in spring was well into shoreline undergrowth. Dense surface debris and frequent high winds another thousand feet higher in elevation made night-walleye fishing on these lakes difficult work. So, fresh walleye dinners have been infrequent at my house so far this year. However, our search for good fishing produced some exciting encounters with one of my favorite fish; the hybrid striped bass. Hybrids, like striped and white bass, are open-water wanderers that follow alewives, shad and other baitfish throughout reservoirs. In spring, when surface temperatures reach 60-degrees, alewives move to shallow shorelines at night to spawn. As water temperature rises further, shad also begin spawning, producing an extended period of plentiful food along shallow shorelines for hybrids and other game fish. So when reservoir surface temperature reached 60-degrees and rising, we scheduled our first nighttime trip to check on the hybrids.

The first place we found fish was on a steep bluff along a main-lake river channel. Small Red Fins and Jointed ThunderSticks produced jolting surface strikes from hungry hybrids when lures were cast close to the bluff face and retrieved parallel to the edge. Then, one night when the fish didn’t show along the bluff, we moved and found a hybrid mother-load. In each of the next half-dozen trips to this spot, a friend and I caught more than a double limit of hybrids. The fish were mixed sizes ranging from three to seven pounds with an occasional small striped bass mixed in. The times the hybrids arrived and began feeding each night varied between about 10:30 p.m. and midnight depending on when baitfish started surfacing and moving into shallow water. However, there was never any question when the hybrids arrived because baitfish schools would suddenly surface everywhere, accompanied by scattered surface swirls and an occasional explosion. The hungry predators would charge in, feed aggressively for a brief time, scatter the schools of minnows, then everything would become still. Soon after, the hybrids would again push the baitfish into tight schools, herd them back into the shallows and the feeding binge RatLTrap hybridwould resume. So when the hybrids first decided it was time to hit the supper table, action became hot for several hours, interspersed with occasional lulls; good times to check line condition, retie or change lures.

Rat-L-Traps are among my most dependable tools for hybrid fishing at night but we caught fish on several others. Topwaters are personal favorites so we tried minnow lures, walk-the-dog baits and surface poppers. Red Fins and Thundersticks continued to attract an occasional strike but larger surface poppers produced best when the hybrids were up and feeding. I always keep a popping lure rigged and ready when fishing for schooling game fish because I believe the sound they make often attracts feeding fish or encourages continued feeding. But without question, the most productive lure we used was one I tried this spring for the first time. I had learned from several good anglers that it was a deadly choice for hybrids and other game fish and knew it was the hottest lure on the bass tournament scene, so hot it had raised much controversy among tournament organizations and state fisheries agencies. Technically, it’s not a lure but an array of lures called the Alabama Rig, aka the A-Rig.

A-Rigs have been around for a long time but until recently were best known by anglers as umbrella rigs; trolling tools for open-water fishing in fresh and saltwater. But when tournament professional Paul Elias used a casting version to win a major FLW event on Lake Guntersville, Alabama it turned the bass fishing world, and traditional perceptions of the umbrella rig, upside down. Anyone who fishes much for large and smallmouth bass knows about the A-Rig. Most have used them, have friends who use them, have read about them or have seen them on television fishing shows. Through many sources, I also had learned about them and become convinced of their effectiveness. After we found that large concentration of  hybrids, I remembered a friend had given me a locally made version of an unrigged A-Rig so I decided to dig it out, load it with soft plastics and do some testing.

Hybrid A-RigThe A-Rig I’d been given had five wire arms so the first thing I had to decide was how and where to attach two attractors. In the State of Tennessee, A-Rigs may have only three hooks of any type, though five-arm A-Rigs are legal if two of the arms hold only attractors. A drawing in the state fishing regulations booklet shows a five-arm A-rig in which two arms hold willow-leaf spinner blades. I considered adding blades to my test version but decided it would be easier, and less expensive, to cut the hooks off a couple soft-plastic rigs. So I grabbed a pair of needle-nosed pliers, my tool box of curly-tailed grubs, some jig heads and went to work on my newest fishing tool. I bent the longest arm on my A-Rig at a downward angle and added my primary lure; a heavy-duty, 3/16-ounce pearl/glitter-colored jighead with chartreuse eyes. To the jighead, I added a four-inch pearl-colored curly-tailed grub with a chartreuse tail. Because predators often attack schools of baitfish from behind or below, I wanted this bright-colored bait to be slightly larger, below and behind the “school” I was presenting. This lure was also heaviest, acted as a keel and helped keep the light-weight A-Rig from turning or spinning during the retrieve. I bent the next two arms in opposite directions angled outward, added unpainted 1/8-ounce jigheads and three-inch pearl curly-tailed grubs. I bent the remaining two arms up and outward and added small unpainted 1/16-ounce jigheads to hold my attractors. To these I added white two-inch curly-tailed grubs; slightly more visible in the limited light but smaller. Before mounting these two, I cut the hook points off at the center of the bend then super-glued the grubs in place on the remaining portion of the shank. The first time I pulled the A-Rig through the water at boat-side, I was impressed with what I saw.

The awkward looking A-Rig casts surprising well using a heavy flipping stick, baitcasting reel, and braided line so after a few casts I was comfortable with my newest fishing tool and settled into a routine of long casts followed by a slow, steady retrieve. After First hybrid on an A-Rigless than a dozen casts, a nice hybrid struck hard. When a much larger fish smashed the rig on the next cast and began ripping line from my reel, I was hooked for good on the Alabama Rig. After catching another fish or two, I cut the rig off and handed it to my fishing partner so he could do some testing with his heavy spinning combo. His first hybrid on the A-Rig was a line-screamer that weighed more than six pounds. On several follow-up trips together, we used the same A-rigs and continued to enjoy some productive fishing for one of my favorite fish. Though I missed the great spring night fishing for walleyes this year, and those fabulous walleye dinners, hybrids provided plenty of exciting action and some fine fillets for a few of my favorite fish recipes. Many anglers don’t eat hybrids but they’re missing some fine dining. Bleed the fish you intend to keep as you catch them, then throw them in a cooler or livewell and cover them with ice. Remove all the red flesh from the fillets during cleaning and you’ll be impressed with the firm, beautiful meat. Hybrid fillets are mild-tasting and good choices for grilling, in sauces or any recipe calling for mild, white-fleshed fish.

So it’s been a challenging 2013 fishing season so far but I can’t complain because I’ve caught some nice fish, enjoyed a bounty of fresh fish fillets and added an exciting new tool to my fishing toolbox. And I did finally get my lawnmower repaired and the grass under control so if it stops raining at least one day each week I should be able to keep it looking beautiful. Furthermore, after an Hybrids for the tableextended trial of patience I bought a new boat-hauling vehicle, though it took the dealer two tries to get the correct one brought in from a distant location. It could happen to anyone. I’m convinced the rainfall will moderate soon since we’re already more than 14.75 inches above average on rainfall and approaching the all-time record. When the weather finally returns to normal, tail-water and river fishing will become very good so I’m going to remain patient, retain my positive outlook, repair the rest of my broken fishing equipment and chip away at my Honey-Do list. And I should have plenty of time to get ‘er done because it’s supposed to rain four of the next five days.

Trophy Trout of Summer

When summer temperatures peak, good daytime fishing opportunities become more limited. The blazing sun, high temps, high recreational use, and other reasons prompt many anglers to stay off the water during daylight hours. However, I’ve discovered a cool summer option that produces some of my most impressive daytime trophies of the year; fishing for big rainbow and brown trout in tail-waters. Every tail-water is a unique environment in that water depth, flow, temperature and other characteristics vary. Not all tail-waters offer good year-round trout fishing because of high water temperature during summer months. Most are stocked during spring, many in fall, but those with low carryover in summer are poor choices for numbers and worse choices for big trout. The tail-waters I fish most in East Tennessee commonly run between fifty and sixty degrees throughout the summer period with extremes in the high-forties and low-sixties; ideal temperatures for trout. Find a tail-water close to you that is well stocked with year-round temperatures in this range and you may have found a gold mine of summer fishing.

State fisheries agencies are a good source for information about which tail-waters in your area offer the best summer trout fishing as well as which have the potential to produce trophies. And many Web sites and chat rooms tailored to area fishing provide reports by member anglers that can guide you to good tail-water fishing. Do your homework, find a tail-water or two with good potential closest to you, and the next thing to consider is access. If your goal is to wade and spin or fly-fish, water depth, flow and plentiful access points are important considerations. If you plan to float in a drift, Jon or other small boat, you must consider the distance from launch to takeout points and the nature of the river. Talk with other anglers at ramps, in chat rooms, at a local tackle shop or other places and develop a plan for fishing that puts safety first, always, and good fishing a close second.

After choosing a promising tail-water, it’s important to find a source for water generation information. TVA has a user-friendly Web site where you can check planned 24-hour generation schedules and flow rates for any dam in the TVA system. The Army Corps of Engineers provides a US map on the Corps Lakes Gateway page on their Web site where visitors can select a state and go to a listing of that state’s lakes and waterways under Corps control. Choose the dam and tail-water in question and you’ll be directed to an information page where a link or phone number is provided to check lake information, including planned generation. You can find a link to both these Web sites at the bottom of my home page under the “Blogroll” heading. Unless you’ll be limited to fishing close to a dam, it’s helpful to know how long it takes for the change in flow at the dam to reach key points downstream. If your target fishing area is many miles long, choose a place or two along the way where you can monitor the flow and determine how long it takes for a change in flow at the dam to reach that point. Then you can plan fishing time under the best and safest conditions in that section. But remember; planned generation schedules are planned, not chipped in granite, so schedules can change without notice. On the tail-waters I fish, I’ve found them reliable and accurate but I have seen variances. Plan your fishing time based on published schedules, plan for the unexpected, and you can enjoy productive and safe fishing for some beautiful summer fish.

Tail-waters offer good fishing for trout anytime during the day when generators are running and water flow is high and swift. Primary moon phases, overcast skies, prefrontal conditions and low-light periods at dawn and dusk can intensify activity and improve the odds of catching more and larger trout but many feed in fast water on the clearest days under sunny skies. Therefore, tail-water trout fishing is a good choice anytime if generators are running, you choose the best sections of water available and the right lures and methods of presentations are employed. Because water is pulled from well below the surface at most dams, water temperatures are lower during generation and trout become active in the cool swift water, especially larger fish. Smaller fish that feed mostly on insects may be more active when generators are off and the water is flat and calm but when the current increases and visibility decreases, larger fish leave hiding spots to hunt and feed on larger prey. Both rainbow and brown trout move and feed during the day in swift tail-waters but after the sun sets, brown trout become the dominant predator despite the rate of generation. Some of the largest browns I’ve ever landed were caught at night in tail-waters when no generators were running and the water was still and flat. You have to be cautious and as sneaky as a cat when night fishing for browns in still water but the rewards can be incredible. Rainbows seem to disappear with the sun but browns become active and very aggressive at night. Find a section of tail-water with mixed deep and shallow areas that you can safely fish after darkness falls and your chances of catching a giant brown trout will increase greatly.

Tail-water fishing for big trout is an adventure most anglers adapt to quickly. If you fish most for bass, walleye, or hybrids you’ll feel at home with the tackle and methods of presentation required for success, especially so if you’re used to fishing rivers. Medium to medium-heavy spinning combos with six- to ten-pound diameter monofilament or braided lines are the equipment of choice, though baitcasters and slightly heavier lines work well with larger lures. I use a six-and-a-half-foot medium-heavy spinning combo spooled with 6/14 smoke colored Fireline for lures up to 3/8-ounce and a seven-and-a-half-foot heavy action combo with 8/20 Fireline for heavier lures. Ten- to fourteen-pound leaders of monofilament or fluorocarbon help prevent break-offs in shallower tail-waters so don’t hesitate to add them when needed. Add a quality-made snap to the business end of your line to support quick lure changes and always test retrieve lures before use to insure natural actions; tune or replace those that don’t run true. Floating and suspending minnow lures in various sizes and colors round out equipment needs though particular tackle and lure choices should be made based on the target species because rainbow and brown trout preferences differ.

Rainbow trout favor shallower areas with swift, broken water and clearly visible seams and current breaks. Work lures along current edges and through eddies while fan-casting large areas with more uniform flow. Slow steady retrieves or fast retrieves mixed with intermittent erratic twitches that make lures dart and change direction are reliable methods of presentation so it’s best to alternate between these until fish show a preference under current conditions. Rainbows have small mouths compared to their body size and prefer smaller lures to about three-and-a-half inches long. Minnow lures with shad profiles like Lucky Craft Pointers in smaller sizes and Yo-Zuri Sashimi Jerkbaits have fooled many big rainbows, including some of my largest, but rainbows often strike slender minnow profiles best like Rapalas or Lucky Craft Slender Pointer MR’s so it’s best to carry a few in each body shape. Floating models are better choices in shallower areas because many times they’ll float free of hang-ups when the retrieve is stopped. But suspending models offer more natural presentations with erratic retrieves because they retain their depth and pause directly in the face of following fish. When a big rainbow strikes, most will quickly announce their presence by shooting through the water’s surface like a fat missile. An angry rainbow trout in shallow, fast water is the gold-medal gymnast of the fish world with more tricks than a circus monkey. You can expect drag screaming runs and an impressive aerial show so a properly set drag and longer, more shock absorbing rod are important factors that may determine who wins the fight.

Brown trout have different personalities than rainbows so when targeting them it’s necessary to make a few adjustments in presentation and lure choice. As a rule, browns prefer spots with a little less current and some overhead cover. Search for them in current breaks behind logs or large rocks along shore, in deep holes where current slows or on inside bends in the river. Not that you won’t catch one in swift, shallow water in mid-river but when you do, the fish probably followed your lure from slower water before deciding to strike. Big brown trout are notorious for following lures all the way to the rod tip so a little figure-eight action at boat-side is a wise addition to the presentation process. Because browns like to follow, slow to medium retrieves with occasional stops are highly effective methods of presentation. This tendency to follow makes suspending lures top choices for big brown trout in tail-waters. Stop the retrieve for a few seconds to a half minute and let the lure suspend and drift with the current as you watch your line. If the line jumps, suddenly begins to move or you feel a light tick, set the hook fast! Smaller three-and-a-half inch lures will catch many small- to medium-sized fish but to catch big browns use large lures, larger than many would believe for trout. Four- to six- inch minnow lures are good choices for large brown trout in tail-waters and when in doubt, err to the large side. I use four-inch sizes most during daylight hours in summer because during years of normal weather, the water is very clear. To create the illusion of larger prey, I often use lures with chrome, holographic or other highly reflective finishes to increase flash and make them look larger without letting trout see the lure too clearly. Under low-light conditions, I use larger lures in the same color patterns or those with brightly painted finishes. Most brown trout don’t explode with the same level of energy as rainbows when they strike. It’s most common for the rod to suddenly bow and the drag to slip in short bursts, depending on the size of the fish and the drag’s setting. Occasional you’ll meet an aerial acrobat but most big browns wallow on the surface like a stuck pig, sound and move off steadily against the drag.

As different as the two species are, they do share some common traits. In most tail-waters, larger prey items that big trout feed on are limited to some type of shad minnows and smaller trout. So shad or minnow profile lures in colors that mimic these prey species are highly attractive to both rainbows and browns. My top three color choices for browns and rainbows are shad, rainbow and brown trout color patterns. However either species, at any time, may climb all over a lure with a gold flash or brilliant color pattern so it pays to carry a few of these in favorite lure models and sizes. And changing to deeper diving lures when water depth increases isn’t necessary. In the clear water common to most tail-waters, rainbows and browns will rise many feet to strike shallow running lures, eliminating the need to carry a selection of sizes and colors in deep diving models. The most important trait these fish share and one all anglers should remember is how sensitive trout are to high air temperatures and handling. It’s best to unhook a trout while in the net where you can quickly and safely remove hooks, then let it rest in the net while you get a camera ready. Wet your hands and lift the fish long enough to take a couple pictures, then set it back in the net until it recovers. If the trout cannot swim upright, move to a safe place in still water and hold the fish upright until it recovers. Take time to insure each fish is released in the best condition possible. Remember, if you’re ever going to catch that eight- to ten-pound trophy trout of your dreams, you must release the four and five pounders in good condition.