I can remember the first time I heard about the Smoke Hole….
I was fishing the C&R Section of Passage Creek in Strasburg, VA last winter – the early stages of my trout indoctrination. I was fresh off of a trip to some hot spots in the Smoky Mountains with fellow FlyTimesDC contributor, Brogan Jayne (The Trout Guru), and trout fishing was just starting to grab my undivided attention after years of almost exclusively chasing bass and saltwater game on the fly.
Passage was the first DH trout stream I explored on my own and although I was having success here and there, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the fishing varied greatly with each trip. Keep in mind, I was (and to some degree still am) new to the trout game. But still, if you haven’t fished this DH creek, it is one of the more frustrating trout waters on the planet.
Loaded with gorgeous riffles, pockets, and pools that should house a million trout each – the water is generally void of life. Poaching is the main issue. So much so that the State provides only the scrawniest trout entirely void of color and for the most part, fins, for its law abiding anglers ($100 for freshwater license and trout stamp). Sweet, Virginia!
These “fish” (living golf balls) tend to be plucked from the stream before they even realize they are trout. With pictures like this to describe the hot action (http://www.murraysflyshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/12-h-tom-9.jpg or this http://www.murraysflyshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/hm-in-snp22.jpg, or this http://www.murraysflyshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/12-h-tom-2.jpg,....you get the picturez) how could you not believe in this fishery?
Those trout – victims of powerbaited circumstance, nets, and redneck ego— already have enough on their plate outside of being misrepresented for commercial gain. Poor fish. But yeah…..Smoke Hole….Got sidetracked there.
So I’m fishing Passage on this beautiful morning and eventually run into this nice fellow who is also frustrated by the lack of trout. We bitch about the poaching, remark on how beautiful the water is, and comment on the noticeable lack of life.
We emphasize the potential and lament the creek’s current state of affairs. We talk about better places. Then he mentions this place in WV. He calls it a “Land of Giants”—the home of Hawg Johnson—some place called “The Smoke Hole”. Trout for miles he says. “You’ve got to go there, man!”
So I do.
A few months later, Kenny, Trent, Cullen, and I descended upon the Smoke Hole and found out firsthand how special this place can be. Albeit we fished the wrong section for most of the day, we caught plenty of memorable trout high sticking nymphs and as a group, caught a slam. One day was all it took to get me hooked on this place.
I enjoyed it so much I went back the next weekend with my buddy, AJ. On a mission to bag his first trout on a fly rod, we got slammed again. Fish were taking hoppers off the bank and jacking up zebra midges in the riffles. Great times. But then summer came. The water got hot…and low. The trout game tapered off (something my girlfriend, Chelsea, had to unfortunately experience firsthand). Then the smallmouth bite got too hot to ignore. Tis the way of the seasons. But now that fall blessed us with cooler weather, changing leaves, and aggressive browns/hungry bows, it was time to head back to the canyon renowned for its large trout.
After exchanging emails for a few weeks with fellow trout addict Terry Bazyluk, we finally got the dates down and committed to making the trip. For Terry, a 20+year resident of the District, the trip to Smoke Hole was a long time coming.
An annual visitor of Big Sky country in the summer months, Terry was a skilled, knowledgeable trout fisherman who, like many in our area, found himself in a rut when pursuing local fly fisheries. After almost exclusively fishing the Gunpowder and a few of the other small streams in our area for “fussy, eastern trout”, how could you not be? It was time to change things up.
While the technical challenges of these small, wild trout streams in our area make it difficult to “clean up”, they will make you an infinitely better fly fisherman. I’m a big fan of these streams for this very reason because they often require perfect casts into tight spaces, incredible stealth, monk-like patience, a somewhat creepy knowledge of the local insect life, and – when everything comes together- the ability to make your hook set count in order to be successful, they force you to get better.
Amped about chasing some less finicky trout (and bigger ones) I made the rookie mistake of making a non-refundable reservation without so much as glancing at the weather. It was the one thing I hadn’t taken into account….Foolish. But with any fishing trip, it’s not really a fishing trip until something goes wrong. That’s a fact. So when I pulled up the Doppler that night, inevitably I saw something that made my stomach sink.
The weather front was unavoidable. Spanning from Texas to Canada in an aggressive amalgamation of yellows, greens, and reds hell bent on destroying a perfectly good weekend of fly fishing– even the weatherman couldn’t miss this one. It was going to rain on Saturday. How much and how hard were the only questions remaining in my and fellow trout bum Terry’s minds. But like most fishermen, we decided to risk it.
Simply put, there is a reason you buy rain gear (to use it) and what is a little monsoon when it stands between you and an encounter with that mythic beast known as Hawg Johnson? Exactly.
We arrived in Cabins, WV on Friday afternoon and hit the C&R section hard for a few hours before darkness forced us off the water and back to the cabin. While I focused on throwing stimulators on 6x (dry flies are my new jam), Terry was hell bent on throwing big, articulated streamers in an effort to coax Hawg out of his hidey-hole. Splitting up, I made my way up river to hit a series of riffles and pocket water with dries while Terry focused his efforts downstream in water more conducive to swinging meat.
From the get go, it was evident we timed this adventure right. Fish were looking up and wearing their reckless necklace in a big way. The closest comparison I can think of is a Rhodes kid on Beale Street at 3am with a hankering for Taco Bell. If it was food, they were willing to eat it. I probably won’t catch a fish for a year for saying that. But right off the bat I made some fireworks with a personal best brookie (15”) on a stimulator, the next cast brought a big bow to the net (17”), and that epic fish was followed up by a dozen or so chunky rainbows on assorted terrestrials and dries, including my first experience with Hawg Johnson that weekend… which resulted in an epic take on a well-placed stimulator from 40 feet away and a shredded strand of 6x. Brutal fun. More importantly though, we established a pattern for success that we could follow the next day.
As in any facet of life, having confidence is a key component to success. In regards to fly fishing it is downright essential. There is a fine line between cockiness and confidence in this game. The Fish Gods know the difference between the two and make their own judgments accordingly (so don’t be a Dbag on the water).
Seriously though, the simple fact of knowing that you caught some fish the day before does wonders for your swag or pep-in-the-step to fish hard and effectively the next day. Who knows, that swagger may even convince you to try something new that you normally wouldn’t have had the moxy to and you can pick up a new skill or technique….even if you neglected to look at the radar…… made the decision to wet wade AND left your rain gear in the car…. and THEN got caught in a fairly significant rain storm…..#FLYTIMES
Drunk off trout slime and drenched to the bone, we packed up the rods for the day and made the drive over the mountain to dry off, grill some elk, and toast the day’s events with adult beverage. You can’t ask for a better way to end a day on the water and after sating ourselves with mountain beast and fancy fermented grape juice, we took another look at the Doppler.
By all accounts the expansive front was going to hit us sometime around 1PM. What would ensue was anyone’s guess. The water was low and clear, but damn— there was a lot of rain heading our way. After talking it over, we agreed it would be important to utilize the pre-front madness (the same bite we experienced that afternoon) for as long as we could. The fishing had been that good.
We set our alarms for 6AM, no questions asked.
The next morning we made the trout bum pilgrimage that is a trek to McDonalds in Petersburg, WV at 6am. Two egg McMuffins each (one for now, one for later….) and black coffee were all we needed to hit the stream hard all day (and I mean, ALL DAY—7am to 7pm). Actually, Terry had a full day. I was an eager beaver and forgot to pack my wading boots in the car before leaving for the McCafe that morning.
Coming to this realization halfway over a mountain on the way to the stream is never a good thing— even if you have a warm, morsel-y McMuffin in your hand. Not trying to ruin Terry’s morning, I alerted him of my grave error and continued the drive with the intention of dropping him and his gear at my favorite hole. I told him I’d be back to teach these fish a lesson in no time and began my schlep back to the other side of the mountain. Thank god for good music.
To say I was incredibly frustrated with myself for leaving such an essentially obvious piece of equipment on the cabin’s front porch would be an understatement. But more often than not an important tool or piece of equipment gets left behind or lost at a crucial time. Over time you learn to cope with these little setbacks and adapt. It’s a mentality of shit happening, trying not to step in it, and if you do –wiping it off and forging ahead.
During these not-so-favorable moments, it’s important to keep calm and think about alternative means to accomplish your goals. A good fly fisherman can overcome even the most deviant obstacles. Stay positive. Your day is not completely ruined. It’s just slightly delayed.
For me, I wanted to maximize time on the water. Leaving the boots was a pretty large hindrance to that goal (40 minute round trip to cabins and back). But by taking a step back and breathing, I was able to get myself in a good place and ready to fish. Plus the difference between a 7:00AM and 7:40AM start time is pretty negligible when you really think about it and definitely not worth careening over a mountain cliff at breakneck speed for.
When I arrived back at the cabin, instead of throwing my boots in the car and peeling out for the water, I decided to get my rig perfect and wader up. I took a breath, used the little boys’ room, and made sure I wasn’t forgetting anything else. Taking the 10 or so minutes to get everything organized and ready for the day absolutely saved me time and frustration. Putting on my waders before hopping back in the car was a good call too. When I arrived back at my favorite spot, I was ready to fish the minute I got out of the car with a clear mind, empty bladder, and no rush to rig up. Just me and the stream. No better feeling.
That morning the absurd dry fly bite from the day before continued. In the first two holes I stuck a chunky brown and rainbow while experimenting with an absurdly unnecessary 16ft 6x leader that promptly knotted after a couple fish but got more takes on the dry than if I had been using a shorter leader (I guess). The experience was cool. Having never fished really long leaders before, it was a blast learning how to manipulate my cast and drift to do exactly what I wanted them to. It took a few casts to warm up, but eventually, I learned to cast softer (if you will) and the leader stopped knotting up as frequently. I realized the game was about picking shots and making your drifts drag free. It was a goddamn blast. Throughout the morning, I stuck 20 or so rainbows and browns on large stimulators fished in the runs and riffles. The fish were so aggressive you could almost call your shots. Again, sick.
The sky began to darken as I worked my way upstream towards Terry around noon. Eventually meeting up at an impassable section of river, we decided to head back downstream to the car so we could fish the section above us before the heavy stuff rolled. Throwing on the rain gear and demolishing the second McMuffin, we shockingly made a good call. The heavens opened up a few minutes after leaving the car. Trading observations from the morning in the relative dryness of Buffy (my Explorer), we were glad to hear that the other had managed to get into some fish. Although the downpour would ultimately put an end to the incredible traditional dry fly fishing we were having (we’d have to switch to foam dries if we wanted to chase that dragon), we were confident the bite would only get better as more water entered the river.
We were right.
That afternoon, we were blessed with some of the greatest trout action I have ever witnessed. In one pool I caught 6 consecutive rainbows over 16” (up to 19”) on a homebrewed egg pattern fished under a massive foam indicator beetle. If one drift brought a fish to the net on the egg the next drift saw a fish explode on the beetle. Times like these are what GoPros were made for (sadly, I don’t own one…yet). It was one of those days where you could seemingly do no wrong – but nature has a really funny way of turning the tables.
Making a cast into a fairly deep run, the overcast sky made it difficult to follow the black indicator beetle. But it wasn’t necessary. I looked for where I thought the fly should be. But oddly enough, it was stopped at the top of the run. It hadn’t moved an inch. It didn’t shoot under or jut off to one side like a typical take. It literally just floated in place as if anchored to something. There was no drag on the fly at all. Thinking I was probably hung up, I lifted the rod tip to see what was up and upon feeling the bottom rise with the rod raise, I set the hook just in case it was something special. That’s when my reality was shattered.
A mass of speckled, rainbow flank erupted from the water— a fish well over 20” with the shoulders to match. Hawg Johnson? Could’ve been. Probably was. But as is the tradition with this blog, the line went slack, the hook floated midair in suspended animation, and I was left to day dream about the trout that could have been.
It’s funny, but even when you’re catching fish, the presence of a monster or encounter with Hawg will rock your foundation. He almost acts like a reminder for why you’re out there. Just when you’re getting comfortable and think you’ve got everything figured out Hawg will show up and let you know you still don’t know shit….and you suck….and that he’s keeping that fly because it’s the last one in your box. Think you’re the coolest dude ever for catching a 22” bow on a dry? Hawg doesn’t care. Purely out of spite, he’ll take your fly on the next cast, break your line, and make you forget all about that “solid fish” you just caught.
Shaking my head and doing my best to laugh off another failed bout with Hawg, I decided to head back down stream to where we parked the car and try my luck at the “money pool”. Having already encountered the Hawg twice, I was jonesing for another redemption shot.
On one of my previous trips to Smoke Hole, I encountered a giant brown trout in the money pool. That pig broke me off twice that weekend, stealing two, very essential terrestrial flies. I still remember the first refusal and take that fish offered me –its massive, golden flank burned into my memory. One day, I may catch him. I may not. I’d like to get my flies back at some point though. I guess it’s these encounters that will always keep me coming back. That pool will always be a special place for me.
I was relieved to find the pool empty this late in the day. The rain and WVU football game kept most sane anglers off the water that day. Thank god. Working my way out to my usual spot in the middle of the dualistic pool (there are two headwaters/runs you can work if you enter the water below the fish and stealthily work your way up), everything felt right. Still working the mutant beetle-egg combo, I made a cast to the top of the pool and waited for the fireworks.
As the beetle drifted haplessly through the kill zone, similar to a seal running the gauntlet off of South Africa’s Seal Island during Shark Week, I saw something monstrous rise from the dregs of the pool. Ascending from the depths to investigate the massive, foam insect on the surface, the trout stopped midway through the water column to check out this stupid, round chartreuse thing in its face. It made a decision before slinking back into the depths.
Initially thinking the fish had again refused my generous offerings of foam and sharpened steel—my heart raced as I saw the beetle start sinking under. The pig had taken the egg! Similar to before, I raised the rod tip to set. Again, it felt like I was moving bottom and to my chagrin— again, Hawg took things way too seriously.
Setting on the fish, I felt its massive head shake in anger. I saw a monstrous golden flash at the bottom of the pool. But before the fight could even start, the line went slack. My knees trembled. I released a primal howl. If I hadn’t been standing in 4 feet of water, I’d have fallen to my knees in anguish.
The first two encounters with Hawg that weekend were ok. Laughable offenses. Cute miscues. The fish had bested me. Sometimes you just tip your cap. But this one was personal. The 6xhad failed me epically on the fish of my dreams. The one fish I fantasized about for months was gone. I once again, blew it with the hot girl in class.
Checking my phone, it was 7pm. Over the course of 12 hours on the water, I forgot how many trout were stuck. If I had to put a number on it though, I’d say it was at least several, numerous, large handfuls worth of trugas. I know that’s not helpful. But it’s never been about numbers and has ALWAYS been about the experiences. For this trip, all I can tell you is that the fishing was epic (brown, bow, brookie slam each day), the dry fly bite incredible, the setting unreal, and the company, the type you’d like to keep.
That night we hit the local bar scene. Tired and absolutely, fricking WASTED on trout slime, we slid into “Third Base” (the last stop before home…get it?) to grab man food and ale. Located on Main Street in Petersburg, Terry and I recapped the day’s absurdity. What had we just done? We smiled ear to ear. The beers tasted a little better that night.
Incredibly, we never saw another angler all weekend. In hindsight it was a special setting and experience that was only made more epic by the approaching storm and aggressively feeding trout. The next morning, the fish gods smiled upon us again. The rain raised flows just slightly and the trout responded with an appreciative appetite. From 8AM until 2PM, the bite remained red hot and I ended my day on another big brook trout caught on a dead drifted streamer.
Sated on fish slime and tired/achy from wading a dozen or so miles over the course of 22hrs on the water that weekend, we packed up Buffy and started the trek home. Driving past the hatchery where the mutant golden trout came into existence, the mountains shrinking behind us in the rearview, all was well until we put the Redskins game on the radio…
Special words about special places from #TheFlyGuys