THE DANCE OF THE SMALLIES
Stepping onto the water in wading shoes and shorts always feels like pure escape to me when fishing moving waters. Since most of the waters I frequent stay colder than I like for wet wading most of the year, a chance to rid myself of the waders is an absolute blessing. And so it was as I stepped into the waters of Pennsylvania's Big Pine Creek. I was fishing a stretch several miles above the canyon section near the Batterson farm, and hopes were high for this humid summer evening. The stretch contains two pools on bends that I have come to know well over the years and the lower of the two would be my target for the evening. Earlier that day I had stopped in to Smitty's for a spool of tippet and overheard a group of anglers complaining. It was a common discussion played out each year about this time. The days had grown hot and the waters had dropped and warmed considerably, putting the hatches off until only the very early morning and just before dusk. I realized that as well since I had been fishing those times regularly myself. But then the discussion turned to the stream being "fished out", since hard fishing had been producing very little as far as trout go lately. The stockers were gone in their minds, overfished and ruining their season. I kept my back turned through the entire discussion, smiling and listening quietly. And as they rambled on, I rambled over to the wall and also grabbed some 5x fluorocarbon tippet. I was out of that size, and would need it if I was going to be casting to smallmouths this evening.
You see, every year about his time the Pine flips upside-down. When cooler temperatures prevail and the waters up, the trout are king of the pools, and the lesser-known and under-appreciated smallmouths stacked up in the deeper, slower and similar water that is less appealing water for trout fishermen. But once the tables turn, the water flips. The trout seek the cooler depths of the faster and deeper pools, and the smallies move into station, feeding much like the trout, which they replace for a time. Only they are not fished for properly, since they will not as readily take the trout offerings traditionally tossed at them. Most often the smallies that take the trout nymphs are the dinks that are viewed as nothing more than a nuisance and ignored. Yet just below them in the pools there generally are a good number of larger fish to be had. I too will often ignore this cycle longer than I should into a season, getting caught up into chasing the last trout of the summer as well, but thankfully this year that conversation I overheard reminded me of what I should do. And with the statement of "The water is just fished out," I knew it was time. Not because the water was indeed "fished out", that in fact was far from the truth, but rather because I knew where the best dance in the area would be occurring tonight, and I would be attending.
So there I was wading into the "corner" as I have come to call it, with smallmouth in my sights. Were there trout still in this pool? Sure thing! But I would not be drifting for them specifically. Instead, I would be running my streamer along the far seam on the edge of the foam line toward the deeper back eddy. There was a ledge there that worked as a chute normally several feet beneath a strong swirling current. It was both hard to fish early in the season, but too far out of the main lie for trout to be very productive. But in lower water it became smallmouth nirvana.
Tying on a Golden Retriever streamer, I placed it about six feet below a medium-sized indicator which was twice the depth of the water I was targeting and began feeding line into my back cast. On my first drift, just as my drift brought me to that seam, my indicator disappeared. Lifting the rod hard put me in instant contact with a fish, and before I could even register the size it rocketed out of the water once, twice and three times before spitting my fly back at me and disappearing. I laughed out loud at myself as I realized that a fat 15 inch smallmouth had just handily kicked my backside without even a fine-fare-thee-well in return. My hands were shaking a little as I inspected my fly and leader before preparing to cast again, chuckling at myself once again at my case of nerves. However, I was not to be beaten the entire evening as well over a dozen fish of decent size hammered by fly with only 2 more being victorious in their escape prior to my eventual release. I particularly love river smallmouths, due to the fact of their acrobatics when hooked. Smallmouths try everything! They leap, run, plunge and then leap some more until they either get off or come to hand. I am reminded each time I set the hook on one that it's a truly fun dance to experience.
As light began to fade I began working my way down the pool and eventually came to the rock wall on the lower far side of the pool where the waters course was once again forced back into the main channel. A couple casts there wouldn't be a bad thing I thought, and placed my indicator so that it would skirt tightly against the rock. On the first cast it disappeared and I was tight to a good fish. This one however did not jump. It dogged along the rock with violent headshakes and then took me into the deepest part of the pool to stubbornly hash things out with my fly rod. This was no small mouth I thought, and once I was able to turn its head into the current and swing it my way I confirmed my suspicions. It was a buttery gold brown of about 18 inches with a slight hook to its lower jaw and smoke-grey halo's around the bright orange flank markings. A beautiful fish I thought as it slid towards my waders just below the surface and gave up on its side. I knew that it was going to need some help with the warmer water, and it was too dark for a picture. So instead of netting it I kept the fish in the water in the cooler current and revive it while it was still hooked. In a fairly short time it made a decent effort for escape, so I popped the hook from its jaw and said my goodbyes. A beautiful fish I thought to myself, and was truly grateful for the chance to see it in its spectacular colors. Yet wading back to the truck I was not thinking about the brown trout that ended the day, spectacular as it was. What I was smiling about as I broke down my rod was how much fun the dance had turned out to be. I had been right on both counts - the creeks trout were not fished out - and the dance of the smallmouths would be the main event from now until the fall temperatures arrive.