July 5th, 1999
A Lighter Point of View from the Hills

South Holston River
The South Holston River as viewed (East) from the Hickory Tree Bridge, Highway 44

by Mike Widener (aka The Ridge Runner)

Rainy Days and Sundays

A while back, I attempted to write an article on my experience with light line fly-fishing. As is the norm with our New World society, I received both praise and criticism from friend and foe alike. Most of the praise came from those like myself enjoyed the change of pace and who were catching all species of fish for the first time in their life on a regular basis. The foes pointed out that fishing with lines at or under a three weight was an abomination in the eyes of the Almighty, and that the use of lightweight systems suffer poor water creatures unmercifully.

Remember in the movie Smokey and the Bandit when Old Bandit said something like, "you are only as smart as where you happen to be standing?" So, I will address my point of view primarily to those of us who live in the eastern United States; particularly the southeast. Here on this side of the mountains, I have had to learn to contend with put-and-take mentalities, large groups of tourists who wade on redds, and new inductees to fly tossing that can run through seven miles of river like a Zulu warrior. I should not fail to recognize Grandpa Poo who can throw a very large Rapala two hundred yards to and through the pool that I always seem to be casting in.

Needless to say, my trout and other species stay in a condition that would be best explained as clinically psychotic or near collapse from paranoia. This general mental condition of my local fisheries has been developed from the fish being stepped on, depth charged, hammered, jet skied, and herded. In short, I live in an area where fishing is hard. I had to either adapt to the pressure or be very disappointed in my fishing success. So, I am presenting a point of view supporting a lighter approach to fly-fishing. I am here to present the viewpoint that people in situations like mine might increase their success if they lighten up a little. All that is required is a review of what works and the tools utilized.

Rods, Reels, and Puppy Dog Tails

A review of my logs for the past three years fishing the rivers and streams (that's Yankee for creek) of East Tennessee confirmed a trend. Every time I kept my approach simple and light, I caught fish. This included overcast or sunny days, rainy or clear days, Canada Goose days, grandpa days, or whatever. It may be a single fish day or fish the size of what some would call bait, but I caught a fish on that day when no others did. I believe that highly pressured fish can be taken providing one concentrates on presentation, matches the rod and reel system to the fish's attitude, and has confidence based on a working knowledge of a particular environment.

I assume that 5-4 weight or lighter rods come to mind when one hears someone say, "I'm going light!" Most writers and experts that I read tend to put the 5-weight rod at the top end of the light rods and the bottom end of medium rods. There seems to be an increased interest in lighter rods and fly lines as manufacturing materials improve with advances in technology. I personally think lighter equipment is the way to go to improve fishing success. No Martha, I am not saying everyone should run out and buy a $1,000 2-weight system, but they would probably catch more fish if they did.

South Holston River, TN

My concept of fishing light is founded on solid fishing techniques (knowledge of the subject species), dependent on basics (knowledge of the principles of fly-casting and presentation), and knowing how to conduct myself on the water (the environment). I have adapted my approach and equipment to meet my fishing requirements and conditions. Since I can't find the "golden" fly rod that can cast mystic powers over trout to jump on a fly, this approach seems to be most logical.

As a beat to death and highly conditioned fly-fishing industry consumer, I feel that I have achieved Jedi-like mastery in my ability to make blunders. Trying to learn or obtain the latest thing or trick in the wonderful world of fly-fishing does not work. Yet, I love trying to break the code on what one thing brings a good system together. I have concluded and feel very strongly that the fly line is just about the most important factor in creating the highly advertised and editorialized balanced system.

I have noted on lighter weight systems, generally 4-weight and lighter fly lines produced, with noted exceptions, have a longer front taper. Being no expert and still trying to decode the concepts of fly line design, I would think this would provide for more close-in casting control and possibly more delivery control of the line to the water. Also, the diameter of lines is decreasing. Recently, I had to laugh when a cheap, mass produced 4-weight rod & fly line out-performed a high-cost consumer fly line of mine. The result was the cheap line out-distanced and out-controlled the so-called quality ($) product with little or no effort. I was extremely pleased and impressed with the light water entry of the 4-weight line.

In mountain talk, fly lines are like puppies to me. Brittany puppies tend to fly in general directions in response to the yells of their handler and seem to point everywhere. However, only one pup out of a litter will hunt well close and far. Around this neck of the woods, choosing a good hunting dog from a pup is really difficult. It's real easy to buy a bad dog when it was purchased on the basis of pedigree alone.

Try to put as much research and trial into your fly line as you would into a rod, reel, or hunting dog. I doubt if many of you would ever admit to making a statement like, "I went to Martha's Fly & Bait Shop to buy a new rod and reel for my fly line." Yet, I have seen some friends here in East Tennessee run right out to buy a $600 rod with a supersonic $300 reel affixed based on a picture advertisement or something they were told. When I ask them about the line, they usually can't tell me a thing other than the brand name, the shop put it on, or that it was $55. Worse, they purchased a complete lightweight system without trying it out. If they did try it out, trials with different lines never entered their highly focused and consumer conditioned little heads.

I highly recommend that any rod system should be thrown before the money is blown. This is especially true if any high-cost, lightweight system is in your dreams. Don't just walk outside the shop and throw a well-tutored loop or two with your favorite salesperson. Before I will spend the better part of a month's salary on a highly specialized lightweight system, I want to try the weapon against the enemy. Ok, so I have beaten the obvious to death. Then why do people and my friends do it?

A light 4-weight or lighter rod is an out-of-body experience for most. My initial tendency to over power my 2-weight was great. So, you still want a lightweight. Then go to your favorite fly shop and take a demonstrator rod to the river or stream. See if you like the performance. Don't be mesmerized by the name on the butt section, what you read in an article, or the beautiful photo advertisement you saw. Be objective and honest with yourself.

When you're on the stream, does that supersonic system meet your requirements for casting control, water entry, and just general fishing appeal? The Power Rangers among you can add distance control, too. Ask for that demonstrator rod people! Tell them that you'll bring it back in a few days! Don't forget to take extra reels or spools loaded with different lines from multiple manufacturers. I recommend you try fly lines designed for lightweight rods or in the smaller diameters.

What works best for me? My primary desire is a system that I can control, enters the water with minimal disturbance, and must have acceptable performance in a moderate wind. Please note that distance did not appear as a priority anywhere in the last sentence. In my mind, there is no difference between a 3-weight and a 5-weight if they both have equal water entry like a Mark 21 naval torpedo.

I never thought of maximizing my favorite 5-weight rod for function and finesse. That was until I replaced a very popular, highly advertised line with a line that actually matched the rod's behavior and my casting style. The replacement fly line was a lighter, smaller diameter line with a belly that supported intermediate casting ranges and responded to the medium-fast action of the rod. The change in line met my need for stealth and supported my casting style. The result was my level of confidence went way up, and I have become master (in my own mind) of everything within 35 feet. This was acceptable to me since most of my hookups are usually at a distance of 20 feet or less.

Leaders and tippets have always been a fun challenge for rods under 4-weight. Most situations around home are such that I am seldom required to continually change the leader/tippet size and length. What am I trying to stay? The stream's current flows, or lack of it, wind speed, the stream's bottom structure and depth, the food chain in the stream, and mental condition of my prey are fairly predictable in my home waters. I usually do most of my East Tennessee fishing with a minimum ten-foot leader and a 6x tippet. Again, this is based on the highly predictable gun-shy state of mind of a heavily pressured fish population (and who are very discriminate eaters). I will only say the leaders and tippets shall remain that continual, every changing mystery for most fly fishers. I can only state that long and light works in East Tennessee.

Relatives, Relationships, and Fights Around the Out House

Not understanding what the river or creek is telling me has probably caused me more failures on the stream than any other factor. Breaking the nature code depends on what a section of water offers fish or man, or either simultaneously. I wonder how many of us actually sit down to consider the characteristics of depth, current(s), vegetation (edge and sub-surface), and what native creatures are present in and around the stream. Ever watch a heron fish? This controversial subject has enjoyed the favor of many an outdoor writer and kept them well fed.

Really, how much time do you spend actually breaking out where the trout lies are? Where are the canalizing currents? How many of us actually check to see what is present in the water? From the time the nun threw the yarn and feathers in the water, the basic axioms of how we understand a section of water is consistent until man or nature changes the game plan.

My success rate is usually directly related to how much time I spend listening to what Mamma Nature is telling me. On my home waters, I try to make a conscious effort to mentally break the water into sections of 20 x 20 feet. Breaking a section of water into these blocks is the easiest way to decide what to do about getting a fish on. Busting vegetation and jumping into the water to get at one or two raising fish may be the start of a very lean day indeed. I try to work to an array of fish and not be tricked or drawn into haste by a single rise form. I would love to have a dollar for the number of times I have violated this. Just sit down and watch awhile then enjoy one well-aimed cast with little disturbance to the water above the trout or target species. Bam!

South Holston River

On the ever so popular South Holston River, I continually see people get out of the their Grand Cherokees, adorn themselves with ten pounds of very shinny equipment, and literally jump into the river without so much as looking up. The visual wakes from retreating trout go in every direction as they attempt to escape the individual's attempt at a stealthy approach. Not to mention taking the trout in my section that leave with their tormented cousins. Hence, I usually start a gunfight with the individual about their stream etiquette, the 50-yard rule, and their birthright. I feel a duty to train my fellow stream mates.

What is the best technique and frame of mind for fishing light? Stay out of the water! Sure you paid good money for those breathable waders, but they will never leak if you don't get them wet (and you will catch more fish). Learn to low-crawl to the water and watch. How many times have you sat in the weeds or bushes and practiced you casting? Remember all those articles and books that revealed the glories of fishing near the streams edge? I have found it's true and deserves the most delicate of touches when a feeding trout is in less than a foot of water.

If you fish a river or stream system over a period of time, you will soon learn what the food chain menu is over a year's time. Keep logs, take samples, and learn what organisms are present. I used to laugh at people who carried entomology kits and suction out trout. I don't laugh now, but I do smile more.

Poll Analysis, Psychologists, and Mental Patients

Let's face it, the pressure for those of us who fly-fish is going to get worse. An ESPN commentator stated that 39 million people would join the ranks of Outdoor Consumers of America this year. People will spend more money on fishing this year than any other type of outdoor recreation. Today, people are smarter and loosing the fear of the difficult. They think they want more challenges in their life. I wonder how fly-fishing qualifies?

Still the Holston

I fish three major rivers and have over 100 named creeks near my home in East Tennessee. As Davy Crockett would say, I am blessed with the meanest smallmouth bass, the ugliest brown trout, and the most beautiful rainbow and brook trout in the world. However, the fishing is getting harder because of the pressure being placed on the streams. Last year, more than 20,000 nice people traveled to the South Holston River to fish an eight mile section of river, and 5,000 people paid big bucks to drift a two-mile section of the Watauga River for a trophy trout (I don't worry much; they seldom catch anything).

Pressure and people factors made me change my style of fishing. I love to fish a 2-weight system on my local rivers and streams. Equally, I have discovered that an over-three-pound smallmouth on a 4-weight is the most fun I have ever had while fully dressed. Life with a single fly box containing an ensemble of flies matched to a stream is freedom (freedom of movement and from a 10-pound vest). When the wind blows hard, the heavy nine-foot long, 5-weight rod is the only change to my battle dress. I also discovered that I seldom carry a fly now over size #12, and most are size #16 and smaller. I found that I had not lived a full life until I fished midges in a snowstorm.

Thank You Bernard

Will a lightweight approach work for you? I can't guarantee results where you live, but it sure does work for me in East Tennessee. The light or featherweight approach is not new. Some fear that a lighter outfit will not handle a larger fish or worry that lighter tackle will place a larger fish in jeopardy. Education and experience will remove these fears. Both Dave Whitlock and Lefty Kreh have written many a fine article on how to fight, land, and handle larger fish on lightweight gear. It works!

The first weeks in June of this year, I was sneaking off to a park near my home at sunset. Since I could not make it up river for trout, I thought some smalljaw action after the personal watercraft went home would be good for the soul. I consistently landed some well over 2-pound smallies (one over four) with my 4-weight and began to draw a regular crowd. After a couple of days of repeating my little sunset show, two locals began to religiously show up to learn how to fly fish. They both expressed a desire to fly fish for trout. After listening to my dissertations, one of the two went to a local fly shop to purchase an intermediate rod for general East Tennessee fly-fishing. I recommended starting with a 5-weight, but they sold him a 7-weight with a double taper fly line because he used the word bass in a sentence. I sent him back.

If you fish eastern rivers and streams, I recommend that you review your own fishing techniques and personal requirements. I am certain that if you lighten up a bit, you just might smile more. I am not after the biggest fish or the most. I just enjoy the satisfaction of carrying everything in a single pocket and not making waves. ~ Mike Widener (The Ridge Runner)

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