On the 4th of July I spent a few beautiful evening hours on my home stretch of the Potomac River, and had one of the most fun outings I’ve ever had here. Conditions were perfect for wading. The level was low but not too low, and the water was crystal clear. Later in the summer, the grass will take over and the water temperatures will approach bath level. The fishing can still be very good, but it’s less pleasant to be in the water when it gets that way. But for now, perfect. Although the clear water has a down side. You can see below just how well the fish can see me, the camera was completely submerged here. So I find for the most part, some longer casts have good results. There is one notable exception described later in the post.
I’ve been really wanting to entice some smallmouth to poppers and other surface flies. I know lots of people who have great success on the top. But for me — and maybe it’s technique, location or both — I only catch sunfish when I try surface flies. Of all the smallmouth I’ve caught on the fly, I’d say less than 5 percent have come on the surface. If anyone has some advice on how to entice a smallie to the surface without having a sunfish feeding frenzy, please comment here.
So after several sunnies in a row I went back to my go-to fly, the peach wooly bugger from Dead Drift Flies. On my first cast I brought in this beauty, and that was just the beginning. The smallmouth bite was ON, and it was a blast. By the way, this 5-weight Hardy rod is new, and I can’t get over how much fun this rod is. It throws line like a dream, but feels like a 3-weight with a fish on. You feel every tail beat and head shake. Fun, fun, fun.
This was the first Potomac River outing this year where I had far more smallies than panfish. I always catch some tiny smallmouth, and quite a few were what I’d consider large fish for this stretch. But most were about this size, which you smallie hunters know, is plenty big to put up a nice fight!
The nicest fish of the day, though, was the last of the day. I had waded upstream from the house a ways, and then went across the river a quarter mile or so. It was so beautiful out there, far from either bank, cool water on my legs, the sun setting upstream and fish enthusiastically biting. But, shallow or not, I like to see my feet when I’m wading, and darkness comes quickly when it comes. So I reeled up, secured the fly and admired the setting sun one more time before wading back to shore.
Along the way, now close to the bank and walking parallel with it, I passed three or four holes I fished on my way out with not much luck. I thought I saw a shadow move in the current, but didn’t have a lot of faith in my eyes at dusk. I decided to toss a fly in. I totally half-assed it, though. I never stopped walking, and didn’t even take any fly line out. I just unhooked the wooly bugger from the guide where I secured it earlier, held the rod out to the side and let the fly drop in the water. The shadow immediately slammed the fly. I pinched the fly line to the cork and set the hook, but I think the fish had already done that for me. He jumped four times under the tip of my rod — I basically had only the leader and about a foot of fly line out past the guides. What a great punctuation to a fantastic evening of fishing!
The conditions were right. The day was hot, river was low and relatively clear but still cool, and I hadn’t spent quality time with my dogs, Team Orange, in too long. I knew they would enjoy romping in the river this evening, the first such outing this summer.
What I sometimes forget about dogs — maybe my dogs, probably all dogs — is their almost limitless capacity for joy. I’m not sure I have ever seen them happier than they were tonight, with bright eyes, wagging tails, curious exploration, barks of joy and irrepressible affection. Here Winnie has a blast digging up a stick. Simple pleasures.
As great as those Adult Swim moments are, though, this trip to the river was about the kids. They seem to love this water level, shallow enough to bound through it after a toy, but with spots deep enough to swim, too. Here Finn shakes off after returning the bumper.
Sandy got them this great bumper toy from Chuckit! that they just love. It’s easy to spot, floats high in the water and is soft in their mouth. Finn is much stronger (and taller, which helps) in shallower water where he can bound through it. Once they are swimming, they are both about equal. But Finn will stay and wait if Winnie hasn’t gotten one in a while, and let me throw it just for her to retrieve.
God I love this dog. This is one of my favorite things, the watching. Something either touched her foot or caught her eye and she stared at it like this for a minute or more, fascinated. What a lovable dork.
I am normally very content to remain in my beloved Virginia. But every now and then, something in my brain clicks and I need to go west. It’s as if some sort of internal GPS needs to be reset and I can only do it in Montana. I am happy to accommodate this particular quirk of my brain every couple years, and am blessed to have a loving wife who is happy to support my pilgrimage.
On this trip, I wanted to dip south into Wyoming and explore Yellowstone National Park for a couple days. I had heard about Slough Creek, a special creek that takes a good hike to reach and holds some beautiful Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. So I decided that’s where I was headed.
I recruited some company for the journey, my good friend and Missoula-based fishing guide extraordinaire Joel Thompson for three very good reasons: One, he knows western water and bugs and trout like nobody else; Two, I very much enjoy his company; and Three, Slough Creek is firmly located in an area where it’s not wise to hike alone, an area teeming with wildlife such as elk, moose, wolves, bison and there’s one more, what was it? Oh yeah. Grizzly bears.
I’ll be honest here, I consider myself relatively ‘outdoorsy.’ But I admit that my particular brand of outdoorsy is a far cry from Yellowstone bear country outdoorsy. Joel, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time backcountry hiking and camping in truly remote, potentially perilous locations and conditions. So when he gave me a lesson in bear encounter body language, I listened intently.
I also made the mistake of reading the booklet that came with the bear spray I bought for the hike. This ‘helpful’ guide is loaded with things like a list of ways to avoid a bear encounter, and then a disclaimer saying that might not work. Or a list of bear behaviors that may indicate aggression, and then, “or, a bear may not exhibit any of these signs and attack without notice.”
So while the pep talk at the trailhead was not a big confidence booster, I felt a little better with the bear spray on my belt and the knowledge that encounters are rare, even in areas thick with bears. Backpacks were packed, and I felt anxious and excited and ready to go. We toasted our adventure (and settled my nerves) with a Moose Drool Brown Ale, an excellent choice in a Montana breakfast beer, and hit the trail.
Within 300 yards of the truck we encountered our first sign of bear activity. A huge, steaming (okay, not actually steaming, but unmistakably fresh) pile of bear scat. Soon after that we saw tracks, thankfully headed in the opposite direction we were hiking. But Joel’s relaxed conversation put me at ease and soon I was focused on the hike and scenery.
It was beautiful, no question, and I could have easily spent the entire day there. But we were both looking forward to a longer hike, and had our sights set on the second meadow, about five miles from the trailhead.
These were, as it turned out, easy miles. As we encountered more open country, my bear anxiety lessened. And my fitness efforts over the summer paid off as I felt comfortable hiking at a quick pace with a considerable pack on my back.
When we arrived at the second meadow, the trail had taken us well wide of the creek. A smaller path led a half-mile or so north to the water, and we quickened our steps in anticipation. As we reached the creek and shed the backpacks we spotted a large trout holding in a huge, deep pool below us and our excitement grew. We assembled our fly rods while discussing strategy. Joel was going after the big cuttie in the pool we were watching, and I headed upstream to explore.
Here, a half mile from my friend, I had a clear view in every direction, thousands of acres of grassland spotted with sagebrush surrounded by rugged mountains along the entire horizon. I stopped walking, stopped looking for rising trout, stopped thinking about catching them, and said to myself, “Look at where I am.”
A lone bison grazed in the quiet across the creek from me, and I sat on the bank and watched him. On our drive to the trailhead we saw hundreds of Yellowstone’s bison, but this solitary beast, so peaceful in this spectacular setting, triggered something in me. I was overwhelmed with the grandeur of it all.
It was more than the beauty of the place. It was working hard all year to save for the trip. It was sweating all summer to shed 25 extra pounds so if I got to a place like this I wouldn’t be worried about the hike back out. It was that rewarding burn in the legs from the walk. It was the easy comfort of a good friend nearby and the pleasant mix of adrenaline and Moose Drool in my stomach. It was the sandhill cranes above, the bison in the meadow and the trout below the creek’s surface. It was the aroma of sage with a distant hint of wildfire smoke in the air. It was a landscape unchanged for thousands of years, yet somehow utterly American. It was everything I ever could have imagined in a place, and it was more. It was emotional, spiritual and physical. It was timeless.
I could have wept. And, truthfully, that bison across the way did go blurry for a moment or two.
But there was fishing to be done, and only two of us as far as the eye could see to do it. So I took a few photos of this powerful place, knowing full well that even if I could somehow capture the beauty of it, the images would only tell a fraction of the story. But if nothing else, the pictures would serve as a reminder to me that special places and moments are out there, and that the ones you work hard to reach are made more special by the effort.
He was, predictably, having more success than I was. He had found a tight series of turns in the creek, with gravelly little beaches and rock formations forming a stunningly beautiful collection of promising fishing spots where both of us could fish on our own but still be nearby if one of us needed a hand landing a fish or taking a photo.
Joel loves to fish, but he also loves to help others catch fish. He spotted a feeding trout in a pool and carefully waded across to climb the rock face on the other side so he could look down and direct me where to cast. It worked, and in a few casts I had my very first Yellowstone cutthroat on the line. Joel hurried back across to make sure we got a photo of me with my fish. This is special to me not just as my first fish of this species in the most special place I have ever stood, but because Joel worked hard to help me get it.
But we were five miles from the truck and wanted plenty of daylight to get there. Animals move at dusk and if bears were going to return to the path, it was my preference to be sitting safely somewhere enjoying dinner and a beer or nine by then.
The trail going back seemed different, partly because I was pointed in the opposite direction of course, but partly because I was more relaxed. I was still alert for big things, but able to look around and enjoy the little things we encountered along the way. A grouse tried to startle us from the trailside brush. We watched a Clark’s Nutcracker (named for explorer William Clark) hunt for grasshoppers just a few feet away. Odd insects caught our attention like the bizarre and repugnant Mormon Cricket. And conversations abut these encounters and everything else under the sun were not only enjoyable, but also served to make a little extra noise on the trail so we didn’t surprise any Grizzlies.
But the packs were getting heavy, and we were parched and hungry. We had plenty of water, but it was packed away so we decided to just push on. We got to the truck without incident, and as I shed my backpack I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I had traveled a greater distance on foot than on any other single day in my life. I had stood in a place I will never forget, with a fly rod in my hand, and fooled a new species of fish to my fly. And I had not been mauled by a Grizzly bear. Pretty good day. One of the very best days, in fact.
In the uniquely charming town of Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, where elk walk the streets and graze on lawns between swing sets and recycle bins, there is a bar called the Iron Horse. We spotted it the previous day and declared when we returned from Slough Creek we would sit outside on their deck overlooking the mighty Yellowstone River, toast to our day with fine Montana brews, and shovel absurd quantities of food into our faces. It was another in a long list of excellent decisions we made all week long.
We refueled our depleted bodies with bison burgers topped with bacon, kielbasa sausage, caramelized onions and cheese. I washed mine down with several Bozone Amber Ales, Joel went with his beer of choice, an IPA.
And then it was over. Days just like it happen one after the other in this special place. The elk bugle, the bison graze and the cutthroat feed whether I’m there or not. But I am humbled, honored and privileged to have been able to stand in that meadow, to reach into that cool, clear water and touch those beautiful trout first described to science by Lewis and Clark, to be a part of this place for a day. And I’m not overstating it to say that all my days from now on will be a little bit different, a little bit better, for having been there.
If you are looking for a fly fishing guide in western Montana, look no further than Joel Thompson at Montana Troutaholics.
Note: All the above photos were taken with the Olympus Tough Series TG-1, many with the optional Olympus FCON-T01 Fish eye converter lens.
…might as well be a nice one.
I hit the river this morning for a couple hours with one goal in mind: to get a little more proficient with my Olympus TG-1 and the new fish-eye lens converter I just got for it. It’s supposed to produce better, more dynamic underwater photos. And with my trip to Montana just over a week away, I don’t want to be fumbling with my settings when I get the chance to shoot a cutthroat in those beautiful, clear Montana streams.
There are three different underwater settings for this camera: landscape, action and macro, each with a flash option. So there really is a lot of experimenting to be done to find the best settings for particular underwater photo opportunities. I wanted a fish subject but wasn’t having much luck until this beauty came along. All these photos are of the same cooperative smallmouth, the only fish I caught today.
Most of the photos were taken with the lens zoomed in all the way. I don’t know why it was set like that, but I’m glad I looked at the images with the fish still in my hand so I could back off and get some decent shots of the entire fish.
Having said that, I am very pleased with these oddly abstract close ups!
There’s the big fella! He was a real beauty, easily 16″ I think, and very thick.
Pretty clear underwater image, considering the water isn’t exactly gin clear. But it’ll take more practice to really dial in the best way to shoot these scenes.
See you next time, pal!
It was a fun morning, fly fishing the home waters of the Potomac with a friend. A few smallmouth were caught, but for me it was mostly these pretty little sunfish. They’re small, but they fight hard. The Jack Russell Terriers of the fish world, we decided today. The only interesting photo I took today was this macro of a sunfish eye. You can see my silhouette in the reflection.
I’ve seen “Loudoun Heights” on hiking trail maps online before, but never could find a clear map that showed me enough to commit to trying it. For some reason, it is not on my favorite hiking web site, Hiking Upward. But part of the Loudoun Heights hike is on the Appalachian Trail, and I finally got this great map from the AT Trail Conservancy. Team Orange and I tried it today and it is an instant favorite. I hope you enjoy the images and memories of a fantastic day…(All photos were taken with the Olympus TG-1, with the exception of the very last one, which is an iPhone 4S photo.)
The best place to park for this hike is across the Shenandoah River on the West Virginia side. The sidewalk along the highway is entirely appropriate and safe, but I’ll be honest, it’s not very fun to be on it. The guardrail seems low, and the jersey wall between you and traffic even lower. It’s all more than a little unnerving to me. But it is a great view of a beautiful stretch of river.
The white blaze on the trees is known up and down the entire east coast: The Appalachian Trail.
Winnie stops and stares at nothing often when we’re hiking. But today she really locked onto something I couldn’t see, and wouldn’t move past it. As I finally noticed, it was a chipmunk.
Turns out Winnie wasn’t the only one watching ol’ Alvin. This black snake had been watching him too, and when he struck, I was reminded of one of the biggest reasons to keep dogs on leash on hiking trails. It’s not just for their safety, but for the safety of the wildlife too. Winnie very much wanted to be involved in the black snake/chipmunk discussion. But I snapped a quick picture and let him be to feed.
I was extremely impressed with the macro setting on this Olympus TG-1. This is not a large flower. That is a very small sweat bee!
One more macro shot, with Winnie’s coat in the background, before we get back to the action.
One of the things I love about this hike is that the hard work is done in about the first two miles. It’s very steep, but once you get to the top of the ridge, you leave the AT and take the blue trail in a comfortable walk along the ridge line. There are three overlooks, this is the first.
This second overlook is pretty uncomfortable, in my opinion. I don’t like looking down 600 feet, and for some reason the wires going all the way down and across the river make it worse. We did not linger at this spot, and I’ll happily skip it next time. But the overlooks are very near the trail.
This rock formation is a pretty imposing landmark, so we stopped for water and a photo here.
The blue trail ends at the last overlook, Split Rock. Between Maryland Heights, Weaverton Cliffs and this, this is my favorite view of the Potomac River and the town of Harpers Ferry. Spectacular, even on a very overcast morning.
Team Orange waiting for me. This photo was actually a mistake, I forgot to set the timer so I could go over and join them for this one. But I love it.
We had some water and snacks and then I was just messing around with the camera. I really love this setting. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s designed to make the photo look like it’s a miniature. And it does! This totally looks like a model for a train set or something. Weird.
On the way back, we took a little detour. What kind of Team Orange would we be if we didn’t take the Orange Trail?
Round trip back to the car was about seven miles, but we felt pretty good so we continued past the car and headed into the town of Harpers Ferry. Along the way, for some reason I felt like this photo had to be staged and taken.
A well earned cool down in the waters of the Shenandoah River.
A well earned cool down on the porch of the Secret Six Tavern! These dogs were so fantastic today, walking politely on leash for nearly nine total miles, passing scores of tourists in town and never once being nosey or rude, just walking in a polite heel. I really feel like I can take them anywhere.
By the time we got to the tavern they were pretty tired, but after a sip of beer and a few french fries each, they were toast. I think all three of us felt like the toughest mile of the day was that last one back to the car after sitting down and relaxing for a bit. But I’m real proud of them today.
It’s hot today. Damned hot. But I felt like walking down to the river with my fly rod and making the most of an otherwise dreadful day. I brought along my new trusty Olympus TG-1 waterproof camera and had some fun with it too.
The heat kept most sensible people indoors, but it wasn’t bad here on the water late morning. A steady breeze kept things reasonable. But I only spotted a couple people kayaking in the couple hours I was out there.
At this time of year, this grass grows in the river everywhere. The good news is it makes for good, safe habitat for fish. The bad news is it makes for good safe habitat for fish. It’s a challenge to fish water like this without getting snagged continually, but luckily the water was very clear, so you could actually cast to the gaps and watch your fly move underwater. To successfully navigate a streamer through these clumps and end up catching fish is pretty fun and rewarding.
I don’t understand what the camera is doing to make this dark edge around the fish, but to me it gives it the look of a bad movie special effect or something. This is a healthy little smallmouth bass, one of eight small ones I caught today along with a couple pretty sunfish.
This cool wooly bugger is the only fly I fished with today, tied by my friend Josh Williams of Dead Drift Flies. I think it really comes to life in the water, great looking fly.
I feel like the key to my photography is to just take a LOT of photos, because most of them are going to be uninteresting, technically flawed or both. If that’s true above the water’s surface, it is doubly true beneath it. Because you can’t see what you’re shooting, you just pick your settings, hold it underwater and snap away. I took over a hundred underwater pics today (many on ‘burst’ shutter to try to capture movement), and ended up with a half dozen or so keepers. And while the keepers admittedly aren’t that great, I did make some progress in figuring out the settings I like underwater.
On the settings that use a flash, like this one and the photo at the top of the post, to me the photos have almost a surreal look to them.
Well of course, I let this little guy go hoping he would swim toward the camera. No.
I don’t know if you can see these at the top of the picture, but I have a large pod of large carp right off our river bank, and I will figure out how to catch them one day! The largest of these, like the blackish looking one in the top right of the photo, is probably 30″ long and as big around as my thigh. I saw 12-15 carp and some impressive catfish in this hole. I fished to them for a while but they were not interested in my silliness.
And speaking of silly, you find odd things in and around the river all the time. This rubber ducky had a number on the bottom, leftover from an old Brunswick, Maryland Railroad Days game where you buy a number, they release the duckies upstream, and as they catch them downstream there are prizes given out. This wayward fella missed out on the game and was stuck in a little eddie for who knows how long, so I sent him on his way down river.