Huge Fly Fisherman – East Tennessee Bass and Bycatch

“There’s cold beer in the cooler.” Kyle didn’t even say hello when he picked me up from the Knoxville airport, he just directed me to the PBR pounders in the back seat. I knew right away this was going to be a fun trip. Shirking my snow shoveling duties at home, I had flown in from the Rocky Mountains for a few days of smallmouth bass fishing in East Tennessee. Kyle was apologetic about the weather forecast (cool and rainy) and water conditions (mostly high and dirty), but I assured him that as long as it wasn’t snowing I would be happy. As I would see over the next few days, there are a lot of options for fishing in the area, which allows anglers to work around adverse conditions.

From the airport we went straight to the local fly shop, 3 Rivers Angler, to meet up with Kyle’s buddy Allen who owns the shop. I grabbed a couple more beers from the cooler and opened the door to the shop. The door handles were butt sections of old fly rods, which I thought was pretty cool. We were greeted first by the shop dog, a Plott hound named Brownlow. He’s named after Brownlow Newman, a local steamboat captain who lived in the early 1900s. We were then greeted by the shop rats, nice kids but I can’t remember their names. Allen was running late, apparently, he had gotten lost while jogging on some trails in his own neighborhood.

Kyle and I made a quick run to the store for some essentials; pimento cheese sammies, imitation krab sushi, and some more beers. Sadly, the deli was out of fried chicken. Back at the fly shop, a couple of cold ones later a Tundra pulling a Towee jet boat skidded into the parking lot. I shook hands with Allen, we bullshitted a bit, then it was off to the fishing grounds for the rest of the evening.

Twenty minutes outside of town, up one of the forks of the Tennessee River, we turned off of a two-lane country road and pulled up to a locked gate. This was another good sign. Bonus, Allen found the right key in his truck. As we were launching the boat, it became clear that the smallmouth fishing was not going to be great. The water was high and muddy. The boys were loading up the boat though, so I didn’t ask any questions and just offered to help.

After motoring downriver for a mile or two we came to a fishy section with some structure. Visibility was about 8 inches, but the texture of the water indicated features that we could not see. We pulled out a couple 7 weights with sinking lines and white streamers, and I was informed that I would be fishing for skipjacks, or Tennessee tarpon. It only took a little while of dredging before I felt a tug, tried my best to strip set, and caught a half-pound fish. Turns out skipjacks are a kind of herring and they’re pretty fun to catch on a fly rod. They eat, they jump, and they pull a little bit. They are, indeed, like an itty bitty tarpon.

We drifted downstream, slowed down by a drag chain and ferrying with the trolling motor, catching fish. Allen put a couple of skipjacks on circle hooks and drifted them out in the current, hoping to catch a big striper. That’s when I realized why we had two spinning rods and some crab floats in the boat with us. Three fly lines swinging around a 17 ft boat is asking for trouble.

I made a good cast tight to the left bank above a long jam. My fly line got tangled on my stupid GoPro and my stupid chest mount and the fly sank as I tried to gain control again. As soon as I got the slack out of my line it went tight with something heavy on the end. Definitely not a skipjack. It was a freaking buffalo. The fish, not the one with hooves. It fought like a wet sock, but I got a kick out of it because they’re native, I’d never caught one before, and I had no idea they would eat a Clouser minnow. I also did not know how slimy they were, like hardhead catfish slimy.

We said goodbye to the buffalo, caught a few more skipjacks, Kyle caught a white bass, and Allen fruitlessly dual-wielded his spinning rods until the sun was behind the bluffs. When there was no more light, Allen trimmed the outboard down and Brownlow took up his station on the bow, ears flapping like heron wings as we jetted back to the ramp. I had a steak for dinner, Kyle and I grabbed a hotel room and got some shuteye.

The next morning was everything I had been hoping for. 65 degrees, sunny, mild humidity, no W, and best of all it wasn’t snowing. After another 20-minute drive up the other fork of the Tennessee River, we pulled up to another locked gate. Sweet. The put-in was rated black diamond, and with the help of a controlled skid the boat was soon in the water.

We went upstream with the trolling motor and checked out the scene. It was good. Low, clear water. Fish were rising to mayflies in the main channel. On the shallow flats we could see carp, buffalo, drum, smallmouth bass, trout, gar, catfish, and redhorse suckers.

We pulled out our 7 weights with intermediate lines and white streamers and started flogging away. It wasn’t long before I had a tug and pulled a bass out of a deep slot. It was just a little guy, but it felt good. I hadn’t caught a smallmouth in about 10 years. As we drifted down the river I squeezed a few more bass, some a little bigger, and generally had a fine time in the sunshine on a boat with good people. Notably, I learned that smallmouth bass will follow feeding carp and buffalo, just like permit on rays. I saw it happen, didn’t catch the bass, though.

We had been casting at the carp and buffalo, mostly for entertainment and not really expecting them to eat the fly.  Half-way through the day we bumped into two carp on river right in shallow water, a dark fish in front and a light one behind. I had on a micro game changer and threw it in their general direction. The light fish turned on it immediately. Not aggressively, but sort of casually. I squatted down a little bit, bent at the waist and wiggled my little streamer as temptingly as I could. The carp followed about 6 feet, I saw him open his mouth and eat the fly, and I engaged the strippiest strip set that I could muster. We connected, had a fine tussle, and a few minutes later Kyle scooped that carp up in the net, my first one on a streamer.

We celebrated with beers all around and moseyed our way downstream, catching bass from logs, snags, ledges, and holes, and not catching a lot of other fish. We killed the pimento cheese sandwiches and polished off the krab sushi. Brownlow bayed at cows and muskrats, as a good Plott hound does. It all just felt right.

The conversation slowed a little as the sun got closer to the treeline. Allen raised the trolling motor and trimmed the outboard down. Brownlow took his spot on the bow and spread his ears out, soaring his way back to the ramp. Our work wasn’t done yet, though. We still had two more days of fishing and we had to figure out what we were going to do and where we were going to do it. That’s not as simple as it sounds when there is so much water in the area with so many different opportunities to poke a fish in the face. I didn’t stress about it, though. I let my hosts figure that out for me. I was just glad it wasn’t snowing.

For more from Ben and all things HUGE, check out Huge Fly Fisherman on Youtube. Also, be sure to stay posted for more Behind the scenes tips from Ben.

If you are ever in Tennessee or want to experience the fishery be sure to check out the 3 Rivers Angler at https://www.3riversangler.com.

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