North Fork trout quest at Harman’s Cabins
I’m a self-taught fly fisher, and sometimes it shows.
My backcast is good enough to get the job done. The wind knots that plague beginners are mostly gone from my loops. Not that it matters much on the small streams where I do most of my fishing. One of the first lessons you learn when fly fishing in West Virginia is that trees and rhododendrons love to eat fly line.
On small streams you generally rely on flipping techniques, such as the roll cast, where you keep your line in front of you, deftly lift it off the water and flip it back out over the water. When done correctly, the line almost seems to move on its own.
I can flip my line around with the best of them, but for some reason roll casting has been difficult for me to master. Still, I thought my technique passable. My guide thought differently when he saw me in action on the North Fork.
I was staying at Harman’s Luxury Log Cabins. Located in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area in Grant County, Harman’s offers comfortable, streamside cottages with private access to trophy trout fishing.
Ed Wooton, an experienced fly fisher as well as manager of the cabins, was guiding me for half a day on the water.
“Your roll cast sucks,” Ed announced flatly.
He took me out of the water to give me a casting lesson. With him watching and correcting my mistakes, I quickly began to improve. This is one of the advantages to having an experienced guide as a tutor.
The 1.75-mile stretch of the North Fork that goes through Harman’s is privately stocked with thousands of pounds of trout each year – mostly rainbows, but also brown, brook and golden trout. “There are 10-pound fish in here, and plenty in the three-to-five-pound range,” Ed told me at the fly shop inside Harman’s office.
That’s big. Especially for somebody like me used to catching 12- to 14-inch stockers, and even smaller wild brookies.
Ed worked with me until he was satisfied with my progress, then took me back to the water. This time he took me to what he said was one of his favorite holes, farther away from the cabins. We hopped in a side-by-side, headed up a dirt trail over a ridge, and back down to the stream.
We waded out toward the middle. At the head of the pool the water rippled between boulders. Some mayflies were hatching (bug identification is also not my strong point), and I could see the water being dappled by rising trout. Within minutes, the water was turning into “snout soup,” as we anglers like to call it.
And I got a tingle when I saw how big some of the snouts were.
Ed tied one of his dry flies on my line. Once the water entered the pool it flowed evenly, and it took minimal line mending to a get a natural drift. This is every fly fisher’s dream. I brought several smaller fish to hand.
I say small, but these included a couple of fat beauties, about 18 inches. I was happy, but Ed wanted me to tangle with a four or five pounder.
He pointed to one fish rising regularly between two rocks. Several times it rose up from the water enough for us to see it was a hog, a real stick breaker. On my first cast to the spot, I got a decent drift. He didn’t exactly hit it...he just took a big slurp and the fly disappeared.
I set the hook an instant too late and way too hard. When the line shoots out of the water and ends up pooled around your legs, that’s a sure sign you set the hook with a little too much force.
Ed put it another way. “We call that getting schooled,” he chuckled.
Although I caught some more fish, that ended up being my only chance with that particular snout.
Too soon, my time with Ed was up. He was meeting more clients – a newlywed couple – for the afternoon. But I still had the rest of the day to fish alone. I followed a fisherman’s trail upstream to a secluded spot where the stream formed a deep pool.
I was wet wading. For a few moments I just stood there feeling the cold water around my legs, and letting the sun warm my face. Someone once said that part of the joy in trout fishing is just being where trout live. After taking some time to savor the moment, I returned my focus to the pool in front of me. The dapples on the water were becoming fewer, so I switched to a nymph. I quickly caught a couple more ‘bows of modest size.
A bit later, I felt a pull on my line, and calmly (this time) set the hook. At first, the resistance felt like a dead weight, and I thought I was snagged. Then the snag began to move.
I realized I finally had my big trout on. I also realized that if I tried to horse it, my tippet (the thin part of the line between the fly and leader) would snap. My nerves had settled down since my time with Ed; I sat down on a rock and concentrated on working the fish.
When he wanted line, I gave it to him. I made him pull against the rod, hoping to tire him out, slowly working him closer. After several minutes, I had him out of the current and within about 10 feet of me. I could see that the fish was huge. In my mind, he was at least five pounds, but who knows?
Just as I was thinking about reaching for my net, he turned and made another run.
He stripped the line off my reel until he was back out in the middle, where we had started. But I hadn’t broken him off. Then, he jumped – not a spectacular jump, he was too big and fat for that – but he completely left the water. The image of that big slab of a fish floating in the air is like a Kodachrome slide frozen in my mind.
One of the oldest fishing maxims is that when a fish jumps, you quickly bring the rod down and forward to release the tautness of the line. This helps keep the fish from throwing the fly (if you’re lucky). I’ve seen anglers even dunk the tip of the rod into the water during a jump.
Instead, without thinking, I pulled back – a rookie mistake. The fish hit the water with a heavy splash. The line instantly went slack.
I stood there, numb, for a few seconds. Slowly, I reeled my line in. I glanced around. No one was in sight.
I made a few more desultory casts, then decided to head back toward the cabins and tell Ed about my epic battle. Just as I came around a bend in the river, I saw Ed in the stream with the newlyweds. He had his camera out, taking a picture of the woman holding a monster trout. The pretty bride was beaming with a big, beautiful smile.
Anything I said now would just be taking away from her moment. Besides, without pictures, without witnesses, anything I said would just be another fish story.
Metro Editor Robert Saunders can be reached at email@example.com. For more information about guided fishing at Harman’s Luxury Log Cabins, call 800-436-6254, or visit www.wvlogcabins.com.