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Watauga River Trout

5/26/2006

SHOW ME WHERE THIS IS

On a pretty, sunny [and early – starting at 6 a.m.!] spring morning in late May, 2006, Debbie and Bob Laney traveled to Hampton, TN, to meet Judson Conway. That name may be vaguely familiar. If you read the biography of Eustace Conway, The Last American Man, Judson features prominently in several chapters. He is Eustace’s younger brother, the one who rode with Eustace and Judson’s girlfriend on the world record setting cross continental horse packing trip about 6 years ago. And the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, was right: Judson is handsome and charming!

Judson has guided hunting and fishing trips all over North America. He is currently living in Butler, TN, with his wife Eunice and children Colter and Cricket. He now works as a fishing guide. You can check out his web site at www.ecoflyfishing.com . Judson and his customers prefer fly fishing, but he also teaches and guides any other kind of fishing, like spinners, jerk baits, or whatever.

This deal was put together as a barter. A couple years ago my brother Frank and I were shopping for some land adjacent to Turtle Island Preserve in Watauga County. We found some priced reasonably. We did not want it due to the shape and condition, but it adjoined some land that Judson owned. We figured he may want it as a buffer, so we brokered the deal. In return for doing the legal work, Judson traded to me a professionally guided fishing trip. It took us a year and a half to get our schedules meshed. [Joe Samuel, if you are reading this – do not check my tax return for reported income; besides, by the time I publish this article, you should be retired…]

This day was scheduled for us to spend the whole trip in Judson’s hard shell row boat on the Watauga River below the dam at Watauga Lake, TN. But the prior night’s rain muddied the water and changed our plans. We spent the morning wading on a local creek and the afternoon as planned. Judson’s first piece of advice, repeated many times during the day, was: the longer you keep your lure in the water, then the more fish you’ll catch. The more you cast, the better your luck.

Debbie’s and my original request was to skip the fly fishing, because we did not know how to do it. I had tried before with no luck. We were intimidated by the apparent finickiness and complexity of the sport. Judson vetoed our request. He would not even let me talk, saying “… hear me out first.” He started us thigh deep in freezing cold creek water [but wearing his loaned, very nice, chest waders] learning to cast for trout. Within a few minutes, without any big deal or great effort, we each had a small brookie on our fly lines! Now I understand why they pay him the big bucks - about $400 / day for a 2 person trip. More got hooked than a couple of trout. Debbie and I will try some more fly casting soon.

For lunch by the river bank we had a scrumptious meal of fresh cooked crab cakes, homemade slaw and other fixings. Back in the boat, we fished all afternoon. Judson taught us about floating dry flies, sinking wet flies, secondary “dropper” hooks, watching for insects to match, watching for the rings of trout rising to sip insects on the surface, a drag free drift, a purposefully dragged swing drift, casting with a pause when the rod is vertical, finishing the cast with a wrist snap, sun and shade on the water, polarized sunglasses, using spinners and jerk baits in faster or deeper water, what “trouty” waters look like and many other interesting things. There was never a feeling of forced learning or difficulty. All was fun and the application of the natural causes and effects of what we were seeing in front of us.

We saw hawks, buzzards, king fishers, beaver sign, groundhogs, blue herons, many kinds of wild flowers and lilies growing on the river banks that I had not seen before. We also saw the usual assortment of tires, rusted washing machines and civilized effluvia. Commendably, the local professional fishing and paddling guides were that day leading a volunteer effort to clean up the river and haul off trash.

So, what was the real bottom line? Who caught what? As the day wore on, Debbie was catching far more trout than me – mostly brookies and rainbow. I was having a good time…but I was making mental list of what husbandly transgressions I could get away with in the near future as “payback” for her making me look so bad on the river. Plus, Debbie’s extensive fishing experience came to the fore: Judson and I commented several times on her excellent casting technique. Then, when I least expected it… male ego salvation! As you can see from the accompanying photos, I caught my biggest fish ever! A 24 inch, 2 pound rainbow trout!

The amazing thing (another learning experience…) is that the place where I hooked the big fish was plain and unlikely looking – nothing special, just an average stretch of river bank with no visible sign of good habitat. Like Judson said at the beginning: you’ll catch more fish when your lure is in the water. Keep casting!


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