Fog blankets the South Holston (photo: Mike Sepelak).

When you're new to fly fishing your view of the sport is largely shaped by what you know and you generally don't know shit. At best you have some idealized view of what it's all about because you watched "The Movie", read Hemingway's Metaphor for War or because you saw some guy do it and now you're a dry fly purist too. Even after a couple of outings, you still don't know anything but are convinced that your way is good enough.

When you're first introduced to the dark arts you shudder, give a wave of the hand and move on trying not to retch.

Nymphing. You don't want to do it but you must fish and when the trout aren't looking up you can either practice casting or man up and get it done. So you slip a bit of fuzz on the leader and chuck line. Nymphing is the gateway drug to the underworld. The leap from a Catskill dry to a Prince Nymph may be great, but the slide from there to Wooley Buggers and articulated junk is a small one. Then you learn about sink tips and sinking lines and soon you're fishing everything from sipping trout in thin-water to raging flood with five hundred grains cutting through a vicious cross wind.

You're no longer an ingenue, you've seen the backside of a few fly boxes, and you know what lurks there. You may even have a few of your own but you always pass on them for "real" flies. Everyone has their limits and you know yours.

On the South Holston the fishing can be good if the dam cooperates. On a particular Saturday a few weeks ago, the dam was not cooperating. Some foolishness about a drawdown coupled with a heavy rain made fifteen hour releases the game for the entire weekend. Up before dawn and on the water before the releases started, we chose a spot ten miles downstream. At 2 m.p.h., that gave us five hours of fishing before 2,000 cfs arrived. It comes up fast. Pay attention.

The previous day, dry-droppers seemed to work. The top fly didn't seem to matter much, so it was a Usual. The bottom fly, a small Copper John, got some attention and the fishing was steady enough to keep it interesting but nothing near what one would call good. That and the good company made it good enough, though the whole mood was aided by Corn Mash #1.

On Sunday, they moved up the release by two hours so that cut the fishing time on our ten mile stretch to six hours. We could have gone further downstream to buy a few hours but this was the only familiar water on an unfamiliar river.

Trout being what they are, nothing that worked the previous day was effective. I quickly swapped the dry for two flies under a bobber and that did the trick. I also took advantage of my marginally better understanding of the location of drop-offs and channels to fish more effectively. It was rewarding to piece things together and get into fish.

Upstream Mike struggled at a pool where Marc had cleaned up the day before. Frustrated, Mike waded down to a pool where trout had been eager for a Parachute Adams the previous afternoon. I swapped with him and worked my nymph rig through the complex current seams that came together below two braids. No luck.

High water was due around 10 a.m. so I kept an eye on a line of rocks at the top of a braid opposite me. With little time left I went through the fly box aggressively going small, going buggy and even tossing some rubber legged monstrosities to at least get a look. Again, no luck.

It is in such dark hours that one hears the call of those places in the fly box one infrequently visits. Back there lurk pink, tan and red strands of ultra chenille lashed to hooks. They're not really flies to some but those guys aren't here and you're on the clock and need to produce. Pink garnered nary a look and I surmised that garish wasn't the mood of these fish. I tied on tan.

Fish. Fish. Fish. Rinse and repeat. Trout came in the deep slot near the tail, at the rough water at the head and from bank to bank. Dialing in this worm hatch was as satisfying as having just that right color of emerger during the height of the sulphur hatch. I caught fish and felt good about it.

Tony, an old timer I fished with regularly for a few years, gave me a look every time I suggested fishing subsurface. "Dark arts" he called them with a sneer reserved for worm drowners and hardware chuckers. It took me a few trips to realize that he was often fishing dry-dropper rigs. More often than you would expect, you'd find some pink ball of fuzz or red worm swinging below his expertly tied dry.

Dark arts. Get some.

Steve Zakur can be found doing whatever it takes to catch a fish on the rivers of western Connecticut. He also writes at and for various magazines.


"Dry fly purists" is just another term for "unimaginative".

I don't begrudge someone their style, but if you're in it to catch fish despite the conditions, imagination is sometimes all you've got.