I believe that every great river has it's mysteries and "The Lady" is no exception to this rule . The one I will share with you tonight is one that has facinated me for several decades ... I am going to introduce you to the river's most secretive inhabitants , the ghost browns of the Ledges !
The Ledges is one of the five legendary large pools in the upper 1/2 of the Elk River C&R . As is true with the other four (Mill Pool , Angle Hole , Trestle & Meadow Hole this is heavily fished , glassy smooth , often very technical water . It's the kind of a place where inches become miles , mistakes are magnified and if the trout are "on their game ", you had better bring your "A" game ... I think of it as 4th , in degree of difficulty, of the 5 with the pecking order being , starting with the toughest ... Angle Hole , then the Trestle , then the Mill Pool , the Ledges and finally the Meadow Hole . I can already hear people saying "tough & technical , you must be joking . I went down there during Sulpur season and blew up rainbows on a #16 Usual , with a Sulphur spinner trailed off the back , on 6x . They were blasting it every cast " !
Showing off my psycic abilities ;) my reply would be "yep you were fishing the fast water at the head of the pool , with the fish bug drunk from the mammoth hatch & spinner fall . Most of the fish were 8-13"s , rainbows , and the fishing was so good you didn't even notice what was going on 30 yards downstream . If they are honest they would then have to admit that my assessment of the situation was pretty darned close . Close enough that they might come back with" so that was you just above the tailout ? The few times I looked up you seemed to be doing more looking then fishing . I did see you catch a couple right at dark ...." Oddly enough it probably was me just above the tailout ! There is nowhere I would rather fish right at dark on a late May or early June evening then the flat shallow water , just above the tailout of the Ledges and therefore I do it often ....
Now the obvious question would be why would you choose to fish the rather flat , shallow water near the tailout when you know you could be catching fish all evening in the fast water at the head of the pool instead of watching water and others catch fish ? It's a valid question , with a number of almost equally valid answers .... a. I like watching water , b. I like watching others catch fish and c. there is a stillness down there that is very appealing to me . Now all of these things/reasons are true but they are not the real reason ... The reason is it's because I know what lives there ! You see the low rock ledge , lined with grass , that forms the bank of that little piece of water is undercut . This undercut is and always has been in my years here , what might be thought of as a boarding house for large wayward brown trout . Kind of like a motel for brown spotted sharks . I say sharks because they range from large - huge and I use they because there always seems to be a fair number of them :) . The ghost browns of the Ledges !
By this point , if you are still reading , you are probably pondering at least 2 things ! These things might well be ...1st : how sad it is that the old elkfisher has finally lost his last 3 marbles and 2nd that lost marbles or not it's time for the elderly river idiot to explain the whole ghost business . Fair enough ;) .
I call them the ghost browns because they simply appear out of thin air , ok water actually , right at dark . You can stand and watch the water all evening (and it's thin enough that you can see every pebble) and never see a fish over 8"s and not many of those . Then it happens . Right at last light (think headlamp to tie on a fly time) you see a tiny ring . You don't fish yet . The ring appears again and again ,with the timing between appearances forming a steady rhythm . You still wait . Upstream 6' another ring apprears and settles into it's own rhythm . You watch and wait . Then a 3rd , 4th , 5th , etc . ( Some nights as many as a dozen) join , all rising softly and rhythmically . Now you fish !
The presentation must be perfect , drag and you are done . You make your throw and .... THERE got him ! Based on anything observed swimming there 1/2 hour before you would reasonably expect the response to your set to be the easy tug of an annoyed 8" brown trout much like I did when I 1st stumbled into this phenomonon years ago . Your reasonable expectation soon turns into shock (in a good way ) as the trademark headshake , is followed by the slowly accelerating 1st run of a heavy brown . You land him as quickly as possible attempt to straighten out your rig and repeat the experience . It is a rare night that you hook more then 3 or 4 before you simply can't see anything and 2 is a good night .
The 1st time you experience this you will find yourself taking the walk back down the next morning to look things over closely and maybe catch one in the day time . Of course all you will see is the same 8"er that was there yesterday afternoon . The big fish have vanished leaving the shallow water to the little browns , dace and darters . You shake your head , smile and head back up river , thankful to have had the encounter the night before and determined to visit the brown spotted river spirits again soon .
This story is another "blast from the past" and I will try and tell it as faithfully as my memory will allow ....
I have always loved the Slaty Fork section with it's solitude , beauty and firecracker wild bows . Having said that I must admit that there was a time when I viewed it as being a change of pace stream rather then a place you had to fish ! I think my main rationalization for this belief was that while it held good numbers of fish , by and large , most of the ones I caught were , shall we say , a bit on the smaller side with 7 - 12" bows being the norm , a 15"er being the fish of the day and every once in a while I would stumble into a 17"er which , in my mind was as good as it was likely to get up there ...
Now I am not saying there is a thing wrong with a 7 - 12" rainbow (especially when they fight like the Slaty bows do ) but in my mind , when stacked up against the 15 - 18" browns you could expect to encounter every time you fished the lower river , they always seemed to come up a little short ;) ...
My good friend Mike Cumashot on the other hand preferred to fish Slaty spending far more time up there then he did on the Elk Springs end . This always left me shaking my head ... Mike is without question one of the 2 or 3 best anglers I have ever met and it simply made no sense to me why someone who was that good would choose to fish for little bows when there were beautiful , much larger slabs of Elk River butter to be had down river ! Worse he seemed determined to try and get me to share his little rainbow preference even (especially?) on days when the river was rising and the lower end browns were obviously going to be feeding .
He would ask me repeatedly at these times to accompany him with my response being invariably "thanks but I think I'll fish the lower river today" . He would ask if I was sure and I would wish him good luck but assure him I was . This pattern was repeated over and over for several years . After awhile it got to where I really wanted to ask him "what the heck is it with you and those little fish " ! Respecting him as much as I did though I simply shook my head all the while considering his little rainbow fetish to be heresy of the highest order :( .
Finally the day came when I just couldn't take it anymore ... I was sitting on the Trestle watching the river rise and take on color , smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee , with a light rain falling , trying to decide whether to start at the Ledges or go on down to the Priss Hole . Either way the day reeked of big browns and I planned on taking full advantage of it . I heard a truck door slam and soon Mike is standing there saying gonna be a good one , to which I replied simply , yep . Here it comes I thought and I was right ... "come on lets go hit Slaty " he says , an invitation that I yet again respectfully declined . This time though he kinda looked at me , cocked his head and ask me "why won't you go up there with me when the river is like this" ? It was out of my mouth before I could stop it "because it's the home of the footlong" ! With a look of confusion he ask me for clarification ... "What" ? Having still not regained control of my mouth I told him "there's nothing up there but a bunch of little rainbows and I'm not wasting water like this chasing little fish ". He looked at me obviously both amused and annoyed and said "oh I see , suit yourself" then shook his head , chuckled and was gone . The invitations ceased after that .
A couple of seasons went by and I was standing in the parking area below the sawmill with a couple clients surveying the high brown water that we found ourselves confronted with . Shoot it hadn't even rained down on the lower end last night ... oh well . Plans were made to reschedule and they were on their way leaving me with a rod in the Jeep and time on my hands . Hm... if I can get across Old Field Fork I can fish Laurel and at least the morning won't be a total loss . I did just that then decided to go down and check out Props Run while I was at it . There was a tiny clear seam at the mouth of Props where it entered the river and I thought "why not" and pitched a pair of cream larvae into it .... wham a 15" bow , pretty cool ! The next cast changed the way I looked at Slaty forever ... I made a bad throw which took the nymphs out into the chocolate milk looking water . They drifted maybe 3', the line stopped , I set , and then all hell broke loose . Heavy fish ! Pissed off very heavy fish ! I couldn't turn him , the drag was screaming and then it was over and I was reeling in the now slack line a little dejected but shaking from the encounter . I rigged up again , switching to 2x , moved up stream 10' or so , added a couple more bb shot and wham off to the races again this one being a heavy 19" brown . It was smokin good the rest of the way with lots of 15" - 18" browns , a couple bows in that size range and a brown that was maybe 21" at the head of the Ball Diamond . Needless to say I was elated !
It poured that night and I woke up early , jumped in the Jeep and headed for the upper Slaty parking area . This time I hiked all the way down to the railbend at milepost 103 . Repeat performance and then some . Landed 3 over 20" with the best right at 23" and hooked a couple fish that ran straight upstream , into the teeth of the heavy current at warp speed . I could do nothing with them getting busted off rather quickly in each case . I finished up just below the Compound Hole with a 17" male , hooked my fly in the keeper and started walking back up the tracks , totally blown away .
At the head of the Bait Hole who should be standing on the little point but Mike , rod bent , battling what appeared to be a brown the size of a big carp . He looks up , catches my gaze , smiles and says "yep home of the footlong " ! Touche :). I ask how long had he known about this with said inquiry being met with a big smile and "oh quite a while now . I tried to get you to do it but you were so damn sure of yourself " .
I have never looked at big storms and brown water in the same way since ....
This tale is for and about my good friend Ryan May and a couple of magic days we spent on Slaty Fork several years ago ....
It had been wet and I might add unseasonably cold for May which was generally viewed , around here , as a disaster of biblical proportion given that the Sulphurs had already started and now the "red fog" would surely be reduced to the "red sparse wisp" until the forecast improved . It would have been very easy to sit around muttering and whining about things but Ryan was having none of that .... "Let's go up Slaty and chase sharks" . Now I had been content to sit and whine , smoke Marlboros , drink coffee and dream of the Snout Soup that would surely return with warmer temperatures but the river was brown and rocking and chasing big Slaty browns is one of my very favorite things to do . This being the case it was off to the upper river , the whining would have to wait ....
Day one of the adventure started out as a very typical Slaty high water day with both of us hitting good fish early and often . See the very best time to fish Slaty is when no one wants to fish it , that time being when she is blown out . This is when the real beasts of the river come out to feed mid-day on the little wild bows for which Slaty is known . It makes for a good time once you get used to dealing with the shear volume of water roaring around you , pushing you downriver with your cleats scraping the rocks . You have to fish water you will not want to fish ...
Anyways rounding the bend between the 2 twin holes we encountered something most unexpected in the high brown water ... rising fish ! Lot's of rising fish . Lot's of very LARGE rising fish and all of them of the brown spotted variety . Sulphurs , thousands of them , #14's , were unable to get off the water with the cold temperatures . Instead the big duns were stuck riding downstream , like an early season olive hatch , into the sea of snouts to be slaughtered ! I had never before seen the BIG fish up like that on Slaty . With shaking hands (and not from the cold I might add) we tied on #14 Usuals and it was on . An 18" male here , a 21" hen fish there , etc . Sitting here typing this years later I can still feel the moment ... true magic in it's purest form .
That evening we decided to invite a couple more brothers to go the next day just in case the magic repeated , with an identical cold day being forecast .
Day 2 saw the 4 of us hiking back down into the promised land with visions of giant Slaty butter , caught on dry flies dancing in our heads . Lightening indeed struck twice , with one differernce ... sure enough ,they were up again , huge browns , but this time rather then right up the gut , they were rising clear across river on the far side of the heavy current in the slack water by the hemlocks . The one was at a minimum 24" , heavy , with huge hooked jaws . A magnificent fish ! Try though we might , and we did , none of us could get the drift . It was obvious that you would have to cross the swollen river to have a shot . My friends , 20+ years younger headed to the tailout to attempt a risky bounce crossing . I smiled and headed upstream to the tailout of the Boiling Hole smug in the knowledge that my friends had chosen unwisely , there being an uncrossable trough 2/3 of the way across down there that would foil their efforts.
I made it , barely , lit a smoke and headed down toward the gap in the hemlocks holding the giant snout , with a spring in my step , ready to get a much closer look at him and feeling almost cocky about my choice of crossing locations .Arriving at the spot I did get a closer look at the 25" male but unfortunately the look I got was at the huge brown in a net . To this day I don't see how they made it across . The vision of Ryan with that big brown is forever burned into my head , great memory ! The fight had put all the others down so it was obviouly time for the 4 of us to move upstream and continue another epic day of Shark chasing ! At this time 2 in the group suddenly came down with what a Slaty high water fisherman could only view as a disease of sorts , this malady being a desire to go up one of the tribs after brook trout or brook chubs as we often called the little fish . An effort was made to bring them to their senses but they were having none of it and off they went forsaking big Slaty butter for the little fish of the fountains leaving Ryan and myself to our shark chasing .
It was at the point in the day that the real magic started ....
Ryan ties wonderful large streamers and is always testing this or tweaking that . Well he showed me a new one he felt was promising , the only one of it's kind so far . I agreed it looked good but felt with the Sulphurs still coming off heavy that I was better served with a pair of Magic Bunny emergers . Well that day they turned out to be kinda ok, small fish catching, Bunny emergers . Ryan's new streamer on the other hand .... good god everytime it hit the water hell broke loose ! Bam a 21" hen fish , whack an #18 bow in a little pocket , smack a 15" sucker . Nope not a misprint it is still the only fairhooked sucker on a streamer I have ever witnessed . The more he caught of course , the harder I fished but the magic was obviouly not with me on this day . At the head of the boiling hole Ryan waited until I was finished and ask if I minded if he gave it a go . I said sure , have at it and headed for a seat and a smoke as he flipped the streamer just to get it in postion for a cast ... FISH ON . What the heck was my 1st thought thinking he was screwing around but the bend in the big rod told me this was not the case . Within a minute or 2 the 22" male was in the net . It had been laying 6' from me the whole time ...
Upriver we went with my luck improving as the day went on and with Ryan putting on a clinic , just wailing big fish . Just below twin tubes I decided to take my improving luck upriver , ahead of Ryan who was maybe 100 yards ahead of me . I got out and had just started up the bank , in the high weeds when I saw them ... bear cubs , little guys . Hmmmm that means mamma must be .... there !! Oh my god and a big mamma she was . She looked right at me with a definite "I am a bear skinny boy ,STEP OFF" kind of a look . I nodded and thought to myself , "yep got it" and I slowly backed away reaching the swollen river and then started across , somewhat picking up my pace . I looked upstream and noticed that Ryan was working his way down stream towards me butmore importantly straight for the bears ! I yelled loudly and made the internationally recognized "whopping big bear , killer no doubt , stay away " sign with my arms spread high and wide above my head and a fierce scowl on my lips . Inexplicably my friend reeled up and headed straight for me (and the bears! ) at a trot ...
Now what had been a potentially bad situation (my buddy getting eaten by a bear) had become an infinitely worse situation (I might be the one getting eaten by the bear what with him herding them my way ) . I'm not real proud of having measured the degree of gravity involved in the changing situation that way but I guess that is just a character flaw I will have to work on... At this point I threw caution to the wind and pretty much ran for my life pushing my way through the waist deep , fast paced water , leaving a wake as I went ! Reaching the far bank , alive I noticed that Ryan had turned around and was now crossing a couple hundred yards upstream . When he arrived minutes later I asked him why he had ignored the "whopping big bear , killer no doubt , stay away " signal to which he replied ... " I thought the signal meant BIG FISH , BRING THE MAGIC STREAMER ". He continued by saying it was only when he saw me crossing water I shouldn't have even tried to cross , at my age , atr that speed , that he sensed something wasn't right ....
I thought later that evening that life is so often like that . It is a series of seemingly random events , punctuated by mis-communications and potential pitfalls and yet everything works out just fine .
See you on the river !
Posted on May 2, 2012 by Administrator
This is a story that is both an old one and a brand new one as it has always occured here and occurred as recently as 2 hours ago …..
How do you put into words an event that is so incredible it defies belief ? An event that makes magic seem mundane by comparison . An event that truly redefines extroidinary ? I am not sure I am up to the task but feel compelled to give it a go …..
The Red Fog is a swarm of mating 16 Sulphur spinners . The density of insects in this swarm is so heavy that you can stand in it and hear the soft hum of their wings while getting painted orange with their eggs and choking as you breath them in , which you have to do as it is impossible to draw a breath without breathing them in . There are literally millions of insects in one of there swarms which have been known at times to extend for 20 or 30 yards ! If you stand a couple hundred yards down river it looks like red smoke or fog appearing over the river , eventually forming what appears to be a solid wall . As you venture closer and closer the “wall” of spinners begins to reveal the staggering numbers of individuals in the collective . What appeared to be one solid thing is now seen to be millions of moving things and if by this point you are not completely awestruck than fly fishing just isn’t your game ……
There are times when I ask myself why I continue to stay here and fight the river’s battles after so many years of fighting them with so few clear victories . At these times I almost manage to convince myself that it can’t be worth it . How can anything be worth , at my age , constant warfare with loggers who try and smother her with mud , hoogers who try and steal her inhabitants , developers who would poison her water with sewage , etc .
Tonight she showed me once again just why the battles must be fought . She is a truly incredible resource , a national treasure and if treasure isn’t worth fighting for than what is …… The moving , breathing , living mass of Sulphur spinners that comprise the “Red Fog” is simply the most outrageous aquatic insect event I have ever witnessed , anywhere . It is a mass of mayflies you can’t see through ! This is the kind of thing you dream about from the 1st time you pick up a fly rod but really don’t expect to ever see . Only there it is and you can’t deny that you see it ! More incredible is what happens next …..
When the fog hits the water you realize for the 1st time just how many trout live here ! Much like the numbers of the “bugs” , the numbers of trout must be seen to be believed and once that image is burned into your brain it can never be forgotten . Yes everyone knows there are a lot of quality fish here but when the fog hits the water take your best previous guess (on numbers of trout ) and multiply it by 3 or 4 times . Yes , there are that many …. It is other-worldly to stand in the middle of hundreds upon hundreds of rising fish on a pool that a half hour before was all but lifeless , a pool that when viewed in very low water conditions appears to have maybe a couple dozen , at best . Did I mention that a LOT of these fish are very large brown spotted ones ? If not than I should have .
Tonight I had 2 very experienced fly fishers with me . One was from a California fly fishing club , the other from Virginia . Both have fished a large portion of the best trout water on the planet , from Argentina and Chile to Montana , to the best Canadian waters . The 1st simply said she had never witnessed anything like it , anywhere ! The 2nd said he had a couple times in his 62 years fly fishing but only a couple times . Both were completely blown away …….
I am sitting here , a few hours later knowing that I want my grandchildren’s , grandchildren to be able to experience this and therefore knowing I will keep fighting her battles , long odds be damned . The Red Fog demands this of me and I am proud to step up and take my best shot at it . Somethings in life are worth fighting for . I ask you to join me in this fight so that generations to come will be able to view the fog and sample the soup on Wv’s finest ! elkfisher
Wow has it really been 2 years ? That is a long time to be away from something you love or in this case several things you love , those things being taking people fishing and telling stories about it . My hiatus started innocently enough ...
It had been a long season and I realized I wasn't getting any younger . Things (like knees & ankles) were starting to hurt , plain and simple and I found myself secretly envying the people at the desks inside , safe from the slippery rocks , flash floods , freezing cold wind , pouring rain , etc ... I noticed 2 things about them . 1st they weren't limping and 2nd that they often just sat around watching TV, texting with their I-Phones (and laughing ) or kicked back reading about fishing in the safe comfort of a leather chair or couch .
As you stand there hypothermic , with water still dripping down the back of your neck , observing these truths , a little voice that seems to come from your aching right knee says "what are you , an idiot " ? The voice then follows this with "isn't it time to grow up " ? While you are searching for an answer it then states , rather smugly , "you'll make more money " ! This last one hits home driven there by the images of those you were secretly envying and you find yourself unable to field a reasonable rebuttal to the little voice and so it begins ...
You take on more resonsibility but get a cool sounding title (manager) and receive a substantial raise , life seems good ! Your knees quit hurting , you sit in a comfy chair and join the fellows at the reading couch debating this or that fishing technique and celebrate the fact that this is much easier then actually doing it . For awhile all is well . Then one day you begin to realize that instead of dealing with picky , stubborn fish you find yourself dealing with their human counterparts and that these counterparts are far less predictable ... Still , for awhile , you tell yourself you made the right choice and your bank statement backs up this contention .
Time rolls along , life changes . These things are facts . In the past , when things had gotten confusing , there was always the river , the trout , the wind and the wax wings to clear my mind and set things right . There are no wax wings behind the big desk . You can't hear the wind inside the building and the river becomes something you look at instead of something you try to become one with . The little voice then changes it's story . Now it acts like it never said anything about growing up or more money . It asks very simply , "are you happy" ?
Now there is a good feeling that comes from playing the business game and getting better at it . You develop a new revenue source , the numbers soar and you find yourself chasing those numbers almost as hard as you once chased trout . You soon find yourself "living" for the numbers with life being good when they are and not so good when they are not . The numbers now define you ! They are you , you are them ! The little voice then says " I didn't ask you if it felt good , I ask if you were happy , they are different things " . It takes awhile but you finally realize that indeed they are . Happiness comes from peace of mind , peace of mind comes from joy and joy comes from love . There is no true happiness in chasing numbers because love is a stranger to them . Love cares not if you make $50 or $50k . Love simply is .
Finally the day comes when you admit to yourself (and the little voice) that you are not happy . In fact you are anything but happy . The thing is though now you tell yourself that you have to do it , happy or not because you need all that money , how will you ever survive without it , never stopping to remember that you did just fine for years with 1/2 as much and were always smiling . It was at this point in the dialog , at the end of a very stressful day, that 2 pieces of advice that I had given others for years were handed back to me , by a brother, like a gift returned... "When the worst thing you have to face on a given day is how to fool a spotted fish it's a pretty good day " and "life is short , you gotta stop and smell the brown trout" .
I did what anyone with even a lick of sense would do when faced with such incontrovertable truths . I fished . I started fishing every day again taking time to listen to her song and watch the wax wings . Slowly but surely it all started to come back to me . This is what I came here for , this is who I am . Numbers can be chased anywhere but only here can you wet wade , waist deep , pondering how to tie something small enough to match those little white things they are feeding on ...
This decision to fish a couple hours every day soon put me on the fast track to the place where I am standing right now .
To hell with growing up , I am happy and I am home ! See you on the river ! Elkfisher