Whip Finish


Ralph Long - August 15, 2011

The tires crunched to a loud stop as I eased into one of the ever so slight pull-outs along Cabin Road overlooking the Owassee Rapids on Big Pine Creek. The road was extremely narrow allowing for barely one vehicle to slip past a car parked along the mountain side of the road. Extra care was needed in getting as much use of the available pull-out as possible since to block the road leading to the private cabins ahead would bring the wrath of the owners and a tow truck. Neither of which would be a pleasant thought this far off of the beaten path. On the other side, was a 200 foot drop to the creek below as it entered into the area known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. It was late July and dawn was just beginning to break as I walked across the road to look down into the canyon. The fog hung heavy allowing only a faint glimpse of the Creek below, but you could hear the change in the waters sound as it made the bend below and rushed down through the boulder field that formed the Owassee rapids in times of high water. Although the climb in-and-out was a bit steep and cumbersome I chose this route for 2 reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to avoid the 1.5 mile hike-or-bike on the groomed bike path that followed the river along the course of the canyon. And secondly, in the warmth of the summer the canyon would be crawling quickly with raft, kayak & canoe trips. I wanted to utilize as much of the early morning fishing as possible before the seasonal crowds hit. So to get the most of my fishing morning I intended to apply a little sweat-equity to the deal and climb the bank.

Planning the morning's trip over a cup of coffee it was decided between myself-and-I that it was to be a streamer morning. It just felt right, and I felt the simplicity of streamers would lend to less gear as well. My point of entry would be just upstream from the rapids, and I planned to fish from there downstream to a point about 3 pools below the rapids foot bridge. By then the morning would be warming, and the crowds would surely drive me off the river and back up the bank to the truck. In turn, I was armed with an 8-foot, 6-weight rod with a floating Bass taper line, a short 3-foot furled butt section of leader and a single spool of 5x fluorocarbon tippet in my pocket. I would be wet-wading this morning so a small streamer box was in my shirt pocket, and on the lanyard around my neck hung a pair of nippers and a small pair of forceps. It was a morning of light gear but heavy expectations.

Stepping over the edge of the bank towards the stream at this location leaves you little time for contemplation. You are instantly on a near vertical pitch with a faint deer trail as your guide, while holding on to the small trees and making sure to keep your upper body weight "into the bank" so-to-speak in hopes of avoiding a head-first plunge to the boulders below. However, in short order I was standing on a large boulder above the rapids and stretching my fingers from the tense climb down. Heading 50 yards upstream to a shallow where I could cross planted myself on the trail-side bank so I could fish the rapids effectively, and then it would be another crossing below and the long flat pools. On the far bank I took a seat on a 2 foot boulder to recover from my climb and rig my rod. Adding 4 foot of 5x tippet I chose a Tioga Shiner classic styled bucktail streamer to start the morning. The copper & blue in the mylar body is the perfect pattern for the rapids and the smallish shiners that are common to the canyon waters. I prefer fishing streamers in the canyon with a floating line, keeping the streamer close to the surface with plenty of stripping action to bring the bigger fish out of the depths of the pockets and pools.

The fog had yet to begin to burn off as I approached the head of the rapids. It appeared I had the entire stream to myself, and the only sound currently was the water itself. My first cast was over several boulders and I tight-line drifted my streamer through and around the pockets as it headed downstream. With no takes on the drift I waited for the fly to clear the last bolder, and began to strip it through the near side eddy below. On the 3rd strip a silver streak turned on the fly and I was rewarded with a silver-sided hatchery brook trout of about 14 inches. It was a welcome start to a promising morning as I watched the fish slip from my hand and disappear into the stream. The remainder of the rapids refused to give up another fish until the last drift of the run when a 9" brown trout in full native colors hammered the fly like he was 3 times again his size! I laughed to see the 2" long streamer sticking out of his buttery gold jaw as he made a valiant dance before giving up and sliding toward my forceps. This morning he paid for his overly-zealous hunger with a sore jaw but a welcome release.

Crossing back over in the shallows above the cabled foot bridge I was eying up the foam line along the far side of the pool. The run stretched downstream about 75 yards on a slight bend and the foam line always seemed to give up a fish or two. It was about a 60 foot cast to effectively fish the far side, so the heavier taper of the bass line and a slight double haul helped in getting the extra line out. I was approaching the half-way point in the run as the extra work of streamer and longer casts began having an effect, so I paused to check the fly and rest my shoulder a bit. Looking up the fog had begun to burn off and the pale yellow glow of the warming sun was beginning to show. With the buck tail showing no signs of wear I again stripped out line to reach the far bank and began another drift. The streamer hit with a small splash and I watched as the line straightened out slightly in the downstream current. Hooking my index finger of my rod hand around the line I reached up and made a quick 12" strip of line to take up any remaining slack when the jolt to my rod hand nearly caused me to lose my grip on the rod. Catching me slightly off guard with my line tight and the tip of my rod pointed straight at the fish, I reacted by quickly lifting straight up to get the fish on the rod and apply a bit of cushion. The fish responded by holding deep with only a slow steady pulse felt, as whatever had just taken my streamer lay on the bottom shaking its head. With adrenaline in my hands, thoughts raced between my ears of a huge hook–nosed brown lying on the bottom deciding just how it was going to break me off. When suddenly line screamed from my reel as the fish ran straight downstream, hit the shallow tail out, and left the water! I laughed out loud with excitement as the largest smallmouth I had ever seen gave 5 spectacular leaps, then shot back upstream to the same original holding location and steadily shook its head. Unable to move him I simply kept on the pressure and waited. Twice more the fish repeated the run to the tail of the pool, both times leaping 4-5 times in quick succession, leaving me to believe that he had done this same routine successfully in the past. But this time it was not to be. On his third run and subsequent set of acrobatics he gave up, allowing me to glide him into the shallows where I could kneel down and get my hands on his jaw. Lifting him up out of the water allowed his size to settle in as I felt his heft. An easy 20 inches in length, its mossy green back and bronze side barring stood out as if painted with the metallic brilliance of a wild turkeys bronze-green flank feathers. At least a 3rd again larger than any smallmouth I had hooked to date, he was the fish of a lifetime.
I popped my hook out of his jaw and lay him back into the water which was barely enough to cover his back, thinking that he would require some gentle reviving before release and wanting to look at him a bit longer. But it was not to be. The minute I loosened my grip on his jaw he shot out like a rocket and was gone! Startled, I was surprised even more so by laughter from above and upstream of me. I had been watched by another fly fisherman who was crossing on the foot bridge from the cabins. He shook his head and informed me that he had hooked that fish twice this season, and that both times he had lost the fish during identical leaps in the tail-out. I laughed in turn with the confirmation of my original thoughts that the fish had somehow done the same routine in the past with success. The gentleman worked his way towards me and we talked for a moment. He asked what fly I had used  and I gave him 2 Tioga Shiners for his time on the water, as he in turn gave me 2 of his own Wooly-bugger creations of burlap and grizzly hackle that he liked to use in the canyon. He thanked me again for the show and with a handshake he was gone downstream. Watching him as he reached the next pool downstream he proceeded to hook a fish of about 12 inches on his first cast and I heard his laughter again. Turning upstream I looked just as four canoes rounded the bend toward the rapids. I sighed with a smile….why was it again that I had chosen to climb down that steep bank?

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