by Beau Beasley
My lesson on tight line trout fishing had begun. Eugene Shuler stood alongside me knee-deep in the Oconaluftee River, a gem for trout just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the outskirts of Swain County, North Carolina.
Shuler, owner of Fly Fishing the Smokies guide service, had invited me down to this far western edge of the Tar Heel State to investigate the county’s fishing options—and in particular to catch trout. He and I had fished the Tuckasegee River the day before and landed some nice rainbow trout and a few bass; today I was going to be schooled on tight line trout fishing.
Shuler, who has been a fly fishing guide nearly all his adult life, walks softly and carries a big accent. But don’t let his Western Carolina drawl fool you. Whether it’s fishing, local and federal government operations, or the needs of small business owners, Shuler knows his stuff.
“Keep an eye open for snakes,” Shuler reminded me as we scooted down the side of a steep bank to make our way to the middle of river we’d be fishing. “They’re a part of fly fishing out here,” he said as he scanned the bank, “but I hate snakes, myself.”
My sentiments exactly, I thought, following Shuler carefully and doing my best to walk in his footsteps, even after we entered the stream. We’d begun fishing in the late afternoon; now the setting sun and the low light that snuck past the tight canopy of cover overhead gave the impression that we were fishing in early evening. The conditions were perfect for snaring wary trout.
“Take your indicator off. You don’t use those in tight line fishing,” Shuler instructed.
The indicator, traditionally made out of yarn, foam or plastic, is attached to the leader on one end and the trout fly a few feet away on the other end. When a trout bites the fly, the indicator (sometimes derisively called a bobber) disappears beneath the surface of the water, thus “indicating” that you’ve caught yourself a live one. Many fly anglers drift a subsurface pattern like a nymph or other beadhead pattern. This is a very effective method of angling, for one simple reason: Although all anglers enjoy watching a surface strike, the reality is that about 80 percent of the time, your quarry is feeding below rather than on the surface of the water.
Tight line fly fishing is also called Czech nymphing, purportedly because it was developed in the Czech Republic. Anglers who practice this method do not use indicators at all. Instead, tight line fly anglers use a leader about 8 to 9 feet long, with about a foot of bright yellow or red leader approximately 1 to 2 feet above the fly. They then tie their tippet, made of clear monofilament, to the colored portion of the leader; the fly is on the other end. They use the brightly colored leader to judge strikes or water depth.
I tossed my fly pattern out in the direction that Shuler suggested, and I let the fly sink.
“OK Beau, keep your leader tight by lifting all the fly line out of the water and not allowing even the leader to float on the water’s surface.”
This proved much harder to do than I expected. I watched my leader and was surprised when Shuler said, “You just missed a fish, Beau.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I hadn’t felt a thing! “I don’t think so, Eugene. I think I must have hit bottom or something.”
Smiling, Shuler replied, “OK, try again, only this time, really keep the leader tight and don’t even think about the fly at all. Simply concentrate on the leader, and if you see it move, set the hook.”
I’m sure that Shuler could tell I was becoming exasperated, as we’d been fishing for nearly 20 minutes without a bite.
“I’m telling you, Beau, you’re getting the bites. You’re just not feeling them because you’re used to watching an indicator,” he said with patience. “Try it again, and don’t lead the fly as much. Let the current do the work, and simply keep a tight line and concentrate.”
I made another cast, watched the leader, and was about to recast when I felt the slightest bump. I automatically set the hook, and the red-yellow leader went straight underwater and then downstream.
“There he is,” Shuler said as my rod bowed over with the weight of the fish. “I knew he was a peekin’ at it. You just had to feel him for yourself.”
Eventually I started to gain line on my catch, which felt like a fairly respectable fish. The rod bowed again in the fish’s desperate attempt to go free, and that’s when he finally broke the river’s surface: a beautifully colored brown trout, about a foot long, with a buttery side and black and red spots on his back. He was arching from the water for all he was worth—and just as I was about to congratulate myself, he spit the hook!
I shot a look of exasperation at Shuler, who admirably suppressed a laugh. After all that work, I had nothing to show for it. I’d found the fish, presented my fly, finally connected—and failed to land him. Nevertheless, Shuler had won me to his cause: tight line trout fishing was legit. And the truth is that anglers can catch everything from smallmouth bass, crappie and bluegill to coldwater species using this technique.
Over the course of my visit, in addition to teaching me the light line technique, Shuler introduced me to hundreds of North Carolina river miles. All the eager angler has to do to take advantage of that bounty is head to Swain County (www.greatsmokies.com/) with a state fishing license and a little bit of patience. When you go, I highly recommend that call upon Eugene Shuler to teach you the finer points of tight line fly fishing. Anyone can master the technique; of course, I can’t promise that your quarry hasn’t already mastered the art of spitting your hook right back out at you.
Note: The author (www.beaubeasley.com) is a retired 30-year veteran of Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue. Now he’s a full-time writer and author of Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters. He lives with his wife and children in Warrenton, Virginia.
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at USAmembers@unionsportsmen.org.