A new fly fisherman’s lesson in patience, adversity, and tough luck
I stood in the tailwaters of the North Bend Lake dam, tying my second fly of the morning in hopes to catch one of a few smallmouth bass that I had been working for the last 30 minutes.
As a chilly breeze flowed over the North Fork of the Hughes River, I tightened my tippet to the dry fly and worked out my line to cast. It was just after first light, but I could easily see my strike indicator float along the surface of the nearly calm water until, ever so slightly, it dipped below the water.
I quickly reacted – maybe too fast, my actions enhanced with the two cups of Black Rifle Coffee I had downed on the bank of the river – and felt the sweet tension that only a big fish gives.
I held the line taut, letting the bass fight for a few moments before stripping my line and working it in. Slowly it came into view: it was the fish I had been targeting.
The dream of hooking this fish came two weeks prior to that moment. My dad and I drove around the county, he showing me some really great spots with public access that I could target in my downtime from work and preparing for the upcoming seasons that would force me to set aside my rod and reel. As we parked at the old Jug Campground below the North Bend State Park Dam, he showed me a couple of spots that he saw fish in while hiking the adjacent trail. Sure enough, as I stepped down onto the gravel bar, no further than 200 feet from the car, I saw two remarkable smallmouths gliding through the clear water.
And while the other spots around the county were just as nice, I wanted to start at the tailwaters. It was close to town and would be good for my busy schedule, but it was also the only place I had eyes on nice fish. So, the next day I packed up my Fenwick 7-weight rod and Lamson reel, chest rig with all my necessary equipment and set out to the long-gone campground. I got to the spot around 9 a.m., tossed a woolly bugger a few times with no success and decided to switch to a smaller dry fly. My next choice was a carpenter ant, and as it floated down with the steady run, it got the attention of the smaller bass in the stream. I pulled in a few and let them go, happy with my success, but still trying to get the big boys.
After pulling two more meager bass in, I decided to switch it up once more. Some may say to not fix what isn’t broken, but being relatively new to fly fishing and wanting to see what worked in that stream during June – and, of course, pull that bigger bass to the net – I changed over to a gold bead hare’s ear.
It was the ticket.
On the first cast, I felt a big fish hit the nymph. I thought I set the hook but lost the fish a few seconds later. A few casts later further upstream and I got another solid fish to hit it. This one fought, but two strips in it also broke free. After my excitement dwindled, I saw it was 15 minutes past time for me to head back to Morgantown. So I packed up, happy with the outcome and ready to come back.
Two weeks later, I returned to the same spot. That morning, I rolled out of bed around 4 a.m., got dressed and had my first cup of coffee before packing up the Outlander to head out to the spot. I let the sun peak over the horizon before leaving, pre-tying the hare’s ear to my line so I didn’t waste any time.
My excitement quickly began dissipating for the first 30 minutes I was there, however. I worked the hare’s ear every way I could and tried different parts of the tailwaters. No matter how hard I tried, nothing would attack the nymph. I began to move back to my original spot, knowing the big fish was still downstream from me, teasing me with every rise to the surface to feed.
There I stood, tying my second fly of the morning – disappointed but not defeated. As a chilly breeze flowed over the Hughes River, I tightened my tippet to the mosquito-pattern dry fly and worked out my line to cast. I could see my white strike indicator floating along the surface of the nearly calm water until, ever so slightly, it dipped below the surface.
I raised my rod above my head, met with the familiar weight and tug of a strong fish. I held the line taut, letting the fish wear out before working it toward me. Slowly it came into view, it was the fish I had caught two weeks prior or one of similar size.
I stepped out into the water, still stripping the line. Closer it came, with every pull on my line I could see it come into focus more and more. I was already thinking of the picture I was about to get and how I was going to brag to my friends, brother and dad about the mammoth.
It was getting into arm’s length. I passed my rod over to my left hand and reached around to grab my net. I couldn’t reach it at first, and fumbling with it I turned my attention away from the fish for a moment. And, in that split second, I let my rod dip down, giving the fish enough slack to rip away from me.
Stunned, I turned to see that big smallmouth cutting its way back into the deeper water. I stood there for a moment, frustrated with myself. With a sigh of sheer disappointment, I pulled myself out of the water and onto the gravel bar. There I sat down, pulled my breakfast out of my backpack and began heating up water over my backpacking stove.
As I sat on that gravel bar, watching the undisturbed surface break occasionally with the hungry mouths of smaller fish, I ate my rehydrated biscuits and gravy still in shock of losing the smallie. I try to find the beauty in all moments when I’m hunting and fishing, good or bad, but this time it was incredibly hard to do so. I had lost a hog rainbow before taking in the full moment of holding the fish in my hands two months prior and was dreading that I was cursed to never experience a big fish on a fly rod.
But that wasn’t true. I had experienced the fish, brought it within arms reach and accomplished what I had set out to do. Sure, I messed up pretty bad on the retrieve, but I still had fun up to that moment. Sure, I lost my attention at the worst possible moment, but still figured out what that fish wanted – even if it wasn’t what he wanted two weeks prior. I had succeeded – to a degree – and that’s what I needed to take away from it. And I was sitting in the dead silence, on the water and eating biscuits and gravy. Life was great at that moment.
I’ve grown up knowing Ritchie County is an amazing destination for bass and catfish fishing. I know some folks who have hooked monster muskie and others that fill their cooler with crappie. I’ve caught my fair share of nice fish in the county, but nothing tops that morning in the tailwaters of the dam.
I’m usually not one to share my fishing spots, either, but this county is full of amazing opportunities and I wanted to highlight the fever dream of that emotional morning. If you do decide to chase smallmouth in that section of the State Park, I ask of you just two things. First, keep it clean and leave it better than you found it. Second, whatever you do, don’t let the fish snap off the line before you can bring it to hand.