Photos by: Matt Bornhorst (unless he's in them)
I made my December 23rd reservation to fish Duke’s Creek a few weeks earlier before leaving the park on my last visit. I’ve done this now after my last two trips, refusing to leave without knowing when I’d return to redeem myself. I’ve been chasing big fish on this creek for the last 2 months. I’ve caught a few respectable, fat, 14 inch fish from this creek. However, I seem to always miss landing the big trout. Every trip I’ve announced “I’m overdue for a big fish”.
After assembling a team of 4 fine fellas, this season’s flu epidemic left two at home sick, and re-united me and my pal Matt for a day of photos and what I thought would be the typical woes of line breaks and barbless hook fails.
Before every trip I make, I’ve become an obsessive compulsive planner, making sure the bag is packed, food is included, the water bottle is filled and plenty of flies are tied. It’s the only way I can sleep the night before. For me, this is my Christmas (or Fishmas) Eve. It’s the excitement of hitting the river the next day and hopefully finding that one present under the tree that I’ve asked for but probably won’t get; that big fish I’ve been chasing.
When arriving in Smithgall Woods, the car thermometer read 26 degrees, which makes it hard to leave the car, but usually results in a lot of fishermen who find it harder to leave the bed. I unpacked, suited up the waders, pieced together the rod, strung my line, carefully chose my main fly and dropper and got ready to begin my day. I was nagging Matt, who was going through his collection of flies pinching barbs (things I did the day before), provoking him to hurry up with this note of sarcasm: “No worries buddy, the fish will wait”.
It was Matt’s first trip to the stream and we decided to hit a run that was close to the car. We typically have a divide and conquer approach, but on this day we hung close and decided to work each run together taking turns. I was up first, and after the first swing of the rod, I realized a fatal flaw. I had missed the first guide on my rod when passing the line through. I never got the “no worries, the fish will wait” I was expecting. I just stepped to the side and let him have a go. I removed my flies, weights and strike indicator, removed the line from all the lines and carefully passed it through each guide again. I retied and resumed my casting spot after Matt displayed the infamous “Rubik’s cube” line tangle. I cast two or three times coming up short on each cast. “That’s funny” I thought. I cast a few more times before looking at my rod and realizing I missed a guide in the middle of my rod this time. I checked that guide half a dozen times to see if it was broken. I have no idea how that could have happened. Glancing upstream I noticed the guys who arrived 20 minutes after us landing fish after fish.
After a second re-tie and some “Zen channeling”, my brain seemed to be ready to finally operate on a level that would allow me to catch some fish. After missing the hook-set on a soft take, I landed the first fish of the day. It was a nice chunky rainbow near 16 inches. Matt seemed surprised and now began to believe the stories I’ve been boasting about the quality of fish in this small stream.
Matt stepped up next and landed another nice, slightly larger rainbow. This was the largest fish he had ever hooked on a fly rod and it was his first time fighting a fish stout enough to put on the reel. He did outstanding! After some battling and coaxing away from tree roots and rocks, he landed the fish. You would swear he had just won the lotto. He was so excited he was shaking. I found just as much enjoyment in netting this fish for him as I would if I caught it myself. I've been fishing with Matt since he took up the sport and since I've known him almost all good conversations between us circle back around to fishing. So for me, this was like watching him walk the stage on graduation day.
The best was yet to come. After landing a few more respectable fish, what began as a “Tommy Lasorda-ish” day, turned into a good day, became better than I imagined. Matt set the hook on a take and I saw the roll of a long, slender, silvery side. I knew it was a good fish. He was nervous to put the fish on the reel, but after some scary line jerking and slack creating runs, he got the big girl on the reel and to the net.
High fives and congratulatory speeches were exchanged before I was up to bat. After a few casts I had snagged the bottom and convinced myself we had pretty much exhausted this run and that I would move in close, ruin our stealth approach, retrieve my fly and move to the next spot. I waded into the run, fetched my fly, and made the last minute decision to put on a bit more weight and “high stick” the turbulent water that our earlier casts from downstream were just reaching. It was a good call. After about two casts, I hit pay dirt, and out of the bubbling turbulent water shook a big beautiful red band. I’ve been waiting for this one all season. In my mind was “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”.
We caught a few more fish, any of which caught alone in a day would be a trophy to me, joking that what seemed like a nice fish for our area, a 14 or 16 inch fish, today seemed small.
Hopefully Santa has been good to all of us anglers this season. But in the reality of things, this day wouldn't be possible without the generous gift from a would-be Mr. and Mrs. Claus; Charles and Lessie Smithgall, who donated the 5,600 acre Smithgall Woods – Dukes Creek Conservation Area to the state in 1994. I’m not sure how yet, but I intend to show my appreciation to the Smithgall family for giving us one of Georgias best public fly fishing gifts.
Happy Holidays Everyone!