By mid September, the long, hot Southwest Florida summer has started to wear me down. Guiding gets a little slower (OK; a lot slower) and many of our local business have cut their hours or closed up for a while. That’s about the time my thoughts turn to cool trout streams.
Last year I took my wife out to my old stomping grounds — the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. We had a blast. I took her to four national parks and several state parks so she could cross them off her “national park list” (she wants to see them all), and I stood in the cold water of my youth with a fly rod.
This year, I don’t believe our schedules will allow that kind of time commitment, so I’m thinking north Georgia will have to do. We want to go to Atlanta to see the grandkids. Let me rephrase that. We have to go to Atlanta if we want to see the grandkids, as they live just west of that nasty place.
So my plan is to go watch a couple of soccer games, sit in on a dance recital and have dinner at the restaurant where my 16-year-old granddaughter works, then help with all the homework. In between dance, soccer and my scheduled homework time, I will make my escape to the hills up near Helen (an airbrushed T-shirt tourist town).
Unicoi Outfitters is a top-notch fly shop up on the outskirts of the little Bavarian village, situated right on the Chattahoochee River. There are many public streams and creeks in the area, but Unicoi has five pieces of private trout streams that clients are allowed to fish as well. I’m hoping to take care of my trout craving by dead drifting a few nymphs and dry flies to the trophy trout that occupy those cooler waters.
Owners Jimmy Harris and David Dochery have done a great job performing a labor of love for 25 years, turning Unicoi Outfitters into a great destination stop shop. Just an hour and a half from “Badlanta” (on a good day), it’s a relatively easy drive to get out of the city (or from the airport) and into the hills to catch a trout.
I’m thinking that I’ll spend a few early morning hours near the shop trying to catch one of the Chattahoochee’s trophy rainbows (up to 12 pounds). Then I’ll head on up the mountain to one of the small feeder streams and try to catch a native brookie or two. That’s all I need. After I stand in cool water with my 3 weight and catch a couple of fish, I’ll be satisfied … I think.
Here’s a break-neck segue: I was pulled away from writing this column by my friend Capt. Pete Greenan of Sarasota. He wanted to go fish the backcountry out of Placida for a few hours this morning. “OK,” I said,” but it’s already blowing pretty hard.” Pete just wanted to get out for awhile and run his boat. “I’ve got a good start on my column, so let’s go.”
Pete came by and picked me up and off we went. We made our way through the chop to the back and looked for clean, moving water. We didn’t find any real clear water, but thanks to the falling tide and the north-northeast wind we did find moving water.
We decided were just going to look for redfish schools. We weren’t going to stop unless we saw good activity. Pete said he didn’t just want to “bang the bushes in this wind,” and I agreed. Neither one of us wanted to work that hard. Well, we failed to find any schools of reds, but we did find a lot of activity in a couple of areas. The wind-aided falling tide between cays created good feeding areas for any hungry predator.
As we ran between some of the islands near Whidden Creek, we saw what looked like thousands of mullet all over the place. We shut the boat down, drifted and watched. Pete handed me a rod and said to get ready. I tried to get him to cast but he just pointed me to the bow.
Pretty soon we could hear snook popping by a mangrove edge and bigger fish moving among the mullet out on the shallow flat. I cast out into the school and stripped the fly back through it. As I got ready to lift the fly to recast, there was an explosion right by the boat. Water went everywhere and what we think was a big red blew out, scattering mullet all over the flat. I made a backcast to the mangroves and one strip produced a nice 20-inch snook. Another backcast and another snook was taken.
I grabbed the push pole from Pete and poled him around the corner into a lee and we found more working fish. Two casts later and a nice little tug-a-war, Pete brought a redfish to the boat for a visit. The wind was blowing, the water was moving, and we were having a great time. We were throwing gurglers and baitfish patterns and never switched.
My next turn on the bow was rewarded with two redfish on back-to-back casts. Pete said, “You need a trout for a slam.” I poled him around another cay where he caught a nice snook on his gurgler and then we went looking for trout.
We drifted one of our trout spots. I guess I should say we blew over a trout flat. We made cast after cast after cast, and finally I caught a little 14-inch trout. Slam! We were happy and decided to finish out drifting the flat before heading home. After a few ladyfish, jacks and a large sailcat, we were about done.
I made one final cast to where the flat dropped off into a small channel and hooked another big sailcat. The fish swam by the bow with the telltale head-down thumping of a big gafftop and headed to the back of the boat. Then something strange happened: The fish sped up greatly and jumped! Wait a minute — it jumped?
What had started out as a big hard-fighting sailcat underwater, magically transformed into a 20-pound tarpon when it came out of the water! Five jumps later (on a very frayed leader), the tarpon came to hand out on the edge of that flat with the wind blowing and whitecaps breaking. I looked at Pete and said “I’d rather be lucky than good any day!” He laughed, snapped a picture and said, ”Let’s go.”
So in less than three hours, on a much less than ideal day, we caught several nice fish and had a grand slam in the boat.
Now, how can I leave this kind of great fishing here in the Harbor to go catch fresh water trout? Easy — my grandkids live up there. Besides, I’ll be back in time for our fall fishing to explode.
Capt. Rex Gudgel is a fly fishing guide in the Boca Grande area and an International Federation of Fly Fishers Master Certified casting instructor. If you’d like to get casting lessons, book a trip or just need more fly fishing info, contact him at 706-254-3504 or visit BocaGrandeSlamFlyFishing.com or CastWithRex.com.