Story: Matthew Dickerson
Photos: Phil Brodersen
April 18, 2016
NOTE TO DIARY: I have now caught trout in 29 states. Here is how it happened…
Another opening day of trout season has come and gone. Many anglers were enjoying the annual Fly Fishing Film Tour at the Town Hall Theater and the Otter Creek Classic fly-fishing tournament. Thanks to a lack of melting snow, they were fishing in best early April fishing conditions Vermont has had in years. Sutton Doria won the pro division of the tournament with a record eight trout on opening weekend. Stephen Dokus, who won the amateur division, was not far behind with seven fish—enough total inches that he would have had second place even in the pro division.
But while they enjoyed nearly ideal opening day conditions, I was spending much of the last two long weekends wandering (and in once case sprinting) around airports, cramped in airplanes, and dealing with delays, missed connections, and lost luggage on my way to and from first Iowa and then Oklahoma.
The travel was not, however, completely without angling pursuits. This past Sunday afternoon, after a busy Friday giving talks at a small college in Shawnee, following by Saturday and Sunday mornings speaking in a nearby community, my host Phil and I hit the road for a long drive east to the self-proclaimed trout capital of Oklahoma: the small hamlet of Gore, population 900, on the Little Illinois River below the dam on Tenkiller Lake. We’d grabbed a quick lunch at Phil’s house, thrown our gear in the car
and headed out as quickly as we could because thunderstorms were in the forecast, moving up from Texas. They were not supposed to hit Gore until the evening. Still, it was a two and a half hour drive and we wanted to get in as much fishing as possible.
Turns out the forecast was wrong. About 4:15pm, just as we pulled off the interstate, and fifteen minutes before we arrived at the river, the storm overtook us. Rain started pounding down. Visibility dropped to a few hundred yards. We could see regular lightning flashes even in the daylight.
We found Phil’s friends hiding under a shelter near the river, and we waited out the storm. It was 5pm before the worst had passed and the thunder stopped. It was still raining steadily, but I was eager to take some casts. I got into my waders and raincoat and rigged my rod. Word on the street was that trout were talking tiny midge nymphs in sizes #20 and smaller. I tied on 6x tippet—a very fine and light line—and a pair of miniature nymphs. Then we climbed down the trail to the river.
Sections of river just below a bottom release dam are known as tailwaters. Even in hot climates, tailwaters remain cold enough year round for trout. And since the water is coming out of the bottom of a lake, it doesn’t generally get muddied up by heavy rains (like a Vermont river will do). Except when I arrived at edge of the Little Illinois, it looked like coffee with cream. Weak coffee maybe, with only a little cream. But still not very fishable. It was also running low—several feet below the line of trees and gravel that marked the usual high water mark. The dam was not generating. I would later learn that the river was running at only about 60cfs. It was only ankle deep in places.
I waded across the river and found a slightly clearer channel of water against the far shore and fished the tiny nymphs for a few minutes. But it seemed futile. There was no way a trout would see something that tiny in that water. So I tied on a big black wooly bugger and started drifting it through the one channel I found that was knee deep. Nothing. My hopes of catching my first Oklahoma trout were fading.
I moved downstream where the current ran along a pool and under a tree, and I worked the seams. There was a tug on my fly. Or maybe I just snagged a rock in the shallow water. Then I felt another bump. Fish, or rock? I was pulling my fly in when I felt it so it should not have been the bottom. I got a glimmer of hope.
Two minutes later the water swirled just five feet from my feet as a fish lunged for the fly and missed. Now I started working the pool seriously, casting across and drifting the fly down. Then casting to the tail and pulling it in. The next hit was a fish. And it was on the hook. Nervous that it might break my light tippet, I played it cautiously to my feet. It was a bright rainbow trout, about ten inches long. I removed the hook and held it for a while under the current, admiring the beauty of my first Oklahoma trout. Then I released it back into the depths of the creamy coffee.
The pool probably had several trout in it. I’d leave it for a few minutes and then come back and try for another. That was when the loud horn sounded. A big long echoing impossible-to-ignore horn. One signaling that the turbines were about to start generating. I waded back across the river to the side where our car was. Fifteen minutes later the river was running at over 1000cfs—a fifteen-fold increase in water level. The trout fishing was done.
Though it was my only trout of the weekend, it was not my only fish. The afternoon before, we had hit a local bass pond with fly rods. Maybe this was more fitting anyway. Oklahoma claims to have the most ponds of any state—more miles of coastline from ponds than California has on the Pacific. Casting from a kayak, I landed a bunch of largemouth bass and a few panfish. I was told the pond held some fifteen-pound largemouth. None of mine were over two. But it was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and maybe more of an archetypal Oklahoma experience than the trout were anyway. If I go back to Oklahoma, I might skip the trout and just chase the fifteen pound bass.