On The Fly Freshwater
Featured Photo by Jimmy Jacobs
By Joe Shaffer
The Duck River meanders 284 miles through Tennessee and is the most biologically diverse river in North America. With 151 species of fish, over 50 species of mussel, and a bevy of aquatic insects, and plants; it has truly earned its nickname, the North American Amazon. “The Duck” has become something of an outdoorsman and adventurer’s paradise for the people of middle Tennessee. At almost any time on the river you will need to contend with paddlers and other fishermen, but the river never seems to get especially crowded in one place.
I started my day in the predawn shadow of Normandy Dam, named after the hamlet of people a few miles down the road from the dam itself. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s Normandy Fish Hatchery just downstream of me ensures a year-round supply of stocked rainbow trout in the cool tailwater of the dam. Legend has it there are sizable hybrid striped bass that hide in the riprap and boulders that make up the bottom of the tail race as well. I chose a 7-weight rod for this river as I have heard stories of 5-plus-pound largemouth bass in this river too. It is, however, the smallmouth bass in the flow that make up most of the catch.
Normandy Dam on the Duck River. Photo by Joe Shaffer.
Casting a black Wooly Bugger across the still shadowed river helps to gauge depth and speed of the water when suddenly something gives feedback to my fingertips that is unexpected, a sharp and sudden pull across the current. The line goes slack before I can set the hook to further investigate this take. Maybe those reports are true after all.
Out of curiosity I tie on my disheveled impersonation of a mouse and begin casting it along the near-side weed line to see if there are any takers. The mild wake of the mouse causes a few shadows to stir, but that’s all. I set myself to catching fish instead of chasing monsters and started moving downstream. If I stay here, I’ll only grumble that I should have brought a lighter rod to throw dries to rising trout.
Further down the riprap banks give way to the natural boulders and clay that in many places have been cut and worn into steep high walled banks that can make a back cast something of an exercise in physics manipulation. For many sections of the river, an efficient roll or single-hand spey cast are the only way to make a cast of any real distance. The beneficial side of these natural embankments is that it allows trees and brush to grow right up to the water’s edge, shading the water and offering near continuous structure along the sides of the river for fish to hide in.
Photo by Joe Shaffer.
As the sun began to rise over the trees at my back, I switched to a light to medium olive bucktail streamer as my fly. Initially I had used a size 6 olive and yellow wooly bugger, but found it being harassed by rock bass and bluegill so much it was nearly impossible to get it into position for a bass to actually see it.
A rock bass from the Duck River. Photo by Joe Shaffer.
The water is clear to minimally stained, so natural colors are ideal for this time of year. Due to the diversity of the river just about anything you tie on will resemble somethingin the river. Whether or not it will entice your specific quarry tends to be an exercise in trial and error. My olive bucktail, being a size 2, did not deter the rock bass and had me setting hooks left and right only to have a fly come screaming out of the water and directly back at my face. As the midday swelter began to take hold, the fish started to develop lockjaw. In desperation, I tied on a white Wooly Bugger with a silver conehead in size 2.
One thing that is interesting about the Duck is that it can often cause paralysis of choice when it comes to where to cast since there is structure and ideal conditions throughout the width of the river and at various points in the water column. While the bottom is gravel, in many parts it can almost look like white limestone chips because of the sheer number of small mussel shells that cover the bottom of the river.
Most often I found myself casting upstream above a deep hole in the gravelly bottom and watching my fly sink into the blueish green of the deep water and wait for a strike. Twitching the fly and intermittent stripping seemed to entice fish, but almost every strike came while letting the fly freefall between actions. It was at this point I began to really notice how restricted my movements were. While many sections of the river are wadable, a kayak or shallow draft boat is much more suitable to the river. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy as a drift boat lazed by me, as I bushwhacked past an impassibly deep pool that I would have to leave for another day.
While I wasn’t able to chase the monster that lurked in the depths, I took solace in the beauty of the smallmouth bass I did catch. None were more than a couple pounds, but all beautiful with their colors on display.
Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.
As I wrapped up my day with a modest count of fish, I reflected on some things I would do differently next time I fish the Duck. Number one would be to bring big dries – dragonfly patterns in blue and green most notably. As the summer wears on cicada patterns will also be a big draw for topwater fish. Sculpin and silver hog sucker patterned streamers will also be on the list.
Finally, a lighter rod. My 7-weight would have been suitable to slay the dragon that never emerged, but was on the heavy side for the fish I caught. A 4- or 5-weight rod would be perfectly suitable for this river in almost every case.
In all, the Duck is a great river with a little bit of something for everyone.