This is the first installment of a four part article I call: Fishing the Last Mile First. Although I coined that phrase about a decade ago, my angling strategy has its genesis some 25 years ago on the smallmouth rivers of the mid-Atlantic.
Fishing the Last Mile First – Part I – An Angling Strategy
Potomac River Near Brunswick, MD
When I got stationed in Washington D.C. in 1993 I owned a 17’ bass boat and 16’2” Grumman Sport Canoe. The Sport Canoe had been with me since my days in Alaska in the mid-1970s. As I hunted down places to fish I not only discovered the excellent small stream trout fishing along the Appalachian front but also the smallmouth fishing on the North and South forks of the Shenandoah as well as the upper Potomac along the Virginia/Maryland border. These were not “bass boat” type rivers so the Sport Canoe was ultimately put into service. On my first forays to the South Fork of the Shenandoah near Front Royal, VA and the Potomac near Brunswick, MD I quickly discovered excellent smallmouth fishing but serious wading issues with a lot of deep water and lack of overall safe access to large sections of these rivers. I finally decided to try out the Sport Canoe with a trolling motor to see if I could extend my range.
Grumman Sport Canoe
The Sport Canoe was a long, heavy aluminum craft with oars for human power but with a sturdy wide stern to attach an small outboard or trolling motor. I found that the trolling motor was sufficient to power the canoe upstream and through un-wadable deep sections. Instead of trying to fish from the boat however, I much preferred to wade slowly and target good smallmouth water judiciously and with some precision. I eventually came to the solution of tying a stout piece of rope to the bow of the canoe that I attached to my waist with a large loop and slipknots. I could then exit the canoe in wadable water and allow it to trail behind me while I fished. When I needed to cross deeper water I could just re-enter the canoe, fire up the trolling motor and move. I quickly understood that I could cover a lot of water upstream from the put-in that otherwise would be inaccessible and the Fishing the Last Mile First strategy was hatched.
Strategies are about defining success and then executing the necessary tactics to achieve that success. In my case, the Fishing the Last Mile First strategy really has three aspects of success. 1) I like to catch a lot of fish large and small in the waters I fish. 2) I like to fish in uncrowded waters and much prefer to fish alone if at all possible. 3) I like to wade and get intimate with the waters I fish, especially those places that are difficult to experience and learn using more traditional angling strategies. To achieve that kind of success, the wading angler must overcome a variety of obstacles. First, 100s of miles of our rivers East and West flow through private land and access can be difficult or even impossible unless you float the river in a boat. Fishing from a moving boat is significantly different than wade fishing and moving boats by-pass extensive parts of the river as they float downstream. Floating a river from point A to B requires additional logistics such as some method to shuttle vehicles. If the river is pressured at all, on any given day, boat after boat is floating over and fishing the same spots relentlessly. Wading anglers that desire to cover a lot of water, upstream or down, must remember the walk out will be just as long as the walk in. A safe deep crossing moving downstream might be treacherous moving upstream. Access and trespassing laws may seriously limit how far the angler can stray from the stream bed. Fishing the Last Mile First solves for these obstacles.
Coosa River Tailwater near Wetumpka, AL
In 1996 I retired from the USAF and left Washington D.C. for a new job in Central Alabama. Having been stationed there before, I knew the angling potential well. Apart from a large number of productive reservoirs, there were two exceptionally productive, but underfished tailwater rivers close to my new home. The Coosa River tailwater flowed 7.5 miles out of Jordan dam and boasted class II and III whitewater, extensive shallow braiding, limestone ledges and long, deep pools as it flowed toward Wetumpka where it turned docile and became the primary tributary of the Alabama River. It was only six miles from my new home on Lake Jordan. The Tallapoosa River some 25 miles east was a much smaller river that flowed south out Northwest Georgia. At Tallassee, Alabama the last dam on the Tallapoosa turned the river into 10+ miles of productive tailwater over limestone ledges. Both these tailwaters were well known for their spotted bass fishing, along with all manner of panfish. They also held good populations of white bass, hybrid striped bass and striped bass. The biggest difficulty in fishing these tailwaters was access. There were only a few legal access points. The Coosa was big enough to float small power boats but class II water at Pipeline Falls and River Islands, as well as class III water at Moccasin Gap could prove problematic. The Coosa tailwater was a popular kayaking and canoeing trip but didn’t receive much fishing pressure around the problematic whitewater sections. The Tallapoosa tailwater was even more problematic. There was access at the dam but dangerous whitewater for about a mile down to the notoriously dangerous (a few deaths here) Tallassee Falls. Below the falls was another access point but from there the river flowed 40 miles without access through private land to meet up with the Coosa.
Liquid Logic Manta Ray 12 - Tallapoosa River Tailwater
Around 2000, I acquired my first kayak, a 12’ SOT poly boat that came highly recommended for kayak fishing. After some experimentation and practice, I finally got the boat rigged for Fishing the Last Mile First similar to my experiences on the Shenandoah and Potomac. The big difference however was this boat was much, much lighter than the Sport Canoe, more maneuverable and could easily be paddled upstream in slow or moderate current. I found myself spending far more time plying the tailwaters of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers when seasonable conditions prevailed.
My First Native 12 Ultimate Tegris, 2015 on Yellowstone River
In the Spring of 2008, a decision to move to Bozeman, MT was made as I wanted to concentrate more on trout fishing and I could think of no better place than Bozeman having fished there regularly at least once a year since 1972. Coincidently in early 2008, Native Watersports introduced their Native Ultimate 12 kayak line and I purchased my first of three Ultimate 12s, a lightweight (36#) Tegris model. At the time this proved to be the “ultimate” (no pun intended) Fishing the Last Mile First kayak. Big Western trout freestone rivers like the Madison, Yellowstone and Big Hole are significantly different than Eastern, warm water rivers. Higher gradients, colder water and freestone rock and cobble bottoms. Yet the fundamentals of Fishing the Last Mile First worked well and I was quickly able to achieve my angling goals—catch a lot of fish, fish in uncrowded conditions and get intimate with river through wading and fishing places that others might find difficult. Part II of Fishing the Last Mile First covers the basics of the boats and gear needed to Fish The Last Mile First.
Fishing the Last Mile First – Part II – Boats and Gear
Fishing the Last Mile First – Part III -Fundamentals
Fishing the Last Mile First – Part IV – Tips and Advice
Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana 2021