Local fly fishing legends of the past & future

Each week we will share an interview with a local fly fisherman that has done many things for the sport.


This week we highlight Jim Herrig. Aquatic Biologist, Small stream expert, and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.


TU640: What was the first fish you remember catching? How old were you?


Jim: When I was about 5, my family moved to Brookings, South Dakota and this is where I lived until I graduated from South Dakota State University (BS Degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science). I remember going on picnic/fishing trips to Oakwood Lakes where we would sit on the shore and catch bullheads with cane poles. After a few years my Dad became more interested in catching yellow perch and walleyes and my fishing gear was upgraded to a Zebco except during the winter ice fishing seasons when we continued to use the cane poles (cut down to about 2 foot long).


TU640: What fish is your favorite to fish for?


Jim: The Cutthroat Trout; in my opinion, it is the easiest trout to catch and one of the most beautiful. I remember fishing for them in high mountain streams in Colorado. On one occasion, I spotted a cutthroat feeding beside an undercut bank and cast to it. Without hesitation it took my fly and I brought it in. I released it back into the crystal clear stream and watched it swim back to its feeding station. Trout are sensitive to being disturbed and don’t go back to feeding for a long time after being caught and released. But being an optimist, I cast to it again and was surprised when it raced out and took the same artificial fly a second time. I pulled it in and released it only to watch it swim back to the same spot. Needless to say, I had to cast to it again. It took my fly again; I caught and released it. We could have played this game all day but I didn’t bother it anymore.


TU640: At what age were you introduced to fly fishing? How did you get hooked?


Jim: At 22 I went to graduate school at Colorado State University and studied Fisheries Science. One of my college advisors who was very good at fly fishing suggested that I try it. While I was there I bought an Eagle Claw combination spinning/fly rod. This rod enabled me to catch trout spin fishing which I was very comfortable with; and the ability to switch to fly fishing where I lacked confidence and skill. When I caught my first trout on an ugly fly that I had tied, I was the one who was hooked.


TU640: Was fishing and the outdoors a big part of your life growing up?


Jim: Yes, in South Dakota I grew up in the outdoors. I was a Boy Scout and really enjoyed hiking, camping and canoeing; no weather was too extreme. During the winter months, we often camped with temperatures well below zero. I made it to Eagle Scout. My dad went fishing almost every week and took his four sons with him. He had a wooden boat that he had rebuilt and fiber glassed. It was so heavy that high waves often came in. We never sank but it wasn’t from not trying.


TU640: Who are your biggest influences in fly fishing and conservation?


Jim: John Flick and Tom Knopick opened Duranglers Fly Fishing Shop in Durango, Colorado while I lived there and they were the first to really get me excited about fly fishing. I fished the San Juan River and several small mountain streams with them. Now, Gary Williams is my fishing buddy and is the only person crazy enough to fish the remote streams of the Southern Appalachian Mountains with me. He usually out fishes me but that is because he is interested in catching more fish and uses nymphs to do that whereas I like the thrill of the strike and use primarily dry flies. Steve Fry is the heart and soul of the Appalachian Chapter of Trout Unlimited and he has always been an inspiration to me. His dedication to resource conservation is unmatched by anyone I know. Pat Rakes and JR Shute, of Conservation Fisheries, Inc., have given me great insight to the aquatic world beyond trout. Their organization is responsible for saving several native fish species from extinction and their dedication to all aquatic species and habitats is greatly appreciated.


TU640: What's one thing every fly fisherman should know?


Jim: On small mountain streams, it is absolutely essential to be able to place your fly where you want it to land and you must see the fly hit the water. Your leader and tippet should not be longer than about 6 foot with a 9 foot rod. Trout in these small streams are not line sensitive. During the summer months trout are going to hit anything that looks buggy on the surface and if it doesn’t pass the “squish test” in their mouths they will spit it out immediately. There is so little food in these mountain streams that it is more efficient for trout to bite something that doesn’t quite look like a bug and spit it out than to let possible food float by.


TU640: How important is it to teach the next generation to fly fish?


Jim: Fly fishing is synonymous with aquatic conservation; spin fishing and bait fishing anglers also often have great respect for the resources and want to pass along their outdoor skills and devotion to the next generation. In fact, I think most outdoors people promote conservation. It doesn’t matter which technique you prefer; just get kids outdoors and teach them a skill. Each year I assist with the Trout Unlimited Trout Camp for kids held for a week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And while the focus of the camp is on fly fishing an underlying goal is to stimulate a love of the outdoors and a respect for natural resources.


TU640: What is your favorite river to fish and why?


Jim: I would say Citico Creek; it is such a beautiful setting. Most of the beauty that was present before it was railroad logged in the 1920s is now recovered. I will not live to see the huge trees return but I often imagine what the area would have looked like. I think the streams would have been much more difficult to fish without hiking trails and with 4 to 6 foot diameter trees lying across the channel.


TU640: What is your favorite memory of fly fishing and why?


Jim: I lived in Durango, Colorado when I started working for the US Forest Service and from my house I could see snow capped mountains known as the Twightlight Peaks. Near the top of these peaks were three lakes. There were no hiking trails leading to them and the lakes were about 3000 feet above the valley. Nobody fished these lakes! I enjoyed climbing to one of those lakes, crossing scree and snow fields, until right at the tree line I reached the lake. I could see Durango from there. The trout never let me down. I always caught my limit. Trout even took my poorly tied flies – if I didn’t jerk the fly out of its mouth as it came swimming toward the surface from the clear depths.


TU640: What is your go to fly when nothing else works or your favorite to use?


Jim: My favorite fly is the Irresistible tied with a white calf tail wing. It looks buggy to the fish, floats very well, and has the white wing on top that shines like a “spotlight” for me to easily see.


TU640: What made you choose a life of service to studying aquatic species?


Jim: I was hooked on being outdoors and fishing throughout my childhood. When I started taking biology courses in college, I knew that conservation biology was how I wanted to spend my life.


TU640: You worked for the U.S. Forest Service for many years, tell us about your primary job with them.


Jim: Overall my responsibilities were to maintain, protect and enhance aquatic resources. The US Forest Service manages millions of acres of mountainous habitats. This management consists of many activities (road building, timber harvest, etc.) all of which had the potential to impact the aquatic resources of the area. I evaluated management proposals and made recommendations to protect the aquatic habitats from degradation. I monitored all aquatic species with an emphasis on maintaining viable populations of native species. I also tried to enhance populations of desired aquatic species including trout and threatened and endangered species.


TU640: A few years ago you were involved in the restoration of Southern Brook Trout, can you share what that project was like and how successful it was?


Jim: Over 90% of the stream habitats that were once occupied by brook trout are now devoid of trout or are occupied by non-native rainbow and brown trout. The remaining brook trout populations are declining in numbers. The brook trout, native to the Southern Appalachian Mountain streams, may be both taxonomically and physiologically unique to our area. We removed competing rainbow trout through electrofishing and chemical treatments, and then restocked with brook trout from other area streams. Through cooperation with TWRA, TU, Tennessee Aquarium, Southern Appalachian Backcountry Horsemen and many others we were able to build and establish the Tellico Brook Trout Rearing Facility at the Pheasant Fields Trout Hatchery. This facility enabled us to spawn and raise thousands of southern strain brook trout that were used to establish new populations and augment declining populations of brook trout. Some of these stocking efforts were accomplished using horses to transport fingerling trout to their new home streams on the Tellico Ranger District. I think the program was very successful and efforts need to be continued.


TU640: You developed a program called the " Freshwater Snorkeling Program" with the U.S. Forest Service. Can you tell us about that and it is it still active?


Jim: It is a program I designed to introduce and educate the public about the vast freshwater diversity (fish, salamanders, reptiles, aquatic invertebrates, and mussels) of the Southern Appalachian Mountain streams. In order to maintain and protect these valuable resources, we need the support of the public. The public needs to see the animals in their natural habitats in order to really appreciate them and understand why they are worth protecting. Snorkeling is the best way to present this resource to them. People can see the animals in their natural environment, doing what they do - feeding, sheltering, and spawning. The program continues to educate lots of people, especially kids. It has been adapted and used in other freshwater streams around the United States and even in other countries.


TU640: Can you share a little information on the Hellbender restoration projects?


Jim: It is essentially a project to monitor and improve hellbender habitats. Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America and the second largest in the world; they feed on crayfish and dead fish (they do not attack healthy trout). They are extremely rare across their range (Ohio River and its tributaries including the Hiwassee River) but are fairly common in the Hiwassee River and several tributaries on the Cherokee National Forest. I supported Dr. Michael Freake (Lee University Professor) in monitoring those populations and assisted him in placing several “hellbender condos” into streams to improve their habitat.


TU640: Besides the Cherokee National Forest, what other National Forest have you worked in?


Jim: I started working for the US Forest Service in 1981 on the San Juan NF in southeastern Colorado; by the time I left for the Cherokee NF in 1987, I was responsible for the aquatic resources on the San Juan, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison, and Rio Grande National Forests (about ¼ of the state of Colorado). Species diversity was low and habitat quality for trout needed to be improved. I installed over 300 fish structures, mostly on smaller streams but did some large boulder structures in the Rio Grande, Dolores, and West Dolores Rivers.


TU640: Do you have a favorite? If so, why?


Jim: Each forest I worked has its own unique memories for me. I revisit them whenever I can. The Weminuche Wilderness on the San Juan is really special to me. It’s where I learned to fly fish; its remoteness is unmatched in the lower 48 states; I spent several weeks there hiking to high mountain lakes, often going off trail and taking routes where nobody else went.


TU640: Can you talk about your time in the military? Also thank you for your service.


Jim: I started college in 1969 and immediately enrolled in the ROTC program both because I felt a patriotic responsibility and for the meager financial support I received. During my junior summer I volunteered to take the Army Ranger course. This experience was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. We were being trained in jungle warfare because of the Vietnam War. I started the course as a skinny 165 pound kid; I learned a lot of leadership skills that have helped me throughout life. When I completed the course, 9 weeks later, I had lost over 30 pounds and could sleep standing up. I served as an officer for 3 years in Germany. My wife, Nancy, and I were able to visit many countries in Europe. She worked as a nurse in the 97th General Army Hospital (Frankfurt, West Germany) where I worked as a hospital administrator. After 3 years, I resigned from the Army as a Captain ready to begin my career as a Fisheries Biologist.


TU640: Name one thing that no one knows about you.


Jim: Whenever I go on remote fishing trips I always take Kipper Snacks for lunch. Eating fish while fishing seems like a responsible thing to do.


TU640: And last how do you want to be remembered?


Jim: I hope people will remember me as someone who truly loved mountain streams and always tried to preserve aquatic resources for the next generation.


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