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 Don Denney. Fly fishing advocate and long time Trout Unlimited member.


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


Don: When I was a small child a small branch ran in front of our house, Johnsons Branch. I can't remember the first fish I caught on a hook, but we made seines out of rags and sticks and seined minnows from the stream. We would position the seine downstream of an undercut bank and chase minnows into it by poking under the undercut with a stick.


TU640: What fish is your favorite to fish for?


Don: Trout hands down. The waters I fish have a variety, mostly rainbows, some browns and a few brookies. I take them as they come, but regard browns as being more challenging. Brookies are a pleasent surprise now and then.


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


Don: I remember the first fish I caught on a fly, and it is a story I like to tell!

When I was in grade school, we lived in a neighborhood called “Gum Holler,” not one of the more prosperous areas. There was a branch in front of the house and we kids sometimes fished there for minnows.

Back then there was a “mom and pop” grocery on every corner, and a barber shop on every other corner. Our local barber was Mr. August Johnson. He was a fly fisherman and fished the Tellico River for trout.

His barber shop had a magazine rack with the standards, Sports Afield, Field and Stream, I can't remember if Outdoor Life was around then or not. I used to go by now and then just to look at the magazines.

In those days fly tying equipment and materials were not as readily available as now. Mr. Johnson once showed me a vise he made himself. It consisted of a broomstick end screwed to a piece of board as a base. A slot was sawed in the end of the broomstick, and a screw and wing nut were used to hold a hook so a fly could be tied.

I managed to make a crude one for myself. I got a hook and some of my mother's sewing thread. Pillows were stuffed with feathers then and I found one sticking through the fabric and pulled it out. Using these materials, I tied a very crude fly.

My rod was a privet twig. My line was some more sewing thread. I fished the branch in front of the house and caught a dace. The dace was so small only the barb of the hook fit in his mouth, but he was hooked, and so was I! I've been fly fishing ever since!

In later years Mr. Johnson worked part time hours at a shop at his home. I always meant to go by and thank him but I never got around to it. I regret that.


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


Don: yes


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


Don: Fly fishing, I would say George Harvey. He wrote a book, Techniques of Trout Fishing and Fly Tying, that helped me a lot early on. It was broad and general, somewhat dated now, but gave me a good start. There are a lot of good writers, I have read many of them.

Conservation, Gary Williams and Jim Herrig. Their dedication, knowledge, and willingness to share their knowledge have inspired me.


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


Don: This is not all about catching fish. recreation clears your mind and charges your battery, and that is worth a lot. For me and many others, fly fishing meets this need better than anything else.


TU640: What's the most common mistake you see beginning fly fisherman make?


Don: Fighting a fish downstream on the surface. A trout can shake its head faster in air than in water, and they often throw the hook. I sometimes hold my rod horizontally with the tip just above water to keep a fish off the surface until I can work it beside and then above me. If you can get it close and upstream, just ease it to the surface and it will float gently into your hand or net.


TU640: What's the hardest thing you've ever done in life?


Don: Trying to help my oldest son with drug addiction. I lost that battle, and him.


TU640: Name one thing you can't live without?


Don: duh?! air!!


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


Don: I suppose there are in fact a few things that I have never discussed with anyone else. The one that comes to mind is one that I may finally be ready to discuss.

I have something of a phobia. If I am sleeping on a pillow and I can hear my heart beating, I squirm around until I can't hear it. This came about because sometime in my childhood I recall having a dream that I could hear my heart beating and suddenly it stopped! I woke up in terror with my heart racing thinking it had stopped!

I never told anyone because I visualized some sort of bad people finding out about my weakness, abducting me, strapping me down, taping a stethoscope to me and hooking it to an amplifier!

I'm so old and useless now it seems unlikely anyone would go to all that trouble. I don't know any secrets to divulge anyway. I hope no shrinks read this, and I hope Trump doesn't find out I didn't vote for him.


TU640: If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?


Don: I would tell him to count himself blessed, he would have overall a very good life!


TU640: You're very active in the protection of our rivers, can you tell us about your conservation efforts over the years? What was the most important to you?


Don: I have been involved with a lot of things, stream cleanups, fish population surveys, stockings, restoring facilities to propagate native brookies, regulation changes, fly fishing classes for adults and youth, macroinvertebrate samplings, meetings with agencies, projects to rear trout in classrooms, website design and management, serving in various positions with Trout Unlimited, speaking to groups, and probably others that don't come to mind right now.

The most important thing I have done is to hopefully pass on to others, especially youth, the enthusiasm I have for this beautiful world, so that future generations can enjoy it as much as we do.


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


Don: Ode to the Hiwassee

(What I Tell My Wife When I'm Going Fishing and She Asks Me Where)

I Go to Fish the Great River Hiwassee...

Mother of Mist...... Father of Thunder...

Home of the Otter, Bear, Eagle, and Osprey...

Realm of the Monster Trout..... Gem of Creation...

Ancient, and Fabled..... Awesome,... and Beautiful.......

I Will Have a Good Day.

(© 2000 Don E. Denney)


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


Don: Two come to mind. One is watching my great granddaughter Jinna catch her first trout on a flyrod!

The other happened in February 2003. On that cold day I fished with a friend from Alabama, Edwin Lamberth. I had the pleasure of watching Edwin hook, fight, and land one of the most beautiful brown trout I have ever seen! Got a photo!

That evening I emailed Edwin the photo. He had said before he released it he checked it against a mark on his rod, and it was 2" past, 20". I told him it looked bigger. He said he had 2 marks on his rod, 18 and 24". The fish was 26".

When Edwin lived in Birmingham he came up and fished with me now and then, that ended when he moved to Mobile. Edwin was an environmental lawyer, handled some big cases. I haven't heard anything about him in a long time. Hope he is doing well.


TU640: What is the biggest negative change you've noticed in fly fishing in the last 10 years?


Don: Climate change! Tennessee is as red as a state can get, and we are not allowed to believe in climate change. I believe in it anyway. Every year the lower fishable limits of native brookie streams move uphill. Every year rivers like the Hiwassee get too warm for trout sooner.


TU640: What's the biggest positive change you've noticed in fly fishing in the last 10 years?


Don: Thanks to the efforts of Trout Unlimited, every year more people get involved in fly fishing for trout and the conservation efforts that go with that.


TU640: What is your go to fly when nothing else is working?


Don: Lately I tend to fish the griffith's gnat a lot. I like to watch fish take dry flies. The fly is easy and cheap to tie, durable, floats like a cork, and I can see it. I use it for practically all small hatches, and often with no hatch.

In the past I favored the brown hackle peacock (bhp), a soft hackle wet that works well in a lot of situations. At one time my handle online was bhpguy.


TU640: You have written a few booklets on fly fishing that the subjects aren't normally covered in other books. Can you tell us a little about those and the titles?


Don: Stay Vertical!: How to Wade a Trout Stream

Fish On! What Now!: How to Land a Trout

both available from Amazon as ebooks or paperbacks

I'm working on another bigger more general book, had it almost ready to publish and got stalled again.


TU640: We're assuming that you have something else in your life outside of fishing. What are your other passions?


Don: family, friends, ministry

By the way, one of the greatest blessings of my life is the multitude of friendships I have developed through my involvement with fly fishing for trout and conservation!

I used to tell my wife I would be home at dark thirty. I often ran late. She never understood this until she started going with me. What happens is, when it starts getting dark you go back to the parking lot, and someone else gets there at the same time. You may not know each other, but you stand there and talk about your day for 45 minutes!


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


Don: As someone who worked hard to understand this world and life, and tried to pass what he learned on to others so that they might benefit from it also.


Add Content