July 14, 2010

Loran Smith: Knuckleball Niekro is handy with a fly rod

HELEN — The waters of the upper Chattahoochee, rushing over the dam at Nora Mill just south of here, drowned out the conversation of visitors who stopped to feed the trout lounging below the observation deck.

As the pellets splash into the water, the trout scrimmage aggressively to see who can be first to get to the food. That makes you think that a new-fangled lure landing in the middle of all that mess would be overtly attractive to the fish — unfortunately, the trout are not as enthusiastic over lures as they are grub tossed by the visitors.

With Phil Niekro, the Braves’ Hall of Fame pitcher, you could initially make the case that he had more success getting batters out than he did hooking the plentiful rainbows here on a recent afternoon.

But suddenly, his line goes taut, his fly rod is bending, and a three-pounder is testing his angling skills. The fish loses as Niekro skillfully tires out his prey and maneuvers him into a net, managed by Alex Lunsford, a quiet and reserved guide with endless affection for the hills and streams of Northeast Georgia that have shaped his life.

Niekro’s companions, David and Jeb Smith, a father-and-son team from Winder, found success, too. Hosted by Jimmy Harris, owner of Unicoi Outfitters, it was fishing in the most enviable environment. Clear skies eventually turned dark and ran the fly fishers off the river, but they made a comeback the next morning following a heavy downpour.

“Sometimes when there is rain, the fish bite better the next day,” Harris said. “The good thing about the rain is that it cools things down a little. Trout obviously prefer cooler weather, to say nothing of the fishermen.”

Dinner conversation with Niekro was a mixture of fishing tales and baseball lore, forever laced with humor. If Niekro were to consider a latent career as a standup comedian, his Chattahoochee companions would forecast success.

“Catching fish is obviously your objective when you come here, but Phil makes you enjoy yourself so much that I would come just for the conversation,” said David Smith.

Niekro makes everyone relax with his easygoing manner, but when he steps into the water, he becomes a very serious fisherman.

“You just can’t beat Jimmy Harris’s hospitality,” Niekro says. “To get out into the river and catch a few trout is an experience that makes you want to return again and again.”

With a home on Lake Lanier, Niekro spends a lot of time on the water. Sometimes he is alone, a solitary figure, trying new lures and searching for spots where the fish may be congregating.

“If you love to fish, and I do,” Niekro said, “then you find the water refreshing and relaxing.”

His favorite diversion, from his affiliation with the Gwinnett Braves, is to come to Helen for a fly fishing afternoon with Harris and Lunsford.

As a pitcher, the master of the knuckleball, Niekro always had patience. When he picks up a fly rod, you see the same patience as he casts with a fluid motion that reminds you of his efficient delivery when he was on the mound all those years with the Braves, Yankees, Indians, and Blue Jays, winning 318 games and earning his later election to the Hall of Fame.

Suddenly, Jeb Smith has a bite. With patience and due diligence, Jeb soon wrestles the rainbow into the net. Phil comes over and leans in for a photograph and extends congratulations on a job well done.

“That made my day,” Jeb said afterwards.

Niekro, even in retirement, is still making friends for the Braves.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at

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