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

Text Only
  • Golf at NobNorth 2  mlh.jpg Chris Whitfield's 'A Look Ahead': DHS golfers aim for region titles

    This season, high school golf teams in Murray and Whitfield counties — with a few exceptions — have struggled to put up strong scores on the course. Beyond that, in some cases local schools don’t even have the required amount of golfers to register a team score at region tournaments, per Georgia High School Association rules, with hopes of making the sectional and state tournaments.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Area middle school roundup: Martinez comes through for Kodiaks

    Carlos Martinez scored twice to lead New Hope Middle School’s boys soccer team to a crucial 2-1 win over visiting Bagley on Wednesday.

    April 21, 2014

  • DHS at SE soccer 4 mlh.jpg Region 7-4A championship

    If recent history is any indication, this week’s Region 7-4A championship game may not be the last time the boys soccer teams at Dalton and Southeast Whitfield stand opposed to one another this season.

    April 19, 2014 2 Photos

  • St Louis at Rampage 4 mlh.jpg No Attack for Rampage

    The Georgia Rampage’s offense didn’t do anything in the first half — evident by the scoreboard.
    By the time new quarterback Bart Gloyd stepped in, a comeback was out of reach.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Former Dalton, Auburn QB Carter passes away

    When former Dalton High School football coach Bill Chappell learned one of his former players had died Saturday, he was shocked. His second reaction was sadness, not just because of Loran Carter’s athletic legacy but also his outstanding character.

    April 19, 2014

  • Golf at NobNorth 1  mlh.jpg Prep golf: DHS, rain steady for Nob Invite

    With the Region 7-4A tournament scheduled for Tuesday at Nob North Golf Club, Dalton coach Hunter Johnston was pleased that his team finally got its first victory of the season Saturday in Cohutta at the Nob North Invitational.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Doug Hawley: Cancer will not hinder Run for John’s finish

    With the seventh annual Run for John races scheduled for Saturday in Dalton, there is a community focus this week on the family of the late John Bruner.

    April 19, 2014

  • DSC women win finalé

    The Dalton State College women’s tennis team earned a 5-0 win in a rain-shortened match at home against Snead State to conclude its season.

    April 19, 2014

  • Play ball on the Westside

    The long-awaited Westside Park opened to rave reviews on April 10, with baseball teams ranging from 6 to 12 years christening the the newest Whitfield County recreation facility.

    April 19, 2014

  • DHS at Heritage 1 mlh.jpg Generally disappointed

    Dalton High School’s baseball team started the fifth inning of Friday’s crucial Sub-region 7B-4A game against Heritage-Catoosa with four consecutive hits.
    The only problem for the Catamounts was that was where their good hitting started and stopped.

    April 18, 2014 2 Photos