8 Tips for Summer Trout

The warmest day of trout fishing I’ve ever experienced also happened to be one of my best. It was one of those stifling hot, sticky July afternoons where you lament the fact that you have to wear long sleeves to avoid the nettles, but the Driftless, like many good trout destinations, guards it’s most precious creeks with a fierce wall of bluffs and thorns and more than one type of irritating weed, making long sleeves a necessity if you want to avoid plowing to the creek like a madman. The welts and rashes that these weeds leave are nearly as memorable as the spectacular valleys they grow in.

By late morning we’d hiked nearly a mile through narrow draws and thick brush and awful weeds, and the heat was beginning to get to us. The dense canopy of old-growth hardwoods that towered over the valley floor provided some relief and added a deeply majestic impression to the coulee, hiding the secrets of the valley with a lush blanket of green. This was rugged country, filled with deep coulees, sharp ridges, and dead-end draws that all look nearly alike. You cover lots of ground on this sort of trip, but the bluffs make you wonder if you’re actually getting anywhere. It wasn’t a particularly easy hike, especially in the heat, but the stream at the end of the journey was well worth it.

We rounded the corner of a tight ridge and paused. The valley opened up to a breathtaking canyon bordered by massive, towering limestone bluffs capped with ancient oaks and maples. The canyon floor was blanketed with a mix of wild raspberries and nettles and grass. Bluffs and old-growth forest made for a spectacular scene that I won’t soon forget. But the crown-jewel was the creek that carved it’s way through the fertile valley floor, rushing over boulders and brimming with trout.

The water ran a deep blue color and was stained just enough to hide an angler and get the trout excited. It was exactly what you hope for when you hike through stifling heat and nearly a mile of burnweed to toss some flies at trout, though seriously expecting this sort of thing can be quite dangerous for a fisherman’s fragile psyche. We jumped straight into the creek and cooled off a bit before stringing up the rods. I headed downstream armed with a nymphing setup and plowed through the head-high weeds.

The first stretch, a long, slow pool with a decent riffle at the head, failed to produce any trout in the bright overhead sun, though a few sporadic bankside risers hinted at some promising trout activity. The next piece of water was a sweet sight; a series of swift riffles and churning pocket water plunged into a half-dozen emerald pools. The water was quick enough to make it easy, and a few big boulders shaded part of the creek. In short, a perfect stretch of trout stream.

The fishing was good, too. I pulled over a dozen trout from the fastest spots and shaded pockets, mostly browns in the ten inch range, all wild and feisty despite the stifling heat. A thick-shouldered brown with deep, golden flanks and bold spots highlighted the afternoon.

fifteen inch Driftless Area backcountry trout fly fishing MN spring creek

 

Hot summer days on the streams aren’t always as good as that one. Anglers often battle scorching temps, oppressive humidity, lazy trout, and biting insects and weeds. But the hot summer months can also be a great time to hit the water. Hoppers bring big trout to the surface. Tricos give a challenging yet rewarding game of frustration, tiny dries, and sometimes triumph. And there’s always a flurry of activity at first and last light, along with the trout you’ll coax during the middle of the day.

Here are eight tips we’ve learned over the years for beating the heat and catching more trout during the summer months, in no particular order. They’re mostly aimed at the small trout streams of the Driftless, but they hold true for most trout streams around the Midwest…

#1: Get Stealthy

The low flows and ultra clear water of summer means ridiculously spooky trout in slow runs and pools. Stealth is an absolute necessity. Fortunately, bankside vegetation is at it’s peak, offering anglers a good way to conceal themselves from wary trout. I think good, dirty stealth is something that all truly good anglers have focused on and nearly mastered. It makes sense, really, because melting into the surroundings and approaching fish undetected only comes from a good understanding of where trout are going to be. It’s this sense of confidence and attention to detail that set the best anglers apart in the stealth game.

A stealthy approach is critical for chasing trout in skinny water

A stealthy approach is critical for chasing trout in skinny water

Trout sitting in low, clear water won’t tolerate a lazy, impatient fisherman, so be prepared to do some crawling and bushwacking for a few extra fish. It’s sweaty, muddy work, especially in the heat of summer, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort if you want to remain undetected.

You’ll learn quickly to walk softly and not wave your line over the fish, yet adding an extra element of stealth and thoughtfulness to your approach can really improve the catch rate. Think about casting angles, shadows, and any downstream trout that might bolt and spook the fish you’re working on. Wade if you must, but do it gently. Take the time to slow down, enjoy the creek, and plan your strategy of attack. Fish long, light leaders (as long as you can handle for small dries and nymphs, sometimes up to twelve or thirteen feet and 6X) and lighter rods. I’d guess that I spook more fish than I end up seeing on any particular outing, making stealth an awfully good and somewhat easy way to improve my angling.

 

#2: Find Cold Water

trout heaven in se mn

High in the headwaters….springs in the upper reaches offer colder water – and often happy trout

Spring brings cool, comfortable water, plenty of bugs, and happy trout, but once the dog days of summer hit, fishing can taper off rapidly as bright sun and warmer water put trout in a mood. Finding cold, comfortable water becomes key to finding happy summer trout, especially during those bright, scorching August afternoons when nothing seems to be moving.

There are a few good options for beating the heat and finding happy trout in the dog days of summer. First, try fishing higher up in the headwaters where cooler temps are more plentiful, particularly on spring creeks and tailwaters where springs and dams pump a consistent supply of icy water into the stream. Another good strategy is hitting the mouths of tributaries or venturing up the smaller creeks themselves. Tributary creeks are often quite a bit cooler than the main river and offer trout some thermal refuge, along with a good supply of food. Terrestrials can be deadly in these spots, and cold tributary mouths often surrender some big trout that nose up into the colder flow looking for a bit of relief from the heat. Fast water also holds more trout friendly temps (see tip #6) and can be very productive.

Note: Don’t accidentally kill trout! Watch water temps carefully and know when to give the coldwater fish a break. Hot water temps can put unnecessary and often lethal stress on trout when they’re caught. Most agree that 68 degree water temps is a good time to stop. For a more detailed look at safe summer trout temps, check out this piece from Hatch Magazine.

 

#3: Fish Smaller Flies

While trout will still occasionally snatch a #14 Hare’s Ear in faster riffles and runs, the combination of low, clear flows and tiny hatches makes micro nymphs and dries a good option for fooling trout consistently in the heat of summer.

Spring creek meadow...perfect water for terrestrials and small nymphs

Spring creek meadow…perfect water for terrestrials and small nymphs

Small bugs are particularly good for those torturously slow pools and runs where fussy trout float like gazelles on an African plain at hunting time, ready to bolt at the slightest sign of anything unnatural or risky. Besides requiring a great deal of stealth and even more patience, these trout can be fooled with tiny, lightweight nymphs floated under a small yarn indicator or an unobtrusive dry fly, preferably a terrestrial pattern.

But micro nymphs have also proven themselves in faster, more fisherman-friendly waters. I haven’t found many days when trout will turn down a tiny #20 Pheasant Tail or Sunk Trico Spinner rolled along the bottom behind another nymph. It’s a deadly tactic, and the extra finesse a tiny nymph offers is often enough to coax a trout to eat even during the middle of the day.

 

#4: Fish Bigger Flies

Fat late-summer brookie that crushed a big hopper

Fat late-summer brookie that crushed a big hopper

There’s nothing like watching a big trout smash a big dry on a hot summer afternoon. Once mid-July and August roll around, trout stop eating the perversely-tiny bugs of early and mid-summer and start attacking hoppers like smallmouth on steroids. It’s some of the most exciting dry-fly fishing of the season.

Cut banks and grassy meadow stretches are prime spots for tossing big terrestrials. Moths, hoppers, crickets, and all sorts of bigger bugs fall from the grass, and trout learn to watch for any big, lively critter hitting the surface. Big Stimulators in #6 to #12 are a good general match for a wide variety of terrestrials that end up in the creek. Hopper patterns in the same sizes are deadly. And if you mind your presentation and approach, leaders for bigger bugs don’t need to be quite as long and fine as those for tiny nymphs, bringing a nice change of pace from the tiny bugs.

#5: Fish Terrestrials

hopper fly rodTWThis one is obvious yet too important to leave out. Ants, beetles, hoppers, and attractor dries are some of the most consistent producers for summer trout. Drift them through pools, slap them near the bank, or toss them through meadow stretches (finding grassy sections or areas that are conducive to bugs falling into the stream is key). Trout love them. Don’t neglect to fish your terrestrials!

#6: Hit The Fast Water

Having spent the first few years of my fishing career on warmwater lakes where most fish retreat to the depths once summer hits, going shallow towards the fast water seemed a bit counterintuitive at first, but it can really hold great rewards. There are two primary reasons fast water holds plenty of trout: oxygen and cooler water temps. As water warms, its ability to hold good concentrations of dissolved oxygen – a critical aspect of a trout’s survival and comfort – suffers greatly, pushing trout out of areas with slower current and warmer water. Fast spots hold some of the most oxygenated water in the stream, acting as a natural aerator and providing cool, comfortable temps. This is particularly important on freestones and lower stretches of spring creeks that don’t receive a constant supply of good, cold water.

Black Beetle

Beetles are good producers in fast meadow runs and riffles

Faster riffles and runs that brush up against banks with brush or grass or undercuts that shade the water are particularly productive. They’re usually loaded with hoppers and ants and beetles, which is a good equation for producing eager trout.

Trout holding in fast water also tend to be less discriminating in their fly selection, so it’s naturally a good place to target fish during the summer months.

 

#7: Early and Late

Trico...

Tricos…real good early morning fun

Some of the best fishing of the summer can be found right at dawn or dusk. The lower light levels bring colder temps and plenty of bugs on most days, which usually means some good fishing. Tricos are notorious for blanketing streams at some uncivilly early hour of the morning, usually when air temps hit somewhere around 68*F. These tiny bugs can provide some of the most consistent, frustrating, and rewarding dry fly fishing in the Driftless starting around early July and running through late September (Also, check out  the post on 3 Tips for the Trico Spinner Fall and 4 top flies for the Trico hatch for recipes, Trico strategies, and a few good bugs).

The last hour of the day can also bring some good fishing. In the midwest, many species of caddis hatch in the evening, and there are usually a few trout rising to various bugs as the sun slips behind the trees. A CDC & Elk or a small parachute Adams is good for these sporadic risers.

Night fishing can also be a good bet in the summer. The legendary Hex hatch starts around late June and can provide great fishing when the giant bugs start popping a bit after dark. Mousing can also be pretty epic as bigger browns lose some of their wariness under the cover of darkness.

Mousin' after dark...

Mousin’ after dark…

(note:hoppers and terrestrials are one important exception – those bugs are more active in the heat, so midday can be quite good if the water stays cool enough).

 

#8: Sunken Bugs and Dry Dropper rigs

Sunken Trico Spinner

Sunken Trico Spinner – check out the recipe or try a few from the shop HERE

One of my absolute favorite tricks during the Trico hatch is hanging a sunken spinner off the bend of a terrestrial or nymph. While fishing sunken spinner patterns is nothing new in the fly fishing scene, the sunken spinner adds a bit of finesse that’s enough to fool plenty of stubborn trout, particularly when the hatch isn’t substantial enough to produce consistent risers. But sunken spinner fishing isn’t limited to the few hours of the day when Tricos are on the water. After seeing tons of these bugs wash downstream and get smashed in the current, trout have no problem eating a sunken spinner nearly all day long during the summer and early fall.

Sunken terrestrials can also be killer. Sunk beetles, ants, and even hopper imitations are great for drifting along grassy banks and will often catch trout that aren’t quite willing to grab a bug off the surface. The Black Wet Fly is a good example of an effective sunken terrestrial.

A Pink Squirrel on a dry-dropper fooled this wild brown on a small Kinnickinnic River trib.

A Pink Squirrel on a dry-dropper fooled this wild brown on a small Kinnickinnic River trib.

Dry-dropper rigs are perhaps the ultimate searching strategy. I often fish with a trio of flies to match a few different bugs that are around this time of year. Start with a big hopper or terrestrial like a Stimmy, drop a nymph or sunken terrestrial off the bend (scuds or pink squirrels are usually good in the Driftless), and trail a sunken trico or micro nymph behind the second fly where regulations allow. This rig very efficiently covers the three major bugs trout are eating in the summer – terrestrials, random nymphs/scuds/sunk terrestrials, and tricos/tiny nymphs.

 

Perhaps the best part of tossing three flies is the ability to fine tune your combination once you find what the trout are after on a particular day. It’s really a deadly and very efficient tactic.

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While not all ventures on the creek are quite as good as that day in the valley, summer is an awfully good time to be a trout fisherman. Terrestrials, tricos, and flurries of action at low light bring some of the most exciting and rewarding fly fishing of the season. Hopefully these tips will help you catch a few more trout in the summer months.

3 Tips for Fly Fishing the Trico Spinner Fall

 3 tips on how to fly fish the Trico spinner fall with less frustration, more trout, and more triumph

There are hardly any hatches that bring as much frustration and triumph as the Trico hatch of summer and early fall. Massive spinner falls of these minuscule mayflies, sometimes stretching down to a #26, bring trout to the surface like lumberjacks eating pancakes. It can be an agonizing hatch, filled with long leaders, uncivilly early mornings, tiny bugs, perversely difficult trout, fine tippet, and often a good dose of tears. But there’s not much in fly fishing that’s as rewarding as fooling a good trout on a Trico dry fly.

Wild Minnesota Driftless brown on a Trico

Wild Minnesota Driftless brown on a Trico

Tricos start to hit streams in mid July and provide consistent and reliable match-the-hatch dry fly fishing until late September. Male duns (hatched mayfly adults) emerge in the evening, followed by female duns in the early morning, but it’s the spinner fall that attracts the most attention, and for good reason. Trout stack up and feast on these tiny dead mayflies, which congregate above the water in sprawling mating clouds that sometimes darken the air like a thick fog on a cold fall morning. It’s an awfully sweet sight for a fly fisherman, yet it also brings plenty of challenges. Spinners tend to appear when the air temp hits 68 degrees F, an affair that usually happens at a horribly uncivil hour of the morning in the hot summer months. But even with the severe shortage of sleep, you’ll have to hold back on the caffeine as jittery hands have a hard time tying on the #20-24 dries that Tricos demand. Trout sipping Tricos also have nasty habit of sitting in calm slicks and glassy runs, affording them plenty of time to scrutinize an artificial fly and its presentation. Long leaders and finely executed drifts are a must, though you’ll certainly get a few refusals even with what looks like a perfect presentation.

Tricos are a game of challenges and stealth and strategy. But that’s partly what makes them so rewarding. There’s nothing quite like the triumph of devising a strategy, making a perfect drift, and catching a trout on a tiny dry fly.

The Trico spinner fall is my favorite mayfly event of the trout season here in Minnesota, though it’s certainly not because I catch lots of fish. The tiny bugs have beat me more than a few times, and I haven’t come close to cracking the code (if it is indeed possible), but I have learned a few things over the past seasons and usually manage to catch a few trout each time I hit a good spinner fall. Here are a few tricks and tactics I’ve learned over the past few seasons that have lessened the frustration and increased the triumph over the Trico spinner fall…

 

#1. Double Dry Fly Rigs

Double dry fly rigs are mainstays in any good Trico strategy. Tracking tiny Trico dries, both for detecting takes and keeping a tidy drag-free drift, is a large part of successfully fishing the Trico spinner fall. Drag a fly over rising trout and you’re sure to get a refusal. Rip the leader across the pool on a misjudged strike and you’ll send any nearby risers straight into the undercuts. A buoyant, visible dry fly tied twelve inches up the leader lets you track and manage your drift, something that, unless you have eyesight better than a blue heron, is quite difficult to pull off with minuscule, low-riding Trico spinner patterns. Sometimes trout will even take the bigger dry.

Small hi-vis beetles, Ausable Bombers, Stimulators, and any other bugs that float like corks and stand out like ducklings are viable options. There is, however, a very real danger of tossing a fly that’s too gaudy and spooking wary trout. Foam hoppers or anything else that splats on the water makes a poor lead fly, while flies with lots of hackle and a soft landing are better options. Leader twist is also a potential problem, as big, air resistant bugs don’t tend to cast well on the long, fine leaders necessary for Trico-sipping trout. For these reasons, I like to fish dries in the #12 to #16 range, preferably something on the smaller end. Lately I’ve been fishing a #14 Pass Lake, an old Wisconsin pattern with a distinctive white, trude-style calftail wing and a pheasant tippet tail that vaguely resembles a Trico and draws a few strikes itself. Tie it to 5x tippet on a leader that’s as long as you can handle, and drop a Trico spinner twelve to sixteen inches off the bend on 6 or 7X, using clinch knots for all three connections. Micro-drag between the two dries can also be a concern, so make sure the trailing tippet is long enough to allow a good dead drift (single dries are nearly always the most fool proof way to obtain a better drift and avoid this, though double dry rigs have their share of advantages).

Whatever bug you decide to tie on, a double dry fly rig can be a very valuable asset in your Trico strategy.

 

#2: Sunken Trico Spinner

#20 wide-gap Sunken Trico Spinner... (buy a few here or check out the recipe)

#20 wide-gap Sunken Trico Spinner… (buy a few here or check out the recipe)

One of my absolute favorite tactics for fishing spinner falls is dropping a Sunken Trico Spinner off the bend of a dry fly or nymph. It’s an especially deadly strategy for pressured creeks where trout see dozens of sloppy presentations and artificial flies. Sunken spinners are nothing new to the Trico scene and have proven themselves on many tough trout streams. Like any hatch, fish get wise to the whole (dry) fly fishing game, but sunken spinners will often fool fish that are hesitant to take a fly on the surface.

Along with taking cautious fish, sunken spinners will still provide good action long after trout have stopped rising to the morning spinner fall. This is one of my personal favorite tactics for late summer and early fall. Tricos are one of the most prolific and dependable hatches on Driftless streams (and many other regions), popping of quite regularly during the summer and fall months, and trout become accustomed to seeing sizable numbers of these bugs on a daily basis. Plenty of them get churned underwater and drift through the system long after the duns and spinners have quit their aerial activity. On any given moment in early September, you’re likely to find at least a few drowned spinners flowing through a trout stream, particularly in the lower stretches. And trout don’t ignore them.

Sunken spinners are nearly always on my nymphing rig during Trico season. I like to hang them 14“ behind an attractor nymph, usually something like a Trout Snatcher or Squirrel and Copper. Fish them as you would any prospecting nymph rig, casting to any likely riffles and pools. Back eddies and foam lines are particularly productive spots as they collect tons of bugs – and feeding trout. And while they’re certainly quite effective right after the trout stop rising, don’t forget to toss them during later hours.

 

#3: Double Trico Spinner

Frustrated with hooking trout on tiny Trico dries? The Double Trico Spinner is tied on a #16 hook for more hookups and more trout...buy a few here or check out the tying recipe

Frustrated with hooking trout on tiny Trico dries? The Double Trico Spinner is tied on a #16 hook for more hookups and more trout…buy a few here or check out the tying recipe

If you’re anything like me and occasionally have trouble hooking trout on #22 dries, a Double Trico Spinner is a good change of pace from the tiny bugs. Tied on a #16 dry fly hook, the Double Trico sports two full sets of Trico bodies and wings, offering a bit of extra room for hooking fish. It has saved plenty of frustration on days when the tiny dries prove to be too difficult. And while it’s not the most imitative Trico pattern and won’t perform as well on especially persnickety fish or during sparse spinner falls, most of the time the trout don’t seem to mind the extra body on the hook, making it a great pattern for days when the fish just aren’t sticking.

Glassy, calm flats and runs aren’t ideal spots for the Double Trico due to the extra inspection time they afford the trout. Instead, focus on faster water and foam lines and swirling eddies, where the trout are far more eager to sip an artificial. Trico fish have a habit of sitting in perversely difficult or calm spots, but there always seem to be a few that hold in more fishable areas. These are the ones I’m usually after.

Trailing a standard Trico Spinner 16“ behind it is also a good strategy. The smaller dry gives the fish a more precise option, and if they take the Double Trico you’ll have a much easier time hooking them.

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Despite the many challenges and frustrations, Tricos are one of the most fun and rewarding hatches of the season. There have been many mornings filled with frustration, and occasionally triumph, but all the time I’ve spent standing in a cold, meandering stream, watching the morning fog lift from the water, and tossing tiny dries to hungry trout has been very memorable and rewarding. Next time you find yourself on a trout stream in the dawn hours of a summer morning, remember a few of these tips. Some challenge and frustration is inevitable, and perhaps imperative to a rewarding experience, but hopefully these tactics, flies, and tips will increase the prospects of triumph over the Trico hatch.

Tight lines and good luck on the water!

Conner

 

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(All the Trico patterns mentioned are available over on the Fishing Gear shop. Also, check out the fly box page for tying recipes. Tight lines and thanks for the support!)

5 Tips for Summer Trout Fishing in the Midwest from Black Earth Angling Co

Local Wisconsin guides share strategies for beating the heat and catching more Driftless trout during high summer.

It’s been a peculiarly mild summer here in the Driftless. The oppressively humid days that usually plague August have been mostly absent, the past few nights have had a cool bite reminiscent of early duck season, and the trout have been mostly happy. But there are still plenty of challenges facing Midwestern spring creek trout anglers in the height of summer.

The guys at Black Earth Angling Co. have a ridiculous amount of experience chasing trout in the spring creeks of southwestern Wisconsin and the Driftless, and I was very, very excited when they kindly agreed to share some of their strategies for summer trout. I’ve been drawn to their operation ever since I stumbled upon it on Facebook a while back, and for good reason. There’s an authenticity in their fly fishing that acutely represents the Driftless experience. They run sweet smallmouth float trips on the Lower Wisconsin River that perhaps epitomize good, honest Midwestern warmwater fly fishing. But most importantly, they seem to focus on the indelible memories and experiences fly fishing creates – the people, the incredible places, the journey, and all that makes fly fishing truly meaningful.

Without further rambling, here are a few honest and insightful tips for Midwestern spring creek trout fishing during the height of summer….

Five Tips for Summer Trout Fishing in the Midwest.

By Black Earth Angling Co. 

 

1.  Don’t.

Why go trout fishing this time of year?  Combine the claustrophobic height of the valley grasses with abundant mosquitoes, biting flies, thistle, the phototoxic wild parsnip and giant hogweed, as well as the solid risk of turning an ankle in an animal den or getting stuck in a mucky seepage just trying to reach some tiny stream, with the likelihood that it is almost entirely draped over with grasses and presently some of the most unpleasant casting you will ever experience and there you have high summer Midwestern spring creek trout fishing to me, and I avoid it.

Go bass fishing.  The bass, especially the smallmouth, are slamming the fly just as the creek-side herbage is getting almost head high, and are twice the fun of trout anyway.  Strong fish, wet wading, big flies, river floats – that is summer fly fishing at its best. Also, bass bugging for largemouth during a Dog-day twilight on a local pond is the kind of good honest fun that everyone who has ever been 10 will recognize.

2. Go when and where you are comfortable.

If you do insist on trout fishing this time of year, do your best to be comfortable.  Ditch the gear and waders for a small pack, extra water, and quick dry pants.  Fish early and late because it is cooler and more comfortable – not just better fishing. Ditto overcast days.  Cool mornings mean slower mosquitoes too, so be extra motivated to get an early start and optimize those ideal mornings when they do occur.   Also, target some areas with tree cover, or in the shadow of a bluff or hill so as to stay cooler.   Be willing to hop from one spot to another, or to switch streams to stay in or get to the shade (but clean your feet!) Find those streams or stream sections that are more freestone-like or more open and wadeable and target them.  Summer is a time of focused trouting sessions.  And, if legitimately hot weather occurs, and has for days, do seriously just stay off the water.  If water temps are high, catching cold water species puts them at an even greater undue risk than normal.  Good conservation and ethics  demand you know when to cut them a break. (Editor’s Note: Most agree that water temps around 68-70 F are the upper fishing limits for browns and rainbows, and a bit lower for brookies. Seriously, just go bass fishing. If you want more info, here’s a good piece from Hatch Magazine on summer trout temps).

3. Follow the cows.

Grazing cows are great for midwestern trout and trout fishing.  There is an emerging body of science supporting this out there and the key is portable electric fencing and what is known as ‘rotational grazing.’  If managed well, these are win-win situations for farms, streams, fishers, and even cows.  Check it out, and buy meat and milk from people who use it.

I do agree however that crushed stream banks and doleful Holsteins watching you watch them dump pounds and pounds of feces into pretty little creeks is NOT ok. Nonetheless, grazed streams are going to be much, much more approachable this time of year because the grass will be of negotiable heights and many of the nasties like parsnip will be non-present.

4. Take a novice.

The first time I fished the renowned Mt. Vernon Creek I was ignorant of its reputation as a place where the trout can smell you coming.  Good thing. I did pretty well catching a bunch of little browns and brookies on small hopper patterns.  Which goes to show one of the joys of summer trout fishing: active fish looking up and non-selectively slapping at highly visible flies that land with a splat.  This strips trout fishing of much of its bravado and makes it more approachable and fun again.  So take a novice whose cast into and then off of the bushes and into the stream is in fact the perfect presentation.  They may be rewarded with bites from more than just the ‘skeets.

5. My favorite summer fly – the Poodle.

Just an ingenious fly from Japan that makes a killer ant imitation.  Note the Klinkhammer or emerger style hook that puts the abdomen below the water while the parachute hackle rides in the film.  Dress only the hackle and post when fishing.

The Poodle - Fly and Pic by Black Earth Angling Co.

The Poodle – Fly and Pic by Black Earth Angling Co.

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Black Earth Angling Co. runs guide trips for trout, smallmouth, and other warmwater species in southwestern Wisconsin. Also, be sure to check out their Facebook page for recent fishing reports and Driftless fly fishing.

Secrets of the North Shore with North Shore Troutdoors Guide Service

Steelhead tactics, brookies, and thoughts on Lake Superior coldwater from guides Ken Petersen and Rob Storrar…

Rob and Ken from North Shore Troutdoors

Photo courtesy of North Shore Troutdoors If you’re thinking about hitting the North Shore, be sure to check out northshoretroutdoors.com and check out their trip options for a day of exploring the Shore and learning solid steelhead techniques

Minnesota’s North Shore is perhaps one of the most overlooked fisheries in the Upper Midwest, though there are boundless opportunities for epic fishing and adventure. While it does get a fair amount of attention for steelhead runs and its rugged trout streams, the Shore is often overshadowed by places like Wisconsin’s Brule River and the Upper Peninsula, not to mention all the walleyes in Minnesota. And that’s kind of a shame.

Ken Petersen and Rob Storrar, the two young, innovative anglers that own and operate North Shore Troutdoors guide service, are on a mission to share what the Shore truly has to offer and to kill the notion that Minnesota’s north country is only the land of walleye and bass. Though relatively new on the North Shore guiding scene, there’s no lack of experience and skill in this crew of anglers. Ken has been fishing for nearly as long as he’s been able to walk and is constantly pushing the limits with innovative steelhead fly tactics on the North Shore (he recently started swinging streamers (and catching fish) on switch rods and fluorescent chartreuse and blue line, much to the bewilderment of local anglers). Most of the thoughts below are his, but Rob adds a few as well. Rob is on the Phenix Rods prostaff (along with a few other companies), fishes bass tournaments throughout the summer, and recently worked the Bassmaster Classic Expo. More importantly, they have a deep passion for the fishery on the Shore and genuinely care about introducing new anglers to the outdoors and sharing innovative fishing techniques. Not to mention they’re just good guys.

I was pumped when they graciously agreed to share some of their favorite strategies and tactics for steelhead and some insights on the epic coldwater fishing in northern Minnesota. There’s certainly no shortage of spirited discussion on the state of the fisheries and the North Shore steelhead scene, and mostly for good reason, but there’s also lots of profound fishing wisdom mixed in. It’s a vibrant interview with great fishing tactics and insights on a wild, fascinating fishery with many undiscovered frontiers and plenty of epic fishing adventure.

 

 

1) 3 Brothers Flies (3BF): Before we get into steelhead tactics and the North Shore fisheries, tell us a bit about North Shore Troutdoors…

North Shore Troutdoors: The reason we started North Shore Troutdoors is because we wanted to see a change on the shore. We are always hearing the “old guys” talking about when they fished during the 70’s and 80’s how there were so many fish around you could walk across their backs. Since that time the Lake Superior fisheries have taken a huge hit and have fallen on the back burner of the Minnesota DNR. We aren’t in the guiding business for the money, we are in the guiding business so we can introduce more anglers to the north shore of Lake Superior in hopes that we can gain more support in building these suffering fisheries back up.

As for the fly fishing, to make a long story short it is the closest thing I can get to fighting a blue water fish. I have always liked the ocean and catching fish. It is common sense that those fish pull twice as hard as anything we would see in the Midwest so using a fly rod is as close to the ocean as I can get without being there. I also use a fly rod, or switch rod, because I want a challenge. It is really easy to take a spinning rod and go catch steelhead or trout and I am not about that. Fly fishing is along the same lines as bow hunting. I want to get up close and personal with the fish. For me I am not in a hurry to go and catch fish and leave. I like being outside and observing the fish. I like to see what they are eating and where they are moving. It the best feeling in the world when you can take a fly that you made and trick a fish over 20 inches into eating it.

 

2) 3BF: Steelhead Alley and Michigan’s UP tribs seem to get lots of attention when guys start talking about steelhead in this corner of the Midwest. Why fish Minnesota’s North Shore and what makes it so special?

North Shore Troutdoors: Minnesota is neglected in the Great Lakes Steelhead scene because of the runs. Our runs do not last as long as the runs in Michigan and the Erie Tribs. We also do not have the variety of fish coming through like you see out east of us. At one time we did have the same runs, and during that time Minnesota’s North Shore was just as big as the UP. The runs would start in the spring and different fish would be found entering the rivers almost all the way until winter. Since that time the fishery has been neglected to Steelhead in the spring and Pink Salmon, along with a few coastal brook trout and cohos, in the fall. The reasoning behind this is because Lake Superior is said to be at its capacity. The lake trout, one of the two native game fish in the lake, have rebounded and their population has recovered to above normal levels. With this a lot of the stocking of exotic species, salmon and steelhead, have been removed from the north shore. The French River Hatchery does stock Kamloops throughout the summer to keep the “meat hunters” happy but it does not do a lot of good for the fishery as a whole. (Editor’s note – The MN DNR also shares some info on the “band-aid”  approach, stream conservation, and the anadromous rainbow population on the Hatchery Fact Sheet – Duluth Area” under the “North Shore Steelhead and Kamloops Management” section. It can be found here)

The North Shore Fisheries also suffer with stocking because of the lack of funding. There are so many people in the state of Minnesota that are walleye hounds so that is where you see most of the money going. It is incredible to see how bad the Michigan stream stocking programs surpass the north shore. We have one hatchery on the shore that tries to raise cold-water fish but it is falling apart, and it is up in the air on what is going to happen with the stocking. Recently part of our cold-water hatchery was used to raise sucker minnows for muskie rearing ponds which was later suspended, we were told, because of the VHS outbreaks in the Great Lakes. It is insane to think that our fishery’s only life line was being used for muskie bait instead of it’s intended purpose. (Editor’s note – TheHatchery Fact Sheet – Duluth Areapage from the MN DNR notes this sucker minnow discontinuation under the “History” section. It can be found here)

Rob with a nice North Shore chromer

Rob with a nice North Shore chromer. Photo by North Shore Troutdoors

The reason Minnesota’s north shore should be considered with the other greats is because if the access. We have around 60 Tributaries from Duluth to Canada that hold fish in the spring and fall, and for the most part they are all accessible. There is not a lot of private property along the north shore which makes fishing for anadromous fish fairly easy. A lot of our rivers are also a bit narrow and are not really navigable by boat. Anglers are able to walk into almost every section of the rivers on foot which is also another huge plus for the north shore rivers. To top it off, if one river is not producing fish anglers are able to hop in their car and take a five minute drive to the next river. It is truly a unique area to fish for lake run fish.

 

3) 3BF: Favorite North Shore fish to target with a fly rod?

North Shore Troutdoors: Steelhead is the obvious choice. Fishing for this species of fish is like big game hunting. If you want to be successful in catching these fish you cannot just grab a rod and reel and head into the water. We do a lot of research throughout the winter learning different fly patterns and techniques to try and get the upper hand come spring. There have been a lot of times where we can see the fish and they will not take anything we are throwing at them. This fishery takes practice and a lot of trial and error in order to be successful and that is why I think that steelhead are the best fish to target on the fly.

 

 

4) 3BF:  N. Shore streams are quite rugged and often have a pretty good gradient. Are there any notable presentation strategies you use on the Shore that differ from Lake Michigan tribs or other classic steelheading venues?

North Shore Troutdoors: I think this is one of the most important questions in the interview. Yes, our streams are rugged and there are a few that are down-right dangerous, but in the end we are all fishing for the same type of fish. Steelhead alley and other Michigan tributaries hold bigger fish because of the difference in water temps and genes, but in Minnesota we still have plenty of fish at or over thirty inches. Part of North Shore Troutdoors is learning about the steelhead in other great lakes and on the west coast during the winter. We have developed new fishing styles and have learned different techniques in order to prove that these fish will react the same as they do everywhere else in the United States and Canada.

When we first started fishing on the north shore we found that there were a few older anglers using a “different” technique. We call it the “Lester Twitch”, it is similar to the Kenai Twitch except for equipment. In order to participate in the Lester Twitch an angler needs to get a fly rod and reel, take all the fly line off of it, and replace the line with Maxima Chameleon. You then need to overweight your line with heavy split shot and an egg fly. Once you are all rigged up you lob your rig up stream and bounce it through a run making sure your bounces are abrupt. At the end of the swing you want to give your egg one more good yank just in case there are any steelhead mouths near your hook. If you don’t end up snagging, excusing me, “CATCHING” one the first time just keep lobbing it….

Hopefully you have caught onto the sarcasm. We would never use this method of steelhead fishing on the north shore, and we are trying to show people different ways to catch these fish so eventually this style of fishing dies out with the generation. This style of something, I can’t call it fishing, was developed years ago for meat hunting. It is an effective way to hook a fish by the mouth or face so it can be taken home to eat. This technique out west is referred to as “flossing” and is used to hook fish who are struggling with a case of lock-jaw. Since steelhead do not have a case of lock jaw, and  we haven’t kept steelhead on the north shore for quite some time, there is really no need to use this style any longer. We have seen way too many fish banged up in the process and it is not worth it. There are PLENTY of new, very productive methods that can be found on the internet where an old style of fishing like this should be on its way out. We are very fortunate to have social media and a wealth of knowledge at our finger tips and so we should be using these resources to help learn and protect our fishery.

As for our presentations, it’s a simple, complicated system. If we are fishing on our own we do not care about the number of fish we catch; we only care about how we catch them. During the winter we research and tie up different patterns to test once the rivers thaw. For me personally, I do not care about how many fish I catch, I want to outsmart them. The only fly I do not use on the shore are egg flies because there are better techniques at catching these fish, and there are more and more studies coming out that say that these types of flies do more harm than good to the fish. When the fish are in the rivers and they are eating eggs they destroy them. When an angler throws an egg pattern through a run on a fly line they inhale them which makes it harder to remove the fly once the fish is landed, which usually does more harm than good to the fish. We focus on quick landing, photo, and releases. We also do not use egg flies because that is what the majority of anglers use on the rest of the shore. These fish are not stupid. We have found that if we change up the presentation we are more successful on catching fish. Plus, if we went out and only used an egg fly every time we fished we would not learn anything different.

I started experimenting with different styles of fishing on the north shore because I was told I couldn’t do it. When I first moved here I had bright yellow supra fly line from SA and I was told that there was no way on earth I could catch a steelhead on fly line, let alone bright yellow. That fish was checked off the list that same morning. I was then told I couldn’t use a switch rod in our rivers because it was too big so I sold my 8 wt and only fished with a switch rod.

My latest encounter with a steelhead was this spring on the Brule (north shore was still frozen) on the switch fishing a style I was told I couldn’t do. I was swinging a fly on a Senyo shank with Royal Wulff Ambush Line (line is florescent chartreuse and blue). I was told that “our steelhead” do not react the same way as their cousins in the great lakes and out west, and, that they would never eat a fly swung through a run on chartreuse line. The angler was wrong and I believe the photo is still on greatlakesflyshop.com if you’re curious. (Editor’s note: see pic above). For us it is all about the challenge and progression. Rob and I compete with one another while we are fishing together because we want to get better. We take criticism on certain styles of fishing as a challenge. We want to see how far we can push our fishing capabilities so we can better understand how these fish respond during different times of the year.

It’s a lot of rambling in this question but to make a long story short if you can present a well placed fly through a run on the north shore you will have success just like anywhere else in the world. Every time we start to put our gear on it is like getting ready to go hunting, and I think any guide will tell you that. Before you can start to fish you need to be able to observe, and if you cannot observe your fishing will lack.

 

5) 3BF: What are absolute perfect water conditions for steelhead?

Massive steelhead and rugged country...Photo by North Shore Troutdoors

Massive steelhead and rugged country…Photo by North Shore Troutdoors

North Shore Troutdoors: If its spring time and the rivers are running there will be steelhead. Our favorite times are when the rivers have a bit of color but we can still see the fish moving around. The first major drop in water speed and rise in temperature generally signals a major push of steelhead in the spring so we anxiously await the days leading up to this initial drop. Once ample amounts of fish have made it into the river, the water will tend to fluctuate based on run-off and spring rains. Even in high, fast waters, fish will still be in the river, but they will be much harder to catch and to present a bait to. Because of this we prefer falling water speeds that are coupled with slightly rising water temperatures and some coloration to the water. The only reason we prefer the color is because fish will be less spooky and generally won’t get as good of a look at your presentation so therefore will not be as fussy. If we had to pick an ideal day for steelhead fishing we would hope for a warm night that broke into an overcast, but humid day featuring water that had just stabilized after its initial rapid fall following ice out.

We also like it in the fall when the rivers are clear because it doesn’t get much better than sight fishing for big fish. At this time period the fish tend to be more aggressive due to the warmer temperatures, and flows tend not to matter as much because we are not coming off of the winter thaw.

 

6) 3BF: What steelhead setup are you guys fishing on a daily basis? 

Ken: I use a switch rod during the spring and fall fisheries. It’s a 11’ 3” two handed fly rod that I can use for a few different types of fishing situations. If I am going to swing a fly through a run I will use a running line, Skagit head, versi leader (sink tip), and type of streamer. I can also switch the line to a switch line which allows me to run an indicator with flies underneath.

Rob: For me I will use a combination of tactics depending on the day. My favorite way to fish is with a medium heavy bait caster made by Phenix Rods. On this setup I spool 30 pound braid onto a high speed Lews bait casting reel, and attach a 10 pound fluorocarbon leader on a barrel swivel. From there I put a clear center pinning float on the line followed by staggered weights. At the end is our homemade pink worm or plastic spawn imitation. The rod I used last year was a 7’2” M1 Phenix that had ample back bone but a very sensitive tip that allowed for accurate casts yet didn’t pull hooks out of a fishes’ mouths. This fall and next spring I may be experimenting with an even longer Phenix Rod as well to get a better high sticking presentation.

If I’m not fishing the bait caster I will be experimenting with an 8wt fly rod, and presenting a bead or a nymph below an indicator. Also, in order to stay fresh on all tactics, I will bring a Phenix spinning rod and fish it when the conditions are right or when we have clients coming up that will not be fly fishing.

 

7) 3BF: What’s the biggest/most common mistake you see anglers make when targeting steelhead?

North Shore Troutdoors: There are three “mistakes” we see new anglers making on the north shore, the first being a lack of knowledge. What I mean by this is that anglers new to the area are not reading the regulations and do not know exactly what type of fish they are catching. Because of this, new anglers are handling the wrong species of fish incorrectly, and in turn, it is hurting the fishery.

Another mistake new anglers seem to make when targeting steelhead is crowding other anglers. Growing up in Minnesota I would venture to say that the majority of people grew up fishing lakes or ponds. Docks, boats, and shoreline have always been easily accessible and so that is how most of us cut our teeth with the rods and reels. When an angler switches to river fishing for the first time it is like a deer in the head lights. The water is constantly moving and switching directions, and it is hard to tell where a fish could be holding. We see quite a few anglers that just wait to see a fish landed then run right up next to the person and start fishing instead of reading, watching videos, and observing other anglers’ techniques to learn the best ways to catch fish. It is understandable because in steelhead fishing there are very few teachers on the water. In Minnesota we all grew up with teachers whether it be our grandparents, our parents, or our siblings teaching us different techniques at catching warm water species. Never the less it is quite annoying when an angler runs up next to you when you are battling a fish. All it does is screw up the fishing for both people because usually these “runners” take the shortest path to the nearest angler, which is usually right down the center of a run.

The last major mistake we see anglers make on the North Shore is not keeping an open mind when it comes to their angling techniques. Steelhead, stream trout, and salmon are just like any other fish; what worked today may not work tomorrow, and vice versa. Especially during the steelhead season we see so many anglers relying on one technique and closing their mind to other techniques that may be more productive at that particular time. For example there are times that steelhead are on the bottom, suspended, or even riding high in the rivers, and that same old technique that is being used may not be the best presentation at the time being. We experiment day in and day out to learn what the fish prefer on that certain day or during that time span in order to capitalize on fish behavior and preferences. Bringing an open mind to the rivers can really help anglers capitalize when the fishing seems to be tough.

 

8) 3BF: It seems like steelhead and trout above the barriers get lots of (well-deserved) glory, but they can’t be the only worthy pursuits in the Lake Superior system. What’s the most overlooked fish(ery) on the shore?

North Shore Troutdoors: The most overlooked fishery on the north shore is pink salmon. Most anglers overlook this fall fishery because the fish are small and a lot of guys do not like the taste of them. We call pink salmon “steelhead training wheels” because it is the best way to learn how to target steelhead. When the pinks are in, the water is clear, and they are everywhere! For the most part you can target the pinks by sight fishing. Anglers are able to walk right up to the fish and see their fly as it floats past. They are able to see how the fish react to the fly based on how it is presented. The fish will let an angler know if the fly is coming too slow or if there is something about it they don’t like. An angler can then take the techniques they have learned while fishing for pinks and apply them to steelhead in the spring. This greatly increases the chances of success while fishing for steelhead. Fishing rivers is all about learning. A river is always changing and the fish are always moving. If you aren’t learning every time you are out in the water you cannot increase your fish-catching-productivity rate.

pink salmon North Shore Troutdoors

Photo courtesy of North Shore Troutdoors

 

 

 

9) 3BF: The brookies up there and the rugged, mountainous creeks have always intrigued me. What’s up with the brook trout fishery and what are your favorite strategies? 

Coaster brookie on the swing

Coaster brookie on the swing. Inland creeks above the barriers offer some sweet brook trout fishing and good adventure. Photo courtesy of North Shore Troutdoors

North Shore Troutdoors: The brook trout are everywhere up here but there are certain areas where the big ones hang out. They usually are the smaller of the species of trout found on the north shore but we have battled with a few pushing 20” (native stream trout, not coasters). The best way to find good brook trout is to start walking. Our rule up here is the rule of One. This rule states that the majority of anglers/tourists on the north shore only walk one mile into the river, and because of this, those areas get fished the hardest (this isn’t a written rule we just made it up). If you take the time to look at satellite photos and plan a route into the woods before-hand it is a lot easier to find the bigger fish. Our rivers are rugged but there are also deep pools scattered throughout all the way to their headwaters. The best time to catch these brook trout is in the fall when they are feeding and getting ready to spawn. During this time they are at their most photogenic state with their spawning coloration. The brook trout fisheries are a very over looked fishery on the north shore, and we are really working on bringing more people out into our northern scenic rivers to catch these beautiful fish.

As far as tactics go for these fish, nothing really beats a dry fly when the fish are really putting on the feedbag. When the fishing is more difficult, standard nymphs work great. Generally when it comes to brook trout here, the first step is finding the right area that is holding many good sized fish. Then from there it is a matter of matching the hatch and experimenting until you find out what is working best for the day.

 

10) 3BF: Top 3 steelhead presentations?

Stones, Intruders, and beads. And we can’t forget the all powerful pink worm!

 

3BF: Where can people learn more about your guiding or set up a day of fishing on the Shore?

We can be contacted at www.northshoretroutdoors.com for booking information and fishing reports. We are also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter which we update daily so you can always see what we are doing.

 

Crappies On the Fly, Catfish, and Hot Dogs

 May 28

There’s an oddly satisfying charm to the simplicity of catfishing. It’s about as far as you can get from the clean elegance and complexity of fly fishing for trout, but for some reason it has captivated me since the moment I first encountered it, probably striking some young boyhood chord rooted deep inside that still likes to play with worms and run around barefoot in the mud. The anticipation of watching a freshly-baited pole is nearly unbearable, and you never quite know what’ll end up eating your bait, which is a large part of the intrigue. Rivers and catfish haunts have a habit of holding all sorts of crazy fish, and, at least when fishing casually, there’s no particular skill or reason involved in hooking big catfish, though landing them can be a different story. It takes a good bit of skill to entice a big brown trout, but it’s just as probable that a ten pound catfish will take your bait as a ten incher will when soaking worms. While fishing worms on the bottom might sound a bit like treason for a die-hard fly fisherman, it’s a good way to kick back and relax on the water, not to mention it’s just plain fun.

But none of us had any idea that we’d get into big cats this weekend.

Noah and I started the weekend at the lake by poking around a few flooded marshes looking for some carp. The fish were spawning and not interested in flies, though we did find one that was happily slurping bugs from the weeds but didn’t like my poor presentation. I’d bet we saw around fifty fish, with an occasional tank that made nearly any other freshwater fish pale in comparison.

I tried a few casts at the river mouth with the fly rod but couldn’t interest any bass. The water was quite a bit higher and dirtier this weekend, adding to the already unstable pattern we’ve had this spring. I’ve never seen the water so brown on the lake, and so far it hasn’t been great for the bass fishing. I’m sure there are a few less obvious variables that are affecting the fishing, but the brown water at the river mouth just hasn’t been producing like it should.

Partly out of curiosity and partly out of boredom, Noah and I set up with a “river rig” (simply a big chunk of worm with a sinker a foot or two up the line) at the mouth of the river just as the sun was dropping behind the trees. It’s a good way to relax after paddling all afternoon, and there’s a good chance you’ll tie into a bigger fish – maybe a bass or carp or the odd walleye that prowls the shallows after dark. The first few fish were potbellied yellow bullheads – a very normal occurrence for night fishing and not terribly exciting. After a half-dozen fish I got a strong thump and set into a good fish. I figured it was a carp, but a good, dirty fight revealed a respectable catfish of 22″!

While I never realistically expected to catch a catfish in the lake, it was never completely out of the picture. A few years ago, the DNR stocked a bunch of channel catfish in a connected lake system a ways downstream. Much to the delight of some anglers and the dismay of others, the cats flourished and moved into nearly all the connected waterways. The lake we’re on is separated by nearly a half-dozen lakes and a few dams upstream from the original stocking site, but somehow the catfish must’ve made their way through on the seasonal spurts of high water. I’m glad they did.noahs catfish

A few more bullheads (and a bit of disappointment at each quiver of the rod that produced one) broke the silence of the darkness before Noah stuck a good 24″ cat. It’s a blast to just hang out in the lantern light and goof around. We stuck it out till around midnight and lost one more big catfish before ending the madness and calling it a night.

May 29

The river mouth was dead again this morning. I tossed the jig fly from Opening weekend and the crankbait but didn’t get a single bite. There wasn’t much else happening, so I tied a few flies before Noah and I hopped in the rowboat to chase some panfish.

For some reason crappies just can't resist pink...

For some reason crappies just can’t resist pink…

The ‘gills and crappies were in the shallows and ravenous. It took a bit of sorting to get to the bigger fish, but we landed a few good ones on the Pink Punch and a Noah’s Minnow variation.

Ice dub veil on the Pink Punch did a nice job imitating the tiny minnows these guys were eating...

Ice dub veil on the Pink Punch did a nice job imitating the tiny minnows these guys were eating…

super noahs minnow crappie

Lots of fun on a four weight

 

I planned to chase some bass in the evening, but there was a league bass tournament and the little 300-acre lake was hopping. It was a good night at the river mouth, though. The odd chorus of skeeters and coons and frogs filled the night air, only broken occasionally by the thrashing of a catfish exploding through the shallows somewhere in the distant darkness.

26"

26″

We turned in sometime around midnight, weary yet satisfied with the evening’s fish count.

The bass bite never happened on the last morning, despite a decent effort of pitching and flipping and casting at docks in hopes of finding a “pattern” worthy of the fly rod. One feisty largemouth – the only one of the weekend – spit the tube after going airborne beside a dock. I’m sure there were still a few hungry fish hanging around in the morning sun, but we just couldn’t find them.

June 15

I’m afraid that catfish are becoming somewhat of an addiction. Most fly anglers might not understand the bait-fishing pursuit that has stolen our attention (and a good bit of sleep), but I guess you have to experience it to appreciate it. It’s hard to argue with the thrill of strong, beefy fish in the dead of night.

The weeds have really started to come in. A crankbait was worthless in the shallows of the river mouth. Besides a few casts with the jig fly and the “stupid tube,” there wasn’t much time to bass fish before darkness crept over the water – and the catfish moved into the shallows. I had foolishly left the worms in the garage the week before, so we were in a bit of a predicament for bait. A quick run through the pantry looked grim. A bread crust. Crackers. Butter. Marshmallows(!).

Yeah, we were desperate.

Ended up tossing hot dogs (all-natural, mind you) tipped with marshmallows, which the catfish apparently didn’t mind.Bradens catfish

I rolled out of bed a bit before five the next morning. The sting of the early alarm was eased a bit by coffee and a 17″ bucketmouth. early morning fishing

Got him on a white spinnerbait (with a hand-tied bucktail/feather hook) on the inside of the weedline. Poor fish had a nasty sore on his chest...

Got him on a white spinnerbait (with a hand-tied bucktail/feather hook) on the inside of the weedline. Poor fish had a nasty sore on his chest…

 

***Side note: While Noah was casting a tube for bass just before dark he hooked into a good catfish. Makes you wonder in they’re catchable on a fly rod. Maybe tie a big, heavy conehead with a rattle and plenty of silhouette to imitate a crayfish. Or a hot dog.

 

 

2 Trout You’re Probably Missing

A few seasons ago I had an eye-opening moment. It was the last morning of a last-minute early spring camping trip along one of our favorite trout rivers. The creek was a popular spot, and the trout in those campground pools saw all kinds of poorly presented flies and spinners and worms throughout the course of a weekend.bluff country spring creek

I hit the water early in the morning and worked my way upstream from camp, fishing the pools and obvious spots, and catching a few trout here and there on a nymph. I had just finished drifting a gorgeous, deep pool without much luck and decided to cross the creek and hit a section of faster, shallow water. It didn’t look like much. In fact, most of the water was only about a foot or two deep, flowing swiftly over small rocks and boulders for about thirty yards before emptying into another breathtaking hole. It was tiny water, the type most fishermen walk by without giving a second thought. But I fished it anyway.

I’m not sure who was more surprised, myself or the fish, when the indicator darted under and a feisty little brown launched itself out of the riffle. Despite its small size, the trout put up a good little fight in the fast, tumbling waters. The catching was steady for the next half hour, with each little rock or depression yielding a trout. I went on to catch about eight or ten fish nymphing the shallow stretch, a great improvement from the two or three fish I had managed from the pools earlier in the morning.

Before that morning, I would have walked right by that piece of water, just like most of the other anglers that relentlessly pounded that stretch of creek. Lots of trout fishermen, especially those newer to the sport and often including myself, fall to the habit of fishing the same type of water each time they hit the stream. It’s a very natural thing to do – they fish it most because they catch most of their fish in it, and they catch most of their fish in it because they fish it most, and they fish it most because they are most comfortable with it. This results in a problematic pattern of fishing, causing many anglers to miss lots of trout simply because they get stuck in the habit of fishing the water they’re comfortable with.

Since that early spring morning on the campground stretch, I always look for “new” or overlooked water on the stream, and I’ve caught a few more trout because of it. I’m always amazed at the type of water that trout will sometimes hold in, and I constantly have to remind myself to never rule out different spots, especially when the fishing is tough. Here’s a rundown on a few of the trout I’ve learned to look for and the best flies and setups to fish them….

The Skinny Water Nympher

You’d be surprised at how many trout hold in the shallow riffles and the water in between the big pools. Trout usually frequent the shallows to feast on the many nymphs that live underneath the rocks, making skinny waters incredibly productive spots to drift a nymph. Fish sitting in this faster water only have a quick second to inspect the fly and decide to eat, so they’re often easier to catch than trout holding in slower pools and runs. As I learned that spring morning on the campground stretch, lots of fishermen bypass the shallow water between pools and fish only the obvious spots, providing some less-pressured trout to the versatile angler.

What to look for - Faster riffles and broken water from 10-24 inches without too much gradient are most productive. However, not all skinny water is created equal. Trout love current seams and depth transitions, so finding rocks, depressions, and any other structure that provides fish with some variety is key to successfully fishing the shallows. Flat bottoms with lots of sand or silt and few rocks or pockets rarely hold many fish, as there’s just not much cover or food. I like to look for runs and riffles with baseball-sized rocks at the smallest, but lots of varied structure typically equates to lots of trout. Boulders, logs, and deeper pockets make for especially productive spots.

It’s also important to find water that has a bit of current and chop. Don’t be afraid to toss a nymph into a churning riffle, as it only takes one rock or depression to hold a trout. However, runs and riffles that have a sudden, steep gradient rarely provide enough soft water for a trout to comfortably hold in.

Skinny waters can hold great surprises. This sweet wild brown was sitting in about 18" of water...

Skinny waters can hold great surprises. A stealthy approach and a brown #14 Trout Snatcher Nymph fooled this sweet wild brown in about 18″ of water.

 

How to tackle skinny water trout – A stealthy approach is the most important factor when targeting skinny-water trout. Shallow riffles and runs, particularly those with a more gentle flow, lack the sense of security that deep, turbulent waters give to trout, making them acutely aware of their surroundings and quite sensitive to overhead movement. Trout holding in skinny water require a careful, stealthy approach and won’t tolerate a lazy, bumbling fisherman stomping up to the water or waving a fly rod over their heads. Staying on the bank and slowly moving upstream, often on hands and knees, drastically increases your chances of catching fish. Be sure to avoid false-casting over the water you’re fishing or plopping fly line over the fish, as they associate overhead movement with herons and eagles. While trout holding in shallow water can be somewhat spooky, they’re far easier to approach than fish sitting in calm, slow pools and runs.

A stealthy approach is critical for chasing trout in skinny water

A stealthy approach is critical for chasing trout in skinny water

Though skinny water trout demand a somewhat tedious approach, presentation is another story. The shallow, faster waters that heighten their senses also provide only a moment for trout to scrutinize a fly, making skinny-water trout far easier to fool. You can often get away with tossing large, flashy flies on heavy tippet.

My favorite setup is a nine foot leader tapered down to 4 or 5X with a nymph under a yarn indicator. I really like the extra stealth and sensitivity a yarn indicator provides – something that’s critical for fishing skinny water and hard to achieve with other styles of indicators. The only downside is yarn’s tendency to sink in faster, turbulent stretches, which are better fished with a cork indicator or a Thingamabobber. I favor a longer rod (around eight or nine feet) for the extra line control, but a shorter stick is fine for fishing straight upstream.

Flies for skinny-water trout - Lighter nymphs with thin profiles are key to puncturing the choppy surface while avoiding snags in the shallow water. Trout are in the shallows to eat, so highly-imitative flies are usually not necessary. Many species of mayflies live under the rocks in swifter stretches of stream, making general mayfly patterns quite productive in skinny water. A bit of flash is often a great trigger, as flies drifting through shallow water only have a quick second to catch a trout’s attention. A few of my favorites include:

Mercer’s Micro May in #12 to 14

Trout Snatcher Nymphs in brown and olive, #12 to 16 (available for purchase here, check out the recipe here)

Beadhead Pheasant Tails in #12 to 18

Copper Johns in #12 to 16 and nearly any color (gold, red, and olive are good standards)

Micro tubing may

The Trout Snatcher Nymph – a great producer in skinny water

 

I’ve found that small brass beads give just enough weight to keep the fly in the strike zone without hanging up. Hanging a small, light dropper such as a tiny pheasant tail off the bend of a larger nymph can be a deadly tactic as well, especially in low, clear waters.

 

The Frog Water Trout – Catching fish during high, muddy flows

Many anglers cringe at the sight of high, muddy waters on their home river, but these conditions can still produce some good action. Noah and I were fishing a medium-sized river out in Colorado last fall when we experienced this first-hand. Rising temps and lots of melting snow brought an influx of high, cold, muddy water – not exactly the conditions you hope for on a trout river. We’d fished for most of the afternoon, tossing streamers into the deep, roaring holes and runs without any success. I was just about to pack things up when Noah hollered from upstream. After finding no fish in the main holes, he started jigging a rabbit leech nearly at his feet when a monster brown charged out and slashed at his streamer. A few more heart-pounding charges from multiple browns failed to produce a solid hookup, but the lesson was clear – when the high water hits, trout move to the edges and soft pockets.

What to look for – When the water muddies and rises, trout move out of the roaring main flow and often sit in surprisingly slow water on the edges of pools and runs. The brown that Noah encountered was sitting behind a boulder in water most fishermen would wade through – a shallow, slow pocket on the inside of a pool. This “frog water” often holds plenty of trout during high, muddy flows.

Finding soft pockets, usually along the bank or inside bends, is a good bet for finding trout. Anywhere that offers trout a break from the raging main current will hold some fish, with gentle water on the inside of pools or runs and soft pockets along the bank being the best producers. Bankside eddies along the backside of boulders are particularly good spots. Feeling secure from the extra protection the muddy water offers, trout will often move into shallow water and sit right on the edges of the river.

How to tackle high-water trout on the edges – High, dirty water is prime time for tossing  some meat, so leave the 6X and dainty dry flies at home. A bigger rod, usually of the five or six weight variety (or perhaps even larger), is a must for chucking the streamers and big bugs that muddy water demands. 2X to 4X tippet is good for pulling frisky trout out of raging current and helps to turn over the larger flies.

Stripping streamers through the soft water is usually the strategy of choice as it’s critical to catch a trout’s attention in the murky water. Trout lose most of their hesitancy to smack a big, bold streamer in muddy flows, making aggressive presentations most productive in the “frog water”. This is hand-to-hand combat – slap your streamer right in a trout’s face and make some commotion. I like to set up slightly downstream of the fish and pull the fly across the pocket with an aggressive strip-pause cadence. Wading can often be counterproductive since trout are sitting in such shallow water along the bank – make sure to toss a few casts through the bankside flows before stepping in the water. Slowly dredging the bottom with big, heavy coneheads is also a good strategy, particularly in deeper bankside eddies and pockets.

When fishing heavier streamers, a longer leader allows the flies to sink without getting ripped downstream by a dragging fly line. Casting performance is another important factor to think about. Big, heavy flies can be a pain to cast, so finding a leader that’s stout enough to turn over a streamer while still allowing plenty of room for controlling drag is very helpful. Something in the seven to nine foot range usually does the trick, but play around with it until you find something that fits the fishing conditions. A sink-tip with a shorter leader is also a good tactic for dragging streamers through runs and deeper soft spots.

Since most trout will be holding along the bottom, indicator rigs with larger nymphs are also a good option, especially when fishing those slow, deeper runs and pockets behind rocks. Don’t be afraid to add plenty of weight, as getting your flies to bounce the bottom is critical in high flows.

Flies For the Frog Water – Big streamers with a bold silhouette are critical for getting a trout’s attention in the muddy, high flows. Finding a fly with a good combination of profile and sink rate is key to pulling trout from the edges. You’ll want something that is heavy enough to get a good, erratic action in the water yet doesn’t get caught up on the bottom of soft pockets. A light bead or conehead works quite nicely, and any streamer with enough bulk to stand out in the dirty water usually triggers plenty of strikes.

Color is another important factor to the think about. Darker flies with a good chunk of flash offer a solid silhouette in the murky waters and really help a streamer stand out. Bright colors such as chartreuse are also good producers at times.

This is a perfect time to toss big, gnarly articulated streamers. Rich Strolis’s Hog Snare  comes to mind, but practically any modern articulated streamer without too much weight will do the trick. I favor bugs with a good meaty profile and bulky head as it’s critical to push some water and get a trout’s attention. Simple rabbit leeches and plain old beadhead Woolly Buggers in larger sizes (#4-8) are also good producers.

Flies with a meaty profile and a good swimming action are solid producers in the frog water

Flies with a meaty profile and a good swimming action are solid producers in the frog water

Break the Pattern

Since that morning on the campground stretch and Noah’s encounter with the big brown, I’ve started to fish waters that are outside my comfort zone, and I’ve become a better angler because of it. Trout fishing is a grand game of experimentation, so don’t be afraid to change things up and toss a nymph at some skinny-water trout or slap a streamer in the frog water. Fishing this “overlooked” water will often produce plenty of hungry trout, especially on pressured streams.

Next time you hit the water, break the pattern of fishing comfortable spots and explore some waters you’d normally neglect – you’ll become a better angler and catch more fish because of it!

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