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!

More Monster Largemouth on the Fly – Bass Opener Day 2

May 25, 2014

early morning bassin

I was on the water at five again this morning. Noah decided the sunrise and possibility of a good predawn bite was too much to miss, so he joined me on the water, half awake yet eager to hit the lake. It was still dark and a bit chilly when we starting tossing flies at the river mouth, me armed with a big articulated concoction and Noah with a simple conehead rabbit strip leech in purple. They were about as different as streamers can get, but they both had their charms and did a decent job of catching fish.

Noah hadn’t been fishing for more than three casts when he came tight to a solid fish. I scrambled to grab my camera and the net in the predawn darkness as Noah battled the largemouth. She jumped, and for that moment that seems like eternity when you have a big fish on, both of us held our breaths as we realized just how big she was. Successfully fighting larger fish on a fly rod is by no means an accidental feat (both of us have learned plenty of tricks and have suffered plenty of heartbreaks over the years), but Noah played her perfectly and soon slid the old bass into the net – another fantastic largemouth and a personal best on the fly rod! noahs big fly rod largemouth Twitter

We were pumped. I snapped a few quick pics and popped a couple high-fives before she shot off into the dark waters. She taped around 19″, but she looked far bigger. Looking back, I wish I’d taken the time to grab the scale and get a quick weight. sunrise on the bass lake

 

I’m not exactly sure why, but after that first good largemouth I couldn’t get another bite. The water is quite stained this year compared to last year’s Opener, and I suspect the warmer, brighter weather might have something to do with it as well, but there’s no clear answer. I tried all sorts of flies and baits and retrieves on the fly and spin rods without any action. Nothing. The lake was dead. I even hopped in the old row boat and hit the docks, but the bass just weren’t having it. It was a gorgeous morning on the water, though, and Noah’s one big largemouth was definitely worth the lost sleep.

Grandpa casting for bass

Grandpa casting for bass

A front moved in later in the afternoon, followed by some better fishing. I got a decent 14 incher on a fly I tied to imitate the “stupid tube” that produced so well last year. A jig hook, conehead, double rabbit strip tail, some flash, a bit of estaz, and some llama fur in front turned out pretty nicely and did a good job replicating the erratic dragging action of the tube. The fish seemed to like it well enough, and that’s all that really matters.

There was about an hour of daylight left when I hit the water again. By this time the lack of sleep from two early mornings on the water was starting to take its toll. I was in one of those stupors induced by too little sleep and too much caffeine, and I nearly didn’t fish. But the calm lake looked too good to pass up, so I grabbed the fly rod rigged with the jig fly from earlier and hit the river mouth. I’m glad I did.

On the second cast I nailed a good fish. A bass. A real nice largemouth.

She peeled some line off at first, but honestly it wasn’t that dramatic. A few of those flops that bucketmouths do when they’re too fat to make it out of the water, a few hard tugs, and she was in the net.big bucketmouth fly rod

It was another great bass and my biggest on the fly, a fat female that stretched around 19 inches with a big, gaping jaw. as she splashed through the shallows and back into the lake.

I pounded the river mouth for another half hour without another bite to show for it. I should’ve ended on a high note, but like most anglers, the hope of catching another fish was just too much to bear.

The next morning was rather uneventful. I set out in the rowboat hoping to catch a few bass on the fly. I poked one good largemouth that quickly came unbuttoned, which ended up being the only bass action I had all morning. The panfish were thick and ravenous, though, and I also happened upon a few carp with bellies the size of watermelons. They completely ignored my hybrid worm fly. It was the first time in a long while I found my knees shaking while fly fishing.

Bass Opener 2014

I don’t think there’s a more highly anticipated day in our fishing season than the bass Opener, though this year it nearly didn’t happen. The plan was to hit the North Shore in hopes of catching the early stages of the steelhead run, but, like any event in nature, it’s a fickle phenomena that depends on a dizzying number of variables that even the best of anglers still don’t quite understand. The fish hadn’t yet entered the rivers, so we ended up calling off the trip with no small amount of anguish. It was a bittersweet decision, but it meant that we got to hit the lake for bass Opener, which isn’t exactly a horrible consequence if you ask me.

I learned long ago to not form any serious expectations around fishing trips. Having a well-formed plan and high expectations (not to be confused with optimism, which is an entirely different and necessary animal) is as good a recipe for disappointment as I know, and the only way around it is to expect the unexpected, or just not care what happens, which in the the end is nearly the same thing anyways. Happiness is relative, and in some form or another, most people have the ability to at least partly enjoy themselves on a fishing trip.

Last spring was the best bass fishing we’ve ever experienced, and I honestly didn’t expect this year’s Opener to come anywhere close, though I was still quite optimistic. Bass Opener can be a lot like the first day of duck season – you fish it because it’s “Opening Day,” and not much else. Sometimes you might strike it lucky and a cold front will push some ducks down or the bass will still be prespawn and hungry, but most of the the time the action is only fair, although something usually happens.

There was still plenty of time left to chase some panfish when we rolled in to the cabin on Friday night. The crappies, still fat with eggs and still quite hungry before their spawning rituals began, were holding at the mouth of the river and feeding on tiny minnows. I coaxed a few to grab a small woolly bugger before switching to a #12 Pink Punch. That was a bit more to their liking, and I landed about a dozen nice fish in the nine inch range before calling it a night. I think the veil created by the ice dub did a nice job imitating the transparency of the little minnows the crappies were eating, though crappies just seem to have a hard time resisting anything pink.

I strung up a few rods – both fly rods armed with the trusty Meat Whistle and a Murdich Minnow and spin rods rigged with a crankbait and llama fur jig – in the dim light of the lamp with a good dose of excitement for the morning. Insomnia is a very real concern on the nights before big fishing trips, but fortunately I dozed off in time to get a solid five hours of sleep before my 5:00 alarm hit.opening day sunrise

The sun hadn’t yet reached the tips of the giant old oak trees on the opposite shore when I started casting my Meat Whistle. There was a touch of crimson in the sky, and every so often the eerie cry of a loon would echo over the lake. The only trouble was that the fish weren’t biting, though it was a gorgeous, picturesque scene, and it almost seemed greedy to expect to catch a fish in addition to the grace I’d already been given. I probed the mouth of the murky river for a few minutes before I tail-hooked a big carp (unintentionally, of course). I first thought I’d hooked a big bass, but after a minute or two of surging runs and hard bulldogging on the bottom it was evident that I’d gotten myself into a much tougher fight. He put a good bend in the six weight, and the hook popped free just after I realized he was pinned in the tail.morning on the bass lake

Prime predawn fishing time doesn’t last long, and the sun was just starting to peek over the trees, so I grabbed the spincasting rod rigged with the same crankbait that got my first largemouth on last year’s Opener (tradition, I guess). I’m no “fly or die” purist when it comes to bass fishing (I actually really enjoy gear fishing), and I guess I just like to catch fish, making a gear rod a fun and beautiful tool for efficiently covering water and finding the bass. But, like most anglers I know, I’ll almost always take them on a fly whenever I can get them.

I figured the crank would perform nicely in the murky water, and I was right. I stuck a feisty largemouth around one pound for the first bass of the season – not a monster, but a good start.

The obligatory picture of the first largemouth of the season.

The obligatory “first fish of the season” pic

I got one more bass before taking a hint from the bold, aggressive action of the crankbait and switching to a bigger articulated streamer that created a bit more commotion than the Meat Whistle. The bolder presentation and meatier profile turned out to be key in the dirty water, and I soon landed my first fly-rod bucketmouth of the season.

Bucketmouth on the fly rod

Bucketmouth on the fly rod

 

I stopped for a coffee break and Grandpa came out and got his first largemouth of the year on the crankbait. Noah and I fished for a few more hours and picked up a small bass here and there, but the morning bite never really materialized. I’m not sure if it was the weather or unstable water conditions, but something just wasn’t quite right.

Grandpa's first of the year

Grandpa’s first of the year

 

Braden was sidelined for most of the day with a baseball injury and a cast that couldn’t get wet (he managed to fracture his wrist in the outfield and ended up getting it cast – hardly a good combination for a solid day of bass fishing). It was nearly a very tragic misfortune, but after much searching he found a giant green rubber glove that protected his arm from the water. And it’s a good thing he did, because within his first few (fly) casts of the evening he hooked a monster largemouth…

8wt and an olive/brown rabbit conehead

8wt and an olive/brown rabbit conehead

It was a gorgeous fish, real fat and nearly over 20″, and it turned out to be Braden’s personal best largemouth on a fly rod. Not a bad start to his bass season (quite awesome, actually), though it makes you wonder how he caught it on his third cast when you’ve dutifully put in your time and tossed flies for hours on end. Fishing has an odd way of keeping score.

The rest of the evening slipped by quite uneventfully, though Grandpa hit a good crankbait bite and put half a dozen fish in the net in very short order. Noah and I got a few more small bass, but nothing worth mentioning. I felt a hint of disappointment as the sun slipped behind the trees and another bass Opener came to a close.

I spent quite a while thinking about the Opener and wondering what was different. Yes, the fishing wasn’t nearly as good as last year’s Opener, but there was no real reason to be disappointed. The fly rods produced some fish, the weather was beautiful, and Braden landed a spectacular fish (if you don’t get excited for a bass like that one you clearly don’t have any business fishing) that’ll likely be one of the best of the year. We caught some great fish and had a good time on the water, and for that I’m extremely grateful. But something was still missing, though after a while I realized it wasn’t the fishing at all.

I guess I just haven’t mastered the fine art of managing expectations.

 

 

Nighttime Browns on Frustration Creek

April 20, 2014

My eyes strained as I tried to focus on the blanket of smooth water flowing down through the pool. Darkness had not quite taken a firm grip on the evening, but I could hardly make out the riffle at the top of the hole. It was the time of day every fishermen dreams about – the magic hour at first and last light when the water comes alive.

The creek was still quite noisy with the honking of geese and whistle of duck wings, but the anticipation was deafening.

The silence broke with a brown trout leaping clear out of the water, smashing the calm blanket of creek into a thousand tiny ripples. My heart just about skipped a beat.

———-ο———-

Rivers are horribly deceptive, and spring creeks are perhaps the most illusive of all trout streams. When you’re alone on Frustration Creek, standing waist-deep on the edge of a mucky hole and trapped in an entangled jumble of brush, the complex nature of a trout stream is acutely apparent. Swirls of current and waving fronds of weeds hide the margins of the creek, barely perceptible and always misleading. The undercuts, carved deep into the banks, hide a few trout and lots of surprises – one of which I was about to experience in a very personal way.

———-ο———-

My fly line melted into the inky darkness, landing softly between the steep banks. The line, which was now my only connection to the creek, slowly slipped through my hands as I pulled the fly through the hole. The fly survived, unscathed by the energized waters. I tossed another cast upstream, and fly landed just a bit farther up. It didn’t last long.

The drift was slammed to a halt as a trout abruptly hammered the woolly bugger. The calm evening air exploded as the trout shot upstream, peeling line of the reel and leaving me to clench the rod and hope that my tippet would hold in the log-infested waters.

It was the first time I had ever genuinely feared for my leader on a trout stream.

Frustration Creek becomes an entirely different stream after dark. The calm, gentle flows become dark, bottomless holes brimming with the unknown. The soggy margins, eagerly waiting to swallow up the uncautious angler at the slightest misstep, deceptively hide the many undercuts. I cringe at the thought of taking a plunge in the dark, icy waters.

My trout charged upstream, and I stumbled along behind it, entirely at the mercy of the rugged streambank. The line strained as I tried desperately to pull the fish out of an undercut. Still full of energy, the trout headed back downstream towards one of the deepest holes on the creek, though it took me a moment to realize it in the inky darkness. He then buried himself in the muck.

I leaned precariously over the steep bank and fumbled with the net, putting as much pressure on the line as I dared in a vain attempt to crank the brown out of the weeds. For reasons unknown, the trout decided to abandon the weeds and head to the opposite bank. I jumped at the opportunity and pulled him to the surface, just hoping my tippet would hold as the brown flopped on the calm surface for what seemed like an eternity. In a move that was filled with far more serendipity than skill, I slipped him in the net just before he made it back to the weeds.

I was pumped. The brown stretched around seventeen inches – the first trout I’ve caught on Frustration Creek and the biggest I’ve fooled on a fly.

The picture doesn't do the fish justice...

The picture doesn’t do the fish justice…

The trout was far smaller than its tenacious fighting spirit portrayed. Even in revealing one of its secrets, Frustration Creek still hinted at deception, simply teasing with a glimpse of the mysteries still hidden beneath the undercuts.

Dark spots and buttery flanks flashed in the faint glow of my flashlight as trout slipped out of my hand and back into the undercut. The creek returned to normal, a gentle, black sheet of water weaving quietly through the marsh. Somehow, the accomplishment of catching and releasing a trout from the secretive waters did nothing to ease my curiosity and obsession with Frustration Creek. It only made it worse.

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