articulated streamers

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!

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.

 

 

Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo 2014

Here are a few shots from the Great Waters Expo that took place up in Blaine this weekend. We had a great time wandering the booths and met some awesome people from the local Midwest fly fishing community….jasonstewartflytying

Musky guide Jason Stewart tying up a warmwater bug at the Great Lakes Fly Shop booth. John had a great spread of gear for fly fishing the northwoods and had plenty of his signature frogs in the fly bins too. If you’re ever in Duluth be sure to stop by and check out his shop

John Fehnel's signature frog. Great Lakes Fly Shop

John Fehnel’s signature frog. Great Lakes Fly Shop

More frogs....

More frogs….

Sneaky Bunny tied with a Holo-head. Lund's Fly Shop owner Brian Smolinski has some great stuff over at Misfit Fly Co...

Sneaky Bunny tied with a Holo-head. Lund’s Fly Shop owner Brian Smolinski has some great stuff over at Misfit Fly Co…

troutcupcakes

Trout cupcakes!! Robert Hawkins had these awesome cupcakes at the Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop booth…

bobmsflyshopWe had a great conversation with Damian Wilmot and Matt Paulson at the Superior Fly Angler booth. Damian is the owner of Fly By Night Guide Service, specializing in night fishing and steelheading on the Bois Brule. He also runs warm water fly fishing trips and grouse hunts – definitely an awesome adventure in northern Wisconsin! Matt Paulson of the Superior Fly Angler was twisting up some cool steelhead flies for the upcoming season. He runs a full service fly shop near the legendary Bois Brule River, a great stop for fly fishermen hitting the Superior tribs.

steelheadbugs

mplsflyarticulationmusky

Meat at the MPLS Fly table…

deermeatmplsfly

Had a great time at the Jolly Fly Fishing booth. Ben Carlson runs guided trips on the Rush, Kinni, and smaller Driftless streams. Be sure to check out his site and blog...

Had a great time at the Jolly Fly Fishing booth. Ben Carlson runs guided trips on the Rush, Kinni, and smaller Driftless streams. Be sure to check out his site and blog…

One of the coolest booths at the show belonged to John Piacquadio from the Twin Cities Urban Fly. An artist and guide that frequents the urban waters of the metro, John had some sweet limited edition fly prints on display…

Carp fly!

Carp fly!

urbanflyartworknymph

twcurbanflycard

Monster Streamer Madness: Fall Brown Trout Edition

Noah and I have been tying up some meat in anticipation for some fall brown trout fishing…here are two streamers that popped off the vice recently.Articulated Streamer

This tie is loosely based off Rich Strolis’ Hog Snare and my Stocker Snack. Some llama fur and Ice Dub in a dubbing loop made for a really nice head. Hopefully it will interest some big fall browns.

Triple articulated

Triple articulated

Noah tied up this triple articulated llama fur monstrosity. This one’s definitely gonna need an eight weight!

Tight lines,

Conner

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