Grandpa

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.

 

 

8 Tips for Fishing Marginal Trout Waters

Slow water on a beautiful marginal brown trout creek

One spring evening before the weeds were too high or the mosquitos too thick Grandpa, Braden, and I set out to fish a creek that had rumors of holding big brown trout. It was one of those creeks where the fishing was good, but the catching was a bit of a different story. We had fished it in the past a few times, but never very hard, and hadn’t caught much. Actually, we never really caught anything. It was a kind of pseudo spring creek, gushing from some seeps way up in the headwaters, but lacking the typical spring creek character of dense watercress, sputtering rifles, and emerald-blue water. It ran a little on the warm side for trout streams – sometimes warmer than it really should in the summer months. There weren’t many trout prowling its waters, but it was somewhat close and provided a quick evening of scenic (and often amusing) fishing, so we fished it anyway. We never really expected much, so a fishless day wasn’t a huge disappointment.
Grandpa and I fished downstream while Braden headed off upstream into the woods. We nymphed pools and bounced beadheads through the riffles. We dragged flies through logjams and floated dries along the seams. We tried hard to entice a trout, but nothing happened.
As sunset approached, we packed up our rods and started toward the car. Braden appeared out of the bushes, and we exchanged stories. He had fished some nice runs with a nymph and was able to pull out a lone trout, a beauty of a sixteen inch brown. I was quite excited, not so much about the nature of his catch but the fact that he actually caught a fish, a trout, and a nice one at that out of a marginal creek.

Like this picture, marginal creeks and their trout are often shrouded in mystery – if you put in some time, you will unlock their secrets.

Marginal creeks can provide some good fishing at times, even producing some large trout. I often struggle with deciding between making the long drive to fish more productive streams or spend more time fishing a marginal creek. A stream’s trout density doesn’t necessarily determine the quality of a fishing trip – you can catch just as many fish on a lower density creek as you can on a highly pressured stream full of trout if you know where to look. I love fishing famous blue-ribbon waters just as much as the next guy, but shorter drives equal more fishing time, which I’ll take gladly whenever I can get it. Here are eight tips to make your trips to less celebrated creeks more productive, in no real specific order. If you have a tip to add or find something I missed, drop us a comment below – I’d love to hear your feedback.

1. Keep moving

Covering a lot of ground is vital on these types of creeks. While you can sit and fish one good hole for hours on a fertile spring creek or tailwater, don’t expect to get much action doing this on a marginal creek. If the fish don’t hit after a few good drifts, move on. Good structure tends to be spread out, and getting your fly in front of as many trout (and holding spots) as possible will increase your chances of finding a hungry one. Hiking and sight fishing “New Zealand-style” can be very effective, and often makes for some very exciting fishing. However, if you do find fish you might want to hang around a while. Leaving fish (especially feeding trout) to find fish is never a good idea, unless they are spooked.

2. Find cold water

Warm water is the kiss of death in marginal creeks, and is often the major factor in determining a stream’s trout-holding capabilities. Water temps dictate when and where the fish will be holding, so if you can find cold water, you can usually find fish – and sometimes lots of them. A small pool thermometer or stream thermometer works quite nicely for finding good water, and should always be in a fly fishers pack. The “optimum feeding range” for trout is 50 to 68 degrees F(1), with the maximum survival temp around 75 degrees F. While trout may be around in 72 degree water, they probably won’t be very responsive to your offerings. Springs, seeps, and tributary creeks are good spots to check. Headwaters are often a good choice because they are closer to the source of spring creeks and therefore run colder and more trout-friendly. On the flip side, warmer water often contributes to a larger baitfish and crustacean population, which is responsible for the larger trout marginal creeks often produce.

3. Fish early and late in the season

This one goes along with #2. Water temps are usually much more favorable for fishing in the spring and fall. Not only will you find more hatching bugs, but the trout will naturally be feeding more aggressively, especially in the fall. Hitting these creeks in the middle of a hot summer day is generally not a good idea. If you do decide to head out on muggy August afternoon, fish shaded areas, deep dark pockets, and fast water where it will be colder and hold more oxygen. Terrestrials and tiny nymphs are great summer flies. While you can still catch trout through the heat of the summer, spring and fall will bring much more favorable conditions to target these fish.

4. Browns and rainbows

Since brown and rainbow trout can tolerate slightly warmer water than brookies, I usually focus on streams that hold these species when scouting new creeks. With that said, there are a few hidden brook trout creeks that might be labeled as marginal but still provide good fishing at times.

5. Check the records

Getting on the web and searching for stream records can prove to be an invaluable piece of your scouting game. DNR records with stocking, electrofishing, and access points can minimize wasted fishing time by pinpointing likely spots. Forgotten creeks with past stockings of species like brown trout that can tolerate and spawn in lower water quality are prime targets.

6. Fish attractor patterns

Marginal creeks seldom have the prolific insect life associated with spring creeks and tailwaters, so trout are far less likely to become selective. My favorite combo for prospecting unknown waters is a small orange stimulator dry and a pink squirrel nymph or a Hare and Copper. Any generic nymph such as a pheasant tail or copper john around a #14 or #16 will work fine. Midges are a favorite for a dropper, as they are present in almost every body of water and usually eaten by trout. Streamers are also a great choice for covering a lot of ground quickly, and just might land you a lunker.

A hare and copper nymph took this baby brown trout from an out-of-the-way little creek

7. Experiment!

Fish different types of structures and fly styles. Don’t be afraid to try unconventional techniques and spots, as trout will sometimes develop unique holding patterns. If riffles and pools aren’t producing, try slow water with logjams or overhanging brush. This saved the trip for me one hot summer day. I was fishing with Grandpa and Noah on a small creek that reportedly held a small population of brook trout. Temps near ninety and a bright, clear sky effectively cleared the holes of all trout. Many drifts through traditional good-looking riffles, runs, and pools with the trusty pink squirrel had me nearly convinced the waters were void of trout. I was finally able to “jig” a shimmering, vividly-colored brook trout out from under a thick log jam in some slack water.

If you hit them right, marginal creeks can provide some good action

8. Set your expectations

One of the mistakes most often made in fishing marginal trout waters is not setting realistic expectations. If you’re looking to slay numbers of fish, go elsewhere, but if you can stand going fish-less sometimes and are willing to do a little exploring, you might just find a hidden gem – and often have it all to yourself. Marginal creeks often hold some larger trout due to the warmer water and higher baitfish biomass, so it will often turn into a trophy hunt. In my book, solitude and a large trout or two more than makes up for the numbers of small fish you might catch fishing more productive waters. Sometimes it can get tough, though. You might go a few long, fish-less days without even seeing a trout before hitting it right and finding the honey hole, but don’t get discouraged. Discovering new and overlooked waters is one of the joys of trout fishing, and sometimes there is more to a good day of fishing than just catching fish.

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We have fished the brown trout creek and many other marginal creeks like it since then. Some days have been good, with trout in the net, and others have been completely fishless. Regardless of if you’re catching fish or not, marginal creeks offer a constant challenge and force you to adapt to the situations presented, often sharpening your skills as a fly fisher.

Notes: (1) from http://www.flyanglersonline.com/features/canada/can10.php

Tight Lines,

Conner

 

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