hare and copper

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.


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,



10-26…White River Brown Trout

Today Braden and I hit Lake Taneycomo, Missouri’s portion of the legendary White River system. If you’re not familiar with Taneycomo, the “lake” is actually a tailwater flowing from the massive Table Rock Lake. Taneycomo is famous for its monster browns and rainbows, but is subject to an unpredictable generation schedule from Table Rock Dam. High generation makes wade fishing very difficult, if not impossible. We passed up the “combat” fishing at the hatchery outlets and found some solitude further downstream. We were greeted by a gentle Taneycomo at low generation and a multitude of visible trout.

Table Rock Dam

I started by tossing some streamers. I tied on a small beadhead chickabou bugger style fly and quickly found a willing rainbow. It wasn’t a bad fish at around twelve inches, but it was nowhere near the size Taneycomo is famous for. I played with a few different nymph rigs and hooked a few fish, but didn’t land any. A few midges started hatching later in the afternoon. Midges are the bread and butter on Taneycomo, which gets midge hatches almost every day.  Braden tied on a cdc midge and nailed a nice rainbow around the same size as mine.

Taneycomo rainbow on a dry fly

They started running water on us later in the afternoon, so we packed up and hit the outlets, which had emptied out a bit by then. Surprisingly, I got old outlet number three all to myself. I hooked a few rainbows on a scud, but nothing stuck. Braden caught the fish of the day, landing two nice browns in the fifteen inch range on a hare and copper.

Taneycomo brown trout

Today was tough, but fishing on the White is always a fun experience. Next up we are headed east for some mountain fly fishing to wild rainbow trout in the Smoky Mountains.

4-24….A New Stream

The stream we fished today has undergone heavy habitat improvement by the DNR and TU in the past couple of years. The river has a small wild population of trophy trout, with some monsters up to thirty inches! Thirty years ago, there were no trout at all in this stream due to development and poor land management practices, but now the trout have returned and are even reproducing. This shows just how important organizations such as TU can be. Almost all the stream is protected by special catch and release regulations. The stretch that we fished was part of a big project by TU that rechannelized about a mile and a half of stream that was previously a ditch. As you can see in the picture they did a great job.

There were tons of midges and caddisflies in the air, but oddly enough there weren’t any fish rising. Grandpa and I didn’t get any action with our nymphs, but Braden hiked upstream and caught a big 16″ brown on a #14 hare and copper. This is the biggest brown so far this season. It is really cool to see all that habitat improvement at work. It is a new stream.

The picture doesn't do the fish justice

After the river, we headed to a pond in search of some bluegills. It was Grandpa’s birthday today, and he caught a bunch of fish. Didn’t catch anything big, but it was still fun.

Lots of places for trout to hide

Tight Lines!


3-31…A New Fly Fisher

Today we took a friend down to the Driftless Area in search of some trout. It was his first time fly fishing. It was a little chilly, forty five degrees, when we arrived at the stream at 9:30. It definitely felt like March today, unlike two weeks ago when it was in the eighties. I took our friend David upstream while the rest of the guys stayed back and fished another hole. Fishing was slow for the first couple hours. David was casting and mending pretty well by the end of the morning, but the fish just wouldn’t cooperate, so we headed back. Same story for Braden, Noah and Dad. I was hoping for a BWO hatch once it warmed up, but it stayed right around forty five almost the whole day.

Me fighting a nice brown

However, some midges started hatching around noon, which got the fish active. David caught his first trout on a fly, a little brown that ate a copper john. It was such a cool feeling knowing that you put someone on their first trout! I tied on an ausable bomber followed by a hare and copper and a black beauty midge. Two small browns took the midge and a brown in the thirteen inch range came up and slammed the bomber. Braden had a few hits on a streamer, but couldn’t coax any to the net. The fishing slowed down after that, so we ate a quick lunch and headed to another spot. I fished this spot last fall and had some decent luck, so I was excited to explore more of it. Almost immediately David got into a nice brown right under the bridge.

David took this beautiful wild brown on a hare and copper

This creek was quite sandy, and it took a bit of walking in between pools, but it was worth it. The bluffs made for some picturesque pools and runs cutting through the valley. The fish had moved into the shallow riffles and indicator nymphing worked nicely. I caught four browns up to around eleven inches on a hare and copper. I was fishing downstream when I heard David yelling with excitement. I turned to see his rod doubled over with a nice brown on the other end. Fly fishing is so much fun. Only about three casts later his indicator dove again and he was into a good fish. It gave him a good fight on his four weight. This was definitely the fish of the day, around fifteen inches, not bad for your first day fly fishing:) As Noah said, “I think he will be doing this again.”

Fish of the day

Best flies for the day:  #14 hare and coppers, #20 black beauty and miracle midges.

David's first trout on a fly

David fishing a productive hole






Irish Trout

This winter has been very mild to say the least. Although it is technically still winter trout season here in Minnesota, the weather is anything but that. Over the weekend, we camped at one of our favorite trout streams. Temps crept into the eighties, bringing out the trout and the bugs.

Braden and I were on the water as the morning sun crept over the bluffs. We headed downstream to a long, slow run where a few trout were rising sporadically to midges. Braden crawled out on a log jam and after several attempts delivered a difficult cast to a riser. The trout gulped his cdc midge, only to hopelessly tangle himself in the logs before Braden could do anything. That was about it for a while. While Braden hiked back to camp for some breakfast, I explored some water I hadn’t fished before. I found a great pool with some good cover and brought the first trout of the day to hand, a little ten inch brown that took a #14 hare and copper. I caught one more little brown in that pool and kept going downstream. My indicator dove as it drifted along a log, and I tied into a decent rainbow. The last rainbow we caught out of this stream last season was a fresh stocker that barely put up any fight, but this holdover had some nice spots and fought pretty well.

Braden's first trout on the new rod.

Around nine or ten some bugs started coming off and the trout started rising. Braden and Noah came down and got in the action. Fish were holding in faster water and steadily rising to the now thick mayflies. A#16 quill gordon was a decent match. Braden pulled in a nice brown, the first on his new rod. Noah caught the biggest brown of the morning, a nice fish around fourteen inches. I caught six on the morning, not bad for St. Patricks Day.

Biggest of the morning.

On of the best things about the weekend was we got the river practically to ourselves. I saw only two other anglers way upstream. The water was more like it is in the middle of summer or the fall, not high and stained like it usually is this time of year. The high temps definitely kept the trout moving. Anyway, Noah and I hit a slow section in the evening hoping for a hatch or spinner fall. A few trout were rising, but not like we were hoping for. I caught two little browns in the last light of the day.

Same fish, with the fisherman

Baby brown showing off some nice red spots

The next morning found Braden and I on the water early again. I was fishing with a three fly dry dropper rig consisting of a #12 Ausable Bomber dry with a #14 hare and copper and #20 black beauty midge dropper. A few trout were rising to the hatching midges. I was nymphing the head of a deep cliff pool when the Bomber plunged into the depths. I hooked into a good sixteen inch rainbow, one of the best fish of the trip. Unfortunately, the camera battery died so I didn’t get a picture. Braden switched to the same rig and we headed upstream with Noah and did quite well with the shallow water nymphing. Most people overlook this water with the deep pools nearby, but it holds lots of fish, including some bigger ones. A lot of the fish took the midge, but a few ate the hare and copper. Braden and I combined caught nineteen trout, mostly browns in the ten to fourteen inch range, and another good rainbow I caught in skinny water. Noah caught two, one on a cdc dry and the other on a hare and copper. With a bit of help from me, Mom caught her first trout on a fly, a healthy twelve inch brown. It was her first time fly fishing, and she improved alot over the morning. It was great to be camping and fishing in mid March!

How To Tie a Hare and Copper Nymph

The Hare and Copper has become one of the “super flies” of my nymph box. This New Zealand pattern is very popular over there for good reason. This is a great fly for beginners to tie because of its simplicity. I like to fish them as a searching pattern with a tiny pheasant tail or midge larva dropper under an indicator.

Hook: #8-16 nymph
Thread: Black 8/0 Uni Thread
Bead: Gold brass or tungsten
Tail: Brown hen hackle fibers
Body: Hare’s ear dubbing, tied very spiky
Rib: Gold copper wire

Step 1

1. Tie in the thread and bring it to the back of the hook.

Step 2

2. Measure a clump of hen hackle fibers to about half the length of the hook shank. Wrap over the fibers to the bead and trim the excess.

Step 3

3. Tie in the wire at the bead and wrap over it to the back of the hook.

Step 4

4. Apply dubbing wax to the thread. Touch dub with hare’s ear dubbing. Part of this fly’s effectiveness is due to the fact that it is very spiky, so do not tighten the dubbing too much.

Step 5

5. Wrap the dubbing to the bead. If the fly looks really wild right now, thats okay, the wire will help.

Step 6

6. Bring the wire forward in spiralling even wraps. Counter wrapping will increase the durability of the fly. Tie off the wire with around five tight wraps.

Step 7

7. Helicopter off the wire by violently rotating it in circular movements above the hook shank. This gives you a nice clean break-off and minimal thread cutting from the sharp tag.

Step 8

8. Touch dub another section of thread for the collar.

Step 9

9. Form a lose collar with the dubbing to cover up the wire tag and the thread.

Step 10

10. Whip and clip. Completed Hare and Copper nymph.

Tight Lines!



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