Trout fishing has become a very popular sport today, with anglers from all walks of life participating. We love trout fishing, and even though there is a lot of snobbery and elitism in the trout fishing community, we still consider angling for trout to be a form of roughfishing. The reason for this is that fishing trout in streams is a very intimate style of fishing which fosters a close connection with the natural world. In no other style of fishing has the study of our prey and their habits been so rigorously applied. That trout can be selective in what they will take is obvious; what is not obvious is that there are a great many other fish which are likewise extremely selective. The tactics for fooling trout, which involve being a quiet, patient student of nature, can and should be applied to all fishing situations. In other words, becoming a good trouter will make you a better fisherman in general. When the walleyes and carp are eating the emergent cripples of the Hexegenia mayfly, it is not the leech-dragger nor the corn-soaker who triumphs. Their tactics simply will not work. To the experienced trouter, such situations are child's play. A good fisherman, well-schooled in the art of using and imitating the natural forage, can take fish at all times, in all places, if only he has the intelligence and skill to crack the code. This is not to say that trout are smarter or more challenging than other fish - on the contrary, they are actually easier than most of the fish we pursue. But trout have been pursued by experts for so many hundreds of years that a solution to every problem already exists. All you have to do is find out what the proper pattern and presentation are, and you will have success.
Coldwater Streams, the natural habitat of trout, are characterized by their cold water. Usually fed, at least partially, by icy underground springs, they remain cool year-round and thus provide a more stable habitat for animals and plants that live there. Since cold water is able to hold more oxygen, coldwater streams also are characterized by high oxygen levels. Since quickly flowing water warms slower than a still pool, most coldwater streams have a fairly high gradient which keeps them flowing fairly fast. Good trout streams also tend to be more fertile, meaning they produce more plant and animal life than infertile streams. One contributing factor to a stream's fertility is the bedrock through which it flows. Streams that flow through limestone, dolomite, or chalk pick up calcium from the rock and become both hard and alkaline. The calcium is a necessary element for the creation of insect and crustacean exoskeletons and snail shells, so the more calcium there is in the water, the more insects are able to grow there. Plant life is also very important, since aquatic vegetation and algae provide food for many species of insects and crustaceans. Heavily shaded streams tend not to have as much plant life, although they stay cooler in general than those in the open sun. Most trout streams follow a simple pattern: the headwaters are coolest and least fertile. As you go downstream, there is a gradual transition into a warmwater stream where trout cannot survive. The lower parts of the stream show many characteristics of a warmwater stream, including sand, silt, warmer water, and a rich diversity of minnow and sucker species. These areas may support few trout, but those that are there grow large on a diet composed mainly of large items, like chubs, suckers, and crayfish. In between these two extremes is the standard trout stream: cool water, somewhat fertile, a smattering of suckers, minnows, darters, and sculpins, some crustaceans like crayfish and scuds, prolific insect populations, a fairly high gradient, and occasional dense mats of aquatic vegetation. Of course, this is the ideal scenario, and trout are highly adaptable creatures within the narrow boundaries of their temperature and oxygen requirements. Even in streams where temperature and oxygen parameters shift outside their tolerance range, trout are often able to survive by finding areas of cooler water in the stream. In the Midwest, we are fortunate to have a wealth of good trout water. Many are classic "spring creeks" which are fed almost entirely by underground springs and thus have a stable, cool temperature range. They also flow mainly through dolomite and limestone, so their fertility is high. These ecosystems are amazing places, full of an incredibly diverse host of animal and plant species. There's a little bit of ecologist in every trout fisherman, so here are some key aquatic species to look for when exploring a coldwater stream:
The darters are a large group of small, spiny-finned fishes that belong to the perch family. Darter males are often brightly colored. Females are more drab. They like to live in riffles, and when walking through a riffle, they can often be seen darting away from your feet. Darters feed mainly on tiny insect larvae, although some also feed on snails. Larger trout feed on darters whenever they are available. Some common darters to look for are the Rainbow Darter, the Fantail Darter, the Logperch, and the Johnny Darter.
Sculpins are a unique family of fishes characterized by their large, bumpy heads and wide mouths. In a trout stream, sculpins tend to inhabit the same kinds of areas as darters, although the two are seldom found in very close proximity. Sculpins are also prime trout food, and a number of complex fly patterns have been developed to imitate them. There are two types of sculpins in our streams (The Mottled Sculpin and the Slimy Sculpin) but they are almost indistinguishable.
Dace belong to the minnow family, and tend to be adapted for swifter and colder water than other minnows. Some dace, especially when young, tend to form schools. The longnose and blacknose dace are probably the most common, although there are dozens of species to look for. Dace feed on small insects and crustaceans, and trout feed on the dace in turn.
Suckers are native, bottom feeding fishes. The most common, the White Sucker, is found almost everywhere. In trout streams, suckers are usually found in the lower regions of the stream where the water is warmer. Suckers grow large quickly, and are prolific. Trout gorge themselves on young suckers, so a good sucker population means large trout are probably present. Other species of suckers that may occasionally be found in coldwater streams include the river carpsucker, the black redhorse, and the northern hog sucker.
Chubs are midwater and surface-feeding fishes. ALthough most chub species are small, some varieties may approach a foot in length. Chubs make great trout food, and eat many of the same foods.
There are two main types of crustaceans found in coldwater ecosystems: the crayfishes and the scuds. Crayfish are large crustaceans with pincers. Crayfish inhabit rocky rubble, often hiding beneath rocks by day and coming out to forage by night. Trout relish crayfish, and many large night-feeding browns key in on this high-protein food source. Scuds are small, swimming crustaceans that seldom reach a centimeter long. They live mainly in aquatic vegetation, and feed on algae and detritus. In some streams, scuds are extremely abundant and form an important food source for everything in the stream.
Lampreys are found in many trout streams. Most of them feed on algae, but a few are parasitic. Lamprey larvae, called ammocetes, burrow in silt and feed on detritus.
Coldwater ecosystems support a vast variety of insects. They will be covered extensively in the forage section. The main groups are the caddisflies, the mayflies, the stoneflies, the midges, and the crane flies. Many of the coldwater insects live in the stream only as juveniles, then "emerge" or "hatch" into winged adults. Some adults live less than a day. Insects are undoubtedly the most important source of food for stream trout.
Plants of many sorts thrive in coldwater streams. Slow, warmer sections may support such varieties as coontail and vallisneria. Cooler and more rapid stream sections may support water cress.
Dense mats of green algae are common on trout streams. Many species of insects feed on this rich food source.
Snails and clams may occasionally be found in coldwater streams. While trout are known to feed on snails when little else is available, this is by no means common. Other trout foods, such as suckers, chubs, darters, and dace, may feed heavily on snails. Clams are not common in coldwater streams, and those that are found there are generally small.
There is much more to trout fishing than just finding a good trout stream. In each stream, there are a variety of different features which trout relate to in different ways. Understanding the various stream features and how they are utliized by trout is an important component of the trouter's arsenal.
Riffles are the preeminant feature of coldwater streams. They are at once a food source, a shelter from predators, a hedge against oxygen depletion, and a conveyor belt that brings food to the trout. Riffles, with their broken water surface, not only hide the trout from predators, but also hides predators (such as humans) from the trout. Because of this, trout in riffles may be approached more easily, and are harder to spook. Many species of insects reproduce or grow to maturity in riffles. The constant fast current dislodges nymphs from the rocks, freeing them into the "biological drift", a term that refers to the constant downstream movement of organisms in flowing water. Riffles also oxygenate the water. In hot weather, trout may congregate in riffles, where the oxygen content of the water is highest. Riffles may be any depth, but most are between one and three feet deep. Within a riffle, trout may lie in wait behind rocks, hug the bottom, or roam about. Small pockets of deeper water in a riffle are prime feeding locations for trout, and invariably hold good fish. Riffles also hold larger prey items, like darters, sculpins, and crayfish, so large trout may move into riffles periodically to feed, especially at night.
Runs are similar to riffles, but although their current may be somewhat swift, their surface is smooth enough to allow light to penetrate. Runs are characterized by moderate current and a smooth surface. Runs may be deeper than riffles, but this depends on the size of the stream. Runs that form bends may form undercut banks, as the current erodes the underside of the streambank. Trout use runs as both holding and feeding areas. Trout do not need to expend as much energy fighting current in a run as in a riffle, so when food is abundant, trout may move out of a riffle and into a run to save energy while feeding.
Pools are one of the most obvious features of a stream. They are popular with beginners who become mystified by the trout they see lurking in pools. Pools often hold suckers as well as tout. The pool provides the two things that are generally lacking in coldwater streams: depth and still water. The deep water of a pool provides a trout with the ultimate in protection from predators. However, because current in the main pool, especially near the bottom, is almost nonexistant, food is hard to come by there. Where a riffle or run enters a pool,a featured called "the toungue of the pool" is created. This area is where all biological drift enters the pool, and is a prime location for trout to lie in wait. The entire upstream end, where the tongue is, is called the "throat". The deepest section in the middle of the pool is called the "belly" and the narrows at the bottom where the water speeds up as it exits the pool is called the "tail". The tail concentrates food, and any kind of structure located in the tail of the pool is a prime location which will hold fish.
A flat might be called a shallow pool. Flats have a still, unbroken surface, but a shallow, uniform bottom. Flats may or may not be productive, depending on bottom type. Smooth, sandy flats are almost worthless as trout habitat, except at the edges or near woody debris. Gravel flats are better, but flats that are filled with aquatic vegetation are perhaps the best. Open channels that often form between the weeds are perfect holding spots for trout, but beware: trout on flats are incredibly wary and can see the area above the water perfectly. Fishing for trout in flats is a place where presentations must be artful, tippets must be long and fine, and trouters must make every effort to conceal themselves from their quarry.
Wherever strong current flows against an earthen bank, the area beneath the water may become eroded. This creates a submerged, cavelike overhang in which trout may hold without worrying about predators. Undercut banks are also created by man, these so-called "Lunker Structures" are placed in the stream to provide additional cover for trout in areas where undercuts do not occur naturally. In all cases, these stream features will hold fish. Presenting a fly to these fish, however, can be quite a challenge. Depending on the current, it may be possible to drift a nymph beneath an undercut, but more often than not this is an exercise in futility. Creeping up on the same bank and dapping your fly over the edge works occasionally, and during a hatch, a dry fly may be drifted against the bank to elicit strikes from the trout concealed beneath the undercut.
Logs, branches, even whole trees sometimes end up in trout streams. These features block the current and provide shelter for fish. Swinging a streamer from upstream is one presentation that works in these instances. Woody debris, when combined with another feature, such as deep water or the tongue of a pool, is a trout magnet.
Whether it is tall grass or tree branches, anything hanging out over a stream is worthy of notice. These structures protect trout from their most effective predator, the fisherman. Plus, terrestrial insects, such as ants, aphids, and beetles, may drop into the stream from such. A carefully planned cast that is allowed to drift beneath overhanging vegetation is always worth a shot. Or, you can creep up on the bank and gently lower a tiny ant imitation onto the surface of the water and feed out line to let it drift beneath a tree. This crafty and highly enjoyable tactic has always been enjoyable.
Small waterfalls will occasionally be encountered on trout streams. Where the falling water hits soft bottom, a hole is scoured out that may be considerably deeper than the surrounding water. Trout love these tiny, sheltered pockets and a weighted nymph, cast above the waterfall and allowed to travel down to the bottom of the plunge pool, will take fish.
Rapids and Pocket water
Rapids are areas where the water is so swift that trout do not hold in them. Within a rapid, however, fish will maintain station in scour holes, behind rocks, and in small "pocket water" of various types. Heavily weighted nymph rigs may be employed to explore these areas.
Trout are amazing creatures. Understanding trout behavior is perhaps the most difficult challenge for the dedicated trouter. Each aspect of trout behavior will be examined, in their order of importance to the trout.
As with all wild organisms, the basic behavioral trait that gives rise to all others is the urge to reproduce. All other behaviors are secondary. Thus, other behaviors fall by the wayside when trout are in the process of procreating. Wild steelhead feed very little or not at all when they enter rivers to spawn, and likewise spawning trout ignore predators and enter shallow water when spawning. Migrations against heavy current show how the reproductive imperative overrides the urge to conserve energy. Because of all these factors, fishing trout during the spawn is a very different game. Here we are concerned mainly with normal, everyday trout behavior, so the reproductive cycle will be excluded.
Just below the importance of reproduction is the urge to avoid predators. Generally, when a trout senses danger, it will dart into the nearest deep water or hide in heavy cover. This is why it is so important to stalk trout carefully. Predator Avoidance takes precedance over feeding, so a spooked trout is more concerned with staying alive than eating. Of course, both the environment and the temperment of the individual trout have an effect on the expression of predator avoidance behaviors. In gin-clear, shallow water with no cover, trout are much more wary. Also, while some trout might begin feeding again only five minutes after the perceived danger has passed, others will refuse to resume feeding for up to an hour. In all cases, trout feed only when they feel secure. If they are able to feed from deep water or heavy cover, they may just ignore predators altogether, since the predators have no chance at catching them in their location.
This very important behavior is what makes trout fishing so much fun. A trout, when not avoiding predators or reproducing, will attempt to conserve energy as much as possible. The urge to conserve energy of course takes precedance over feeding; otherwise trout would be chasing down and eating everything in sight. A trout conserves energy by moving as little as possible. It takes more energy for a trout to hold in a fast riffle than in a slower run. However, predator avoidance takes precedance, so especially vulnerable areas, even if they have slow water that takes little energy to swim in, are avoided. Behind and in front of rocks in a stream are small areas where the current is less intense - these areas are perfect places for a trout to conserve energy. Also, the water right on the stream bottom moves more slowly than the water above it, so it follows that trout will generally hug the stream bottom. This behavior colors every other aspect of trout behavior, in that whenever a behavioral characteristic compels a trout to perform some action, it is always performed with maximum energy efficiency in mind, unless it involves predator evasion or reproduction. Since energy conservation takes precedence over feeding, it follows that the trout will not act on its feeding urge unless the percieved energy to be gained from the food exceeds the energy that the trout will need to expend in order to capture it. Therefore, a trout will waste more energy charging across a pool to catch a large sculpin, but might only move a few inches in order to eat a tiny insect. Otherwise there would be a net loss of energy and the trout would be losing the survival battle. In particular, selectivity in trout is an extension of energy conservation. With all the various objects floating on the stream, a trout could spend hours constantly eating non-nutritive items and spitting them out - a complete waste of energy. The more food of a single type that is on the water, the more selective trout become. Selectivity allows the trout to avoid losing energy by chasing after things that are not food.
Feeding - Overview
Of course all trout must eat. And even though they conserve energy as much as possible, they must eat almost constantly, since they are expending energy constantly by fighting current, building body mass and reproductive cells, and respiring. When the economics of energy conservation eventually end up in the red, so the trout must feed to keep going. Trout may go about feeding in so many different ways that it is impossible to describe them all here. We will, at first, just look at the principles of abundance, mass, and prey attitude.
Feeding - Abundance
The principle of abundance explains the tendancy for trout to heavily exploit food sources that are common versus hunting around for things they don't see every day. To do otherwise would violate the law of energy conservation, because until a trout eats a few of something, it doesn't know if it is edible or not. So when a great number of insects appear, trout will let hundreds, perhaps thousands, of insects drift by. Once it is obvious that these insects are abundant, they will sample one. If it turns out to edible, feeding will commence. The trout select the abundant insect because there is a guaranteed energy return. Of course, this rule has a few kinks in it which make things a bit more complicated. Trout may spontaneously sample something outlandish simply because it looks edible. This, however, is the exception, not the rule, so don't count on it happening very often. Trout also may reject the most abundant food if they have been habitually feeding on something that has been more abundant in the past. After five straight days of heavy morning caddis hatches, you go out on the sixth day and see blue-winged olives coming off, with a few caddis mixed in. The trout may prefer the less abundant caddis because they have already been habituated to feed on it. Also, what appears to be the most abundant food source to us, might not be the most abundant source to the trout.
Feeding - Mass
The size of the food affects the behavior exhibited by trout in response to it. A trout may pass up a small insect if it is more than a foot away, but a large insect might be taken from three feet out, and a huge prey item (like a mouse) might tempt the trout to move ten feet to catch it. As far as insects on the surface are concerned, the trout will rise is such a way as to take the insect with as little effort as possible, because the insect provides only a small amount of energy. The smaller the prey item, the shorter the trout will be willing to move to take it.
Feeding - Prey Attitude
Prey attitude refers to how the prey is behaving. For example, if equal numbers of insects of two varieties appeared, and one was an active flier, while the other remained motionless, the trout may select the one that is inactive, since the trout is more successful at catching them, because feeding on them may provide a better return on their energy investment. Likewise, insects that are emerging from the water's surface will eventually fly away, so it stands to reason that the chances of the prey escaping are less the lower in the water it is situated.
There was once a time when I thought flyfishing was the only effective way to pursue trout. As I've gotten older, I've been doing it less and less. The truth is that flyfishing is the most effective method during insect hatches, but at other times spinning tackle may be just as effective, if not moreso. When the water is high and muddy, live bait is the ultimate trout-catching weapon, and flies can be useless. When you find the water is the color of chocolate milk, you should switch to a nightcrawler or piece of cut bait if you want to catch fish. In my mind, there's nothing special about the flyrod; it's just a great way to catch fish. If it won't work, stop flailing the water and get serious with your spinning tackle.
Rods, reels, and line
Spinning: Spinning tackle for trout should be lightweight, subtle, and flexible. A 4-6 foot, light or ultralight spinning reel spooled with 4 pound test monofilament is best. A smooth drag helps when fighting big trout on light line. Artificial lures include small spinners, crankbaits, jigs, and small spoons. Natural baits include insects, minnows, crustaceans, fish eggs, worms, leeches, and frogs. The most commonly used natural bait for trout is the nightcrawler. A few small weights, usually in the form of split shot or slinkies, combined with a few small circle hooks, should be all you need to spinfish for trout.
Flyfishing: To get started in flyfishing for trout, a 4 or 5 weight rod, 7 to 9 feet in length, should be used. Action is a matter of personal preference, but slower action rods may have a slight advantage when dry-fly fishing and can be easier for beginners to cast. The reel is mostly a place to store the line; you don't need much of a reel for trouting. A simple click-an-pawl reel with enough backing to fill up the spool is sufficient. As for line, any floating line that matches the weight of the rod will do. However, the most popular lines for stream-trouting are the weight-forward line and the double-taper line. Weight-forward lines make longer casts possible, but double-taper lines are more stealthy and roll-cast like a dream. Level lines will work as well, being somewhat halfway between the two listed above. In all cases, you should start out with a floating line. There are certain situations which call for more exotic sinking lines, but for the vast majority of trout fishing a floating line will work just fine, and is much easier to control.
Leaders and Tippets
The leader is what you attach to the end of your flyline. Tapered leaders around 5X are perfect for trout fishing, and once the tippet section is shortened, you can replace it with a section of 5X tippet. Total length of leader and tippet should be about ten feet. This is for average conditions. Now for the tricky part. For nymph fishing, you can get away with less leader, and can go a few sizes heavier if you care to. You're probably better off sticking with the long leader, though, since you most likely will end up switching between nymphing and dry-fly fishing fairly often. Here we find one of the heartbreaking rules of trout fishing: the minute you switch from a dry-fly rig to a nymph rig, the trout will start rising, and the minute you switch from a nymph rig to a dry-fly rig they will stop. In still water, or when the trout are particularly wary, you'll want to switch to a longer and thinner tippet section. As soon as you do this, you'll immediately hook a big trout that will break your thin tippet and get away (another rule of trouting). Fluorocarbon tippet material is thinner, heavier, and more invisible than nylon. There is a lot of controversy about it, but in my opinion it is great for nymphing, and can be good for dry-fly fishing as long as your fly floats well. Be sure to learn your knots well, especially with fluorocarbon - you'll want to test all your knots before fishing with them until you are confident in their holding ability. Once you're confident that your knots are perfect, feel free to stop testing them - you'll lose the next big fish you hook to an unraveled knot (Rule #3).
Floats and weights
This applies only to nymphing, but nymphing is so deadly and so easy that it pays not to ignore it. The most common form of nymphing is the shot-and-indicator rig, where a tiny float is strung on the leader, and a tiny metallic shot is placed above the fly. There are many different types of indicators and everybody has their personal preference. The ones that look like little foam balls work very well. Get a color that stands out and is easy to see. Yellow is hard to see, in my opinion, so it follows that every other color will be sold out whenever you go to the fly shop. Fluorescent pink is a great color for all-around visibility, so it follows that pink indicators are always in short supply. The little floats used by walleye fishermen to hold their leeches off the bottom make excellent indicators and are quite inexpensive. Hold them in place with a piece of toothpick or rubber band. For weight, tiny metallic shot may be used, either lead or non-toxic. I don't see very many dabbling ducks feeding in trout streams, so I don't worry about the lead. I can't think of any other way for lead shot on the bottom of a gravelly trout stream to be ingested, and go through maybe 3 or four shot per day. However, if you're swimming in money and paranoid about it, feel free to shell out $12 for a tiny packet of non-toxic shot. You'll probably kill more ducks with your wicked back-cast, but better safe than sorry.
Vests and Clothing
Most flyfishermen wear a vest to keep all of their assorted flyfishing stuff in. The vest should be drab in color so as not to spook trout. You should have plenty of pockets no matter which vest you buy. The vest will fill up with everything you don't need, and everything that is essential to fishing will spontaneously fall out of your pockets while you're falling down a muddy bank headfirst into an icy trout stream and screaming at the top of your lungs. For this reason, it is good to have anything essential attached to your vest with a zinger or lanyard. Anything attached to your vest in this manner will become entangled in your slack line the first chance it gets, but there's no way around it. Some people prefer a kind of chest-pack or fanny-pack to put their gear in, but these folks are dangerous deviants and should really go get themselves a vest. Shirts should also be drab; you may need to wear a raincoat in inclement weather as well. Never wear white or red when trout fishing.
You need a hat to go flyfishing. Otherwise the sun and rain will blind you, and hordes of black flies will attach themselves to your scalp and drain all the blood out of your head. Baseball-type caps in drab colors work fine. White hats should be avoided like the plague. Any hat with a brim will work. Old, beat-up hats are preferable to shiny new hats. Feathers or flies stuck into your hat are for show only. If you get hot, dunk your hat in the cold stream water, and put it back on your head.
Waders keep you dry when standing in the water. Hip-boots are cheap and comfortable. Neoprene waders are warm and damage-resistent. Breathable waders are cool and comfortable but tend to spontaneously start leaking if not meticulously taken care of. Stocking-foot waders allow you to wear comfortable wading boots with them. In warm weather, you can just wet-wade in a pair of shorts.
Nets are not essential. You can easily catch and release small trout without a net. Landing a big trout is much easier with a net. Use a shallow, soft-mesh net to avoid damaging the fish, and make sure to wet the meshes before landing a fish with it. Nets can be clipped onto the back of your vest, so that when you have big trout thrashing around in front of you, you can conveniently reach back and unclip your net, sportingly giving the trout the perfect opportunity to escape while you fumble around behind your head with one hand, ruining your day.
Lures and Flies
If you're a flyfisher, you'll need a good selection of flies to trout-fish with. Start out with a few patterns, then add more and more until you have thousands. Put them into a small flybox. Or several boxes for different situations, so that you can leave some of them at home when you are certain you will not need them. This insures that you will, in fact, need them, urgently, on that trip. A lure fisher has a much less complicated array of baits to contend with. A single inline spinner will usually be all you will ever need. A true spinfishing arsenal would be composed of a half-dozen each of tiny crankbaits, small jigs, spoons, and spinners, and all of these will easily fit in a tiny, pocket-sized box. Ah, the purity and simplicity of lure-fishing.
"Oh, you're a BAIT fisherman." How many times have I heard that? I don't know, and I don't care. It doesn't matter that I've been flyfishing for 25 years and know the latin names of all the insects on the stream, tie my own flies, and can roll-cast your hat off with a disco stone at twenty paces. If you're fishing a trout stream with bait, high-falutin' city folks will harass you constantly and criticize the way you choose to fish. It's the rule of the stream. Most of these people will criticize your fishing style no matter what you do, so ignore them. They just want to pretend they're better than everybody else. There are SOME baitfishing styles that you should avoid, especially in areas with slot limits or catch-and-release regulations. Mainly, you should avoid using small live baits combined with tiny hooks. Trout, even very small ones, will swallow these baits, get hooked deep in the gullet, and die. Picking nymphs from under rocks and threading them on a #18 fine-wire dry-fly hook with a 3 pound line is a great way to kill a lot of trout. As long as you don't plan on releasing any of them, regardless of size, go ahead and use this most deadly of all tactics. Quit fishing when you get your limit. Big live baits will rarely kill trout, even if you don't use circle hooks, because the trout will attack your bait savagely and get hooked before the bait is swallowed. Circle hooks are extremely effective on trout, and 99% of the time the fish will be hooked lightly in the mouth and will be releasable if you choose to spare the fish from the frying pan. To fish trout with live bait, all you need are some small circle hooks and some split shot. You don't even need any bait, really, you can usually flip over a log or a rock near or in a trout stream and find something that will tempt trout. Otherwise, keep your bait in a small tupperware container and put it in your pocket. You can use large stonefly nymphs, tiny crayfish (where legal), minnows, worms, nightcrawlers, grasshoppers, small leeches, large scuds, waterworms (the larvae of the crane fly), mice, frogs, water dogs, sculpins, madtoms, lampreys, ammocetes, crickets, mayfly nymphs, rockworms, cicadas, moths, and cut fish. All will absolutely work wonders in the right situation.
Pliers and Forceps
You are going to be losing these, constantly. Buy cheap ones. Always carry both a small pliers and a forceps, because you will most likely lose one or the other before the day is over and each can take the place of the other in a pinch. The pliers work best for attaching shot, and the forceps are for removing hooks from trout.
These two things are both parts of the same thing, and often interchangeable. Good casting can make up for some poor stalking, and good stalking can likewise make up for poor casting. Consider the great blue heron, which is quite able to catch trout at close range. It is able to approach the fish so closely because it moves slowly, silently, and stealthily. On the other hand, the osprey spots the fish from far away, attacking suddenly from above. There are trouters who fish like herons, and those that fish like ospreys. Both are excellent skills, but to be successful, you will need a little of both.
Stalking is the primitive art of getting close to your prey. All predators must excel at it, and you are no exception. Stalking trout can be very complicated or terribly simple. Good stalking techniques are very important, yet this skill is largely ignored by most trout fishers. The biggest and wisest trout are always the first to spook. The essence of stalking can be summarized by the following five points:
1) Move Slowly
Trout respond to sudden movements instantly. When approaching trout (even those you can't see), all of the movements of your body must be slow and fluid. Learn from the heron's lesson - and whenever you encounter a heron while fishing, observe the bird closely, because he is the champion of all fish-stalkers in the world. Pause often, and stand perfectly still, looking for signs of trout.
2) Don't make waves
Trout notice when waves or ripples pass over them. It is an indication that something large is moving in the water nearby - which could be a bear, an otter, or a human. Learn to walk across a still pool without making a single ripple, and you'll have much more success while trout fishing. Slip into the water quietly, without a splash, and step forward without pushing water. This can be accomplished either by taking each foot out of the water on each step (in the shallows) or moving you legs very slowly so you don't make waves (in deeper parts).
3) Stay Low
The trout's vision extends in a cone above the water's surface. The higher an object projects above the surface of the water, the easier it is for the trout to see it. This is one area of life in which short people have an undeniable advantage. Make a habit of fishing in a half-crouch. When approaching spooky trout, you can even go so far as to fish from your knees, or even from your belly. By crawling toward the fish, you are less likely to be seen.
4) Don't stand out
Before you head out to the stream, consider what the banks of the stream will look like, and wear something of generally the same shade. Camoflauge doesn't hurt, but earth-tones are definately much better than bright colors. Also, use natural cover whenever possible. Clumps of grass, bushes, boulders, and logs can be used as a screen to shield you from the ever-watchful eyes of the trout. Rememeber: unless you have the advantage of dark skin, you light arms and hands will stick out like a sore thumb. Light-skinned people should either wear long sleeves or cover themselves in mud.
5) Be Patient
You will invariably spook some trout while stalking. Unless you have completely screwed up and the trout are frantically racing all over trying to escape from you, you probably just need to stop and wait for them to resume feeding. Wherever you are, just stop. Stand perfectly still for half an hour, and most likely the trout will forget about you completely and go about their business. Then ... make your cast!
Casting with a Flyrod
Once you have stalked into comfortable casting range of a trouty-looking area, you are ready to cast. Strip off enough line from your reel to cast five feet past the position of the nearest point where fish could be positioned. The key to casting is getting the fly to pass by the trout without the trout becoming aware of anything but the fly. There are particular casting techniques for each type of fishing, so I'll address them each seperately.
1) Casting the Dry Fly Upstream and Across
This is the core and essence of artful casting. Of course, there are times when even poor, clumsy casts right over the fish will still work, but much of the time a good cast will immediately result in a strike, while a bad cast will spook the fish and cause them to stop feeding. Because the surface-feeding trout is keyed into the water surface, you cannot let your line pass over the fish. Be aware of the movement of your rod - even though your body may be out of the trout's cone of vision, a quick movement of the rod into this cone may spook them nonetheless. Also, the line must not pass over the trout, or, ideally, into it's cone of vision, at all. Small, stupid trout may ignore the line, but educated and paranoid fish will certainly not. This is why long tippets are recommended for spooky trout. The most common way for a dry-fly trouter to cast to rising fish is to approach them carefully from downstream and off to one side. The cast is made at an angle upstream, with the fly alighting gently about five feet upstream of the position of the fish. As the fly drifts downstream toward the fish, line is taken in to keep slack from forming. The fly drifts over the fish and, with luck, it slurps up the fly. Of course it may not happen exactly like this. In fact, it very rarely does, owing to the fact that the current of the stream confounds even the most well-placed cast within a few seconds. Therefore, the line must be "mended". To understand mending, imagine what the line looks like when it first alights upon the water. It is probably a pretty straight line from the rod to the fly. The current quickly pulls the line into a curve of some type or another, and begins to pull the slack out of the far end of the line. Eventually, the line itself will pull on the fly, and the fly will begin to skate across the surface. This is called "drag". Trout feeding on mayflies know full well that mayflies do not skate about on the surface like motorboats, and so they will ignore such offerings and may even become spooked if they see it (Note: caddisflies skate all over the surface of the water, so drag is good when fishing a caddis hatch). The answer is to perform an upstream mend, by flipping the near portion of the line back upstream without moving the fly too much. This allows the fly to drift drag-free once more. Be aware that mending can spoil a cast as easily as it can make it perfect; you must pay attention to what the line is doing and make your upstream mend before the fly begins to drag, ideally. Another point worthy of mention is that the first cast to a rising fish is often the best shot you have. Make it count. Cast to the nearest fish first. The line must alight on the water softly; if it splashes heavily to the water it will spook the fish. This is one reason why weight-forward lines are not as good for delicate dry-fly trouting. If the fly drifts past the trout without being taken, let it drift past you downstream. Be ready to strike, since sometimes the trout below you will charge out and inhale the fly as it swings downstream. Once it is below you, pick it up and cast again. If the fly is not floating well toward the end of the drift, you'll need to false-cast it to dry out the fly. Don't false-cast the fly over the fish, do it off to the side so as not to spook them. The only time the fly-line should be anywhere near the fish is during the final presentation. Now, there are times when the fish are upstream and to one side, like we have described - this cast is called the "quartering upstream" cast, which goes upstream at an angle. But there are times, quite common in fact, where the trout are more or less directly upstream from you. With a very long tippet, you could cast right over them with the long tippet and not spook them with the line. Most of the time, however, this is impractical. You'll need to cast so that the fly lands directly above the trout but the line lands off to the side. This is called a "reach cast". It is performed by flipping the wrist over at the end of the cast. To make the fly land to the left of the line, roll the wrist from left to right - the motion is similar to turning a key. The fly will land over the trout, and the line will land well to the right of it. The exact opposite motion will land the fly on the other side. It takes practice.
2) Casting the Dry Fly Downstream
Sometimes you will be upstream of the fish, by necessity or design. This is not the ideal way to approach most trout, but at times it is the only way. Since trout always face upstream when holding or feeding, you can get away with a lot less monkey-business when you are positioned on their upstream side. You can't get as close, and have to be more careful in your presentation. When you are upstream of the rising trout, make a "puddle cast". You do this by casting enough line to almost reach the fish with your fly. Then you stop the cast in midair, and the whole line will spring back upon itself and form a series of s-curves. Drop your rod-tip and the fly will drift down drag-free to the trout. You may need to feed out line before the fly will get to the fish. If the fish doesn't take, you'll have to be careful about how you pick it up for the next cast, to avoid spooking the fish. If you just cast again, the fly will race upstream and create havoc at the water's surface. If you hold your rod-tip far to one side, when the line straightens out it will be off to the side as well, and the fly can be picked up and recast. Alternatively, you can do a roll-cast pickup, which allows you to make the fly leap cleanly off the water so it can be recast.
3) Casting the Nymph Upstream
This is a deadly technique indeed. Set up a shot-and-indicator rig, with the distance between the indicator and the fly one-and-a-half times the depth of the water to start with. In deep or broken water you can get away with casting directly upstream over the fish most of the time. Stop your cast just before it reaches the end, and you will leave a little slack at the far end as the indicator rig snaps back. Now, take in line to keep slack from forming on the near end. Watch the indicator carefully. If anything, and I mean anything, happens to the indicator, you may have a fish. Strike quickly. If you do not have a fish, you have just picked up the fly, so follow through with the strike and turn it into you next cast. If you do have a fish, then you are now a nymph fisherman and no longer need my advice. Adjust the depth of the fly by sliding the indicator up and down the line. Experiment with different weight configurations. You can cast upstream or make a quartering presentation with equal effectiveness. You can forego the indicator if you like. Be aware that adding an indicator really adds to the amount of disturbance you create when casting; you should not use this presentation when fishing shallow, still water.
4) Casting the Nymph or Wet Fly Downstream
This is called a "swing cast" or "downstream quartering" cast. Cast the fly at an angle downstream so that it will drift for awhile as described in the downstream dry-fly section above. Then, as the line comes tight, the fly will begin to rise in the water column and move sideways, swinging toward you. The strike will be unmistakeable; you don't need an indicator because you are fishing with a tight line. This is a classic technique; the action imparted to the fly imitates not only the rising action of an emerging insect, but also the sideways swimming motion of innumerable other aquatic critters.
5) Casting Streamers
This technique is almost identical to the downstream wet-fly swing described above. However, you generally want to impart a little action to the streamer by twitching it as it swings. One of the most effective retrieves involves stripping the line in a series of quick bursts. Move the rod-tip sideways upstream as you strip, then move it back downstream as you take up the slack created. Repeat, quickly, until the fly is retrieved. This is a big-fish tactic. When a big brown crashes your streamer while you're doing this, it will make your day. Try to make your casts in such a way as to cover likely spots for big fish to hang out - deep water near woody debris and undercut banks.
6) Casting in Tight Quarters
Trout fishing is never easy, and oftentimes the biggest trout in the stream will be located in the most maddeningly difficult locations. Often, you have to improvise to get your fly in front of the fish. Here are a few techniques which frustrated anglers have come up with over the years. First, the roll-cast. This is a difficult maneuver for many folks. All you really doing is allowing the line to form a big curve, and then flipping the line into a rolling loop to make it go somewhere. It's useful when you're up against a brushy bank and don't have a backcast. The Steeple Cast involves making your backcast go almost straight up in the air instead of behind you; it's very useful where your casting area is obstructed. My dad is an expert at the steeple cast and really makes the line sing when he's doing it. You can make a bow-and-arrow cast by holding the fly in one hand while flexing the rod like a bow. Release the fly and, theoretically at least, it should shoot toward your target. It almost never works that way, though. Then there's "dapping". I love dapping. In dapping, you don't cast at all, you just sneak up to the bank and extend your rod slowly over the fish. Then, you lower the rod so the fly barely touches the surface, and pick it up instantly. Do it again. Repeat. It has got to be really annoying for a trout to see a juicy insect bouncing on the water surface like that. One day on Beaver Creek in Houston County, MN, I dapped three big browns and a nice brookie in one afternoon. Be sure your leader-to-line knot is slim and won't snag in your guides, because otherwise you'll end up like me, trying to fight a 16 inch brown with three feet of line snagged in your guides. Not fun. Or at least, not fun after the two seconds of thrashing before your line breaks. You can also drop a fly onto the surface without casting, and allow the fly to drift downstream to get it underneath overhanging brush. This really doesn't have a name, but it is a clever tactic that might work for you. I met a wily old fisherman on the Rush River who used this technique to snare a 19 inch brown one summer day. The big old trout was taking ants that fell off the bushes, and the crafty old angler stalked up to the bank and peered out from the brush. He dropped a #18 black ant onto the surface and lowered his rod to let it drift under the scrub willows. Catching a 19 inch brown without even casting is quite an accomplishment. You can use the same technique with nymphs; especially around lunker structures. Just drop it carefully over the edge and let it sink - you might be surprised at what rushes out to greet it. You can cast sidearm when there are overhead obstructions. Don't be afraid to experiment. The worst that can happen is losing your fly. If you've resorted to these tactics, you're probably using the wrong fly anyway.
Spinning lures are used most often in pools and deep runs. Lures can be cast up, down, or across stream. They are then retrieved, either at a steady pace, or in a series of quick twitches and jerks. A fast, erratic retrieve imitates a panicked, fleeing prey. Spinning lures can be cast by a skilled angler into areas where flyfishers seldom reach, so take advantage of this. Spinning lures tend to be attractive to the larger, more aggressive trout, so be prepared to cover the water and move along the stream, making a few casts to every likely spot you encounter.
Presenting Live Baits
Live baits are usually fished on the bottom, where trout do most of their feeding. You can simply cast a weighted live-bait rig out into the deepest water in the stream and hope for the best, or you can hunt for active fish by drifting a freelined or lightly-weighted bait through riffles, runs, and pocket water. Live baits can be drifted into places where niether fly nor lure fisherman can cast to. This is one of the main advantages of bait fishing; in fact there are some streams so alder-choked and overgrown that only bait-fishers can fish them. In places where it is impossible to cast, simply drop your bait into the stream and hope. Large baits, like frogs, crayfish, and chubs, can be lightly hooked and freelined in deep, slow water. A slice of chub meat is an old trouter's secret weapon, fished on the bottom in deep water. Some aquatic insects can be hooked and fished beneath a casting bubble or small float. A nightcrawler or angleworm is best fished with a small circle hook and a split shot a foot up the line; drift this rig through a good feeding lane and you are sure to have action.